Marvel began life as a small-time comic book publisher called Timely Publications and released their first comic book in October of 1939 featuring the Human Torch and Namor the Sub-Mariner. For over sixty years, they dealt with a rollercoaster of popularity and public interest, at times reveling in great success with properties such as Spider-Man and at other times barely making it by. In 1996, Marvel filed for bankruptcy when the industry slumped, but now, in 2014, Marvel is an absolute powerhouse and is leading not only the comics industry, but the film industry as well. Today we’ll look at the history of Marvel and the events that led them to a point where they could become a movie-making behemoth.
Movies are changing, and Marvel is at the helm. Join us for part 1 of a four part special event as we explore where Marvel came from, how they rose to silver screen prominence, how they’ve changed filmmaking, and what we believe the future holds.
Each month the Cinelinx staff will write a handful of articles covering a specified film-related topic. These articles will be notified by the Movielinx banner. Movielinx is an exploration and discussion of our personal connections with film. This month, to go along with the summer movie season, we'll be discussing comic books as they relate to film. Feel free to add your own comments or reviews regarding the ever-growing role of comic books in movies.
1939-1960: The Early Years
In the beginning, Marvel (then Timely Publications) was owned by Martin Goodman who created the division in hopes of breaking into the budding comic book industry. They attained some success in 1939 with the Human Torch and Namor, but many of their following creations were receiving lukewarm receptions or worse. Then, in 1941, Marvel’s first true editor, writer-artist Joe Simon, joined forces with artist Jack Kirby to create Captain America. Surpassing the Human Torch and Namor, Captain America proved to be a hit. Its first issue, Captain America Comics #1, sold nearly a million units and it wasn’t long before a film production company took interest. It would mark Marvel’s first foray into the film industry.
Captain America (1944)
In 1944, Captain America hit movie screens as a black-and-white serial created by a production company called Republic. Republic made many changes to Marvel’s character including changing his name from Steve Rogers to Grant Gardner, making him a lawyer instead of a soldier, and giving him a gun in place of his shield. The Captain America serial was released to theaters as 15 different episodes of about 15 minutes each, and though they were considered successful, Marvel wasn’t happy with how it was handled. No Marvel character was seen on the silver screen again until Howard the Duck in 1986.
In 1939, five years before Captain America hit movie screens, Martin Goodman hired his wife’s cousin, Stanley Lieber, as a general office assistant. At only seventeen years old, Lieber filled inkwells, erased pencil from finished comic pages, got lunch, and proofread the work of others. When Captain America #3 was in production, he was allowed to write a filler story. In it, he introduced Captain America’s now famous shield throw and wrote under the pseudonym Stan Lee. Before long, he was being allowed to write more stories, and in 1941, Goodman made him “Interim Editor” after Joe Simon left the company. Stan Lee wrote extensively for the company from the beginning, but the work he’s best known for didn’t come about until the 1960s.
After World War 2, the time period known as the Golden Age of Comic Books came to a close. The superhero fad died in the 1950s, and Timely Publications dropped the few heroes they had in favor of a wide variety of genres including horror, western, humor, funny animals, men's adventure-drama, giant monster, crime, and war comics. As their comic line continued to diversify with public interest, Goodman changed the company to Atlas Comics to consolidate the businesses he owned under Atlas News Company. Despite trying to revitalize their heroes, during the 1950s, Atlas comics didn’t release a single hit and Marvel continued to struggle along as a small-time comic studio.
1960s: The Silver Age of Comic Books
In October of 1956, DC, Marvel’s rival and the largest comic company of the time, revived their Flash character in Showcase #4 and superheroes began making a comeback. DC reintroduced several of their heroes over the next few years, and after four years of superhero success, they introduced the Justice League of America in 1960. In response, Martin Goodman assigned Stan Lee the task of creating a superhero team for Marvel. At the time, Lee wanted to write more complex and adult oriented stories than what DC was doing. In fact, he was considering getting out of comic books all together in order to write something more literary. At the urging of his wife, Lee instead teamed up with Jack Kirby and created a superhero team unlike anything that had ever been seen before. Over the next few years, Lee and the artists and writers at Marvel created many of the superheroes that are now icons of our times.
The Fantastic Four, The Fantastic Four #1(Nov. 1961)
When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Fantastic Four, they threw out many of the superhero conventions of the time. Instead of masked heroes and secret identities, the Fantastic Four embraced celebrity status. Instead of characters that were unceasingly moral, the Fantastic Four struggled with real world problems and often conflicted with one another and held grudges. They even had a monster as one of the heroes on their team.
The new team was an immense success, and in 1961, Marvel began rapidly expanding its line of superhero comics with Lee at the helm.
Ant-Man, Tales to Astonish #27 (Jan. 1962)
Originally a short story about a scientist who tested shrinking technology on himself and explored an ant-hill, Lee revamped the character as the superhero Ant-Man in Tales to Astonish #35. Ant-Man would go on to be featured in many different comic books.
The Hulk, The Incredible Hulk #1(May 1962)
The Fantastic Four’s The Thing was by far the series’ most popular character, so Lee and Kirby introduced The Hulk to feed off of that success. Dealing with deep emotional issues from both his past and the events that gave him his abilities, The Hulk was a darker and more adult character than any of the Fantastic Four and had a psychological complex of fear, anger, and the fear of anger and the destruction it can cause. While The Hulk’s comic run wasn’t as successful as The Fantastic Four’s and was thus cancelled and renewed several times, the Hulk himself became an iconic character for Marvel and appeared in many of their other series.
Spider-Man, Amazing Fantasy #15 (Aug. 1962)
Though the exact origins of Spider-Man are contested, Stan Lee wanted to create a new character that appealed to comic books’ rapidly growing teen audience. Originally hammering out details with Jack Kirby, Lee turned to Steve Ditko to do the art for the final publications. Up to this point, superheroes were all adults, and teens had always been sidekicks or minor characters. Lee wanted a character that dealt with the problems of adolescence. Unsure of how the public would react to Spider-Man, Martin Goodman had Lee premier the character in Amazing Fantasy #15 instead of in his own series. It was a remarkable success, and in March of 1963, Marvel released The Amazing Spider-Man #1. Spider-Man went on to become Marvel’s top-selling series and the character became a cultural icon.
Thor, Journey into Mystery #83 (Aug. 1962)
Drawing heavily on mythology to create a character unlike what had been seen in previous comics, Thor was introduced to revamp the faltering Journey into Mystery series and to be a character stronger than The Hulk. Before long, Thor became the starring character. In March of 1966, Journey into Mystery was retitled “Thor” for issue #126.
Iron Man, Tales of Suspense #39 (March 1963)
According to Stan Lee, “I think I gave myself a dare. It was the height of the Cold War. The readers, the young readers, if there was one thing they hated, it was war, it was the military....So I got a hero who represented that to the hundredth degree. He was a weapons manufacturer, he was providing weapons for the Army, he was rich, he was an industrialist....I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like, none of our readers would like, and shove him down their throats and make them like him....And he became very popular.” Iron Man would feature heavily in Tales of Suspense until he received his own series in 1968.
The X-Men #1 (Sept. 1963)
Striving to create another superhero team, Lee and Kirby created the X-Men in 1963. Achieving only mild success and often dropping below the sales of Marvel’s other series, The X-Men was cancelled in 1969. In the mid-1970s, the X-Men were revived with several new characters including Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler, and Wolverine who would rapidly become one of Marvel’s most popular characters. The revamp was a great success both critically and commercially and the X-Men have been going strong ever since.
The Avengers #1 (Sept. 1963)
Bringing together some of their most popular characters including The Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, and Ant-Man, The Avengers #1 released in 1963 and introduced the superhero team that has recently become such a huge success on the silver screen. Captain America was quickly added to the group, and though the members have frequently changed, the series has been successful since its conception. Martin Goodman finally had a team other than The Fantastic Four to rival The Justice League, and by the end of the 60s, Marvel was a major force among comic publishers.
Several other popular characters were created during this time including Daredevil and the Silver Surfer, as well as many iconic enemies the likes of Loki and Dr. Doom. By the end of the 1960s, Marvel had even broken into television with animated series based on many of their heroes.
1970s: Diversification and Live Action TV
The 1970s saw another slow era for Marvel and the comics industry in general. Now known as Marvel comics, they were still owned by Martin Goodman and they shifted publishing companies and distributors multiple times throughout the decade. Like in the 50s, the superhero fad diminished and Marvel diversified their lineup in search of success. They created several successful new books in genres like horror, martial arts, sword-and-sorcery, science fiction, and satire. One of the most popular satires was Howard the Duck which would later become Marvel’s first major film effort since 1944’s Captain America.
The seventies also saw the release of multiple live action TV series based on Marvel’s most successful franchises including Spidey Super Stories (1974-1977), The Amazing Spider Man (1977-1979), The Incredible Hulk (1977-1982), and Spider-Man (1978-1979). While not smash-hits, all of these series were considered successful and helped embed Marvel’s characters in pop culture. Dr. Strange and Captain America were also featured in their own made for TV movies.
On the comic book side of things, Marvel had quite a bit of success with their main franchises in the early 80s and continued with animated shows, but they ultimately saw many of their top employees leave to work for DC. During the last half of the eighties, Marvel had returned to making only comic books, and many of them were meeting with only a mild reception. DC, on the other hand, had achieved great success in bringing Superman to the big screen and created many critically acclaimed comics during this time.
Not to be left entirely in the dust, Marvel teamed with Lucasfilm, the creators of Star Wars, to bring one of their most successful properties of the 70s to the big screen.
Howard the Duck (1986)
Howard the Duck was an epic failure for both Marvel and Lucasfilm. It was universally panned by critics and barely made back its $37 million production budget in the box office. A live action movie featuring an animatronic duck, it failed to connect with audiences and was criticized for its crude humor, perverseness, and bad acting.
The Punisher (1989)
First appearing in The Amazing Spider-Man #129 in 1974, by 1989, The Punisher was a highly popular character in Marvel’s universe and, unlike most of their properties, The Punisher wouldn’t require any overly difficult special effects. Marvel and New World Pictures thought they could turn The Punisher into an exciting action movie for a much lower budget than Howard the Duck. With a budget of only $9 million, Marvel’s The Punisher was another box office flop, especially compared to DC and Tim Burton’s Batman which released only a few months before it. Struggling to make any headway against DC, Marvel entered the 90s with only their successful comics series and a few Incredible Hulk made for TV movies to sustain them.
Captain America (1990)
In 1989, Ronald Perleman bought Marvel under his company Andrews Group and referred to their immense library of characters as “a mini-disney in terms of intellectual property.” The goal was to start promoting Marvel characters in other forms of media while continuing to grow the comic empire. In 1990, Marvel Entertainment Group and Jadran Film produced a Captain America movie for the hero’s 50th anniversary. Once again, a Marvel movie was a disaster. Captain America failed with both audiences and critics and was a straight to video release in the US.
The nineties were a time of change for Marvel. The comics industry boomed in the early part of the decade, and Marvel found great success for their heroes once again. New comic lines such as their futuristic 2099 series grew rapidly in popularity, and Marvel was able to take risks on creatively daring projects such as their Razorline comics headed by Clive Barker. As profits rolled in, they launched multiple new cartoon shows under the name Marvel Films Animation (working with New World Entertainment), released a line of trading cards, and purchased a 46% of ToyBiz to produce toys based on their characters. The 90s saw complex comic book crossovers between various Marvel properties, and Marvel cartoon shows had immense success with kids. In 1996, Marvel formed Marvel Studios to oversee their cartoon shows after New World was sold.
The Fantastic Four (1994)
Marvel was so successful in the early 90s that many of their properties were optioned as films. While it got fans riled up and excited, none of these projects ever truly got off the ground and it had yet to be proven that a Marvel character could be successful on the silver screen. Rather than lose the rights to The Fantastic Four, Constantin Film Produktions created an ultra-low budget film that was never released. Avi Arad, the president of Marvel’s film division, actually purchased the finished film to keep it from going public and harming the brand.
As the 90s progressed, Marvel’s success didn’t last. In 1992, several of Marvel’s most famous writers and artists left to form Image Comics. Behind the scenes, Perleman and Andrews Group were purchasing other entertainment companies to continue expanding the empire, and when the industry slumped again around 1995, Marvel found itself in serious trouble. As it had so many times before, the comics fad came and went, and in December of 1996, Marvel filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
In June of 1998, ToyBiz came to the rescue, merging with Marvel Entertainment Group to save the company. The comic line soon stabilized, and the newly merged company became Marvel Enterprises. With Avi Arad at the helm, Marvel began expanding into film and the comics and cartoon shows continued growing their characters into household names.
At this point, Marvel began licensing its characters to film companies instead of producing the films on their own. The first film licensed by Marvel Studios was Blade, based on their vampire hunter character of the same name. Released in August of 1998, Blade grossed $70,087,718 in the United States and Canada and $131,183,530 worldwide. It was the first successful Marvel film and proved that Marvel’s comic characters could be profitable on screen. Following Blade’s success, in 1999, Marvel licensed Spider-Man to Sony in a deal that’s prevented Marvel from making Spider-Man movies of their own ever since.
Blade was followed by X-Men, which released on July 14, 2000. X-Men grossed $157,299,717 in the United States and Canada and $296,250,053 worldwide. It wasn’t just a successful movie, it was a genuine blockbuster, and it showed that great movies could be made out of characters who still weren’t well-known by the general public.
X-Men opened the door for Marvel, and the company that had begun as Timely Publications back in the 30s saw its opportunity. Over the next decade, Marvel created an empire.
Join us for the second part of our special event in Marvel Changes Movies part 2: Building an Empire, and be sure to let us know what you think in the comments below!