I’m going to say something that might be relatively controversial amongst the Marvel Cinematic Universe fan community—I really wasn’t that excited when Spider-Man returned to the MCU. I mean, I wasn’t not excited. I’m a big fan of Spider-Man, of course. I’m looking forward to the reboot, certainly. I like the news percolating around it, definitely. Especially the rumors indicating that the direction will be more of a John Hughes high-school coming-of-age story, as opposed to a rehash of what’s already been done (or at least, less of a rehash). I think it’s crucial to give a fresh cinematic take on the Spider-Man character, including a villain we haven’t yet seen on screen (Kraven the Hunter, anyone?). But the news that Spider-Man was joining the MCU really didn’t send me through the roof the way it did some fans. While I found the business and legal arrangement quite fascinating, the addition to the MCU itself just really didn’t get me riled—especially compared to what I consider much more exciting movies on the horizon, like Captain America: Civil War, Dr. Strange, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel.
I couldn’t help but have the same emotions last week when the rumors began flying that the Fantastic Four were heading back to Marvel Studios. To be clear, these rumors are still very much unsubstantiated (though there are good reasons to predict that eventually Fantastic Four will revert back to Marvel, if only because Fox is supposedly legally required to make a new Fantastic Four movie every seven years to retain the property, something that has proven critically and financially difficult for the company). That said, even if the rumors prove to be true, and Fantastic Four heads back to Marvel Studios, I will again be relatively ambivalent about it. Similar to Spider-Man, I am much more excited about the unique and fresh possibilities on the horizon. I don’t like re-treads.
More than anything, at the heart of these nonchalant reactions, is a recognition and appreciation of the origins of the MCU. It is an appreciation of one of the key aspects that, I would argue, drove the MCU’s immense success—that of a backed-into-a-corner creativity. Marvel Studios originally had to be innovative and had to focus on the fundamentals. They had to because they could not succeed off of name recognition alone. Few will admit it now, but back in 2008 when Iron Man was released, almost no one in the general public knew who the character was. And while Captain America and Thor had a long and storied comics history, they paled in comparison to the box office draw and popularity of the X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man franchises. While not wholly analogous, what Marvel faced at its origin reminds me of this amazing scene from Apollo 13. At its its conception, the MCU was dealing with a C-List roster at best, and they had to make the most of it. They focused on story. They focused on character development. They were creative and took risks. They respected the source material (in most ways—Mandarin aside). There were a few missteps along the way (Iron Man 2), but by and large they nailed it. They took what most considered to be scraps and they turned them into one of the most formidable, financially successful Hollywood behemoths in history, developing beloved characters along the way, and pioneering the concept of a shared universe—something that other studios are now scrambling over themselves to copy (most notably Warner Brothers). Looking at the characters in Marvel’s arsenal, few would have predicted this outcome in 2008.
The Marvel story isn’t just a tale of a ludicrously successful movie studio, however. Like other countless entrepreneurial and artistic stories, it is the tale of an underdog. At the risk of sounding saccharine, the Marvel story is emblematic of an important life lesson. When a person’s back is to the wall, when the cards aren’t in his or her favor, that very well might be the best time for invention. This is not always the case—sometimes it’s wise to just give up a gig. But ingenuity, grit, vision, and passion are never to be underrated. Marvel Studios didn’t have it’s A-Team roster at its disposal. It didn’t have an easy, predetermined pathway to success. At different points in our lives, the same will be true for all of us. All of us will, inevitably, lack a resource at some point. We might lack money. We might lack experience. We might lack any number of attributes. But these are the very situations that, if we choose to allow them, force us to innovate. Like Marvel had to, it forces us to think outside the box.
So my question now is a simple one—can Marvel Studios continue that which, in my opinion, made it so successful? The situation has changed. It’s no longer an underdog, not even close. It’s a financial and critical juggernaut. With the acquisition of Spider-Man and potentially other major players, coupled with ballooning financial resources ($1 billion rumored to be going to Avengers: Infinity Wars) the incentive to remain dynamic has been partially stifled. This is why I care more about Doctor Strange, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel then I ever will about another Spider-Man movie or a Fantastic Four deal—even if these characters are technically “heavy hitters.” I care more about the lesser-known names, because at its core, that’s what Marvel has always done best. That’s what forced it to be great.
Here’s hoping Spider-Man and other (soon-to-be?) acquired tent-poles, no matter how iconic and beloved, don’t distract from these roots.