Marvel is flying high right now – coming off its breakthrough best picture Oscar nomination for “Black Panther” and a win for the animated “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” Combine that prestige with the promise of two more blockbusters, “Captain Marvel,” opening this weekend; and “Avengers: Endgame,” and it makes for a gaudy display of the Disney-owned studio’s power.
Still, danger could lurk ahead – not in the form of a supervillain, but rather a hunger for content that will test Marvel’s thus-far formidable limits.
Marvel’s arsenal is about to grow, via another Disney acquisition. Two signature properties, Fantastic Four and X-Men, will be reunited with their comic-book brethren, one of the benefits of parent Disney’s pending absorption of Fox Entertainment holdings.
Movie rights to those titles had been parceled off years ago, when Marvel Comics faced financial difficulties. While “X-Men” has produced a profitable series of movies, attempts to bring “Fantastic Four” to the screen have proved disappointing.
Still, Disney’s reliance on Marvel is about to grow, creating pressure to expand what’s known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The company has generally been shrewd in that regard, but even Earth’s mightiest heroes have exhibited vulnerabilities – especially in television – as the company reaches farther and wider to bring less-well-known titles to the screen.
Marvel is one of the centerpieces of Disney’s strategy as the studio prepares to launch its own streaming service, joining other key assets – especially “Star Wars” and Disney/Pixar animated hits – in providing a come-on to consumers.
In an interview with ComicBook.com, Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige stated that programs coming to the streaming venture, known as Disney+, will be “entirely interwoven with both the current MCU, the past MCU, and the future of the MCU.”
It’s an ambitious scheme, and Marvel has demonstrated its ability to create an interlocking franchise, while transforming titles that were hardly on the tips of most people’s tongues – like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Ant-Man” – into rousing successes. If anything, the company’s savvy exploitation of second-tier properties has been as much a linchpin of its unblemished box-office resume as its marquee heroes.
With pressure to feed Disney’s need for premium, must-have content, the company is going to have to keep reaching further into its grab bag. That includes not only movies and Disney+, but servicing ABC, cable network Freeform, children’s channels like DisneyXD and the other streaming service that Disney controls, Hulu.
As enviable as Marvel’s track record has been, unlike Iron Man, it’s not invincible. Although the studio has remarkably avoided a major box-office misfire – as even Lucasfilm experienced with “Solo: A Star Wars Story” – ABC’s “The Inhumans” flopped, and an attempt to spin off “Agents of SHIELD” died in development.
Creatively speaking, Marvel’s Netflix shows – among them “Iron Fist” and “The Punisher” – also fell well short of Marvel’s top tier, even if it’s difficult to quantify their commercial performance.
Marvel is staying relatively mum about its output for Disney+, holding back announcements until after this spring and summer’s movies. Several new shows, however, are being planned, including one built around the Avengers characters Vision and Scarlet Witch, and another featuring the Thor villain Loki.
In addition, the company has announced a quirky animation lineup for Hulu, with four series in the works, among them “Howard the Duck.”
Howard the Duck, of course, was a much-admired comic book that was turned into a 1986 movie, which laid such a conspicuous egg at the box office as to serve as a kind of shorthand for a misguided flop.
A lot has changed for the better since then when it comes to comic-book adaptations, and Marvel has made clear that it feels emboldened to tell all kinds of stories, big and small, just as Lucasfilm is mining various quadrants of its galaxy far, far away.
Yet as with any creative endeavor, the more at-bats taken, the greater the chance of striking out. Marvel remains the envy of the movie industry, but as the studio stretches to explore the outer expanse of its universe, the risk will only increase in terms of scrambling those well-laid plans.