The Marvel Cinematic Universe has had huge successes since the release of Iron Man in 2008. With two exceptions, this success came while using B-list characters. The exceptions are Captain America, mostly known through being a patriotic superhero, and the Incredible Hulk, thanks to the 1978 TV series starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. Thanks to some questionable deals made to keep the company afloat in the past, Marvel Studios didn’t have access to some better known characters like Spider-Man and the X-Men, both of whom had a number of animated series.

How did Marvel start dominating? As mentioned, Iron Man, while a member of the Avengers, wasn’t a well known character outside comic fandom. Tony Stark also has numerous flaws, like many Marvel heroes. He’s a hero despite the flaws. Marvel Studios did the one thing that could get positive attention – casting Robert Downey, Jr. Downey was ideal casting; he and Stark share a problem with addiction. At the time of casting, Downey had gotten through his addiction and recovered, a journey that Stark has troubles with in the comics. Downey took to the role, providing a human side to Stark, despite the flaws.

Casting continued in the same vein for the rest of the films leading up to The Avengers in 2012. The leads and supporting of the movies leading up to the 2012 film all fit the roles cast. Even in the following phases and into the TV series, the casting remained strong. Casting choices might be debatable at times, but the roles have been filled well. Casting, though, isn’t the only part of the success.

Casting is just the surface. Another element helping in Marvel’s success on the silver screen is the types of stories told. The Marvel movies aren’t just superhero films. They’ve been another genre with superheroes added. Iron Man was a techno-thriller with superheroes. Captain America: The First Avenger was a war movie with superheroes. It’s sequel, Captain America and the Winter Soldier was a political thriller with superheroes. Guardians of the Galaxy was a space opera with superheroes. Ant Man was a heist movie with superheroes. The stories are wide ranging. Only the Avengers titled films – The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame – are pure superhero films. They are also the major crossovers, where all the characters appear onscreen together. This isn’t quite a parallel to the comics where crossovers affect every title and Iron Man can appear in his own title, Avengers, and guest star in a Spider-Man title all in the same month. It is close enough, but the crossover is self-contained except for some plot points being set up in the movies leading up to the installment.

The mix of genres lets each Marvel movie look and feel different, even if the same beats are being used. Captain America had a different tone compared to Ant Man. If someone doesn’t like the genre of film, there’s still the draw of superheroes, or the choice of skipping in favour of a preferred genre. The additional genres gives audiences something else to look forward to, and be able to follow the plot even when the superheroics go off the beaten path.

This mix carries over to the Disney+ series. Wandavision uses classic sitcoms to tell its story. Hawkeye is essentially a Hallmark Christmas special with superheroes. The current series, Moon Knight begins as a horror series. There’s more to the series than superheroic battles; the fights are icing to a multi-layered cake.

The use of B-listers is another facet of Marvel’s success. As mentioned above, with the exception of the Hulk and Captain America, Marvel Studio’s success has come despite the use of lesser known characters. However, since they are lesser known, that gives the cast, crew, writers, and directors a free hand to explore the characters and the setting and put a new twist in without worrying about canon. Moon Knight is the ultimate blank slate here; the character has had a number of different origins that at times conflicted that the TV series can pick and choose details and not worry about getting anything wrong.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been dominating the box office since the release of Iron Man. The secret to Marvel’s success is to have interesting, flawed characters in well written works where the story melds another genre with superheroics. While there are rumblings that the general public is getting tired of superheroics, audiences still go out to watch Marvel’s cinematic works, in part because the films aren’t just about superheroes being superheroes.


This article was originally published at Seventh Sanctum.

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