Tony Stark got in just under the wire. When Iron Man premiered in May of 2008, the Great Recession was technically in its sixth month, but outright collapse didn’t seem to be on the menu and the average moviegoer couldn’t be bothered to notice the swaying Jenga tower that was the global economy. Therefore, no one seemed to mind watching a movie about a billionaire playboy who loves nothing more than to brag about how rich he was. The movie made a heroic chunk of change for Marvel Studios and emboldened them to begin the most audacious commercial endeavor in the history of film, the interlinked and never-ending Marvel Cinematic Universe.
But had Iron Man been a December release, one can imagine the audiences of that cash-strapped Christmas being less than voracious for a movie about a vain plutocrat. Lucky for Disney CEO Bob Iger and Marvel movie chief Kevin Feige, we live in the timeline where people fell in love with Robert Downey Jr.’s superhero at the last possible second before it stopped being cool (at least for a little while) to be superrich. Now, when Tony soars the open skies, he can smirk that very lucrative smirk, confident that the sun has yet to set on the MCU empire. Indeed, we now live in the world that the MCU made. Everyone in Hollywood wants their own open-ended megafranchise based on existing intellectual property, and they all raise their fists in jealous fury when the latest Avengers flick comes out and slam-dunks $2 billion like it’s nothing.
That all raises a question: if the MCU made contemporary Hollywood, what made the MCU? There’s no single answer, and most of them have been worn threadbare by analysts. There was the momentum created by pre-MCU superhero pictures over the preceding ten years, starting with 1998’s Blade. There were the advancements in special-effects technology that had been made since the great leaps forward of The Matrix and Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace. There was the creative and business genius of Feige, who is envied but never replicated. There was the coming-of-age of a generation of top movie machers who had grown up reading the great Marvel Comics stories of the 1960s. And there was the sheer quality of the characters that the creators of those comics — Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and a host of others — had dreamt up.
Yet there’s one factor that hardly ever comes up, despite being of the utmost importance and being so obvious when you look at the timing: the lingering effects of the financial collapse and the bubble that preceded it. Our decade of financial and social impoverishment has been concurrent with our decade of the Marvel model, and the two have been intimately intertwined.
We wouldn’t have had the MCU without the crazy flow that preceded the devastating ebb. In the real-estate bubble of the mid-aughts, when collateralized debt obligations were being passed around like joints at a Dead show and it seemed like the party would never end, the big banks did something unusual: they started investing in Hollywood. At the time, Marvel Studios — still years away from being bought by Disney — was primarily a licensing company, enticing the studios to make pictures based on Marvel Comics characters while offering individual producers and creative guidance. There had been hits (Spider-Man, X-Men), flops (Hulk, The Punisher), and dead projects (a Namor movie, which we can still pray for), but nothing actually made by Marvel Studios.
Then, in 2003, producer David Maisel came to Marvel Studios chief Avi Arad and Arad’s deputy, Kevin Feige, with an idea: You guys should make your own movies. He was quickly hired and put in an executive position. After years of hustling, Maisel secured a $525 million loan for film production from a cash-spewing Merrill Lynch in 2005. Merrill’s bet was a product of the overall casino vibe of the era, and the investment was risky as hell. The movie rights to the biggest Marvel characters, the X-Men and Spider-Man, were locked up at Fox and Sony, respectively. For Marvel Studios’ solo endeavors, they were stuck with B- and C-listers in terms of name recognition. Nevertheless, Merrill took the gamble. As a result, Marvel’s leadership was able to take the plunge, and Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk both debuted in the summer of 2008. A few months later, the global economy collapsed. Had Marvel dallied by a few years, the Merrill injection would never have come. As it was, when the crash hit, they already had their money secured.
Then, something curious happened: people kept going to the movies. Not just Marvel movies, either — in the years following the death of Lehman Brothers, the film industry continued to thrive. It’s impossible to definitively say why an industry booms or busts, but it seems that part of Hollywood’s endurance came from the evisceration of studios’ mid-budget slates. Faced with uncertainty and austerity, it became clear that it was only worth it to make movies if they either cost a pittance to conjure up or if they were big-budget spectacles that were sure to get butts in seats (and, in the wake of Avatar, could have tickets sold at a premium for 3-D screenings).
The crash made studios more risk-averse, and they were hungry for reliable tentpole flicks. Marvel was perfect for this new post-collapse film landscape. Even going back to the days before they were making their own films, their brand had a proven track record. On top of that, they were now launching a franchise that audiences could get comfortable with and keep coming back to. Thanks to the wealth of intellectual property in the original comics material and the tradition of serialized superhero storytelling, they could churn out tales until the sun goes nova. No wonder Disney snatched Marvel up in 2009.
What’s more, the MCU offered what economically suffering and societally anxious moviegoers seemed to want more than almost anything in the world 2008 had made: escape. According to the National Association of Theater Owners, there were box office gains in six of the eight last recessions, and as Patrick Corcoran of that group put it to Entertainment Weekly in 2011, the year of MCU slam dunks Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, “People seek relief in forgetting their problems, so they go to the movies, and it is the least expensive form of entertainment.” He went on with a key observation: while flights of fancy were in hot demand, films “about the thing that’s bothering everyone? Not so much.”
And throughout its existence, the MCU has provided ludicrous escapism of the highest order. We justifiably laud these films when they effectively pull off pathos, but at the end of the day, there’s a reason they translate so easily across cultures. They’re chock-full of fantastical flash-bang-whiz-boom presented through cocaine-rush editing, their characters are easily digested archetypes who dish out focus-group-approved punch lines, and rabid moviegoers can’t wait to tear their clothes off and toss on the badass costumes. In the MCU, when there’s an international conspiracy to subjugate humanity, Captain America gets to punch the conspirators in the face and none of them get fat bonus checks afterward. What’s more, they allow you to escape the present — superheroes are Proustian madeleines for childhood longing and the comfort you felt while riding your bike to the comic-book store. Within the friendly confines of the MCU, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.
Outside the cineplex, of course, nothing is going right. We may be well past the official end-date of the Great Recession and inside a stock-market and employment boom, but there’s a reason you’ve never stopped being anxious about your checking account since the collapse. According to a wide variety of indicators, the average person still hasn’t recovered from the hit in the wallet they took in 2008. This is a matter of dire concern for Hollywood. In a world where watching six movies a month on Netflix means each one’s only costing you two bucks, it’s increasingly hard to convince someone to get off the couch and bring $16 to the box office unless there’s a major pull factor, which might explain the popularity of the unsustainable MoviePass.
The movies that do manage to drag people outside tend to be ones that feel like events. Secrets will be revealed, twists will be spun, new catchphrases will be uttered, and woe to she who sees it too late, for she must avoid the kudzu growth of spoilers. It certainly helps if the viewer has a perhaps-irrational emotional attachment to the cast and universe and doesn’t want to miss a date with their onscreen best friends. Every “to be continued” ending is coitus interruptus, and even non-geeks will shell out hundreds of dollars on MCU tickets over the years to pursue a never-attained climax. And if you’re a parent, God help you if you try to deprive your brood of their superhero-induced dopamine rushes. Other studios have attempted to pull off the MCU’s shared-universe success — Warner Bros. with their stutter-step DC Extended Universe, Universal with their so-far-failed Dark Universe, and many more to come — but none have mastered the recipe. Roger Ebert was fond of saying movies were like a machine designed to create empathy; MCU movies are a machine designed to create obsession.
That obsession is near-universal. The MCU is what those in the biz refer to as a “four-quadrant” franchise, in that it’s one that snatches up all age and gender combinations. But more important, it transcends socio-political boundaries. This is perhaps the most important connection between the crash and the conquests of merry Marvel marching society. Next year, posters for the fourth Avengers movie will adorn walls in red states and blue ones. Trump devotees and #resistance tweeters alike will put their tushes in seats for Captain Marvel and Spider-Man: Far From Home and whatever else comes in the next phase of the franchise. This is, when you step back to think about it, astounding. As my colleagues have pointed out, our current kulturkampf was largely formed in September of 2008 and has made a world in which there are vicious fights over even the most blue-chip aspects of America, from the NFL to the Declaration of Independence.
In that kind of climate, who wouldn’t be attracted to something that makes you feel like you’re part of a unified society again? Everyone, it seems, goes to MCU movies and, whether they enjoy them or not, they offer a church-like experience in which the whole world is the congregation. Every political faction can make Thanos jokes. The MCU can pull all that off because, with the possible exception of Black Panther, the MCU is devoid of coherent political meaning. There are vague stabs at critiquing the surveillance state in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but the villains aren’t of any real political party. Hela offers up a sorta-metaphor for genocide in Thor: Ragnarok, but it’s so couched in fantasy puffinstuff that you can mostly ignore it. The films are 99 percent about good guys staving off an improbable apocalypse in a world of whimsy. You can check your faction at the door. The MCU is, in the words of our second-worst president, a uniter, not a divider.
But is that such a good thing? It’s certainly nice to feel united with your fellow human consumers, but is it worth it if that feeling is an opiate? What’s more, how perverse is it that these movies are all about defending the status quo at a time when the real-life status quo is untenable? There’s a case to be made that the age of escapism should end. Perhaps we need cinematic agitation. That’s one of the reasons Black Panther is the best of the MCU films: it dares to address the structural inequality of race — something that’s been salient to the discussion of the crash ever since we realized how much the banks had preyed on black debtors in the bubble era. However, even Black Panther stars an astoundingly wealthy monarch who spends his free time palling around with other spandex-fetishists who don’t seem to even know what money is.
While the MCU caused a revolution in Hollywood, it is utterly devoid of revolutionary spirit at a time when the masses might need stirring. In the world the crash made, a wind is blowing against our Tony Starks. Maybe one day, characters like him will be relics of an era before the one percent finally faced justice for what they did ten years ago. Can the repulsor beam win out against the guillotine?