MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios by Joanna Robinson, Dave Gonzales, Gavin Edwards
MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios, by Joanna Robinson, Dave Gonzales, Gavin Edwards is an even-handed, highly readable, always interesting, sometimes fascinating history of Marvel movie-making, starting from their early days of licensing characters to formation of their own studio, to reclaiming some of their most popular characters, to merging their TV and films under one roof to their purchase by Disney up to their most recently released films and TV shows in 2022. If you have a casual (versus academic) interest in the Marvel world, and particularly their movies, this is the book for you.
The early section follows Marvel’s attempt to license its characters with a focus more on sales of toys than film profits. One of the more interesting tidbits is the idea that James Cameron wrote a half-screenplay/half-treatment for a Spider-Man film to star Leonardo DiCaprio as Peter Parker and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Doctor Octopus. These sort of “what if” scenarios pepper the entire work, with alternate directors, actors, writers, etc. And are some of more fascinating bits of trivia for fans who can spin off into speculation on films never made.
After the large success of Sony’s Spider-Man (directed by Sam Raimi) and Fox’s X-Men, David Maisel convinced the then-owner of Marvel, Ike Perlmutter, that the current head of Marvel Studio, Avi Arad, was leaving money on the table by licensing characters to other companies rather than making movies themselves. Arad eventually left Marvel, thinking the studio idea was bound to fail. He was of course wrong, but it was far from a sure thing. To get funding, Marvel put up nearly a dozen of its remaining unlicensed characters as collateral with Merrill Lynch — failure would mean losing all rights to those characters, which included Captain America, The Avengers, Nick Fury, Black Panther, Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, and Shang-Chi. Marvel needed a solid hit, and after some hemming and hawing over which character to launch their studio with, they went with Iron Man, mostly because the character tested best as a toy. From there, history was made.
The rest of the book works though each of the ensuing films and then, when they arrived, the various TV shows that appeared on Netflix, networks, and eventually Disney-Plus. This is not a critical examination of the films, though there is some casual analysis, but goes more into how they were developed, written, and cast, what obstacles were overcome, and how well they succeeded (or not). What the book does best here is humanize the films, giving us a sense of the people behind all of this, ranging from the eventual overseer of it all (Kevin Feige) to the directors and writers and actors to the costumers and casting directors, to the visual effects people, and even an occasional visitor on set or janitor who offered up a suggestion that was taken up.
While mostly positive, the authors don’t shy away from stories that are less so: egos getting in the way, arguments over writing (a lot) and directing (some) credits, the ridiculous workload of the visual effects people, the overly cheap policies of the companies (writers raiding other studios for food), poor treatment of original authors from the comics, potential steroid use by actors trying to look like demi-gods, conflicts over director freedom and studio control, and more. By far the worst of these are the stories of how Ike Perlmutter’s sexism and bigotry for years kept Marvel from pushing forward with non-white, non-male characters (sourced not just in anecdotes but with supporting emails/memos).
All of this is related in an easy-going, engaging, easy-to-follow manner that never becomes too informal, chatty, or gossipy. And if a lot of the material has probably been heard/seen before by fans who pay attention to this sort of stuff, there’s nothing like having it all thoroughly laid out in its totality in clear, chronological fashion and placed within a web of context: corporate politics, advanced in technology, even international relations. Considering the tight-lipped nature of Disney/Marvel, the uber-security around the inner workings, the NDAs, etc., the authors should be commended for the level of detail they’ve brought to a work that is as informative as it is fun. Highly recommended for any fan of Marvel or superhero films/pop culture.