It's hard to imagine a time before Marvel Cinematic Universe movies dominated the box office, but when Disney first purchased Marvel Entertainment for $4.24 billion there was no way of knowing they would double their money at the box office alone in under a decade. Here at the 10-year mark since the purchase went down, it's a good time to look back at what Disney was thinking, review how it played out and see what their strategy looks like moving forward.
Disney first announced their purchase of Marvel Entertainment on Aug. 31, 2009. By that point, in a world very different from the one we live in today, there were only two MCU films released and both came out the previous year. Iron Man first rocketed into theaters in May of 2008, while The Incredible Hulk came in the following month. The Incredible Hulk did not have quite the same success or acclaim Iron Man did, but the film did establish that both were part of a cohesive narrative universe.
The possibilities were endless, but the potential had yet to truly be tapped. Throughout 2009, Marvel prepared for their next entries, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, though they would not see release until 2011. At the time of Disney's purchase it seemed like they were jumping on a hot trend, but looking back it's clear just how much foresight they had in snatching the property up.
Other cross-movie franchises quick to emulate the MCU's success rushed out films, but from the get-go the MCU developed gradually, and Disney allowed their fledgling franchise to learn to walk before it ran. Subsequent films repeated and expanded on one another's success, and by the time The Avengers came out in 2012 it was clear that the entire experiment worked marvelously.
It was not just Marvel that Disney was willing to be patient with, either. Three years before their Marvel purchase Disney also bought Pixar for $7.9 billion. With the benefit of hindsight, the comparison shows just how much of a bargain the Marvel purchase was. Although Pixar films still do well, Marvel far outperforms them consistently and produces a far greater amount of content.
Looking beyond the box office is the key part of Disney's strategy that makes them such titans of the industry. In the past century since, Disney has focused heavily on cultivating their brand as carefully as possible. Whether it was shaping copyright law to their advantage or intertwining their characters in popular culture through marketing and merchandise, there has always been a lot more to Disney than just the movies they make.
In fact, as impressive as the box office numbers may be for the Marvel movies, it's important to remember that they aren't even the biggest piece of the Disney profit pie. Theme parks and merchandising pull in tidal waves of money, and much like the tides themselves, are constant and reliable. In acquiring Marvel and Pixar, the strategy was to plant the Mouse Flag in portions of entertainment culture that were already close to society's heart.
The same strategy has been continued with the acquisition of Lucasfilm's Star Wars franchise and, most recently, 21st Century Fox. This latest acquisition, of course, synergizes with the Marvel brand readily as the Fantastic Four and X-Men now prepare to make their way into the MCU. While the scope of the MCU could have seemed limited at first given the scattered nature of the Marvel character film rights, Disney knew they need only bide their time and collect the rights when it became convenient.
Expansion seems to be the name of Disney's game across the board. Not only do they continue to acquire new properties, but they integrate those properties throughout their various media platforms. Marvel media inhabits ABC, Freeform, Hulu, Disney Channel and Disney XD, thriving on every single one. Not content to stop there, the next big step will be the debut of their new streaming service Disney+.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki show their willingness to use their streaming service to expand on preexisting beloved characters, while What If...? and the freaky-looking WandaVision show a willingness to further experiment and play with new ideas. The wider appeal of Disney's other properties, like Star Wars series The Mandalorian and the Obi-Wan Kenobi mini, make the streaming service look more appealing than ever.
At a time when viewer dollars are already split between so many different streaming services, Disney+ is prepared to swoop in to become a top competitor. The spirit of competition seems to be exactly what Disney brings to the table, as well. Netflix's cancellation of their own popular Marvel shows was steeped in secrecy and rumors, but, given the plans for Disney+, it seems to be a safe bet that Disney wanted to elbow them out from drawing Marvel fans away.
There's no doubt that Marvel has been a huge piece in the machinery that marches toward Disney's ever-increasing success. References, memes, advertisements and products all stamped with Iron Man or Thanos surround the everyday lives of anyone even moderately plugged in to the pop culture scene. The MCU movies themselves, now 23 deep, have yet to produce a single flop or unsuccessful film. They somehow keep getting bigger, and somehow just keep getting more successful.
And it all started 10 years ago, when Nick Fury appeared to Tony Stark in a shadowy room and told him he wanted to talk about the Avengers Initiative. In a film whose main star was considered an extremely risky gamble, directed by someone who had never done a major Hollywood action blockbuster, one post-credits scene paved the way for a multi-billion dollar franchise whose billions keep increasing.