The incredible, hidden history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe
"I think there's a destiny to just about everything."
-- Iron Man star Robert Downey Jr. at San Diego Comic-Con 2007
The Marvel Cinematic Universe staggers -- with scope, size and results.
Its superhero saga has stretched across 23 films (and counting). Its fantastical films have grossed $22.59 billion (and counting) at the worldwide box office. Its acclaimed work has earned three Oscars and one best picture nomination (all for Black Panther). Its global brand has attracted Oscar nominees and winners, including Robert Downey Jr., Samuel Jackson, Brie Larson and Lupita Nyong'o. It's even reeled in Elon Musk for a cameo in Iron Man 2.
But perhaps the most staggering thing about the MCU is this: that it happened.
The MCU is the sum of everything from little-known happenstances to big arguments.
Here is the story of those moments: the moments that hadto happen -- or not happen -- just so to create the MCU as we know it today.
Plans are nice, but history isn't plotted like the Avengers Initiative. It's a lot twistier -- and a whole lot more interesting.
To date, there's no bigger MCU scene than the Avengers: Endgame assault on Thanos and his army. Amid the rubble of the Avengers' New York compound, dozens of Marvel heroes storm the battlefield. They're locked, they're loaded, but most of all, they're ready for up-close, hand-to-hand combat. The slugfest is all kinds of impressive, but few fans know it also harkens to the very beginnings of the Marvel story -- and to the real-world fistfights of a young man named Jack Kurtzberg.
The son of Austrian-born Jews, Jack was an all-American brawler. It wasn't a profession, and it wasn't a hobby. In New York City's Lower East Side of the early 20th century, where Jack grew up, it was a way of life.
"You know, the punches were real, and the anger was real," Jack recalled for The Comics Journal in 1990, "and we'd chase each other up and down fire escapes, over rooftops, and we'd climb across clotheslines, and there were real injuries."
While the Lower East Side taught Jack to fight, Jack taught himself to draw. In his early 20s, having assumed the name Jack Kirby ("I wanted to be an American," he would say), Jack and fellow artist Joe Simon sold Timely Comics on a character which, informed by certain Lower East Side tendencies, would fight and fight and fight.
Let Superman fly the bad guys to jail, and let Batman stalk his prey with his wits -- Kirby and Simon's Captain America would handle Adolf Hitler with a sock to the jaw. Punch after punch, the long journey to Endgame's Battle of Earth -- if not the entire MCU -- had begun.
After World War II, with Nazi Germany defeated and Imperial Japan surrendered, world-saving heroes fell out of favor. In 1950, Captain America fell victim to the changing times: His title was canceled. It died along with one of publisher Martin Goodman's precursors to Marvel, Timely Comics.
Rather than mourning Cap, Goodman moved onto his next comics venture: Atlas. But seven years later, that line looked doomed, too.
With Atlas crumbling, DC Comics swooped in to save the day -- for a price. While DC had Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, superheroes who thrived in the 1950s, it wanted more. According to author Reed Tucker's Slugfest: Inside the Epic, 50-Year Battle Between Marvel and DC, DC offered Goodman $15,000 for three characters in the Timely-Atlas stable: Sub-Mariner, Human Torch and Captain America.
The answer? No.
"Goodman considered the offer, but in the end he passed," Tucker wrote. "...Imagine how different the world would be today had that deal gone through."
Left for dead
As heroes faded from the post-World War II comics scene, horror and crime titles came to the fore. Soon, these lurid tales caught the eye of Cold War-era leaders -- and not in a good way.
Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, author of the influential book Seduction of the Innocent, argued that the comics' content was "definitely harmful to impressionable people," especially children.
"I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry," Wertham said in a 1954 US Senate subcommittee hearing on juvenile delinquency.
It all sounds so silly now, because it was. But back then, this was a serious threat to anyone who loved comics and heroes. Wertham's crusade was a "near-death blow" to comics, Shirrel Rhoades noted in A Complete History of American Comic Books. The reeling industry promptly formed the Comics Code Authority to save itself. The self-policing unit sought to tamp down on criticism by crushing creativity. Horror titles were defanged, crime books were muted. But still publishers bled money. The superhero genre was among the weakest of all. Almost every title featuring a caped or cowled do-gooder was wiped out by paranoid eggheads.
Then, when all looked lost, the superheroes got their saviors: other superheroes.
In 1960, DC packaged its top-line characters, including Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern and Aquaman, in a new book, Justice League of America. The title was a hit. It turned out audiences not only still liked superheroes, but also liked seeing a lot of superheroes, doing superhero things together.
Over at the shaky Timely-Atlas, soon to be known as Marvel, Martin Goodman took note. Per one version of comics lore (a book called More Heroes of the Comics), Goodman nudged his "his wife's cousin," a lone editorial staffer, to take note, too. Readers would come to know the employee tasked with replicating Justice League's success as Stan Lee.
'You want to quit anyway'
History is rarely made by the happy and content. In 1961, Stan Lee was neither -- not as far as his career went. He'd been the chief editor for Martin Goodman's various comic imprints since he was a teen in the late 1930s, and he was restless.
"I had a steady job, but it wasn't satisfying," Stan would tell Web of Stories.
Stan, born Stanely Lieber in New York City, grew up dreaming of writing the great American novel, not speech balloons. He'd created the pen name Stan Lee, in fact, to preserve Stanley Lieber for the opuses yet to come.
It was no secret to Stan Lee's wife that her husband wanted to leave comics. According to Stan, Joan Lee urged him to create just one more title, but this time doing it however he wanted. "The worst that happens is Martin will fire you, and so what?" Stan would recall his wife saying. "You want to quit anyway."
As Lee, the master storyteller, would recall, he took his wife's advice and took Martin Goodman's note about the Justice League, and, along with a freelance artist named Jack Kirby, created the first hit title for Goodman's new Marvel Comics line: Fantastic Four.
'Sitting on a chair crying'
From his early days at Marvel until the end of his life in 1994, Jack Kirby was neither happy nor content -- not as far as his relationship, or lack thereof, with Stan Lee was concerned.
Kirby first met Lee in the 1930s at Martin Goodman's Timely Comics, where Kirby was already an in-demand artist and Lee was the teenage newcomer. "I thought Stan Lee was a bother … a pest," Kirby told The Comics Journal.
Lee never grew on Kirby, and Kirby, he would say, "never collaborated on anything" with Lee.
According to Kirby, Lee's origin stories were bunk. The rise of Marvel Comics happened, Kirby told Comics Journal, because he, the real King of Comics, had stopped by the office one day to find the business "coming apart," and Lee "sitting on a chair crying." Then and there, Kirby said, he told Lee he'd create money-making titles for them.
"I knew I could do it, but I had to come up with fresh characters that nobody had seen before," Kirby said. "I came up with The Fantastic Four. I came up with Thor. Whatever it took to sell a book I came up with."
That Kirby would share credit with Lee (and sometimes others) on the various iterations of the Fantastic Four, Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Ant-Man, Nick Fury, the Avengers, Black Panther and many more was the result of "cowardice" on his part, he would say. Instead of confronting Lee, Kirby said, he kept his head down, and kept on producing.
But the Lower East Side fighter didn't stay quiet forever. Kirby spent years wrangling with Marvel over the rights to his artwork. Later, in 2009, just as the MCU was taking root, Kirby's heirs rattled Hollywood with a lawsuit seeking control over nearly every major Marvel character, including Spider-Man (which Kirby said he also created).
A 2014 settlement between the Kirby estate and Marvel Entertainment ended the epic battle, but the co-creator credits with Lee remained. The wounds did, too -- in ways that arguably would influence the MCU.
The fractious four
In the comics of the early 1960s, the Justice League of America usually fight sinister space aliens. But the Fantastic Four usually fight sinister space aliens -- and each other.
"Its heroes wore no uniforms (though they would later). They had no secret identities. They bickered among themselves like any family," Chris Klimek wrote of Fantastic Four No. 1 for NPR.
Reed Richards (aka Mister Fantastic), Sue Storm (Invisible Girl), Johnny Storm (the reimagined Human Torch) and Ben Grimm (Thing) were superheroes as everyday people -- people who got grumpy, resented their jobs and cracked wise. Nearly every hero to emerge from the Marvel bullpen in the 1960s mirrored this all-too-human aesthetic.
Could the famously fractious Fantastic Four have sprung from a Marvel Comics where Jack Kirby and Stan Lee were the best of buddies? Where Jack Kirby felt valued, or where Stan Lee felt fulfilled? Maybe.
Or maybe not.
Maybe their issues were key to the comic book's page-turning issues -- and the MCU's rise.
The V word
While Fantastic Four established Marvel and revolutionized comics, Hollywood remained unmoved. There, costumed characters continued to be seen as nothing more than fodder for kids. Well into the 1970s, the B-movie Superman and the Mole Men and 1966's campy Batman remained the two biggest superhero movies, such as they were, to make it to the big screen.
Then Alexander Salkind and Ilya Salkind, the father-and-son team behind the hit 1973 version of The Three Musketeers, set their sights on Superman. And they had a vision for something very, very different.
"When I said let's make a film, let's make a serious film. I never said let's make a camp film," Ilya Salkind recalled in an interview with Superman Homepage.
The Salkinds lined up Oscar winners Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman to play the Man of Steel's Kryptonian birth father and his nemesis Lex Luthor, respectively; they tapped The Godfather's Mario Puzo to write the screenplay, and James Bond director Guy Hamilton (Goldfinger) to helm. Hamilton dropped out when the production moved to England (where the director was a tax exile). The Salkinds turned to Richard Donner, a TV veteran who enjoyed break-out big-screen success with 1976's The Omen.
Donner would prove to not just be committed to treating Superman with a seriousness, but with verisimilitude -- "that having the appearance of truth," per Merriam-Webster. According Glen Weldon's Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, the word verisimilitude was literally "tacked... up around the film's production offices."
The mission succeeded: 1978's Superman won over critics and audiences of all ages. More than that, it served as a North Star for future generations of comic-book filmmakers, including a five-time USC film-school reject who would make a certain word -- verisimilitude -- a motto of the MCU movies, too.
Richard Donner's Superman was a breakthrough. But the cultural fight over the meaning of comics wasn't over. The next several years were not kind to the Man of Steel. The saga descended into, in the words of critics, "[production values] cheaper than a sale at Kmart" (1987's Superman IV: The Quest for Peace) and "Superkitsch" (1984's Supergirl).
And things weren't better outside of the Superman family: 1986's Howard the Duck was an epic misfire from executive producer George Lucas -- "an unfunny, effects-driven, story-deprived live-action film about a talking duck" (Rolling Stone) that barely made back its reported $37 million budget.
Later, Tim Burton's 1989 Batman revived the idea of the superhero movie as a blockbuster. But while the merits of its first two sequels, Batman Returns and Batman Forever, could be debated, the merits of the fourth film in the series, 1997's Batman & Robin, couldn't. To this day, it's regarded as one of the worst comic-book movies ever made.
The future of quality comic-book movies remained as uncertain as ever.
In the 1990s, the future of Marvel remained as uncertain as ever. The company was struggling -- again. And the company was searching for a lifeline -- again. As reported in a book by Wall Street Journal editor Ben Fritz, Marvel offered to sell Sony the movie rights to Spider-Man plus virtually every other character under its control -- Iron Man, Thor and Black Panther, included -- for $25 million.
Sony didn't bite.
The studio was interested in Spider-Man, and only Spider-Man.
"Nobody gives a shit about any of the other Marvel characters," a Sony studio exec was quoted as saying.
And so a deal was struck: Sony got Spider-Man; Marvel got about $10 million -- and, though it didn't know it at the time, a break.
Time and again, the biggest events in the MCU were the ones that didn't happen: the New Line Cinema Iron Man movie that might've starred Tom Cruise; the Sony Thor movie that might've starred the wrestler Triple H; and, above all, the Sony deal that might've left the MCU for entirely different people to pull off.
So, Marvel had control over its destiny, or at least the part that didn't include Spider-Man. But questions remained: Could Marvel show Hollywood that Sony was wrong? Could the company show that its non-Spider-Man characters were valuable, too? That they possessed the X factor?
The X factor
Released in 2000 by Fox, X-Men was based on the Marvel title that dated back to 1964. As a film property, the project was a calculated gamble: On one hand, X-Men was a hot property, thanks to a popular 1990s animated series, and writer Chris Claremont's top-selling comic, the Uncanny X-Men.
On the other hand, the film wasn't about Superman or Batman, the only comic-book characters that, at that point, had launched blockbuster franchises.
There were other risks, too.
Marvel was only a few years recovered from a bankruptcy. And, as Vanity Fair observed in a 2017 retrospective, the $75 million, Bryan Singer-directed production was betting on a then-unknown Australian in the lead role: a stage actor named Hugh Jackman, who'd been cast as Wolverine.
"We thought, 'That's it, we'll never work again,'" said producer Lauren Shuler Donner, the Hollywood hit-maker who'd met (and later married) Richard Donner during the making of the 1985 fantasy film, Ladyhawke.
But X-Men, it turned out, did possess the X factor. The film debuted to solid reviews — and the second-biggest opening weekend then on record.
The results represented big wins for Marvel, for comic-book properties not named Superman and Batman, for Lauren Shuler Donner — and for Lauren Shuler Donner's protégé, a former USC film-school reject who got into the program on his sixth try. His name was Kevin Feige.
X-Men marked Kevin Feige's first on-screen credit. As associate producer on the film, Lauren Shuler Donner's former dog-walking production assistant helped his boss and Bryan Singer build the film's universe. For two years, the New Jersey-born Feige, who considered himself more of a movies fanatic than a comics buff, immersed himself in the ways of the mutants. He read the comics — and he trusted the comics.
"I would hear people, other executives, struggling over a character point, or struggling over how to make a connection, or struggling over how to give even surface-level depth to an action scene or to a character," Feige said in a 2014 Bloomberg profile. "I'd be sitting there reading the comics going, 'Look at this. Just do this. This is incredible.' "
Feige's devotion to the source material did not go unnoticed.
"As a walking encyclopedia of Marvel, he was really indispensable in those early days," Lauren Shuler Donner recalled for the New York Times.
In 2000, the same year of X-Men's successful release, Avi Arad, the toy exec who'd helped save Marvel in the 1990s, hired Feige. He installed the twentysomething as executive vice president of Marvel's new film wing.
Marvel Studios was assembling its team.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Marvel Studios set up its characters in movie deals all over Hollywood. Sony got Spider-Man, natch, Thor and Ghost Rider. Fox got the Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, Daredevil and Elektra to go along with the X-Men. Universal got the Hulk. New Line had the Blade franchise and Iron Man. The studios made their movies how they saw fit, sometimes listening to Marvel, and sometimes not.
The results were... less than heroic.
Without a doubt, Sam Raimi's first two Spider-Man movies were acclaimed. But Ben Affleck's Daredevil was a modest money-maker that the New York Times called "tacky and disposable"; its 2005 spinoff, Elektra, was a box-office loser that the Hollywood Reporter said "lower[ed] the bar for Marvel Comics page-to-screen transitions."
Then, in 2005, Marvel scored a reported $525 million loan to make 10 films however it wanted — just as in Stan Lee's Fantastic Four origin story of yore.
There was just one thing: Marvel Studios couldn't make whatever it wanted -- its perceived A-list characters (Spider-Man, Hulk, Fantastic Four) remained tied up in outside deals.
Captain America, Nick Fury, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, Hawkeye and Ant-Man: These were Marvel Studios ' biggest characters, the ones they hoped to ride to big success.
Observers were not impressed.
"...[I]f you needed to launch a Hollywood franchise -- are those the superheroes you would really turn to?" the Los Angeles Times sneered in 2006.
In the face of sniping, Marvel's Kevin Feige and Avi Arad kept the faith: They believed Blade would show the way.
As created by writer Marv Wolfman and artist Gene Colan, Blade was a leather-clad slayer of vampires who himself was part-bloodsucker. The character began carving up demonic bad guys in Marvel Comics of the 1970s.
Though a favorite of readers, the antihero wasn't an obvious star when he got his big-screen closeup in 1998.
Reportedly made for a modest $45 million, the film Blade, starring a leather-clad Wesley Snipes in the title role, grossed more than $130 million worldwide. It was a cool, refreshingly fun horror-action flick that won over critic Roger Ebert with its "high visual style."
Perhaps above all, it convinced Marvel Studios that the key to Hollywood success was not how big a character's name was, but how good the character's movie was.
Blade's point was made.
Though it sounded ambitious, Marvel's 10-film plan was not about making great movies -- at least not at first, according Ben Fritz's book.
The original Marvel plan was about making movies in order to sell toys.
At the time, Marvel Entertainment was headed by Ike Perlmutter, a billionaire who'd made a fortune in the toy industry. As the Marvel film slate was being developed, Perlmutter called for a focus group of children to help the company decide which of its properties to commit to film first. Did kids want to play with action figures of Captain America? Doctor Strange? Cloak & Dagger?
The No. 1 pick was a character that had recently come home after New Line's rights to it lapsed: Iron Man.
By 2006, Marvel Studios had bolstered its character stable with the buyback of movie rights to Thor and Hulk, and announced its first directing hires, including Jon Favreau for Iron Man. The same year, the movie studio made its panel debut at the pop-culture proving ground that is San Diego Comic-Con. There, Feige was asked if Marvel might be open to character crossovers.
"You listen to the characters I've named, that we're working on currently, and you put them all together, and there's no coincidence that that may someday equal the Avengers," Feige replied.
The line drew applause, but the typically low-key exec didn't seem as if he wanted to make a splash. He was simply stating comic-book fact — something that would be understood by those immersed in the Marvel universe.
The priorities for Marvel Studios were just as straightforward: Make a good Iron Man movie, make a good Hulk movie — and then, should the first two scheduled releases go well, make the rest of the slate. Nothing more. Nothing less.
But not exactly easy.
At the time of the Comic-Con panel, Marvel had no scripts, no casts — and, above all, it had no Iron Man.
Hire the right actor to play Iron Man, and Marvel Studios could take off. Hire the wrong actor, and everything in the would-be universe could just fall away.
For Iron Man, Jon Favreau wanted a gifted actor who was famous, but not too famous. Someone like Sam Rockwell. Or Robert Downey Jr.
In the mid-2000s, Downey was known to audiences as an Oscar-nominee who'd starred in movies for decades -- and as a troubled man who'd stalled his career with a substance-abuse problem. Since getting cleaned up -- Downey threw his remaining drugs into the sea during a 2003 stop at Burger King -- the actor had starred in just one studio movie, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
He was famous, but not too famous. He was perfect.
"Certainly by studying the Iron Man role and developing that script I realized that the character seemed to line-up with Robert in all the good and bad ways. And the story of Iron Man was really the story of Robert's career," Favreau would later say in an interview recounted by CinemaBlend.
But Paramount Pictures, which was to distribute Iron Man, wasn't sold.
Timothy Olyphant, then of Deadwood, was brought in to screen-test for Iron Man -- reportedly on the same day as Downey. (For unstated reasons, Sam Rockwell never made it off Favreau's early wish list, though he would play a villain in Iron Man 2.) Team Marvel, meanwhile, remained all in on Downey. Feige said he never fought for anything harder than Downey's casting.
But perhaps nothing Favreau or Feige said mattered as much as what the The Shaggy Dog showed.
In 2006, Downey appeared as the villain in the PG-rated Disney remake.
"The fact that Disney had already cast him in The Shaggy Dog suggested that he was more than ready to do another family-oriented film," Feige recalled for the New York Times.
Six months after The Shaggy Dog's release, Downey won the superhero role. He was Iron Man.
Clark Gregg knew something was up.
As Iron Man moved into production, Gregg's then-neighbor Jon Favreau reached out with a job offer of a "little tiny part." The self-described Marvel fan said yes. "And I was like … [i]t's probably going to get cut out, but yeah!'," he recounted to Wired.
When Gregg got the script, he saw the role was as described: It was all of three lines; the character was named Agent. Just Agent.
What Gregg didn't count on was the twist: Marvel wanted him to sign a three-movie deal.
"... I thought [that] was just ludicrous," Gregg told Den of Geek. "Because his name was only Agent!"
But Gregg knew movies with franchise ambitions liked to lock up talent for potential sequels. He signed.
"I think by the time I showed up [on set], he had a name," Gregg told Den of Geek.
The name was Phil Coulson. He was a creation of Iron Man's screenwriting team -- and he was now identified as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., the iconic Marvel Comics spy group led by Nick Fury.
"And just piece by piece, they kept adding stuff for [Coulson] to do," Gregg said.
And piece by piece, the MCU was coming together.
As Phil Coulson's character was beefed up in Iron Man, S.H.I.E.L.D.'s main man came to the fore, too: The comic-committed filmmakers wanted to create a role for Nick Fury.
Fury was another Jack Kirby-Stan Lee-credited creation: Originally depicted as a gruff, white, World War II-era sergeant, the character was recast in the mid-1960s as a one-eyed member of S.H.I.E.L.D. (who was still white). In the early 2000s, the character was rebooted anew as a bald African-American male who projected the authority of Samuel L. Jackson -- and was, in fact, modeled after the Oscar-nominated actor.
"Sam is famously the coolest man alive, and both myself and artist Bryan Hitch just liberally used him without asking any kind of permission," comics writer Mark Millar told Business Insider in 2015.
Years later, Millar would meet Jackson on a movie set, and apologize for appropriating his image. Jackson's response was everything you'd hope for from Jackson.
And we'll get to it in a minute.
Back to Iron Man: When Favreau decided he wanted Nick Fury in the film, he decided he wanted the Jackson-styled Nick Fury -- and he wanted the real deal to play him.
"We thought it would be really fun to reach out to Sam Jackson," Favreau told Vanity Fair.
Jackson was game. He shot a single, Kevin Feige-scripted scene with Robert Downey Jr. The gig required about 90 minutes of his time, Jackson would later estimate. One version of the scene teased the Avengers Initiative; another, unused take referenced the Hulk ("gamma accidents"), the X-Men ("assorted mutants") and Spider-Man ("radioactive bug bites").
Now the MCU was not just being pieced together, it was being plotted out in the open.
But first the Iron Man team had to figure out where to put the scene: in the midst of the action, as a way to prod Downey's character; or, somewhere else -- maybe at the end, or even the very end, after the credits scroll?
The answer, of course, was at the very end.
"We put it at the end of the credits so that it wouldn't distract from the movie," Feige told Vanity Fair. "People going, 'What is Sam Jackson doing in this movie all of a sudden? What's going on?'"
The MCU post-credits scene was born -- and, according to Mark Millar, Jackson was not at all upset that he'd been used as a character model all those years ago.
"'F--k no, man! Thanks for the nine-picture deal!," Millar said Jackson told him.
Never say never
The odds of Marvel Studios pulling off one successful movie, much less a multi-film, interlocked universe -- the Marvel Cinematic Universe -- might have been as long as audiences being convinced to sit through the end credits, or the Avengers defeating Thanos.
Success meant countless things going right. It meant Iron Man blasting off with a $102 million opening weekend at the domestic box office. It meant Iron Man 2 being even bigger than its predecessor.
It meant The Incredible Hulk being a "neat thrill ride" (per The Hollywood Reporter), Thor being "mighty fun" (per Entertainment Weekly), and Captain America: The First Avenger, in the estimation of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, being "the best kind of comic-book movie."
It meant The Avengers being a $1.5 billion-grossing event. It meant Marvel securing a deal to bring Spider-Man into its web.
It could be said that the next time around, where the upcoming movies are concerned, the groundwork's been laid, but it was before, too: by Jack Kirby, by Stan Lee, by conflict, by deals made, by deals not made. Going forward, success will seem just as improbable.
For the new era of the MCU to be successful, countless things will have to go right. As always, moments — big and small, connected and not -- will have to happen (or not happen) just so.