Marvel Cinematic Universe Class Photo
Credit: Marvel Studios
For theater exhibitors around the world, it’d be hard to argue against the about-to-celebrate-its-12th-anniversary Marvel Cinematic Universe being the ‘MVP’ of movie franchises in 2020.
With 23 films over those 12 years that sport an average worldwide box office of over $980 million, and plans for four more each year beginning in 2021 (dependent on the world going back to somewhat normal, of course), the MCU is almost certainly the most reliable Hollywood (or otherwise) content machine in the eyes of those looking to pack moviegoers into their cineplexes and buy their $10 popcorn.
And while like all things it has its critics, the MCU is also reliably critic- and fan-pleasing. At least by the aggregate, it hasn’t turned out a box office bomb or critical stinker yet. It is the big-screen bees’ knees.
So here at Newsarama we took a few moments to closely consider the secret of their success, trying to identify the one element – the actor or character or producer or director or property – that is most responsible for powering Hollywood’s longest and highest-grossing winning streak.
But we also thought the question might produce different answers for different people, so four Newsarama writers and editors with strong opinions on the subject wrote their own personal responses, without revealing their own conclusion to the others beforehand.
So here are four longtime MCU observers’ takes on who or what is the #MCUMVP…
‘It’s All Connected’ – George Marston, Writer
If there’s a true MVP of the Marvel Cinematic Universe et al, it’s likely a core ingredient that’s been baked into the franchise since 2008’s Iron Man. Maybe this is obvious, maybe not – but what really sold the MCU from the get go is the “it’s all connected” ethos.
The moment Nick Fury stepped out of the shadows in the final moments of Iron Man, the MCU was born – and that “first step into a larger world” is the hook that’s been pulling fans back to cinemas in record numbers since the word go.
It’s easy to look at Iron Man as the MCU’s thesis in a nutshell – Robert Downey, Jr. redefined the big screen superhero and set the sincerely snarky tone that has defined the relationships of the whole universe, and laid the story seeds that eventually extrapolated straight to Thanos’ snap.
But the real magic that keeps butts in seats, as they say, is wanting to know what’s next; who’s next; which characters, concepts, and stories will make their way to the movies next, and how the answers to these questions will change the narrative that, at this point, most of the planet is locked into.
Just look at the fervor around Eternals – a property that even dedicated Marvel Comics fans might have had to go out of their way to read just a few months ago. It’s hard to imagine that without the chain of events that led fans to immediately understand not just the interconnected narrative of the MCU, but the promise that the heroes would actually meet, interact, and develop together as in comic books anyone would be hotly anticipating a trailer for a short-lived 70s C-List superhero team (Jack Kirby’s brilliance notwithstanding).
Without that first moment – two Marvel characters from ostensibly different properties meeting onscreen for the first time – the fervor to feel connected to the story and to follow the Marvel Universe as a whole may not have coalesced so immediately. In that instant we all knew the Avengers would assemble, and ever since, we’ve all been waiting with baited breath to see what else is coming next.
The Leader – David Pepose, Best Shot Team Lead
The key element to the MCU’s success has to be Chief Creative Officer Kevin Feige. While Robert Downey, Jr.’s star turn in Iron Man certainly cemented the tone of mega franchise, it’s Feige that has steered the ship even during those humble beginnings, organically building franchise after franchise, while pioneering the interconnected movie universe with Avengers that has been emulated by so many other studios since.
Bridging the gap between diehard comic book fans and Hollywood insiders, Feige’s track record in selecting the actors and directors that have built the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been successful to an unprecedented degree – in part, because Feige has maintained a consistent vision and set of sensibilities across the entire MCU.
Certain genre twists aside from film to film, audiences have an idea of what to expect from a Marvel movie – action, humor, and at least some degree of breezy charm and likeability – and that’s because Feige has been steadily building upon a singular direction for over a decade. And because he’s built a brand of consistency, Feige has been able to use these established hits to build even bigger fanbases based on diverse franchises like Black Panther and Captain Marvel.
Given how hard it is to settle on a singular vision in Hollywood – let alone to work in a genre where you often have to create VFX set pieces before you even have a finished script – it’s sometimes a wonder that anything comes out, let alone anything as successful as the MCU. In the face of that kind of sustained chaos, it takes a leader like Kevin Feige to succeed and thrive.
The Lead Actor – Chris Arrant, Editor
If you follow American football, you know that a great quarterback can change the course of a game and a team’s entire season. Robert Downey, Jr. may not be the biggest overall box office draw on the Marvel roster, but he is without a doubt the MVP of Marvel Studios’ movie empire so far.
Forget the actual financial risk Marvel and Jon Favreau took on to hire RDJ for Iron Man in 2008 after being uninsurable for films just a few years earlier, and just think about what he did in that first film to redefine what was at the time a B-list Marvel hero (take it up with me in the comments, dear reader) into being a genuine blockbuster movie character and the face of what would be an individual franchise – and a pantheon of movies.
And he did it in a way that also redefined how comics would portray the character while simultaneously setting up a template for the brash superheroes that the MCU brand came to be known for. The clothes, the swagger, the hair, the dialogue, and even that bad boy image RDJ himself carried with tabloid headlines in the 1990s and early 2000s, all set the mold for MCU films thereafter.
Even though he’s not in all the movies, his presence is felt – and in some cases deified as with Spider-Man: Far From Home – and that presence will be carried forward to future Marvel movies, even if he and Kevin Feige can’t agree on terms for him to continue in the flesh.
Itself – Michael Doran, Editor-in-Chief
The answer to who or what is the MVP of the MCU has evolved over the course of the last twelve years.
For the first three or four years (and arguably for all 12) it was almost certainly Robert Downey, Jr., who captivated audiences in the literal opening seconds of 2008’s Iron Man, helping turn what is easy to forget now was a huge risk at the time into Hollywood’s biggest success story.
Joss Whedon taking the MCU to a whole new, then-unanticipated box office level in 2012’s Avengers would have been an argument in his favor once, but his ultimately short-lived influence didn’t stand the test of time.
Similarly, Joe and Anthony Russo certainly qualify for some Top 5 votes, maybe mostly for the nearly-pitch perfect Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the highly-respected ‘Empire Strikes Back’-like series entry that competes near the top of almost everyone’s MCU Best lists, helped establish the MCU stye and brand from then on, signaling to the world it wasn’t a flash in the pan.
Scarlet Johansson also deserves some consideration for serving as the glue of the whole thing along with RDJ, a role she was fully recognized for in Endgame.
And finally since we’ve been focused on people as our MVP, that of course brings us to studio head and executive producer Kevin Feige, the ‘guy behind the guy’ whose singular overarching vision certainly makes for a compelling case.
But he’s not the answer either.
The MVP of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is now the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
We talk about chemical reactions a lot at Newsarama. The process by which a comic book or TV or movie becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
A scientific view of the origin of Earth is that the conditions for life are a near mathematically-impossible, long, happy accident. A chain of inter-dependent cascading events that could have imploded a billion different ways over billions of years that helps explain why life in the universe is seemingly impossibly rare. Similarly, the MCU’s vast shared movie world has thrived and survived whereas almost all others haven’t … and may never. Warner Bros. is still searching for the right DC mix and most others have either stopped trying (Hasbro?) or have achieved limited (Godzilla) success to no success at all (Universal monsters).
But the MCU has matured into a unique, singular juggernaut of an entity that continues to grow and evolve because all the factors above came together in its formative years in a combustible mix. And that singular entity may never be replicated.
Moviegoers around the world now flock to see movies starring characters like Captain Marvel, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, and Ant-Man to levels no one including Kevin Fiege himself would have bet even lunch money on in 2007, mostly because they exist in the MCU.
More than any individual character or concept, fans are now invested in the accumulative and unprecedented gravitas of the shared, serial Marvel world and eagerly await each new chapter.
And for that reason, the MVP of the MCU is now the MCU itself.