Comebacks is a series about businesses that have made dramatic turnarounds during the pandemic, in partnership with Slate’s Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism podcast. The following article is a written adaptation of an episode of Thrilling Tales.
In 1996, Marvel filed for bankruptcy. Its business was in shambles. Lots of people failed to imagine how Marvel could ever hope to make any real money off its collection of silly characters in capes. That wasn’t the first time in the company’s history that it stumbled hard—but each time it’s reemerged, stronger than before, like that supervillain you think you’ve defeated who suddenly reappears in the final battle. How is Marvel so resilient? Seems like its real superpower is making comebacks.
After a company called Detective Comics, or DC, debuted a Superman comic to great success in 1938, a lot of other people decided to hop on the comic books bandwagon. Among them was a New York publisher named Martin Goodman. He called his venture Timely Comics; it would eventually be renamed Marvel. Its first superheroes were the Human Torch, who could control fire, and the Sub-Mariner, who could do stuff underwater. Neither was a Superman-level hit. The company’s Captain America character, which debuted in 1941, did find some wartime success, but it sort of petered out by the end of the decade.
For the first chapter of its existence, Marvel was mostly just a knockoff of DC, the class of the category. “The Marvel comics were not as well drawn,” says Sean Howe, author of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. “They were not written as coherently. They were just sort of an off brand.”
Marvel bounced along until the 1950s, when comic books in general were suddenly scrutinized as a potential bad influence on children—too salacious, a waste of time, a warper of minds and a creator of juvenile delinquents. As Howe put it, “They had the same reputation maybe as heavy metal records in the ’80s. And as a result, the industry really collapsed.”
Marvel drifted into non-superhero genres—horror, Westerns—and it barely scraped by. Its first big comeback happened in the early 1960s, when the anti–comic book fervor died down and superheroes resurged. There’s a lot of debate about who was most responsible for Marvel’s 1960s renaissance. Increasingly people credit Marvel comic book artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko for shaping the characters in the stories. But it was clear who the face of Marvel was: Stan Lee.
Lee was a cousin by marriage to Marvel founder Martin Goodman and had been around Marvel as a sort of gopher since 1939, cleaning out ashtrays and getting the artists fresh ink. In the 1960s, he began to become more involved in the creative process. He also seized the spotlight. “Stan Lee was a really good salesperson,” says Howe. “He was a good showman. He was sort of an ambassador of the art form, and he was very happy to be invited on talk shows or to be interviewed for magazines and talk about how comic books have this endless potential, and if Shakespeare and Michelangelo had been around today, this is how they would have collaborated.”
Under Stan Lee and his less heralded collaborators, Marvel clawed its way back by drawing on two principles that would become the foundations of its long-term success. The first was that superheroes could have flaws. Howe explains: “The Marvel characters had feet of clay, you could say. They were really insecure and neurotic. Spider-Man famously would catch cold and worry about not having any girls interested in him, and so there was a certain relatability to adolescents in seeing that superheroes are just like us. They have to worry about being picked on or where to sit in the cafeteria. I think that made everything feel fresh.”
Marvel became known for creating superheroes with layers of depth and pathos. They had weaknesses like regular people. They talked like regular people. A 1965 essay in the Village Voice said Marvel made the first comic books that evoked the real world and appealed even to post-adolescents. “College kids were reading Marvel comics and both loving the mild psychedelia of the drawings and also appreciating the slight hipsterism of the banter,” Howe says. In 1966, Esquire magazine “talked about the Hulk as one of the greatest cultural icons for college students. It was like somebody had binged on Sartre and then thought, How can I turn this into guys with capes running around and fighting each other?”
The second cornerstone of Marvel’s 1960s comeback was the way it wove its many characters together into one storyline. Heroes would cross over into one another’s comic books. You’d have to read an Iron Man comic to feel like you fully understood what was going on in a Captain America comic. Howe says, “That was the beginning of the Marvel Universe, and this was pretty much the beginning of comic books having these shared universes that have now become bigger than comics, really. It’s something in all kinds of world-building in different media.”
Marvel’s heyday began to fade over time. In the 1970s and ’80s, Stan Lee tried to expand the Marvel Universe into television and films, but he mostly failed. There was a terrible Spider-Man TV thing. There was also a terrible Captain America TV thing. And then came the first major attempt at a Marvel movie. It was executive produced by George Lucas in 1986, fresh off the success of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films. Sounds promising, but this cinematic disaster featuring an oddball Marvel character called Howard the Duck was a total flop.
But Marvel rebounded again, just as it had in the 1960s. While it found little success on screens, its comic book business was thriving thanks to a new kind of comic book buyer: the collector. In the 1980s, comic books, like baseball cards, suddenly became investments. The right comic carefully kept in mint condition inside a plastic sleeve might be worth a fortune. Speculators bought up special issues like they were initial public offerings. Marvel put out more and more series, again drawing on its strengths: creating powerful characters and crossing them into one another’s plotlines.
Marvel was a hot property that got bought and sold a couple of times in the 1980s. It went public in 1991 as the collector boom was at its peak—and then, as with tulips and Beanie Babies, the comics bubble burst. Sean Howe says that with the speculator market gone, many comic book shops closed their doors, and many readers left the hobby as the excitement fell away. “When in the mid-’90s the market crashed, comics became more miserable than they had been in the ’70s, as miserable as they had been in the ’50s, after the churches were burning comic books and the Senate was investigating comic books. It really seemed like this time the writing was on the wall for good. It seemed like this is truly the end of comic books as an industry.”
But another Marvel comeback was just around the corner. Marvel went bankrupt in 1996. The struggle over corporate control at this point gets confusing, with various entities squabbling over various chunks of the business. In the end, one of the men who emerged on top was a guy named Isaac Perlmutter. He’d been the owner of a toy company that made Marvel action figures.
Isaac Perlmutter is a mysterious man, almost like a comic book villain. He never gives interviews despite helping to lead one of the biggest entertainment companies on earth. Only a handful of photographs of him even exist. One of them was taken through a window at Mar-a-Lago, where he’s been known to hang out with his pal Donald Trump. During Trump’s administration, Perlmutter even became the controversial quasi–shadow director of the Department of Veterans Affairs. You could make a whole podcast just about Isaac Perlmutter. What’s important here is that Perlmutter seized control of Marvel at a time when the company was desperate.
“In the ’90s, Marvel Entertainment was in such dire straits that they kind of needed money from anywhere,” according to Adam B. Vary, a reporter at Variety. He covers genre entertainment and fandom, or, in layman’s terms, comic book movies and movies that feel like comic book movies—which is basically every hit movie these days. But it didn’t used to be that way. Vary says that Marvel was reeling after its bankruptcy because lots of people couldn’t see a future for it. Its comic books business had fallen apart, and Marvel had never made a successful film.
But a certain slice of people, including Isaac Perlmutter, understood that the company had tremendous potential. Its characters were beloved; they were, in crass terms, valuable intellectual property. A lot of older film executives had watched Marvel vehicles fail and given up on the idea. But the comic book boom of the 1980s and early 1990s inadvertently created a new Hollywood faction: “It wasn’t until you had a generation of executives who really grew up on comic books coming into the ranks of the boardrooms in the different studios that you were also able to see a sense of respect for the material and not thinking of it as sort of cheap and easy and a way to make a quick buck with a Happy Meal deal, but not necessarily take it seriously, in a way that makes it a sustainable film that people really engage with.”
The first stirrings of Marvel’s movie comeback came with the 1998 release of Blade, a modestly successful film about a Marvel character who fights vampires. Then came 2000’s X-Men, a movie about groups of mutants at war with one another, again based on Marvel comic books. The 2002 Spider-Man movie with Tobey Maguire was a blockbuster hit. But all those movies were made by other companies that licensed the Marvel characters involved. Marvel realized the real money would only come if it made its own movies using its own intellectual property—but getting the capital to do that would require a gigantic gamble. “They got a $525 million loan from Merrill Lynch, and as collateral they put up their entire catalog,” Vary says. “So they risked their entire catalog of characters, the movie rights to all of those characters, on the bet that they would be able to make these movies work. And one of the first characters that they announced they were going to make was Iron Man.”
That 2008 film was a true in-house Marvel Studios production, and it was a hit. It was the baby of Marvel executive Kevin Feige, who is acknowledged as the creative mastermind of the modern Marvel era and who’s taken the reins over the Marvel movie business as Isaac Perlmutter has receded to some extent into the corporate background. Feige made a few unorthodox choices with Iron Man. He hired an unexpected actor in Robert Downey Jr., whose career had been mired in scandal, and an unexpected director, Jon Favreau, whose previous calling card had been witty comedies. Even the character, Iron Man, was less well known than other Marvel heroes. It was all a bit risky, and it paid off big, largely because Marvel once again went back to what it does best, to the core ingredient that’s enticed new fans again and again since the early 1960s. “The whole ethic of Marvel comics was these are real people who just happen to have superpowers, and they sweat and they cry and they bleed just like anybody else,” Vary says. “The Marvel Studios movies have really leaned into that by creating characters who, if you cut away the superhero antics of the movies, the underlying stories are very emotionally human-scaled driven.”
Marvel also went back to its other foundational principle: that characters could be intertwined and cross over into one another’s storylines, and that by doing this you create a universe rich and complex enough that fans are drawn in and never want to leave. From the beginning, the new Marvel films were meant to form a massive but cohesive world. In retrospect, this seems like a no-brainer for Marvel, but doing it with movies, with their big budgets and long advance planning, is a tightrope walk. “If you’re trying to build a cinematic universe and one or two of your movies flop, one or two of the major threads that you’re trying to weave in here doesn’t work, then the whole enterprise begins to topple over,” Vary says. “But that didn’t happen. Every single one of their movies has been a hit. Every single one.”
Marvel got bought by Disney for $4 billion in 2009, after Iron Man came out. At the time, that seemed like a lot of money. In retrospect, it was chump change, given the return on investment of Marvel’s stable of characters: Captain America, Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, the Avengers—all smashes. Vary says, “Marvel is the most successful individual franchise in cinema history. To date, their movies have grossed $22 billion worldwide. No other entity has come close to that—not Harry Potter, not James Bond, not Star Wars. Nothing has come close.”
Disney has even returned some old Marvel characters to the fold. The rights to valuable properties like X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man had all wandered off to other companies. But now Marvel is in control of them again, providing plenty of new fodder for big movie releases for years to come.
There are still potential pitfalls for Marvel. If movie theaters never fully come back post-pandemic, it’s not clear whether the economics of streaming on Disney+ will cover the gargantuan budgets required to make superhero films. Or the unthinkable could happen: Superheroes could go out of style. With Disney+ needing hours and hours of new content to fill the streaming maw, it does seem possible there could eventually be Marvel fatigue. But should Marvel hit any rough spots, it’s hard to bet against them making a comeback using the same playbook they always have before. Vary says, “So long as Marvel Studios is able to maintain that connection with their audience, I think that they’re going to be OK, all other sort of factors aside. Because that, at the end of the day, is why people go back to properties again and again: They want to keep following these characters.”