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Do you remember that scandal that nearly broke Marvel? It was a time when the comic book giant found itself embroiled in controversy, with allegations of discrimination, harassment, and abuse being levied against some of its top executives and creators. The scandal sent shockwaves through the industry and left many fans questioning the company’s values and commitment to inclusivity. But despite the turmoil, Marvel has managed to weather the storm and emerge stronger than ever, thanks in no small part to the efforts of those who stood up and spoke out against injustice. Today, we take a closer look at this dark chapter in Marvel’s history and explore how it has shaped the company’s ongoing efforts to create a more inclusive and equitable comics community.
In 2023, Marvel reigns as an unparalleled cultural force, wielding an impact that reverberates across the vast expanse of the multiverse. However, beneath the facade of its triumphs, lies a long and turbulent saga filled with determination and perseverance. From its humble origins in 1939 to its darkest chapter in the ’90s, this is the story of how the most infamous superhero brand in history emerged from the depths of financial turmoil and forged a path of redemption that ultimately transformed it into the legendary entertainment powerhouse it is today. But before we plunge into Marvel’s lowest low, it’s crucial that we take a trip back in time to where it all began in order to fully grasp the magnitude of this heroic feat. Grab your Pym Particles and hold on tight.
A Brief History Of Comic Books and Marvel’s Inception
This colossal voyage started in 1939 when pulp-magazine publisher Martin Goodman launched the company Timely Comics, which would later be known as Marvel Comics. Timely’s first publication, Marvel Comics #1, introduced two groundbreaking superheroes: Carl Burgos‘ android superhero the Human Torch, and Namor the Sub-Mariner, created by Bill Everett.
While comics had been around since the late 19th century, it was during the Great Depression that newspaper cartoons gained significant recognition and evolved into a thriving industry. This period, known as the Golden Age of Comic Books, witnessed the inception of modern comics and the rise of the now-infamous superhero archetype. The precise years of the Golden Age have been disputed, but many sources consider the 1938 debut of Superman in Action Comics #1 as the pivotal event that is widely recognized as the starting point of the Golden Age. The first recorded use of the term ‘Golden Age’ was by Richard A. Lupoff in an article, ‘Re-Birth,’ published in Issue 1 of the fanzine Comic Art in April 1960.
The formative years of the Golden Age aligned with the backdrop of the Second World War, leading to a surge of patriotic themes and the emergence of fearless heroes draped in the colors of the American flag. Captain America, with his classic red, white, and blue uniform, became a symbol of bravery and tenacity during this time and captured the imagination of readers across the nation. The cover of his first comic, Captain America Comics #1, even featured the supersoldier knocking out Adolf Hitler, embodying the tone of the era. In addition to Steve Rogers, Marvel introduced a lineup of household names during this stint, including Black Widow and Namor.
When the war came to a close, patriotic heroes gradually faded from the spotlight. Nevertheless, the themes of fighting social injustice and upholding strong moral codes, instilled in those early comics by the political climate, remained integral to the fabric of superhero storytelling.
Marvel’s First Comeback Was Pretty Fantastic
Eager to remain relevant after the war, comic book publishers started to venture into a diverse array of genres beyond the realm of superheroes. Science fiction, crime, romance, and horror stories quickly found their way onto the colorful pages and into the hands of new readers. However, the exploration of these new themes, particularly crime, and horror, ignited concerns about their potential influence on juvenile delinquency.
In response, the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA) took decisive action in 1954, establishing the Comics Code Authority (CCA) as a self-regulatory measure. Under the CCA, publishers would submit their work for review and once granted the CCA seal of approval, parents would feel reassured that the content was deemed safe for young fans. Rather than bridging the gap, this shift had unintended consequences, causing a steady decline in comic book sales and dampening the industry for several years. In need of a true hero, Marvel found its savior in the form of Stan Lee. In 1961, after dedicating 22 years to the company, Lee teamed up with Jack Kirby and ushered in a transformative moment with the creation of the Fantastic Four.
Unlike traditional superheroes, the characters in The Fantastic Four were flawed and relatable, resonating deeply with readers and breathing new life into the medium. Emboldened by this hit, Lee continued to introduce imperfect, charismatic characters in the years that followed. Among them were Spider-Man and Iron Man, who swiftly recaptured the attention of readers and began to shape the Marvel Universe we know today. Stan Lee was instrumental in the eventual downfall of the CCA, but its influence remains embedded in the industry, contributing to the prevailing family-friendly nature of comics.
Like any other company, Marvel continued to experience its fair share of expected challenges and successes. Until one event in the 1990s caused a seismic shift in the industry that shook the very foundation of the Marvel brand. This radical moment set the company’s future on an unprecedented course, forever altering its trajectory.
The Boom That Shook The Comic Book Industry In The 1990s
The early ’90s marked a stretch of unrivaled success for Marvel, driven by the soaring popularity of titles like Spider-Man and X-Men. This era was also characterized by a major speculation bubble that swept through the industry, enticing collectors to buy copious copies of the same comics, hoping for their future increased value. Taking advantage of this unforeseen domination, Ronald Perelman, who bought Marvel for $82.5 million in 1989, decided to go public in July 1991 and embarked on an extravagant acquisition spree. Perelman spent a staggering $700 million to acquire trading companies like Fleer Corporation/SkyBox, and secured a 46% share in ToyBiz.
Because every bubble must burst, the comic book market rapidly became saturated with countless titles and variants, resulting in a decrease in quality as publishers focused on quantity. To compound the challenges, Marvel attempted to produce more memorabilia, but the market for such merchandise was rapidly shrinking. The official crash of the comic book market in 1993 dealt a lethal blow to Marvel, with sales plummeting by 70%, leaving the company burdened with substantial debt.
In 1995, Perelman realized the future lay in film rather than cards or comics, and proposed merging Marvel with Toy Biz to launch Marvel Studios. But a group of shareholders, led by Carl Icahn, opposed the plan due to concerns about the financial impact on their shares. By 1996, Marvel’s shares, once valued at $35.75 in 1993, had plummeted to $2.38, and the company found itself buried under a staggering $610 million debt. Despite numerous strategies to salvage the company, Perelman filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy without shareholder consent in December 1996. His ultimate goal was to retain control of the company and move forward with his own plans, which sparked fierce legal combat reminiscent of Captain America: Civil War. In the end, both Perelman and Icahn lost the battle, and in 1997, ToyBiz executives, Isaac Perlmutter and Avi Arad arose as the new owners of Marvel following a two-year court case.
Under new leadership, Marvel’s focus ultimately did shift towards film, but the company was cash-strapped after emerging from bankruptcy. Desperate, Marvel resorted to auctioning the cinematic rights of its characters to major Hollywood studios. Unfortunately, Hollywood executives failed to recognize the true value of these characters, leading to unfavorable deals. It was during these bleak times that iconic names like Spider-Man went to Sony, X-Men went to Fox, and so on.
Even though Marvel started producing lucrative films in the late ’90s and early 2000s, the profits they saw from these pre-MCU movies were minimal. When the entry title of Wesley Snipes’ Blade franchise made $70 million, Marvel netted a mere $25,000. When the first two movies from Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man trilogy garnered a whopping $3 billion, Marvel brought in a modest sum of $62 million. Marvel knew they were sitting on a goldmine, but struggled to reap the full benefits.
How Marvel Surged From Bankruptcy to Disney
Marvel found itself spinning in the mud and longing for a disruptive idea to steer it back to prosperity. That’s when David Maisel entered the scene, armed with an audacious vision that would turn Marvel into the self-financed, self-producing studio it is now. In 2003, as Marvel contemplated selling the rights to Captain America and Thor to other studios, Maisel intervened. He sat down with owners Avi Arad and Isaac Perlmutter and proposed a bold plan: to produce the movies themselves, retaining 100% of the profits and embracing the interconnected nature of the comic book universe. This would open the door to endless sequels, crossovers, and team-ups, mirroring the way characters interacted in the comics.
Arad and Perlmutter were immediately convinced, but the financial aspect posed a challenge. It took Marvel two more years to secure a deal with Merrill Lynch, who agreed to provide $525 million over a span of seven years. This financial injection allowed Marvel to pursue its cinematic ambitions on its own terms, but it came with one condition: the movie rights to ten key characters. Keen on assembling its roster of beloved characters, Marvel agreed.
Once they reassembled pre-sold characters, like Black Widow, The Hulk, and Iron Man, all Marvel needed was a leader for their ambitious mission. That’s when they turned to devoted comic book enthusiast, Kevin Feige, and appointed him President of Production for Marvel Studios in March 2007. Feige’s expertise and passion were essential in the development of the Marvel Cinematic Universe from its early stages, kicking off with Iron Man on the big screen on May 2nd, 2008. The film was an instant blockbuster hit, raking in nearly $100 million in its opening weekend alone and an astonishing $585 million in total box office earnings.
Iron Man‘s exceptional victory led to Disney’s acquisition of Marvel for $4 billion in 2009 and laid the footing for the cinematic universe that would captivate audiences worldwide for the foreseeable future.
Marvel’s Greatest Redemption Arc Is Its Own
Since 2008, Marvel has unleashed an awe-inspiring lineup of 32 films and counting, accompanied by a growing list of enchanting shows and special presentations. With a staggering worth of over $50 billion and multiple films securing their place among the top 10 highest-grossing films of all time, Marvel Studios continues to redefine what it means to be successful.
Marvel’s remarkable journey from the brink of collapse to a global entertainment powerhouse spans nearly a century, reflecting the resilient narratives found within their own pages. It serves as a celebration of our collective capacity to rise, fight, and ultimately prevail in the face of adversity. Marvel reminds us that we, too, can conquer the darkest chapters of our own stories by simply refusing to stay down. As a certain Norse god of thunder once wisely remarked, “That’s what heroes do.”
In conclusion, the scandal that almost broke Marvel serves as a stark reminder of the importance of ethical conduct in the entertainment industry. The aftermath of the scandal resulted in a number of changes to Marvel’s management structure and the imposition of stricter guidelines for filmmakers as they work on Marvel productions. While the scandal may have been a low point in the company’s history, it ultimately served as a catalyst for improvements that will help ensure a more responsible, ethical and transparent future for the entertainment industry. Marvel’s commitment to creating inclusive, diverse and socially responsible content is now more important than ever, and it is encouraging to see the steps the company is taking to fulfil that commitment. Ultimately, by remembering the scandal and learning from it, Marvel and the wider entertainment industry can continue to evolve and thrive.
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