It feels surreal that Marvel is releasing the fourth Avengers movie next year. It’s been six years since they first assembled on the big screen and I can still hardly believe it. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become the most audacious series of movie crossovers of all time. The sprawling cast and a decade worth of world-building post-credit scenes are impressive. However, the characters they managed to do this with, continues to surprise me.
You don’t get much more obscure than the Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man or even Black Panther. The centerpiece, The Avengers, was just as obscure though. Fifteen years ago, most non-comic reading fans wouldn’t bring them up in the same breath as the Justice League. The Avengers weren’t even the most popular team at Marvel. Spider-Man, the X-Men and Fantastic Four were Marvel’s flagship characters from inception.
Now, some fans would argue those two teams took a back seat because Marvel didn’t own those movies’ rights. That’s a fair point. Marvel arguably had no choice but to raise the profile of the characters they had the rights to use. However, Marvel only had the right to the Avengers again because no other studio could make the project work.
At least three other studios tried and failed to develop an Iron Man movie before Marvel reacquired the rights. Even so, the Avengers movie we eventually got in 2012 isn’t that reminiscent to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s original book. There are definitely callbacks but it’s more similar to Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s The Ultimates—2002’s re-imagination of the Avenger for Marvel’s Ultimate Universe. The Ultimate’s stayed among the top three selling monthly books and the trade paperbacks still sell well to this day.
The main Avengers book went through its struggles in the 90’s until fan favorites Kurt Busiek and George Perez took over. But Brian Michael Bendis’s reboot after Avengers Disassembled changed everything. New Avengers didn’t just add household names, like Spider-Man and Wolverine, to the roster; it made the Avengers a consistent top seller.
It’s hard to look at Marvel comics, movies, or the tv shows and ignore the huge impact Bendis’ run had over the last 20 years. The Netflix TV shows alone probably wouldn’t have happened if New Avengers didn’t introduce newer fans to Luke Cage and his creation, Jessica Jones. That is no exaggeration. New Avengers changed the landscape of Marvel comics for the foreseeable future.
I’ve seen some conspiracy theorist suggest Marvel intentionally buried the X-Men and Fantastic Four to help keep the Avengers books at the top. That would’ve helped the studio, but I can’t imagine Marvel would be that self-destructive. It’s entirely possible those books just went through a creative rut at the time too. There was definitely no shortage of big-name creators to write either book because they were still held in high regard.
After all, there is a reason why it took Fox so long to cave and sell the rights to X-Men or Fantastic Four back to Marvel. It’s the same reason Sony is still holding out. Still, it had to be weird for many to acknowledge The Avengers as a billion-dollar franchise—a feat Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and the X-Men never managed to make. It’s really no surprise Millar and Bendis’ comics were such a big influence on the movies.