Movies of the decade: how the MCU became cinema’s biggest franchise

The 2010s has been a defining decade for comic-book movies, with Marvel Studios bringing us a cinematic universe like no other…

Looking back at the best movies of the decade, there’s one name that can’t help but come up: Marvel Studios. The Disney-owned studio took up a clear 25 per cent of the top 20 as voted for by Den of Geek readers, and blocked out three places in the top five (with Avengers: Endgame, Guardians Of The Galaxy and Avengers: Infinity War). How did Marvel end up like this?

Up to 2009, the Marvel name had already been attached to some big-performers – Sony’s Spider-Man, Fox’s X-Men, the studio’s own Iron Man – but it was also complicit in just as many bombs: Spider-Man 3, Elektra, Ghost Rider, Daredevil, a pair of lukewarm Fantastic Fours. Even Marvel’s own Incredible Hulk. In 2010, there was little indication that in the decade that followed, Marvel would go on to absolutely dominate the pop-culture conversation.

For Marvel Studios itself, the success absolutely belongs to studio head Kevin Feige, who took the interconnectedness of Marvel’s comics and turned it into a cinematic recipe for success. Even if you don’t like the content of Marvel’s movies (and their particular tone does have its critics), it’s hard to deny the consistency of their output. At this point, the Marvel brand is essentially printing money. It’s a model that others have attempted to follow, and failed to do so, and Feige is almost inarguably the one thing Marvel Studios has that others don’t.

The result of his vision has been a decade-long, 20+ movie storyline unlike anything ever seen before. The first hint that things were going to be different came in 2012, when Avengers Assemble (number 16 in our reader-voted top 20 movies of the decade) teamed up solo stars Iron Man, Thor and Captain America and promptly shattered records to become the then third highest-grossing film of all time. Its immediate sequel, Iron Man 3, also cleared a billion at the box office. To date, nine of Marvel’s 22 movies have done so.

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Marvel doesn’t have the monopoly on good superhero movies, of course. Warner Bros’ output has its fans, and the likes of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Logan and Deadpool appearing in the Movies Of The Decade list shows that there’s definitely room for different interpretations. What’s singular about Marvel, though, is how quickly they found and nailed the formula. Here are a list of superhero films that came out AFTER Iron Man: Green Lantern, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Even against the MCU’s modest beginnings, they feel like relics from a distant era. Against its present, they look like fossils.

One of the most impressive things about Marvel’s rise is that it accomplished this largely without it’s A-list characters, all of whom had – at the time – been parcelled off to other studios. The reason Marvel was able to make Avengers in the first place is because characters like Captain America, Iron Man and Thor were considered too hard a sell. Spider-Man, the X-Men, Daredevil and Ghost Rider were the hot properties of the 90s and early ’00s, and that’s reflected in the way they got bought up. Perhaps that’s part of what made it work: there was no risk in dramatically re-interpreting Iron Man, because at the time he wasn’t the lunchbox-seller Spider-Man was.

Creatively speaking, Marvel has even been much riskier than they’re often given credit for. There have been high-profile director walkouts, it’s true, and a few upset actors, but their process has taken journeyman directors like the Russo brothers and put them at the helm of the highest-grossing movie of all time. It helped turn a washed-up Robert Downey Jr into one of the biggest stars on the planet. Some of their movies are blander than others, but it’s hard not to look at films like Black Panther or Thor: Ragnarok and see the signature of their directors.

The question, of course, is whether Marvel can continue this success throughout the following decade. Ten years on, its biggest stars have retired, its series-long meta-arc has concluded in the biggest movie of all time, and the company stands virtually at the foot of a mountain wondering if it can climb another. The unprecedented success is now firmly precedented. Marvel promises a greater variety of tone, some new stars and even the arrival of familiar characters into the MCU now that the likes of Blade, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four are now up for grabs. But in 10 years’ time, will we be sitting here, astounded that they did it again? As a fan, all I know is that I can’t wait to see them try.