The Growth Of Marvel: From Bankruptcy to Billions

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From your X-Men series all the way to the recent announcements of Shang-Chi, it’s no argument that Marvel has become a household name for all superhero-related films.

With endless movies and tv shows been released around the Marvel Universe, it would be hard to believe that Marvel at one point was bankrupt. 

But in 1996, Marvel did indeed file for bankruptcy with over one-third of Marvel employees being laid off.

But why was Marvel in this state?

There were a few reasons that conglomerated into the collapse of Marvel back in the 90s.

On the industry level, the comic book market crashed in 1993 with sales dropping by 70 %. Marvel themselves had unsuccessful releases including films like Howard The Duck which only grossed $38 million at the box office.

Additionally, technology wasn’t at the level like it is today to truly showcase the abilities of Marvel characters, especially without expending a huge budget.

With all these factors going against them, Marvel was barely staying alive even after filing for bankruptcy.

Keeping Alive Through Licensing

Marvel needed funds and Marvel’s President of the film division at the time, Avi Arad, made a decision.

Marvel would do everything from commissioning its own scripts to negotiating with stars. It would then sell the whole package to a major studio, who would then shoot and distribute the film.

And this worked…for a while. 

Through this method, Marvel kept afloat by licensing film rights for some of its most well-known characters from X-Men, Spiderman, and even its Blade trilogy.


But according to an article on Slate, the company made only $25,000 from the first Blade film and only $62 million from a whopping $3 billion that Spiderman 1 and 2 brought in.

Even with Marvel licensing out its characters, it wasn’t going anywhere.

Marvel decided that in order to get itself out of the trenches, it had to enter a financial deal.

And that’s what they did. 

A loan of $525 million dollars from investment bank Merill Lynch helped Marvel stay afloat but at a huge risk.

They had to sign off collateral to rights to some of their biggest characters including Ant-Man, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, Captain America and of course, the Avengers. We all know now that these characters embody the Marvel universe and are some of the most popular movies released to date.

However, their first blockbuster movie wasn’t any of these characters but instead Iron Man (which wasn’t actually one of the popular characters) in which they bought the rights for from New Line.

The Birth Of Iron-Man


Marvel released Iron Man in 2008, with the film being its first independent production. A character that went through all kinds of ownerships from Universal all the way to New Line was finally getting a chance on the big screen.

But it wasn’t all fine and dandy. 

Many see Iron Man as the first hit movie from Marvel and with Robert Downey Jr. completely owning the role as a lavish over-the-top techie billionaire, people overlook the risk Marvel took to take Iron Man to where it is today.

Firstly, if the movie bombed and if Marvel couldn’t follow up with any stellar films after it, the company would face almost certain death through losing all their rights to the characters that make them famous today. This would mean no more productions from Marvel, no MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), and no more licensing deals.

Secondly, although today we see Iron Man as one of the headliners for Marvel, back when they were producing it, around 30 screenwriters rejected the project initially as they thought the character was too obscure and of course, the uncertainty around Marvel as the production company.

Thirdly, casting Robert Downey Jr seemed like a no brainer but before his success with Iron Man, RDJ wasn’t having the great luck with his films and was deemed almost as a risky choice. No one actually questioned his actual talent but his habit of getting into personal trouble had put him into a sinkhole.

However, no one could match Downey Jr’s personality and his electric wit to don the suit of iron. His qualities seemed perfect for Stark but there were safer bets. But over time, it was finally agreed that Downey Jrs would go through a screen test.

Downey Jr himself knew he had to prove himself for this performance.

“I prepared for the screen test so feverishly that I literally made it impossible for anybody to do a better job,” Downey has said. “I had never worked on something that way before; I was so familiar with six or nine pages of dialogue, I had thought of every possible scenario

The risk to cast Downey Jr was a risk that paid off.


Iron Man along with RDJ set the tone of the MCU and the approach Marvel Studios had on future films. Iron Man, although with some darker elements, was colorful, light and had elements of comedy within it.

It manages to draw real-world inspired issues into the film and avoid having too grim of a tone in the film.

Marketing wise, they didn’t hold back. 

With the money spent on Superbowl ads and primetime TV commercials as well as footprints on all major social platforms at the time including Facebook and MySpace (Yes MySpace was still a thing!), they weren’t about to hold back. They even did a cross-collaboration with other brands such as 7-Eleven and Audi!

In terms of approach, Ironman doesn’t stray away from the classics and its comic creators, staying as faithfully as possible to the originals. As mentioned before, Iron Man was not one of Marvel’s popular characters and yet was a huge blockbuster at its time, raking in $585.2 million in the box office.

When you talk about Marvel’s rise, Iron Man set the tone of all of it,” said Joe Russo, director of Avengers: Infinity War.

Rebirth of Marvel and Purchase from Disney

After the huge success of Iron Man, Marvel was no longer in the ditches. It only took one year after its release for its next turning point, Disney purchasing Marvel for $4.3bn and ultimately paying off all its debts.

Under the Walt Disney Studio brand, Marvel would soon release blockbuster after blockbuster including hits not only from the Avenger’s universe such as Captain America, Black Panther but also from lesser-known comics such as Guardians of the Galaxy.

This growth is still evident today with no signs of slowing down.

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