Best of the Decade: How Marvel's heroes changed Hollywood

November 18, 2019 at 09:30 AM EST

To celebrate the end of the 2010s, Entertainment Weekly’s Must List is looking back at the best pop culture that changed other pop culture — through movies, TV, music, gaming, and more (catch up on our list so far). Here, we kick things off with the biggest story in film: the creation and culmination of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, all leading up to the inevitable, inimitable climax known simply as… The Snap.

The biggest film franchise of all time started with a box of scraps. Just as Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark cobbled together a supersuit in 2008’s Iron ManMarvel Studios built an empire from a B-list band of characters. When the comics publisher launched its film studio over a decade ago, its starriest heroes — Spider-Man, X-Men, the Fantastic Four — were licensed to other companies. Now the 23-film Marvel Cinematic Universe has grown from underdog to box office behemoth, turning characters like Groot and Thor into household names and shaping Hollywood’s future (while raking in more than $22 billion worldwide). “After the first Avengers movie worked, I realized there was a chance at something that’s never done before,” Captain America, alias Chris Evans, tells EW. “And quite possibly might never be done again.”

In 2008, Marvel Studios’ first goal was simply to get Iron Man off the ground and into theaters — but studio president Kevin Feige had a more ambitious vision: a web of films set in the same universe, with characters moving between movies, and stories intersecting into one massive narrative. “The dream was always that the sky’s the limit,” explains Feige. “We thought, wouldn’t it be amazing to re-create these splash pages from the comics, where you can barely count how many characters there are because the universe is that big and rich, and bring them all together for an event the size of an ‘Infinity Gauntlet’ story line?” Through post-credits scenes (that have since become expected of a blockbuster), the MCU laid the groundwork for these crossovers, teasing movies months or even years down the line.

And then, the Snap happened. In 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, a purple sociopath named Thanos (himself first introduced in a 2012 Avengers post-credits scene) decimated everything Marvel built, reducing half the franchise to literal dust. It was the biggest cliffhanger since “Who Shot J.R.?” and it showed Marvel wasn’t afraid to blindside audiences or upend expectations about superhero storytelling.

But then again, the MCU has always tried to Hulk-smash conventions. New points of view from directors like Ryan Coogler, Taika Waititi, and James Gunn helped Marvel films to grow beyond the label of “superhero movies” and flourish within other genres, from ’70s-inspired conspiracy thrillers (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) to candy-colored buddy comedies (Thor: Ragnarok). “They changed the way I viewed the scope of collaboration,” says Evans. “The amount of creative minds from different mediums all coming together to achieve one goal is truly staggering.”

Superhero films are almost as old as Hollywood itself, but what helps set Marvel’s reign apart is its diverse — and frequently flawed — stable of heroes. A character like Superman has barely changed on screen throughout the decades, but an MCU hero is all about change, and the franchise’s many films have allowed characters like Cap or Black Widow to grow at a pace usually reserved for a multi-season TV show. And although the MCU’s early roster was overwhelmingly white and male, the studio has since course-corrected and led the charge in depicting distinct heroes from different backgrounds. “When a movie works, you find yourself getting wrapped up in the protagonist’s story, whether that protagonist shares your gender or your skin tone,” Feige says.

Feige adds that one of the strengths in building a large, interconnected universe is the ability to learn from mistakes and readjust when needed. One early piece of criticism he says stuck with him was that the MCU’s villains weren’t always as memorable or complicated as their heroic adversaries, especially in earlier films. “I think Loki would always stand apart from that, and that was the high bar,” Feige says. “But certainly some of that criticism led to us saying, ‘Okay, by the time we get to Thanos, he’s got to deliver. He’s got to deliver in the first five minutes and let people who why we’ve been teasing him for so many years.'”

Though many original Avengers hung up their suits after Avengers: Endgame, the MCU is far from finished. “I hope we can continue to do the unexpected and surprise people over the next 10 years,” Feige says. So far, at least nine more films and eight Disney+ TV shows have been announced, focusing on both familiar faces and new heroes… ones who, hopefully, won’t have to deal with any cataclysmic finger snaps this time.

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