At its core, Marvel Studios: Assembling a Universe is essentially a big, well-deserved pat on the studio’s own back. So far, they’ve enjoyed an impressive six years, with eight movies that have collectively grossed over $5 billion at the worldwide box office. They don’t seem to be slowing down any time soon, either, as they have at least four more films that are currently in various stages of development. The studio has done the unthinkable, taking characters that weren’t very popular outside of comic book circles and turning them into icons, becoming a box office juggernaut in the process.
Assembling A Universe serves two purposes. On one hand, it’s an effective way to give Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. the night off and promote The Winter Soldier. On the other, it provides an interesting look behind the scenes of one of Hollywood’s most successful movie studios. The special is quite self-indulgent, and doesn’t give us much new information (much of the footage is taken from different behind the scenes featurettes from Marvel films, mixed with Comic-Con footage and interviews), but it’s still a great hour of television for those of us who enjoy all those bonus features that usually come with the home video releases.
Marvel Studios began as an independent upstart, without the cushion of the big Marvel comics characters like Spider-Man, X-Men, and Fantastic Four. By the time the studio formed, the rights to those characters had been acquired by their competition (20th Century Fox and Sony), so they had to resort to smaller properties in hopes of making them as popular as Spidey and the mutants.
In hindsight, it all looks so easy. Iron Man is now arguably the world’s second most popular superhero, just behind Batman, and The Avengers currently stands as the most financially successful superhero film of all time, and showed that it wasn’t so crazy to think that these characters could inhabit the same universe, appearing in each other’s films when needed.
Back in 2008, however, The Avengers seemed like a pipe dream, and Marvel had a hard time finding a director with the confidence to tackle a character like Iron Man. They reached out to several people who turned down the project immediately. After all, they were a brand new studio with comic books that no one outside of fandom really knew about, and hadn’t made a single film yet.
The studio survived by making smart decisions early on. As Feige himself points out, they decided to focus on bringing quality actors and directors on board, which would hopefully lead to good films that just so happened to be about superheroes. Their first good move was bringing on Jon Favreau for Iron Man, who went out on a limb and hired Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role.
Of course, Downey Jr. is one of the world’s biggest movie stars today, but back in 2008, he was a risky and controversial choice. His personal hardships perfectly mirror the struggles that Tony Stark faces, so the part felt like it was made specifically for him. The rest, as they say, was history. Iron Man struck a chord with audiences and critics alike, and showed that you didn’t have to be one of the A-list comic characters to sell a ton of movie tickets.