Imagine, if you will, the Drillbit Taylor cinematic universe.
One of the biggest flops of 2008, the Owen Wilson comedy is about a bodyguard hired to protect teens from a bully. It was vastly overshadowed by so many other films that year, including arguably the most important one: Iron Man, released a mere 42 days later.
But what if Iron Man fizzled out at the box office in 2008, ending the most lucrative movie franchise in history before it began? What if the acronym M-C-U never became the most ubiquitous three syllables in pop culture? What if more than $8.5 billion of domestic box office dollars had simply gone elsewhere?
What if that MCU marketing that is on everything from lunchboxes to supermarket bananas included Owen Wilson’s face instead of Robert Downey Junior’s? Essentially, what if the Marvel Cinematic Universe didn’t exist?
This past summer, the Marvel series What If…? rearranged the chess pieces of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Season 2 has been confirmed). The animated series on Disney+ is the kind of galaxy-brain idea that could only succeed atop a tightly constructed 25-movie history. Without that globally successful back catalog, something like What If...? and all its weird and wonderful questions, answered in thrilling animation, never happens.
To envision that Hollywood landscape where the MCU doesn’t exist, we have to consider the direction in which Hollywood was headed in 2008, and the fact that an empire like the Marvel Cinematic Universe was always inevitable.
J.D. Connor, an associate professor of cinematic arts at USC, tells Inverse that even without the MCU, something similar would likely exist today.
“Things don’t look very different without it,” Connor says, admitting a slightly contrarian position.
Connor points to two major trends:
- Large companies growing larger by acquiring the competition
- Hollywood producers’ enduring search for the safe bet with audiences.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996, which dramatically eased restrictions on media mergers and ownership, created an environment in which a risk like the MCU didn’t feel like much of a risk.
“After that [law], all bets are off. There’s just mega-conglomeration,” Connor says. “That’s going to require massive return, massive certainty. Structurally, the demand for return at scale was going to push us toward bigger and bigger movies.”
That push for long-lasting film franchises would likely have continued in a universe where Iron Man flopped, along with Swing Vote and The Love Guru. (And one where Drillbit Taylor was an epic hit, of course.)
The franchise’s success didn’t change priorities in as much as it expanded the limits of what a franchise could earn.
Glenn Williamson, one of the producers behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and a lecturer at the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television, agrees. Before streaming, DVD sales meant the movie version of a “single” or “double” — to use baseball terminology — could be profitable.
“What’s happened over time is studios don’t want singles or doubles,” Williamson says. “They want a home run.”
Why franchises were inevitable
One of the reasons the MCU has become a homerun derby is because Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige presides over many different creative teams working toward the same goal.
It’s nice to think that a world without the MCU means all those resources would be spread out to creators of new stories, but it’s unlikely.
“It probably still would have gone to some larger film franchise,” Harrison tells Inverse of the resources that were spent on the MCU. “I still think at this moment in time we are invested in creating IP, in harvesting IP, and telling bigger stories.”
In what he calls “the Moneyballing of art,” Harrison says Hollywood's dominant way of thinking is maximizing fiscal potential by expanding recognizable property into cohesive narratives. He cites the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings epic, and the Matrix trilogy as having set a turn-of-the-century trend of sequels continuing a story, instead of merely returning to a world — like the earlier James Bond movies or pretty much any classic slasher franchise.
The difference now, Harrison says, is “we can begin to tell these larger stories that feel serialized in a way that we expected TV to be.”
“Disney needed new IP to juice the theme parks.”
And if Marvel’s movie experiment hadn’t worked, other filmmakers would likely be trying to create their version of it. The evidence is in Ridley Scott’s Alien prequels, the more resoundingly successful Jurassic World adventures, and Disney’s own attempts to strike IP gold a second time with Star Wars.
We can also spot evidence that some have faltered, like the sputtering Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald sequel and Universal’s dead-on-arrival Dark Universe.
Would those ambitious attempts have even happened? Where the MCU was a carefully blueprinted box-office beast in its early years, those two franchise attempts confidently announced their plans before even finding out if audiences cared enough to watch a single movie.
That brings up another franchise whose fate seems tied to a landscape without the MCU. Upon the arrival of a shakily constructed DC Extended Universe in the 2010s, it was popular to chalk its general mediocrity up to Warner Brothers rushing to catch up to Marvel without putting in the same work and patience. So what if the MCU hadn’t lit a fire under Warner Brothers’ feet?
“You probably also wouldn’t have the DCEU getting derailed as quickly as it did,” Harrison says. “Maybe they don’t feel compelled to create the original cut of the Justice League, and [Zack] Snyder can split that out into multiple movies. Let him breathe, let him cook.”
“You could reboot Iron Man for the rest of eternity.”
In the case of the MCU, it’s the behind-the-curtains cohesion that emboldened competing and otherwise dormant franchises, with mixed results. In the case of perhaps Disney’s biggest chess-board decision over the last 15 years – the $4 billion purchase of Lucasfilm – Connor sees that move as one that still happens without the MCU’s success.
“They have a unique demand that none of their peers do because they got out of the theme park business,” he said. “Disney needed new IP to juice the theme parks. And in a world where a theme park is a multimillion-dollar investment, the stronger that fanbase is, the better.”
Despite the dominance of ever-growing franchises and other fledgling cinematic universes since the MCU’s origin story, audience attention has become increasingly stratified, hastening the extinction of any big-budget movie that dares not come within the confines of a familiar story or characters (unless you’re Christopher Nolan).
There’s a reason Bridesmaids and A Quiet Place endure as outliers, though the different ways horror and comedy might have fared at an MCU-less box office is a direct reflection of how Marvel weaves horror and comedy into its DNA. For horror, it isn’t very much. That wouldn’t do for Disney’s four-quadrant-appeal strategy, but for theatrical comedy, which has experienced a near-extinction level event over the last decade, it’s a different story.
“Marvel certainly Hoovered up some of the comedy juice by being basically a set of workplace comedies,” Connor says. “Comedy was going to be in real, real trouble for all the other structural reasons.
“Part of our misapprehension here is the assumption that there was a market for mid-budget movies that wasn’t riddled with bankruptcy, failure, collapse, and risk everywhere.”
“The Moneyballing of art.”
Horror had a much more bountiful 2010s, resulting in the rise of new directorial brands ranging from the artsy malevolence of Ari Aster to Jordan Peele’s whip-smart social commentaries. Adopting an edge of horror would likely cut out a chunk of Marvel’s box office receipts, but Harrison says the genre has provided viable counter-programming to the MCU.
“A sociological perspective could be: Well, because there have been so many horrible things happening in the last five years with climate change and authoritarian leaders, we actually need horror instead of humor to reflect what society’s doing to us,” Harrison says.
Did Marvel save the movies?
Between streaming and video games, which have both boomed over the last decade, Hollywood was facing plenty of problems even before Marvel’s dominance.
Without the MCU, Jeff Bock, a media analyst with Exhibitor Relations, sees a world where those other sensations become even bigger boundary-crossing phenomena.
“When we talk about all those dollars and all that money spent, it probably would segue outside of movies and probably more into gaming arenas,” Bock tells Inverse. “When you’re talking about that many billions of dollars, it’s so important for Hollywood to keep that demographic glued to their screens if they want to continue the theatrical process.”
It’s become increasingly popular to argue that the MCU’s ironclad box office grip has not only further stratified audiences but diminished the chances of smaller fare to break through.
Bock disagrees. In his eyes, a landscape without the MCU is one where fewer of those arthouse movies arrive on theater screens at all.
“The fact that superhero films exist at all helps everybody,” he says. “It helps gain momentum. It helps take headlines back from all the streaming content.
“If not for superhero films, we would be talking about huge declines in attendance, not just small, mediocre ones. We’d be talking about an avalanche of people just moving on.”
“The fact that superhero films exist at all helps everybody.”
What does Bock, the industry analyst, see filling a hypothetical MCU void? More Westerns, for one, as well as more space adventures and “a lot more sequels to films maybe we don’t want sequels to.”
But he has a different outlook on what the blockbusters of today would look like without the example of such a sprawling, interconnected story. It’s rooted in the popular Hollywood templates of the ‘80s and ‘90s when audiences were willing to watch a new story with a familiar face — be it Will Smith, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Sylvester Stallone.
“What they did back then is just take the biggest-grossing box office hero and put him in a new scenario,” Bock says. “It’s not much different from putting Superman or Batman or Thor in a whole new world. That’s all they’re doing, really.”
The future of the MCU
The franchise has upended blockbuster conventions and fortified its own formula over 13 years and 25 movies. But Bock envisions its next evolution, one in which the saga’s superheroes aren’t as inseparable from the actors playing them as we might assume.
He invokes Shakespeare as an example of how storytellers have kept stories relevant through different forms, and wonders whether the MCU can’t successfully apply the “plug-and-play” template that allows for new iterations of Macbeth and Romeo & Juliet seemingly every decade.
For him, the most intriguing question isn’t so much what if the MCU never existed, but what if it never ceases to exist.
“You could reboot Iron Man for the rest of eternity. When we’re talking about the overall life of superhero films, we’re just starting,” he says. “This is like the horror genre. It will never go away.”
So, while the Drillbit Taylor cinematic universe probably wouldn’t have happened, the future remains wide open.