A century ago, the movies launched mass culture. Charlie Chaplin’s biographer Peter Ackroyd has observed Chaplin became the world’s first global celebrity during World War I—the first person to be known across the world by face. This fame was due to the international export of his two-reel comedies made in Hollywood.
One hundred years later, mass culture continues to be an almost exclusively American (or English-language) product. Consider this: The most successful movie ever made in another tongue is a Chinese film called Wolf Warrior 2, released in 2018. You’ve never heard of it, and for good reason. Wolf Warrior 2 ranks 65th on the all-time chart; three other recent Chinese movies come in at 113th, 147th, and 154th. Aside from these four, every one of the 250 most popular films in history was either made by Americans, released by an American company, or distributed by Americans across the planet. The same is true of television. The age of streaming might mean that Americans are now watching more foreign programming than ever before, but worldwide, the dominance of American television remains entirely unchallenged. In 2017, the world’s most popular programs were said to have been the CBS crime drama NCIS and the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory, with the cable shows The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones close by.
Americans may be full of anxiety about the erosion of our national standing and power, but there is no sign of that erosion when it comes to global mass culture. A century after the man in tramp garb all but invented celebrity, the most popular cultural figures in the world today are a dozen Americans in very different sorts of garb—costumes that were first sketched half a century ago by royalty-denied, day-laboring schleps, mostly Jewish, working for slave wages in the slapdash midtown Manhattan offices of a penny-ante publishing company called Marvel Comics.
Like so much of 20th-century pop culture, the comics business was the creation and handiwork of first-generation and immigrant Jewish businessmen, writers, and artists whose outside-inside position in America gave them a peculiar and useful vantage point. As a character in Michael Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay notes: “They’re all Jewish, superheroes. Superman, you don’t think he’s Jewish? Coming over from the old country, changing his name like that. Clark Kent, only a Jew would pick a name like that for himself.” The Jews who made the comics told contemporary folktales about powerful people often forced by circumstance to pretend to be relatively powerless even as they contested with external evils that wished above all else to destroy them and the society around them—the very society that these stiff-necked people sitting in the culture’s cheap seats felt hard-done-by.
The creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were kids from Cleveland who sold their intellectual property for $130 to a company called DC run by two immigrants named Jack Liebowitz and Harry Donenfeld. DC’s chief rival was a company that would eventually be called Marvel; it was the property of one Martin (né Moe) Goodman, who brought his nephew Stanley Lieber on board to help out. Lieber eventually changed his name to Stan Lee and became the public face of the business—and, in his own prose contributions to the comic books he wrote and edited, introduced the self-mocking jokey tone of the Borscht Belt to boys across America and helped form their understanding of what humor was.
Just as Izzy Baline wrote “White Christmas” after changing his name to Irving Berlin and foreign-born Hollywood chieftains like Szmul Gelbfisz (later Sam Goldwyn) and Carl Laemmle helped create the ideal of America for Americans, the all-but-unknown and mostly Jewish writers and editors of comics gave metaphorical power to American adolescent anxieties about strength and weakness and public exposure. It turned out those anxieties had a great deal in common with the existential terrors that erupted across the world after 9/11. It was at that point, in 2002 and with the release of the first Spider-Man movie, that the intellectual property created by Marvel’s Jews became the source material for the 21st century’s most popular entertainments.
Two Marvel movies released since 2018, Avengers: Infinity War and its continuation Avengers: Endgame, have earned more than $5 billion at the worldwide box office. At some point very soon, Endgame alone will become the most successful motion picture ever made. Add to that $5 billion the earnings of three other Marvel movies released in the past year—Ant-Man and the Wasp, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel—and you get a worldwide gross of $8.3 billion in a mere 15 months.
Now take all 22 movies Marvel has made since 2008’s Iron Man launched what is known as the “Marvel Cinematic Universe.” Global total: $21 billion and counting. In a few months, we will see the release of Spider-Man: Far From Home, which is all but guaranteed to make somewhere between $1.5 and $2 billion. The next five years will see the release of at least eight more MCU movies, and there’s no reason to believe they will do any less well.
Historically, serialized fare loses its popular following over time either because it declines in quality or invokes audience fatigue. But this year Marvel centered films around new characters in MCU films 19 and 21 (Black Panther and Captain Marvel), and both proved to be gigantic hits as well. There has never been a television show whose audience was larger in its 11th year than in any year previous. In the annals of literature, only the Harry Potter novels (and films) retained their audiences or saw them grow over time, but J.K. Rowling wrote only seven books in all (from which eight films were made).2 There is no analogue for this kind of cultural success, in the movies or anywhere else.
Marvel’s unprecedented streak is due in part to excellence. These MCU movies have been made on a lavish scale, no expense spared. They are gorgeous, and they don’t have a unified look or feel; each film has a signature of its own. The MCU has been guided since 2007 by a producer named Kevin Feige, who was 33 when he began. The first movie he supervised was 2008’s Iron Man, which broke new ground for the superhero genre by finding an entirely new tone. It abjured the knowing campiness of the Superman movies of the 1970s, the macabre silliness of the Batman movies of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the political preachiness of the X-Men movies of the early 2000s. Iron Man took a standard superhero story but did not make knowing fun of it, the way so many predecessor films did. And it merged that story with the themes and spirit of a classic screwball comedy from the 1930s about rich people who really enjoy being rich. Most important, it gave its star, the ex-miscreant ex-con Robert Downey Jr., a chance to build an amusing, eccentric, winning character out of the irresponsible genius inventor Tony Stark.
This, it turned out, was the Marvel secret sauce: finding performers who could make these characters funny and interesting and surprising, all the while fitting them into storylines and genres straight out of classic Hollywood. Captain America: The First Avenger is a World War II battle film. Captain America: Winter Soldier is a paranoid Washington thriller out of the 1970s. Ant-Man is a heist picture. Black Panther is James Bond. Spider-Man: Homecoming is a John Hughes high-school flick.
It took Feige and Co. a few tries to get this. The second MCU film, The Incredible Hulk, was dull and self-serious, and the third, Iron Man 2, was a classic ill-conceived sequel that suggested the original was a fluke. But then came Thor, which was largely ponderous but was centered on a heretofore unknown behemoth of an actor named Chris Hemsworth who turned out to have miraculous comic timing. In coming years, Hemsworth would be followed by other relative unknowns like Chris Evans (Captain America), Tom Holland (Spider-Man), and Chris Pratt (Star Lord), whose magnetism, star power, and comic chops were so dazzling their triumphant performances in these roles have marked Feige as perhaps the greatest casting supervisor in movie history.
Marvel Comics had outraced DC comics in the early 1960s by connecting all its characters and comic books and allowing them to cross in and out of oneanother’s stories. In 2005, an executive named David Maisel sold Marvel chieftains Isaac Perlmutter and Avi Arad (as with the earlier Marvel years, seven more in the room and they could have had a minyan) on a novel idea. He could arrange financing with Merrill Lynch so that Marvel could cease depending on other studios and produce its own movies, which would allow them to follow the comic-book pattern and be linked together.
“Finding synergies” was the pop-business-book term of the moment, and in most places, it was just a euphemism for eliminating jobs. But Marvel Studios would exploit its synergies with Marvel Comics in a new way. Actors were signed to long-term contracts with the explicit idea of having them appear in multiple movies in both starring and supporting roles. It turned out that when they would pop up in support, characters like Iron Man would bring to their smaller parts all the positive feeling they earned from their lead turns—and would, in turn, create new momentum for their next starring roles.
So when Feige brought together the lead characters and almost all the lead performers from all the previous films in The Avengers in 2012, the result wasn’t only an explosion of star power but the blissful ignition of audience goodwill to an almost exponential degree. What has followed, as the MCU has thickened with characters and incidents, is that each new film has benefited from and built on the emotional impact of its predecessors. The addition of new superheroes from subsequent fare like Guardians of the Galaxy (the best of all the MCU pictures), Black Panther, Ant-Man, and Captain Marvel created a near-embarrassment of riches. In 2018, Avengers: Infinity War concluded not in triumph, as had the original Avengers, but with half the characters evanescing into dust at the hands of an intergalactic Malthusian named Thanos. The climactic battle between good and evil in Avengers: Endgame takes place with all the characters restored to life and fighting against Thanos—featuring no fewer than 36 separate actors and actresses, all of whom had been introduced in the previous 21 films. It was likely the most thoroughgoing concentration of star performers in one place in the history of any medium. The care with which the universe had been constructed and maintained paid off in an emotional knockout of an ending—the very reason Endgame will soon set the all-time box-office record, if it hasn’t already by the time you are reading this.1
For decades now, moviemakers and movie critics and film aficionados (including me) have been lamenting the decline of cinema. No longer do people go to the movie theater to be part of the general cultural conversation the way they did in the 1970s and 1980s, especially once television shook off the shackles of the idea that it did best by airing the “least objectionable programming” it could find and instead began to compete aggressively for audiences by producing shows of higher quality and more controversial subject matter. Brian Raftery’s interesting new book, Best. Movie. Year. Ever., claims 1999 as the last twelvemonth in which Hollywood gave ambitious filmmakers the freedom to make original and unexpected big-budget films. The market for such fare has all but vanished, and as the actor John Cho tells Raftery, “if The Matrix and Being John Malkovich were being pitched today, they’d be pitched as television shows.”
Did the superhero picture kill off Hollywood? No. If the Marvel Cinematic Universe had never come along, the people who have bought $22 billion worth of tickets to these movies would not have been standing in line to see whatever might have followed in the wake of Being John Malkovich. They might not have gone to the movies at all.
Just as the Harry Potter novels almost single-handedly reclaimed the pleasures of reading for youth across the world who were all but expected to sink into what was once called post-literacy, maybe the Marvel movies have kept moviegoing alive as a communal activity—if not for another century, then maybe long enough for another bunch of Jews to think up something else.
1 The James Bond films have remained reliable box-office performers over the past 56 years; it is the longest-lived series in film history. But there have been only 25 of them in all that time, and in the United States, the most popular, adjusting for inflation, remains Thunderball, from 1965.
2 It’s worth noting that the all-time figure is a worldwide number. Inside the United States, Avengers: Endgame isn’t yet in the top 25; the all-time champ remains Gone With the Wind. Its total of $1.8 billion (adjusted for inflation) will never be equaled.