The Marvel Cinematic Universe is unquestionably one of the most successful film franchises ever - hell, it's redefined what "film franchise" even means, filling their slate with crossovers and team-ups composed of multiple characters and settings that's allowed them to release multiple films in the same universe every year. And the REAL crazy thing? For the most part, all of them have been successful - in terms of critical acclaim, audience reception, and box office return.
How'd they manage this? Marvel matched their risky business plan by making a lot of (seemingly) risky casting and hiring choices that seemed legitimately insane at the time, but have proven to be a lot smarter than anyone could have predicted. Here are 7 of the bigger ones...
1. Jon Favreau
If you wanted to launch your comic book cinematic universe in 2008 using a B-list character (at the time) like Iron Man, Jon Favreau might look like an odd choice to helm the film. Actually, he'd look like a reeeal shitty choice.
At the time, Favreau had one major success under his belt as a director - Elf. And while Elf is a fun, nice movie (anchored by a real great performance by Will Ferrell), it doesn't exactly scream "PUT THIS GUY IN CHARGE OF YOUR SUPERHERO FRANCHISE!" But worse, by 2008, Favreau had the stink of a MAJOR kid-oriented sci-fi flop around him - 2005's Zathura. It had bombed so badly, Favreau hadn't made a film since. So what does Marvel do? They hire the guy whose most recent film was an unsuccessful sci-fi Jumanji starring Dax Shepard to head up their journey to cinematic glory.
...AND IT WORKED.
The degree to WHICH it worked is sorta astounding, but a LOT of the credit goes to Favreau who - on a limited budget and with basically no script (no, seriously, MUCH of the movie was improv'd with Favreau giving suggestions to Robert Downey Jr. and co.) - made a film so huge that it redefined Robert Downey Jr. as one of the biggest celebrities on Earth, brought Iron Man to the forefront of the Marvel universe, AND basically launched what is today the BIGGEST film franchise on hte planet.
2. Robert Downey Jr.
Before going any further, we need to focus a little bit more on Iron Man - after all, if it had failed, that would have meant the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We'd have no Captain America, no Thor, and certainly no Avengers. But it worked - partly on the directorial vision of Jon Favreau, but MOSTLY on the raw charisma and pitch-perfect character work of Robert Downey Jr.
But, at the time, Robert Downey Jr. wasn't the untouchable, beloved superstar he is today - in fact, his name was basically poison in Hollywood at the time. He'd spent the better part of the previous decade in and out of rehab and prison, his recent movies had either flopped (Gothika, The Singing Detective) or been barely seen, despite critical acclaim (Zodiac, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). The point is, he's NOT the guy you go to to act as the centerpiece of your new universe.
Except, of course, Marvel did do that. And it worked. Incredibly well.
Back then, several studios had to get a costly insurance policy to even CAST RDJ in a film (since there was legitimate fear he would be unable to complete filming due to his vices), and thanks almost entirely to his work with Marvel, RDJ is now one of the highest-grossing actors in Hollywood, and definitely the highest-paid.
But to REALLY give you an idea of RDJ's career direction before Iron Man, HE PLAYED THE BAD GUY IN A TIM ALLEN REMAKE OF THE SHAGGY DOG TWO YEARS EARLIER (which was right about the time Marvel cast him).
Thank you, Marvel, for taking this chance.
3. The Russo Brothers
The Russo Brothers (Joe and Anthony, in case you were confusing them with the plumbing service) were handed one of the most difficult-to-crack films in the Marvel lineup - Captain America: Winter Soldier - and knocked it out of the park. So well, that they were given the follow-up, Captain America: Civil War (which is BASICALLY an Avengers film), AND the hugest entries in the MCU ever planned, The Avengers: Infinity War Pt. 1 & 2.
You know what their ONLY widely-released feature film was before Winter Soldier? One of the most forgettable Owen Wilson films ever (and that's saying something), You, Me, and Dupree.
Yep. A shitty Owen Wilson/Kate Hudson comedy. And from that, they made Winter Soldier - an insanely difficult film, given it HAD to be wildly different from the original Captain America (which took place in the 1940s) and was so good that people started ACTUALLY really liking Captain America it stands as the 4th best-reviewed Marvel film to date!).
To be fair to the Russo Brothers, they had done more than just a bad Owen Wilson movie - they were well-regarded for directing multiple episodes of Community, Arrested Development, and a slew of other quirky, underappreciated TV comedies. But even their (really solid) episodes of Community didn't really scream "give these guys the keys to your political-thriller action movie!" (no, they didn't do the original paintball episode, if that's what you're thinking)
And yet, it all worked out. And now they're the new Joss Whedon of Marvel. Guess some good DID come of You, Me, and Dupree.
4. James Gunn
James Gunn is legitimately great (no, I really believe that, although mostly because he linked to my analysis of the Guardians of the Galaxy poster once). He somehow turned the D-list Marvel title of Guardians of the Galaxy into one of the most successful movies in a while, and the first Marvel film to deal with all the cosmic weirdness of space. That's pretty incredible - especially for a guy who's claim to fame was low-budget horror schlock and writing the live action Scooby-Doo movies.
So which one to start with? As a director, yes, James Gunn was known for Super and Slither, both cheaply-produced, not-too-widely-seen movies that barely made a dent at the box office (although both are fun). He got his start at Troma, the kings of low-budget horror schlock, and (to some degree) it showed in his output (the better aspects of Troma films, honestly). Still, you don't want to hand over a $200 million movie to a guy with Troma on his resume, right?
Well, fear not, because James Gunn was also pretty well known for writing those mostly awful live action Scooby-Doo movies! And I say"mostly awful" because Matthew Lillard was actually pretty great as Shaggy, but everything else in the movies was unimpeachably awful (fun fact - Tim Curry quit the first film upon learning they would be including Scrappy Doo in the film! Curry was a huge Scooby Doo fan, and was insulted they would use the most despised character in Scooby Doo history in the movie).
So what does Marvel do? They give him one of their riskiest properties (seriously, at least Iron Man had SOME name recognition in pop culture - outside of real comic book aficionados, absolutely NO ONE knew what Guardians of the Galaxy was) and he turned it into Marvel's Star Wars. AND he got Chris Pratt super-jacked, which is pretty cool.
5. Joss Whedon
Here's a big one - Joss Whedon. It's hard to argue that he had the toughest job in Marvel (and maybe cinematic?) history. The Winter Soldier had to strike a new tone from the original Captain America, but it was a contained thing. And yeah, Guardians of the Galaxy was a risky property, but because no one really cared about the source material, James Gunn was given mostly free reign to do whatever he wanted with the characters and the universe, which makes things easier.
But The Avengers was an entirely different beast - Joss Whedon was tasked with bringing together 4 disparate franchises (each with their own main character) into a single, satisfying film that would pave the way for the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That's an INCREDIBLY high order - and one that easily could have fallen apart or turned into a complete mess.
The guy who had directed only one film ever (and it was a major flop - Serenity) was given this task. And he pulled it off.
It's a little hard to remember now, but pre-The Avengers, Whedon held basically zero clout in Hollywood. Sure, nerds loved him for his tragicomic geeky series Buffy, Angel, and Firefly, and his (limited) work in comics (namely Astonishing X-Men), but he was viewed as the kind of guy who can appeal to hardcore geeks and absolutely no one else. He was an auteur with a vision, and one that he would not easily compromise. His previous works - Dollhouse and Serenity - were each pretty major flops. Dollhouse barely squeaked its way into a 2nd season, and even then had no where near the fanbase of Whedon's previous series. And Serenity....well, it was well-liked by internet Browncoats, but the populace at large couldn't have cared less about Whedon's space western.
Still - he had a knack for storytelling and character relationship stuff, and so Kevin Feige took one of the riskiest risks that ever risked and hired him for Avengers, and it ended up being the most successful Marvel movie ever.
Also he made Age of Ultron, which is...fine.
6. Peyton Reed
Peyton Reed entered the biggest mess in Marvel cinematic history and turned it into a (pretty decent) winner: Ant-Man. The higher-ups at Marvel had parted ways with director/writer Edgar Wright about a month before production was set to begin (who had been working on the film for the better part of a decade), and they needed someone to come in and steer the ship. That guy? The director of Yes Man and Bring It On.
Not to really knock those films (Bring It On's actually really good), but Peyton Reed was known EXCLUSIVELY for mildly pleasant comedies - Bring It On, Yes Man, Down With Love, and The Break-Up were the only features Reed had to his name (although he WAS the writer for Back To The Future: The Ride, in case that matters to you).
And even with the more laid-back, comedic angling of Ant-Man, Reed seemed like a weird choice. He hadn't directed any film period in nearly a decade (Yes Man was his last film, which had come out in 2008) and a lame later-career Jim Carrey farce didn't really give credence that this guy could handle one of the less popular Marvel heroes (and a less popular VERSION of that hero - Scott Lang).
Miraculously, he pulled the film together and delivered a pretty pleasing film. Nothing groundbreaking, but way more decent than anyone was expecting. And he was responsible for the best running gag in Marvel history - Michael Pena's incredible storytelling.
And to be fair to Peyton Reed, he ALMOST got to make (what sounds like) the only good cinematic take on the Fantastic Four ever, but it was snatched away from him.
7. Chris Evans
By the time Captain America: The First Avenger (you know, the subtitle everyone remembers to use when mentioning the film!) entered production, Chris Evans was (as far as the comic book world goes) damaged goods. He'd been in the two incredibly lackluster (from both a critical and box office perspective) Fantastic Four films (although many would argue he's the saving grace of them both, which is true), and he'd just starred in two pretty mediocre films - an adaptation of comic book The Losers and the superhero film Push. Neither film did very well but combined with the two FF movies, it established Evans as the go-to guy for lame comic book/superhero films.
So given that context, it's a little surprising to hear about how dogged Marvel was in trying to recruit him for Captain America - he apparently turned down the offer multiple times, which means it was OFFERED to him multiple times. And, honestly, thank god it was - Evans redefined Captain America for a whole new generation, and made the (in the eyes of pop culture) lame, stodgy, old-fashioned character feel timeless and human on-screen without any air of hokeyness.
And his prominence as Captain America allowed him the freedom to take weirder jobs, like Snowpiercer. Have we talked about Snowpiercer here yet? Go watch Snowpiercer.
Future Awful Decisions Marvel's Making (That Will Probably Be Brilliant): Scott Derrickson Directing 'Doctor Strange'
Scott Derrickson is known for a few things - directing a bunch of mediocre-to-awful horror films (Sinister, Deliver Us From Evil) and one of the biggest wastes of Keanu Reeves in recent memory (The Day The Earth Stood Still). In fact, literally every movie he's ever been involved with has a 'Rotten' rating on RottenTomatoes except one - the original Sinister, which barely squeaked by with a 'Fresh' rating at 63%.
...and yet, he's taking on one helluva task: this year's Doctor Strange film, due out in November. This will be Marvel's first attempt at magic, taking on one it's more surreal, psychedelic characters, and the guy steering the ship directed one of the LESS memorable Hellraiser movies.
And, honestly, it looks great. Nothing on Derrickson's resume indicates he would be at all right for this job, so he's probably gonna deliver one hell of an amazing film.