In just a decade Marvel Studios has redefined the franchise movie. Its 22 films have grossed some US$17 billion — more than any other movie franchise in history. At the same time, they receive an average of 64 nominations and awards per movie.
Kevin Feige, the head of Marvel Studios, offered a deceptively simple explanation in Variety: "I've always believed in expanding the definition of what a Marvel Studios movie could be. We try to keep audiences coming back in greater numbers by doing the unexpected and not simply following a pattern or a mould or a formula." The secret seems to be finding the right balance between creating innovative films and retaining enough continuity to make them all recognisably part of a coherent family.
Achieving that balance is far more difficult than it sounds. Just making a movie successful enough to support a franchise is hard: Six of the eight worst-performing big budget films in 2017 were meant to start new franchises. And even if the first movie does well, the sequels usually don't.
How and why does Marvel succeed in blending continuity and renewal? To answer that question, we gathered data on each of the 20 Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies released through the end of 2018. Our analysis suggests that Marvel's success is rooted in four key principles: (1) select for experienced inexperience, (2) leverage a stable core, (3) keep challenging the formula and (4) cultivate customers' curiosity.
1. Select for experienced inexperience
When hiring directors, Marvel Studios looks for experience in a domain in which it does not have expertise.
Of the 15 MCU directors, only one had experience with the superhero genre. Instead they had deep knowledge in other genres — Shakespeare, horror, espionage and comedy. This experience allowed them to bring a unique vision and tone to each film: Thor: The Dark World has Shakespearean overtones; Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a spy movie; Guardians of the Galaxy is a giddy space opera.
Taika Waititi, who came from a background in wacky comedy and character studies and had no superhero genre experience, directed Thor: Ragnarok. He made a point of creating distance from the first two Thor movies. Critics saw it as bringing a welcome dose of self-parody to the MCU.
Marvel Studios grants directors a large degree of control; Waititi describes being given surprising freedom and encouragement to make his own thing. At the same time, Marvel maintains close control over the blockbuster aspects of the movie, providing a lot of direction on special effects and logistics.
Few companies are prepared to take this sort of gamble. Research on employee onboarding shows that most either select for experience that overlaps with their existing knowledge base or — even when selecting for experience that does not — become so preoccupied with socialising the new employee that they effectively neuter the value of his or her outside expertise.
2. Leverage a stable core
To balance the new talent, voices and ideas it brings into each movie, Marvel holds on to a small percentage of people from one to the next. The stability they provide allows Marvel to build continuity across products and create an attractive community for fresh talent.
We compared overlap between movies in the staff of the core creative group (typically about 30 people for each film) with overlap in the full crew (about 2,500 people) and found significantly more in the core. On average, about 25 per cent of a core group overlaps from one movie to the next, and the full crew averages an overlap of 14 per cent.
A stable core supports renewal, because it exerts a kind of gravitational effect. People not in the core are keen to join it. For example, superhero movies were once seen as the kiss of death for actors with high artistic ambitions. But Academy Award winners such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins, Forest Whitaker and Lupita Nyong'o have all played roles in the MCU.
Organisations that preserve the core, revitalise the periphery and understand relationship networks can enable renewal, dynamism and flexibility.
3. Keep challenging the formula
All MCU movies deliver superheroes, villains and a third act featuring climactic battles that often rely heavily on computer-generated effects. But a closer inspection revealed something more complex.
Our script analysis reveals that Marvel movies showcase differing emotional tones (the balance between positive and negative emotion verbally expressed by the characters). For example, Iron Man 2 contains a lot of humour. In contrast, the next movie, Thor, which centers on Thor's disappointing his father and being cast out of his presence, is darker and sadder.
The movies are also visually different. The largest variations include those from Captain America: The Winter Soldier to Guardians of the Galaxy to Avengers: Age of Ultron. The plots of the first and the third take place on Earth, whereas Guardians takes place in space and on alien planets.
Furthermore, the movies that achieve the highest critical (and audience) ratings are the very ones that are viewed as violating the superhero genre. Critics found Iron Man notable for introducing realism and unusual depth and authenticity in the main character.
What the MCU experience shows is that franchises benefit from continual experimentation. This lesson seems to hold outside the movie business as well.
4. Cultivate customer curiosity
Marvel cultivates curiosity in several ways. One is by engaging customers indirectly as co-producers through social media interactions. This approach is rooted in a long Marvel tradition of supporting the growth of fan communities by, for example, including letters columns at the back of comic books. Continuing this tradition, Marvel directors make a point of using social media to stay in touch with the hardcore fan base of comic books.
Marvel builds anticipation for its coming films by putting "Easter eggs" in its current releases that suggest a future product without giving away the story. The most obvious example is its famous post-credits scenes. The first of these was shown at the end of Iron Man, where S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, is introduced, suggesting to fans that Iron Man may be part of a larger universe.
Written by: Spencer Harrison, Arne Carlsen and Miha Skerlavaj
© 2019 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group