The classic ‘Gone with the wind’ released in 1939 with the tale of a romance during the American civil war. It captivated audiences worldwide and shattered release records. The movie boasted a star-studded cast led by Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable. The revenue earned amounted to $32 million even as a world war raged on in Europe, Africa, and Asia.

It would have been difficult to predict that 70 years later, these records would be shattered in an unlikely manner. The movies shattering those records would include the likes of a talking raccoon, a sentient tree, and a genius-playboy-millionaire in metal armour.

Marvel: Transformation from comics to movie franchise

Marvel was established as Timely Comics in 1939. Since then, it has had an unlikely journey from being one out of hundreds of brands of pulp comics to reaching dizzying heights in the comic boom. In the 1990s it came perilously close to bankruptcy before taking advantage of its intellectual property in creative ways. Today Marvel Studios is the market leader with the highest intellectual property set in the movie industry.

Marvel Studios – owned by Disney since 2009 – has reinvented itself through the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It has beat out arch-rivals DC Comics (and Warner Brothers) as the most successful cinematic franchise of all time with $22 billion in revenue and counting.

Marvel’s success is made more amazing because it came even with the unavailability of popular characters. Spiderman and the X-men mutants had been sold to Sony and Fox Entertainment for their use in independent movies. Marvel took a desperate step to keep its comic business alive in the 90s under assault from the internet.

DC comics has not been able to emulate the same level of movie success. Even with the complete availability of its beloved characters like Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman.

Marvel’s domination of DC has been achieved by its strategic ‘Universe Building’ approach. This has led to Marvel becoming a near-invincible brand with omnipresent brand recall. Marvel Studios now leads the movie industry in the deployment of new technology in movies and has an industry record RoI (Return on Investments).

Marvel’s success contrasted against DC comics is a classic example of the age-old strategy vs. tactics debate.

Marvel has utilized a strategic approach, using each superhero movie as a building block to build a cinematic universe spanning multiple franchises, which ties in all the superhero story arcs together in one compelling tale.

DC had vastly more popular characters than Marvel’s Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America. However, DC tried to play catchup by making ensemble films with Batman and Superman without giving proper origin arcs to the other heroes. This was a tactical choice which was a strategic mistake. The result was a series of underwhelming big-budget films like Suicide Squad and the Justice League.

So, what exactly is Universe Building and how did Marvel perfect its Cinematic Universe with its strategy?

Universe building in movie franchises is the process of building a shared narrative over multiple movies and multiple media in which the franchise can release individual movies assuming total plot continuity without providing ‘recaps’ for all the previous or parallel events going on in the fictional universe.

Universe building was already a concept exploited by franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek. Marvel excelled in doing away with the chaotic, one movie at a time approach used by these franchises and introducing a plan for the Marvel Cinematic Universe that spanned over a decade.

This lent several inherently favorable characteristics to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These quirks have endeared Marvel to its audiences. Gags running across multiple movies, relatable characters, one-liners, and easter eggs are all expected from any Marvel movie now.

Even casual watchers recall Iron Man’s entry in the first Avengers film to the AC DC song Shoot to Thrill. Marvel has scattered many such memorable moments over its storytelling for strategic character development. This forces audiences to watch all of the earlier movies for the best viewing experience of any new release.

The decade-long schedule and strategy allowed Marvel to have total control over its cinematic universe. This control was exemplified by breaking the ‘Infinity Arc’ (the overall story) into three distinct phases.

Phase 1 debuts each hero (and a few villains) along with a smattering of supporting characters. These eventually star in the ensemble Avengers films which feature larger plots involving the safety of the Earth. The supporting members often star as employees of SHIELD or HYDRA. These are Government Agencies that regulate/exploit superpowers and are based loosely on the FBI and the Gestapo. This presence of bureaucracy allowed Marvel to spin off more relatable content like the TV series Agents of SHIELD.

Phase 2 would develop each Avenger’s personal backstory as they dealt with the fallout from their actions in the ensemble movie.

Phase 3 expanded the character list, added elements of friction in the ensemble, and moved the overall ‘Infinity Arc’ towards a conclusion that set up future story arcs, each with its own distinct phases.

Marvel went a step beyond beloved franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek in weaving all supplemental media into its master schedule. Instead of having retcons and continuity issues like Star Wars Legends and Star Trek with its disparate TV shows, Marvel used its TV series like Agents of SHIELD to flesh out its ‘Infinity Arc’ using the longer run time available.

Marvel’s success in Universe building comes down to the three strategy choices it made:

  • A master plan with a defined schedule, a baseline story arc, and a clear idea of possible projects spanning different media. DC (Warner Brothers) has failed in this aspect, and its movies span time and realities in a confusing manner, which makes its cinematic universe much less immersive than Marvel’s.
  • Opting for omnichannel content development with the customer at the core of the experience and not the product. Marvel is media-agnostic and hasn’t shied away from introducing important characters like Peggy Carter and Howard Stark through TV shows. This allows Marvel to do the supporting characters justice if it cannot provide standalone movies.
  • Opting for a project and program approach for how it fleshes out origin stories. The movies introducing and detailing its individual superheroes are individual projects. These contain references to the overall cinematic universe and may even include other heroes’ substantial involvements in its plot. For example, Iron Man had 37 minutes of screen time in the third Captain America movie.

The ensemble movies are structured like programs. The individual story arcs of each of the heroes are coordinated to obtain a comprehensive story. Both the programs and projects are run under the overall portfolio which is the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

While Marvel has been very successful with its approach and strategy, DC has approached origin stories with a blunt hammer. Apart from Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, no other character has been properly fleshed out through their own origin movies.

DC clubbed and introduced characters like Flash, the Joker, and Harley Quinn in ensemble movies like Suicide Squad and the Justice League. This did not resonate well with casual moviegoers – who were blissfully unaware of these character’s origins and motivations.

The complicated Marvel Cinematic Universe is made simple for audiences to understand even without the power pf the mind stone – Source Marvel Wiki Fan page

Marvel excelled in moving the superheroes from nerdy discussions to mainstream consideration. It did this by providing the audience with a truly immersive experience that lasted even after they left the theatre.

Marvel kept the excitement and discussion alive for the next film in line with the famous post-credit easter eggs. Fans and casual movie watchers deliberated on platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Reddit, forming theories and plotlines of their own. Marvel took advantage of this in their marketing, often including these fan theories in their cinematic universe. These worked out either as an actual plotline or as a running gag, improving audience immersion in the story.

The results are there to see – the Infinity Arc of Marvel movies have grossed over $22 billion worldwide over 23 movies with the two latest Avengers movies grabbing over $2 billion each. Star Wars by comparison in its 45 years of history has grossed over $10 billion worldwide.

Infographic: All About Marvel | Statista You will find more infographics at Statista

Marvel Strategy is transferrable to other businesses too

There are many important lessons to be learned from Marvel’s success. Marvel’s strategy of universe building can help position a company, or its products and services for long-term and sustainable growth.

This works especially well if your competitors are banking on a splintered, product-driven approach. For example, Unilever’s purpose is to improve the lives of its customers. Positioning itself as a day-to-day life improver gives it the wherewithal to launch products that help meet this goal. The overall universal narrative Unilever has created in the minds of its customers is that of a universe of care.

Marvel ensures its movies do not cannibalize each other or the TV shows. The well-defined line-up and individualized positioning for each film ensure there is no cannibalization. The Avengers safeguard the Earth. The Guardians of the Galaxy deal with the infinity stones and other alien threats to the Galaxy as a whole. SHIELD is involved in the low-key day-to-day work of ensuring superpowers are regulated while sorcerers like Doctor Strange deal with reality-shattering magic. Every movie, every character, every ensemble has its own role and place in the universe.

Companies like Procter and Gamble and Unilever have managed to build this shared universe of products in the FMCG sector. To do this, they rely on price points and product story arcs. This ensures their products don’t end up cannibalizing each other and complement each other.

Companies like IBM and the big oil giants have stumbled in the past because they failed to implement Universe building. IBM had the power, technological advantage, and capital needed to define the computing universe from end to end completely. However, it lost out due to short-term tactics by outsourcing core competencies like CPU development to Intel.

The big oil companies could have positioned themselves as energy suppliers over being just fuel suppliers. They could have utilized their capital, expertise with infrastructure projects, and strong R&D capabilities to lead the renewable energy revolution. Instead, they are forced to play catchup by TCFD (Task Force for Climate Disclosure), and ESG linked financing.

Marvel’s universe-building strategy clarifies how important it is to tie your products and services into brands and the brands into a compelling universal framework. This framework delivers small wins by its interconnectedness and enables big wins by throwing the entire brand value behind each product.

Building a brand takes time, effort, and direction. Sometimes you may need to launch a few underwhelming individual products before delivering a big ensemble hit.

Solving one problem tactically with a product developed specifically for that problem will give you a successful brand. However, approaching the same problem strategically has exponential benefits. Strategically developing a universal framework will help the company evolve and churn out successful products for a long time, manufacturing a lasting legacy.


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A self-confessed sci-fi and history nerd, Akshay loves to write about finance, management, history, and science fiction and often tries to weave all of his individual interests into a single compelling narrative. He is a student at Symbiosis Centre for Management and Human Resources – SCMHRD Pune.

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