It's a familiar story. I'll bet you've heard it before.
It was the late fifties. The comic industry was still in a state of suspended animation following the dramatic events of the anti-comics backlash of the Wertham era. Atlas was a small outfit whose greatest asset in a rapidly shrinking marketplace was the business acumen of its publisher, Martin Goodman. Atlas' in-house distribution company had been shuttered due to lack of volume. Their second distributor, American News, collapsed in short order. Goodman made a deal with National's distributor, Independent News, to piggyback on the company's newsstand access.
But Atlas was still dying. Almost the entire staff had been laid off following the discovery that the company had enough unpublished inventory to run for the better part of the year. Even that wasn't enough to keep the doors open. And so, the story goes, a man named Jack Kirby walked through the doors. He had just split with his longtime partner Joe Simon, after their publishing company had collapsed. (1954 was not the most auspicious year to start a comic book company.) He couldn't find work at National (later DC) on account of a failed lawsuit. Kirby and Atlas were both grasping at straws in an industry that, aside from major publishers such as National, Dell, and Archie who emerged from the Wertham era relatively unscathed, was circling the drain.
I came in [to the Marvel offices] and they were moving out the furniture, they were taking desks out — and I needed the work! ... Stan Lee is sitting on a chair crying. He didn't know what to do, he's sitting on a chair crying — he was still just out of his adolescence. I told him to stop crying. I says, "Go in to Martin and tell him to stop moving the furniture out, and I'll see that the books make money".(*)Or so the story goes. Kirby later on had reason to emphasize his significance alongside Lee's impotence, just as Lee had his motivations for denying Kirby's dramatized version of events. Lee was also 35 when Kirby returned.
The important facts are this: Atlas had been a company named Timely. The company had been founded by Goodman, primarily a publisher's of men's magazines and pulp adventure books. Stan Lee was Goodman's cousin by marriage. He joined the company at its start, working as an assistant at age 16, and editor by 19. Aside from a stretch in the army during the war, Stan Lee never worked for another company besides Marvel. It was the family business. Imagine his chagrin when, years later, in the flush of over a decade's worth of sustained success, people began asserting that his company's success was due to Kirby, alongside Steve Ditko and others. How galling. Lee had been there from the beginning.
Marvel Comics is the offspring of Stan Lee's perpetual frustration. For all the dispute over credit that has dogged Lee and his company for over fifty years (even further if you consider Simon & Kirby's unhappiness regarding Captain America), the character of Marvel Comics was all Stan. This was the myth you bought into when you became immersed in the books. They were hip, they were happening, they were cooler than Brand X. Marvel was what cool college kids read - literally, your older brothers' comic books, not like those staid Superman magazines you read as a child. Marvel Comics was on the verge of world domination, and Stan was the man with the plan.
It was an attractive myth because everyone but young children knew it was just that - a myth. Marvel was cool and the books were better than National - and all their later imitators - and all that was true, at least for a while. But they remained stuck playing the role of perpetual underdogs even after the reality had shifted. Even into the 1970s, long after Marvel had escaped their distribution deal with National and become the dominant force in the marketplace, they still nourished the illusion of outsider status. It was a great thing to become a Marvel fan: it was like becoming a member of a secret club, and long after you should have known better, the identification somehow stuck. DC, for their part, (somewhat unwittingly) embraced their status as the Evil Empire: DC was a place where men wore suits and ties to work, with offices staffed by old pros who consistently dismissed their upstart competitor until it was too late to reverse the damage. Marvel was the place where a few crazy middle-aged men had accidentally created a counter-culture incubator, as the company became increasingly dominated by younger men (and even a few women) who had grown up reading the books and very much wanted to be a part of the clubhouse Stan had built. The company depended on the perpetuation of these myths to maintain forward momentum.
As successful as Marvel became, the company never outgrew Lee's frustration. There was a ceiling to the company's relevance. DC was bought by Warner Brothers, and Warner Brothers in turn produced a few successful (and not so successful) movies based on DC's IP. Lee spent many years after leaving day-to-day operations of the company trying and failing to sell Marvel's IP to Hollywood, with very little success. A handful of cartoons. A few live-action TV shows, only one of which ever amounted to anything. One big-budget debacle that ruined the company's name in Hollywood for years after. But above all else, the main product of these years of mostly wasted effort was dozens and dozens of hints and half-promises made in the pages of Stan's Soapbox over the course of decades. James Cameron was going to direct a Spider-Man film for something like a decade. Lee first announced the development of an Ant-Man film in 1990. That never happened, obviously.
The history of Marvel in Hollywood is a history of near-misses and missed opportunities. Lee never gave up hope. Even after he ceded control of his own company, even after the company changed hands, even after a lifetime of creative controversies began to take a serious toll on his public image, he persisted as "Mr. Marvel." And to a degree, at least, he personally remained something of an underdog: the man who had co-created the Marvel Universe, the guy whose uncle had founded the company, adrift in a larger, indifferent world. He never got around to writing the Great American Novel, and he never made a movie with Alan Resnais, and he never got out of Marvel's shadow. Why would you want to? He was The Man.
At their creative pinnacle in the mid 1960s, Marvel succeeded creatively by being both more primitive and more sophisticated than their rivals. But in terms of their business, Marvel succeeded the same way they always succeeded: they flooded the market and undercut the competition. As soon as Marvel regained distribution capabilities in 1968, they expanded precipitously. In 1971 they tricked DC into shooting itself in the foot by faking out the competition with a (seeming) line-wide price hike from 15 to 25 cents. DC responded by doing the same. Marvel's price hike lasted one month, after which they reduced prices to 20 cents, but DC was stuck with the 25 cent experiment for months afterwards. In the time it took DC to course-correct, they permanently lost market share. Marvel began to franchise their most popular characters into multiple books. By the late 80s, soon after Jim Shooter left the company, Marvel set out to flood the market in earnest. This was the beginning of another disastrous boom/bust cycle - a boom made even worse by subsequent mistreatment of prominent talent, who left the company to form a third major publisher, Image. (The books continued to sell after the talent left, once again reinforcing the idea that the Marvel brand would always be bigger than any individual creator.) There were a number of factors involved in the mid-90s industry breakdown, but Marvel made the worst mistakes, and the mistakes were big enough that they barely survived.
Marvel 2015 is still fundamentally the same company it was back in the mid-50s, when Martin Goodman found a cabinet full of inventory and used it as a pretense to fire everybody for six months. For all the criticism aimed at Isaac Perlmutter, he's still playing from the Goodman / Lee handbook: flood the market, undercut creators, and pray you survive the next bust. With Disney at their back they no longer need to fear the bust, and have proceeded accordingly.
Left unchecked, the company has recreated the entertainment industry in its own image. The occasion of Avengers 2 has provided movie critics and industry observers another opportunity to bemoan Marvel's success, and its not hard to see why they'd be so resentful. As bad an industry as Hollywood has always been, Marvel is worse in almost every way. Instead of franchises taking two-or-three years between installments, Marvel has figured out a way to keep successful franchises in theaters twice a year. They've proven so successful that every other entertainment conglomerate is changing their business model to compete - even Disney itself is looking to Marvel as a model for its resuscitation of the Star Wars franchise. Right now Marvel Entertainment has a hold on the popular imagination, and the imagination of the industry, that simply defies comparison: there's never been anything like it before. Even if the superhero bubble burst tomorrow, the structure of the entertainment industry will already have been permanently altered.
And it's no accident. They got to where they are today by importing Lee's playbook intact from the company's heyday. Marvel isn't a company, it's an experience. If you buy a ticket for a Marvel movie, you're buying into the experience of being part of something larger than a single movie. Everyone loves Marvel, and if you love Marvel too, you're part of a special club. People cheer when the red Marvel logo comes onscreen, and they get excited about recognizing obscure plot points from comic books they've never read, but have read about.
People have been predicting the end of the superhero movie boom for almost fifteen years - as long as there have been superhero movies, basically. The gloomiest predictions always seem to come from comics fans themselves, who recognize in themselves an incipient exhaustion with the genre that simply has not yet manifested in the general public. There are decades worth of stories left to strip-mine for basic parts. If Marvel keeps a tight ship they'll be in a good position to ride the bubble in perpetuity. If they (and Disney) are smart they'll be able to pivot when the market goes south, leaving their competitors holding the bag, selling the equivalent of 25 cent comics in a 20 cent market.
But what about Stan?
Stan lived to see his company take over the world. After decades of trying and failing to expert Marvel, it finally happened after he was no longer directly involved. He's still the figurehead, naturally, and for so long as he lives he will continue to receive his rote cameo in every Marvel movie and TV show. The problem is that the ideology Lee cultivated in the 1960s, when Marvel was a legitimate underdog in an industry that had spent the past decade trying to run his family company out of business, doesn't carry the same meaning. Marvel isn't the dark horse anymore, they're the heavy favorite. They are owned by the largest entertainment company on the planet, and they are possibly the most valuable arm of that conglomerate. The grasping ambition that Lee once cultivated was charming, in its day, part and parcel of a fantasy where Marvel was in a state of constant siege. They were self-effacing and ironic, and it was them (and you, True Believer!) against the world. The problems began when Lee started to believe his own press, and were compounded when his personal insecurities were inflated into a corporate ethos. This is the world he and his uncle made, whether or not they foresaw the consequences.
Marvel Entertainment are not nice people. They like having an avuncular mascot to trot out and reassure people that these entertainment products are made by the same kind of people who hand-crafted the original comics, but that's a lie. It's not about people at all. It's about a company with a seventy-five year track record of scorched-earth business tactics doing everything they can to maximize their leverage on largest scale possible, the kind of scale not even Lee himself could ever have imagined.
You can't root for Marvel anymore. It's like rooting for McDonalds. Once upon a time Stan Lee believed himself to be Ray Kroc, but for a while now he's been Ronald McDonald.