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By 2005 it was apparent that with the right story and right appeal, a successful film based on Marvel comic book characters could make millions. Major film studios continued to make sequels to their earlier films, particularly 20th Century Fox's X-Men series and Columbia's Spider-Man, while new franchises were introduced, including Fantastic Four and Ghost Rider. Not every film series would succeed; the Daredevil/Elektra and Punisher series would both grind to a halt following unsuccessful films, showing that comic book adaptations did not guarantee success.
The Rise of Marvel Studios
After the success of X-Men and Spider-Man, and with a stronger financial position, in 2004 Marvel began planning to launch its own film studio and self-finance its own films. After the lengthy process of arranging a deal in which they received finance from Merrill Lynch Wealth Management in exchange for the rights to ten Marvel characters, they launched Marvel Studios. This was the first major film studio to be created since DreamWorks SKG in 1994.
Marvel Studios planned to make interconnected films based on the characters they retained the rights to. Marvel also began reacquiring the film rights to their other characters. They announced an ambition plan, labelled Phase One, in which they planned to make a series of films alternating between ones starring new characters never before seen on film and ones with established film characters. The series would culminate in a film bringing all the characters together in 2012.
|Plot||Having been resurrected from the dead, Elektra takes a break from being the world's best assassin to ogle over her new widowed next-door neighbour and befriend his daughter. When she is hired to kill them both she learns that the girl, known as 'The Treasure', epitomises the battle between good and ill. Can she defend them from the forces of evil sent against them?|
|Extended Version||Director's Cut is 3 minutes longer|
|Cameos||Ben Affleck as Matt Murdoch aka Daredevil in a deleted scene included on the Director's Cut.|
Despite Jennifer Garner's best efforts, there is no denying that this film is poor and it flopped. Unfortunately it was released a year after Catwoman (2004), another dreadful film featuring a female superhero. Unfortunately film studios, rather than taking the lesson that poorly made films with particularly terrible storylines flop, instead came to the conclusion that films about superheroines flop, even though television series featuring heroines such as Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) were very successful. It would not be until Wonder Woman in 2017, 12 years later, that another film focusing on a superheroine would be made.
Fantastic Four (2005)
|Studio||20th Century Fox|
|Plot||Reed Richards, along with his friend Ben Grimm, ex-girlfriend Sue Storm and her brother Johnny, travel to a space station owned by school rival and successful businessman Dr Victor von Doom to investigate cosmic energy. Exposure to this energy all-but destroys the space station and causes them to develop superpowers, while Doom's company collapses. Doom, whose body has mutated into living metal, seeks revenge on the world.|
|Setting||21st Century America|
|Extended Version||The extended cut is 20 minutes longer|
|Sequel||Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)|
|Cameos||Mr Fantastic impersonates Wolverine|
|Stan Lee Cameo||Willie Lumpkin, the postman|
|Post-Credits Scene||Epilogue immediately after 'The End'|
This was the second Fantastic Four film to be made, but the first to be released; in 1994 a film had been made cheaply purely to enable the studio to retain its rights to the characters. The film made a profit but overall was considered to be disappointingly lacklustre. An extended edition, which was 20 minutes longer, was also released. This included more scenes featuring the Human Torch, who was the least featured of the four in the original film, as well as more scenes showing Ben's relationship with Alicia. The film's main problem is that none of the characters really do a great deal; there's little heroism and apart from an occasional quiet murder, even less villainy.
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
|Studio||20th Century Fox|
|Plot||A private company called Worthington Labs has developed a 'cure' that can rid mutants of their powers, which can also be used in weapons to cure mutants against their will. Meanwhile Jean Grey, who was believed to have died, is found to be alive but her body is controlled by an evil, all-powerful personality named the Phoenix who disintegrates Cyclops and Professor Xavier. Magneto enlists the Phoenix into the Brotherhood of Mutants, and rises up against the cure. Who will triumph in the final battle at the lab?|
|Setting||21st Century United States|
|Brotherhood of Mutants|
|Stan Lee Cameo||Jean Grey's neighbour with hosepipe|
As Bryan Singer, who had directed the first two X-Men films, was busy directing Superman Returns (2006), Brett Ratner was hired to direct instead. Halle Berry had not originally intended to return to appear in this film, but agreed provided she had a stronger role and different wardrobe. This was agreed to, with her character being given much of Cyclops' role. A different actress, Ellen Page, played Kitty Pryde. Moira MacTaggert would later have a more substantial role when played by Rose Byrne in X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Apocalypse. The film has been acknowledged as being the weakest of the first three X-Men films.
Ghost Rider (2007)
|Director||Mark Steven Johnson|
|Plot||17-year-old motorbike stunt rider Johnny Blaze is conned into giving his soul to the devil. Years later he has become the world's most successful stunt artist but the devil turns him into the Ghost Rider by night, where his skin is turned into flame. Forced to work as the devil's bounty hunter, he is embroiled in a war between the devil and his rebelling son, Blackheart, who believes that if he can find a contract for a thousand souls he will be able to control the Earth.|
|Setting||Late 1980s and early 21st Century America,|
|Extended Version||Yes, 12 minutes longer|
Another weak film, with the effects, especially of the Ghost Rider's flaming skull, alternating between the horrific and laughable. The plot, in which a contract for the souls of a bunch of random dead villagers would mean that the whole world will be turned into Hell, doesn't make a great deal of sense.
Columbia Pictures acquired the rights to Ghost Rider from Dimension Film. Donal Logue had previously played Quin in Blade (1998) and Sam Elliott had been General Ross in Hulk (2003). The film attracted predominantly negative reviews but was financially successful.
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
|Plot||An alien symbiotic life form crashes in New York around the time that escaped criminal Flint Marko, who killed Peter Parker's uncle, falls into an experimental particle accelerator that turns him into sentient sand. When Harry Osborn, blaming Parker for his father's death, tries to kill Parker he hits his head and loses his memory. Parker, full of pride, wants to marry Mary-Jane but is too preoccupied with being Spider-Man to listen to her after she is fired from working on Broadway. She is also hurt when she sees Parker kissing Gwen Stacy, his attractive lab partner. When Parker learns that Marko is at large, the symbiotic alien bonds with him, creating a black Spider-suit that gives him added strength and aggression, gradually corrupting him. Meanwhile Spider-Man antagonises Parker's rival photographer Eddie Brock by exposing forged photographs and Osborn's memory returns, resulting in him seeking revenge again. After Parker removes the symbiont, it bonds with Brock to form Venom, a creature with similar powers to Spider-Man. Can Spider-Man survive fighting Venom and Sandman alone?|
|Setting||21st Century New York|
|Stan Lee Cameo||A man who tells Peter Parker one man can make a difference.|
The third Spider-Man film has often been considered to have too many villains who individually have little impact. This was largely as a result of the studio insisting the character of Venom be shoe-horned in as they wished to set up a potential Venom spin-off. Although the symbiont appears at the start, it isn't until an hour later that it has any impact on the plot, and the other characters have even less chance to express themselves. There are some humorous moments with the aggressive, confident Parker who is affected by the symbiont, and Brock's role as Venom neatly compares with Parker's powers as Spider-Man. That said Sandman suffers from a lack of motivation, one minute fighting Spider-Man and the next saying how actually, he doesn't really want to after all.
The trilogy's loose ends are quite neatly tied up overall. Despite being a financial success and another sequel being expected, disagreements between Sony Pictures (who own Columbia Pictures) and director Sam Raimi meant that the expected Spider-Man 4 was never made, and nor was the projected Venom spin-off. Instead by 2012 Sony decided to create a whole new Spider-Man series from scratch, with a new cast and new director, the appropriately-named Marc Webb.
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
|Studio||20th Century Fox|
|Plot||Whenever Reed Richards and Sue Storm try to get married, they have to postpone the wedding to save the world. Despite being determined to actually have a wedding, their attempts are disrupted by the arrival of the Silver Surfer, a being who serves a planet-destroying cloud called Galactus. Meanwhile Victor von Doom is not dead after all, and is working with the military.|
|Setting||21st Century Earth, especially New York, London and Shanghai|
|Sequel To||Fantastic Four (2005)|
|Stan Lee Cameo||As himself being refused admission to Sue and Reed's wedding|
|Post-Credits Scene||Epilogue immediately after 'The End'|
Although more actually happens in this film than the first one, it had disappointing box office takings, possibly because it was competing against Spider-Man 3. Although there had been plans for a third film in the series as well as a Silver Surfer spin-off, these were quickly dropped. 20th Century Fox tried to restart a new series in 2015 with Fantastic Four, but this also flopped.
Iron Man (2008)
|Plot||Billionaire inventor playboy Tony Stark, whose company Stark Industries makes weapons, is wounded and kidnapped in Afghanistan by terrorists. A fellow prisoner implants an electromagnet in his chest in order to stop shrapnel from entering his heart and later helps him build a powered suit of armour which allows him to escape. He learns that his company's weapons have been sold to aid terrorists and builds a more powerful version of his armoured suit to fight terror, becoming a hero known as Iron Man.|
|Setting||Marvel Cinematic Universe: Early 21st Century, especially Afghanistan and America|
|Related Films||All Marvel Cinematic Universe, especially:|
|Cameos||Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson)|
|Stan Lee Cameo||Himself, mistaken for Hugh Hefner|
This was the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series, in which Marvel self-financed films based on their own characters. They chose Iron Man as a character as it was the most successful character they then owned the rights to that had not had a previous film adaptation. Curiously, much of the filming took place in soundstages once owned by Howard Hughes. An eccentric millionaire playboy with interests in flying, women and film, Hughes was a major inspiration for the character of Tony Stark.
Terrence Howard would be replaced by Don Cheadle in all subsequent films in the series due to a pay dispute; Howard had been the highest-paid member of the cast. The character of Phil Coulson would later get his own television spin-off series, Marvel's Agents of SHIELD (2013+).
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
|Plot||After an experiment resulted in him turning into a green monster whenever he is angered, Bruce Banner seeks a cure for his condition while being chased by General Ross and Royal Marine Blonsky who wish to capture him as part of a super soldier programme. Blonsky volunteers to take a serum similar to Banner's to gain enhanced strength. Complicating matters, Ross is the father of Betty, Banner's girlfriend. After biologist Samuel Sterns believes he has found a cure based on Banner's blood, Blonsky becomes increasingly unstable and uses the blood to transform into an even more powerful monster than Hulk.|
|Setting||Marvel Cinematic Universe: 21st Century America and Brazil|
|Related Films||All Marvel Cinematic Universe|
|Stan Lee Cameo||Man poisoned by Bruce Banner's blood in a soft drink|
This film gave the world the word 'requel'6, only for the world to politely ask for the receipt so it could be given back and exchanged for something else. This is generally considered to be the weakest of Marvel's films, and was certainly the least successful at the box office. There was a disagreement over the film's length - although the director had hoped to have a cut that was 20-30 minutes longer, Marvel insisted the film stay under 2 hours. A lot of footage of Banner undergoing the experiment that created Hulk was therefore trimmed into an opening montage. Although the film set up a sequel, Edward Norton would not return to play Hulk - he was replaced by Mark Ruffalo for the Avengers films. In fact to date (2018) the only direct link with other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, other than Stark's cameo and references to the experiments that created Captain America, is Thaddeus Ross' appearance in Captain America: Civil War (2016).
Punisher: War Zone (2008)
|Studio||Lionsgate Entertainment & Marvel Knights|
|Plot||Blood! Guts! Gore! Violence! There is a story somewhere in which The Punisher accidentally kills Donatelli, an undercover FBI agent who was investigating a potential terrorist attack on New York, while trying to eliminate a criminal gang. The gang is led by Billy Russotti who is thrown into a glass-crushing machine. This leaves Russotti's face cut to pieces, leading him to change his name to Jigsaw. Jigsaw seeks revenge on Donatelli's widow and daughter, using them as bait in a trap against the Punisher.|
|Setting||Early 21st Century, New York|
When The Punisher (2004) was in production, Artisan Entertainment was bought out by Lionsgate Entertainment who were keen to release a sequel. However Thomas Jane, disappointed by the Punisher: War Zone script, pulled out. The lead actor was recast, and the new film was considered a reboot rather than a sequel, so although Castle didn't have a murdered daughter in the first film, he does in this one. The film bombed at the box office, earning less than either Elektra (2005) or Howard the Duck (1986), although it had a much lower budget than either. No sequel was made and the rights were allowed to return to Marvel in 2015, when The Punisher became a recurring character in the Daredevil (2015+) television series.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
|Studio||20th Century Fox|
|Plot||In Victorian Canada, after seeing his biological father, Thomas Logan, kill the man who raised him as a child, young James transforms into a mutant and kills his father. He flees with his half-brother, the savage Victor Creed. Throughout the centuries the brothers enlist to fight in various wars, taking advantage of their invulnerability. During the Vietnam War they are recruited into Team X, a group of mutants led by Major Stryker. Logan resigns after Stryker orders the execution of civilians and leads a quiet life with his girlfriend in Canada. Yet after she is killed by his brother, he allows Stryker to experiment on him to help seek his revenge.|
|Setting||Canada, 1845, Vietnam, 21st Century America|
This is generally considered to be the weakest X-Men film to date (2018) and plans for a series of X-Men Origins films, each focusing on an individual character, were quickly abandoned. Sabretooth had previously appeared in X-Men as a savage, mute mutant; here he has a far greater role as Logan's brother, something not mentioned in the earlier film. Brian Cox had played William Stryker in X-Men 2.
In 2009 the Walt Disney Company bought Marvel Entertainment for $4.24 billion, a sign of confidence that the comic book publishing company that had become a major film studio was able to successfully compete with the established players.