How a comic book turned into a nearly $9 billion empire

October 9, 2015, 2:54 PM UTC
Marvel's Avengers: Age Of Ultron..L to R: Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)..Ph: Film Frame..©Marvel 2015
Marvel's Avengers: Age Of Ultron..L to R: Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)..Ph: Film Frame..©Marvel 2015
Courtesy of Marvel

The 10th Annual New York Comic Con is in full swing, and thousands of cosplayers, comic collectors and all-around superfans have swarmed to Manhattan’s sprawling Jacob K. Javits Convention Center to pledge fealty to their beloved graphic novels, video games, movies and television shows.

Jose Vega, a bookkeeper from Manhattan, has attended the festivities every year since the first gathering took place in 2006. He told Fortune that the opening day of the convention was the most crowded Thursday he’s ever seen in all his years of attendance, hands down.“I’m just surprised,” he said. “It’s more packed than normal. I think the con is becoming more mainstream.”

If this is true, you almost certainly have the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU, to thank for it.

If you don’t know what that is, it’s a superhero movie series with interconnected Marvel Comics characters, and it’s been producing one cinematic blockbuster after another since 2008’s “Iron Man.” An adaptation of the comic book of the same name, Robert Downey, Jr. plays billionaire Tony Stark, who dons a high-tech armored suit of his own creation to become the invincible Iron Man, scourge of global terrorism.

According to Box Office Mojo, “Iron Man” went on to earn $585 million at the worldwide box office, and since then, the properties released under the MCU rubric have collectively earned almost $9 billion globally. In Vega’s view, their popularity has made Comic Con’s longtime cult status a thing of the distant past.

“The Marvel booth was a lot more crowded,” Vega said. “The movies brought a lot of people… I’ve noticed a steady increase for the past couple of years.”

From comic book to movie franchise

None of this has happened by accident. The movies of the MCU have been in production since 2007, and so far comprise three painstakingly planned phases.

The first phase introduced all of the characters and culminated in 2012’s “The Avengers.”

The second expanded on the existing characters and introduced new ones, in such films as 2015’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Ant-Man.”

The third phase begins its planned rollout in 2016 with “Captain America: Civil War” and “Doctor Strange.” This phase will see two further “Avengers” sequels and the 2018 sequel to “Ant-Man” that was just announced, “Ant-Man and the Wasp.”

What happens after that is anybody’s guess. But for now, it seems safe to assume that nobody’s thinking about having the Hulk or any of his colleagues bow out gracefully anytime in the foreseeable future. In fact, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige told Bloomberg News in 2014 that there have been proposals to keep making movies as far off as the year 2028.

Disney’s get a lucrative last laugh

If that happens, and current trends hold, Walt Disney Studios stands to make a sum of money that is without precedent outside of the defense industry. However, that wasn’t always the conventional view. When Disney bought Marvel Entertainment in 2010 for $4 billion, Disney’s stock price dropped. After all, Marvel’s most popular character, Spiderman, already belonged to Sony Pictures, and who wants to see a bunch of movies about Thor?

That Disney had the last laugh is now beyond dispute. The two “Thor” movies grossed over $1 billion combined at the worldwide box office.

The success of the super-powered Norseman and such other also-ran properties as Captain America built momentum and brand recognition for Marvel, and it’s hard to imagine that this summer’s “Ant-Man” would have taken in $410 million at the worldwide box office otherwise. So when Walt Disney Studios crossed the $4 billion mark at the 2015 global box office on October 7, “Ant-Man” and “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” had helped make that unparalleled success a reality.

Online distribution

Disney isn’t limiting Marvel’s reach to the big screen. 2015 also saw the premiere of “Daredevil” on Netflix, and it was successful enough to earn a second season in 2016. If you can’t wait that long, there’s also “Jessica Jones,” which is scheduled to premiere on the streaming service in November. Both shows lead up to the “Defenders” miniseries, another Marvel property that, one assumes, will spawn other franchises.

And there’s the stuff for sale

Marvel also sells branded merchandise in its shop, including a $268 Avengers Nylon Satchel by Dooney & Bourke and a $1500 ”Secret Wars” Giclée by comic artist Alex Ross. The Marvel shop hasn’t forgotten about the kids either, and sells such urchin bait as the $25 Iron Man Hulkbuster Action Figure and Thor’s mighty hammer, Mjölnir.

Marvel isn’t the only studio in the superhero game. 2016 will see the release of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” the sequel to 2013’s “Man of Steel.” The movie will feature appearances by Aquaman and Wonder Woman, and with a field that crowded, there is a very real risk of consumers contracting a terminal case of superhero fatigue. If this happens, don’t panic.

In two months, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opens, the first film in the “Star Wars” saga since Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012. The movie has been projected to earn $2 billion before a single ticket has even gone on sale, and it’s scheduled to be followed by numerous sequels and spin-offs. So weep not for Walt Disney Studios. With Iron Man and R2-D2 in its talent pool, the company will probably be okay, whatever happens.

Daniel Bukszpan is a New York-based freelance writer.