My first comic book was Captain America #332. It hooked me immediately, not just with the story line—the hero quits rather than become a stooge of the U.S. government—but also with its promise of a giant, unexplored world. There were sidekicks Falcon and D-Man, mention of a half-dozen other heroes and a villain named Warhead, who died. Enthralled, I ventured to the pages of Iron Man and The Avengers. I forgave weak storylines (Cap becomes a werewolf!) and sampled strange new titles (Brute Force—it had a machine-gun-toting cybernetic dolphin), all based on the loyalty I’d built to the Marvel Comics brand. The enjoyment of any single comic was amplified by my engagement with the product line as a whole.
Applying this basic geek truism to its movie franchises turned Marvel into the 800-pound Hulk of Hollywood. The company’s 11 movies since Iron Man’s 2008 release have grossed $3.4 billion total. Look at the Marvel empire as an interconnected network of products, promotions and intellectual property, and you can see the same forces that give Apple Music an advantage over Spotify and Microsoft’s Yammer the means to beat Slack. Marvel doesn’t just own a fictional universe—it owns an ecosystem.
Admittedly, “ecosystem” is a popular word among jargon peddlers these days. The buzzword appeared 160 times in the 2014 prospectus of Chinese e-commerce pioneer Alibaba, according to a recent Deloitte report. But it’s also a useful metaphor for certain companies’ success—Alibaba included. Functioning as a social media platform, an e-commerce portal and an auction site, the company has built a digital megamall; once a shopper enters, there’s no reason to leave.
Building an ecosystem is more than creating great products or brand loyalty. I might like Ford, but owning two of their cars doesn’t boost my enjoyment of either one. On the other hand, Google’s email, maps, and mobile OS each become more useful in concert.
Marvel’s past illustrates what happens when executives don’t understand the sum of their company’s parts. A previous regime at the company sold the individual characters’ rights to different studios: 20th Century Fox leased the X-Men in 1994, and Sony got Spider-Man four years later. While the deals did produce blockbuster films, a flop—and there have been flops—could threaten a whole franchise, since there is little extra material to backstop failures.
Marvel’s first insight on the road to cinematic dominance was the recognition that it had to reassert control over its intellectual property; the second was that it controlled not a stack of discrete products but an network of ideas—one that was stronger as a whole than it was stripped for parts.
That realization allowed Marvel to implement formal mechanisms for innovation, scouring its archives for new opportunities. The script for surprise hit Guardians of the Galaxy sprung from the Marvel Writing Program, a skunkworks that charged hot young writers to find viable movies in obscure corners of the publisher’s back catalogue. And all along, the company ensured each property linked lightly but deliberately with the next—watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on television was better if you’d seen the most recent Captain America film and vice versa.
Thanks to this success, Marvel is now extending its reach. In February, it struck a new deal with Sony to revive the waning Spider-Man franchise. That ecosystem has proven so vibrant, it can support not just dozens of films but two companies as well.