Marvel Studios is by far the biggest pop culture juggernaut of the last decade. Its impact on pop culture is so seismic that even franchises that were previously considered untouchable, like Star Wars and Batman, have taken a back seat. A studio with that much influence undoubtedly has a fascinating origin story, and Joanna Robinson, Dave Gonzales and Gavin Edwards teamed up to take on the task of telling that story in their new book MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios.
It’s a herculean task to synthesize the story of Marvel Studios into one readable book. I can only imagine the sheer amount of information, individuals involved and important storylines that the authors had to research, process and manage. Fortunately, if there are three people who are well equipped for such a task, it’s Robinson, Gonzales and Edwards.
Robinson is a pop culture expert, and has been covering the Marvel Cinematic Universe for years. She previously wrote about Marvel for Vanity Fair and is responsible for some of the most in-depth articles on the MCU. Currently, she is a hugely popular podcaster for The Ringer, where she provides extensive analysis on all things Marvel and pop culture.
Robinson’s colleague, Dave Gonzales, is also immersed in geek culture and is fellow podcaster for The Ringer. Like Robinson, Gonzales has been covering the MCU for much of its existence, and carries a wealth of film, TV and comic book knowledge.
The two enlisted the aid of writing veteran Gavin Edwards, who has written a dozen books, including a colorfully titled book on the career of Samuel L. Jackson. Together, the trio formed an Avengers-like team, writing an fascinating, insightful and highly entertaining book about the history of the most powerful studio in the world.
I had the opportunity to speak with the three writers about their book and they shared their extensive process, which took nearly four years to complete. We talked about a variety of topics, including the fact that Disney quietly sought to obstruct their work.
“It made the book better honestly for Disney to obstruct us because it lit a journalistic fire under us. We were like ‘What story do you not want us to tell? What are you hiding from us?'” Robinson said about Disney’s efforts to prevent them from interviewing various individuals for their book. Despite the impediment, Robinson, who handled most of the interviews, was able to get much of the information they needed, and possibly more than they would have gotten through official channels.
One of the major players that Robinson did get to speak with is Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, who is practically the protagonist of the book and the Marvel Studios story overall. She spent several hours speaking with him.
“The key takeaway, and Feige himself would say this, is that Kevin Feige was not a comic book nerd growing up. That is a mistake a lot of people make. They think, of course the guy who runs Marvel Studios must have been keeping his comic books in plastic sleeves as a kid. That wasn’t his niche. He’s a blockbuster guy. He’s a movie guy….What that meant is that he was able to craft these movies in a way that is welcoming to people that didn’t grow up on this stuff,” Robinson said.
If Feige is the protagonist of the Marvel story, former CEO of Marvel Entertainment Ike Perlmutter, is the antagonist. Of course, the book has numerous fascinating stories about Perlmutter, including his legendarily frugal ways.
“I was stunned at just how many stories there were about his extreme thriftiness. It felt like every week we’d find another one, sort of like, he wants journalists to have only one can of soda at a junket, he doesn’t allow people to buy Kleenex, he says ‘Use the napkin from your lunch’, there are chairs in the office that are falling apart. We had so many of them that we had to put them all together,” Edwards said. “…It’s a tribute to the people who were working at Marvel that what’s on the screen didn’t reflect the penury that they were dealing with.”
The tension between Feige and Perlmutter is perhaps best symbolized by the film Black Panther, which Feige had wanted to make for years but was rebuffed by Perlmutter. Perlmutter, who had a toy-making background, did not believe that films that did not star white male protagonists would sell toys and merchandise. However, Feige was determined to make the film and ultimately succeeded, which set a new course for Marvel.
“The fact that they were able to find this young, up-and-coming director, and in one of his first meetings, [Ryan Coogler] was like ‘You know this is going to be an all-Black cast right?’ and Kevin Feige was like ‘Yeah that’s why we’re doing it,'” Gonzales said. “And just giving him the leeway to go and research in Africa and to bring an Afrofuturist take into the story, and just make it feel authentic from top to bottom…was incredibly smart and, him having that leeway and the movie being as successful as it was, as pure of a vision as it was, is what brings directors back to wanting to work with Marvel Studios after a difficult period where there was a lot of behind the scenes strife happening.”
Marvel Entertainment was a moribund toymaker not even twenty years ago. Today, Marvel Studios is the dominant player both in Hollywood and in global pop culture. How did an upstart studio conquer the world?
In MCU, beloved culture writers Joanna Robinson, Dave Gonzales, and Gavin Edwards draw on more than a hundred interviews with actors, producers, directors, and writers to present the definitive chronicle of Marvel Studios and its sole, ongoing production, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For all its outward success, the studio was forged by near-constant conflict, from the contentious hiring of Robert Downey Jr. for its 2008 debut, Iron Man, all the way up to the disappointment of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and shocking departures of multiple Marvel executives in 2023. Throughout, the authors demonstrate that the original genius of Marvel was its resurrection and modification of Hollywood’s old studio system. But will it survive its own spectacular achievements? Dishy and authoritative, MCU is the first book to tell the Marvel Studios story in full—and an essential, effervescent account of American mass culture.
Ron is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of POC Culture. He is a big believer in the power and impact of pop culture and the importance of representation in media.