Marvel’s MCU innovation strategy


Marvel, a brand once on the precipice of bankruptcy, has become one of the leading intellectual property sets in the world. Now owned by Disney, they have benefited from taking part in one of the key benefits offered by the Mouse House: activity fit. Even if you’re not a fan of the Marvel movies and episodic shows it’s important to recognize how they became so successful. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is meticulously planned within a self-reinforcing set of activities. And, it’s this approach that makes them innovative and wildly successful.

Let’s take a look at a few of their main activities.

Unknown directors for known characters
The current MCU began with the movie Iron Man. While not an A-list character, Iron Man has been around for decades and passed through many iterations. Its director, however, was not very established. By the time he was chosen for Iron Man, Jon Favreau had only directed a handful of movies. The only one that could be considered action was Zathura, and it was a money-losing sequel to Jumanji that only grossed $64M worldwide.

Marvel Studios gets the balance of sustaining vs originating right by choosing directors to build new things while the studio maintains the brand.
Favreau went to direct a film far more centered on character than spectacle. There’s more screen time for Robert  Downey Jr. than a suited Iron Man. And, the movie went to gross an impressive $585M worldwide. Many of the Phase One MCU movies were helmed by relative “unknowns” as directors. Others include Joe Johnston for Captain America: The First Avenger, James Gunn for Guardians of the Galaxy, and Anthony and Joe Russo for Captain America: The Winter Soldier. (An in depth review of this can found in Matt Patches’ article on Grantland).

Each of these directors brought a certain artistic aspect to each film but weren’t so established as have the cache to insist on making the movie “their own.” This allowed the MCU execs to keep a tight reign on the styles and storylines of the films, thereby adhering to their overall strategy.

Setting technical leadership as a constant
While early (and even some current and future) directors were untested for SFX blockbusters, Marvel kept the technical aspects of filmmaking largely in-house. Their directors didn’t know much about SFX and action, but that didn’t matter since the technical direction was handled by a consistent set of Marvel leadership. These “outsourced” directors didn’t need to think about it and Marvel didn’t want them to anyway. This gave the MCU a consistent visual look that only got better with time while their combined experience and knowledge increased.

Linking stories across multiple mediums
The MCU is more than a set of movies. It also includes small screen episodic shows and web series. The movies share characters freely. (Even to the point that the second and third Captain America movies can seem more like Avengers 1.5 and 2.5) So far, eight different small screen shows have premiered and many more are scheduled or in the works. These shows, in turn share characters, especially the Netflix properties. Even though there is minimal sharing of characters and storylines between movies and shows, each of the shows acknowledge they are all part of the same universe. This allows the MCU to replicate an aspect that makes the original comics universe so successful: connections across properties. Fans who love the comics can get frustrated by characters in stand-alone movies, so the MCU provides them with the connections they so dearly seek.

Concentric story arcs
These story arc connections are just part of the concentric circles of storylines built into the MCU. Each MCU property has the capacity to exist on its own. Thor: Ragnarok is scheduled to come out in November 2017. And, while it could be helpful to have seen the first two Thor movies, it’s not necessary to enjoy the third. This is part of the strategy of each MCU property.

It’s not Marvel’s films that are particularly innovative. It’s the strategic set of activities they’ve built to sustain them that rises to innovation.
At time of writing this there have been three Iron Man movies, two Thor, three Captain America, two Guardians of the Galaxy and two Avengers. Most of those have more movies planned. Plus, the newer properties of Doctor Strange and Ant Man also have sequels scheduled. All these movies, in turn, are part of a larger concentric story arc leading to the Infinity Wars to be completed within the Avengers franchise. Larger still is the concentric arc that includes the Netflix and other small screen properties. This is a great example of a self-sustaining activity and upholds their overall strategy.

Release Schedule / Production Schedule
The MCU production and release schedule is relentless. Dozens of movies and small screen shows have been produced, are in the midst of production, or are planned. Additions and subtractions have been made along the way, but their overall schedule has remained pretty consistent. This keeps new properties releasing every few months over the course of around 20 years. In fact, the whole release schedule and cast of characters reveals unmatched long-term planning. There is no other example of such production coordination in the western entertainment marketplace. To be fair, it’s a huge risk, but one that seems to be paying off.

Consider two other saga level franchises:  Star Wars is an undeniable juggernaut. Over the course of 40 years, Lucasfilm (now owned by Disney as well) has released eight films with a total worldwide box office revenue of $7.7 billion. JK Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise has released nine films over a 15 year span for a worldwide box office total of $8.5 billion.

Compare those to the the MCU which began only nine years ago. It’s released a whopping 16 movies within that time with a worldwide box office total of $12.3 billion. They’ve averaged more than $1 billion in theatrical revenue each year. And that doesn’t include any revenue from the small screen productions. That level of production was a risk if the movies didn’t gain huge traction. But, part of their undeniable success is due to the sheer proliferation of content for eager fans. They successfully created a monster of a fan base and have used their production schedule to be able to feed its extreme hunger for new content. Yet another self-reinforcing activity.

Activity fit is the key to success
Each of these activities alone aren’t enough to lead the MCU to success. And Marvel and its MCU aren’t without problems or mistakes. But, it’s the combination of a self-reinforcing set of connected activities that make the MCU so successful, legitimately innovative and even somewhat insulated from the problems that do exist. It’s also why their success is so rare in the Hollywood industry. Coordination for a grand strategy isn’t really something the film industry is good at. In an industry commonly built on the identity of individuals, collective effort is a tough sell.

Your own business certainly does not have the scale or scope of the MCU, but that doesn’t mean you can’t shift your focus to creating sets of activities rather than just stand alone products or services. Remember, innovation isn’t about individual products; it’s about the strategic approach and activities that support those products.


The Strategic Web is an independent consultancy focused on innovation strategy. I help businesses and organizations develop strategies to differentiate themselves in the marketplace and progress out of static practices.

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Scott Hutcheson