Over the past decade, the question orbiting Marvel hasn't been whether it can achieve success.
With runaway smashes like The Avengers, sequels like Captain America: Winter Soldier, under-the-radar hits such as Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, domination in the comic book market, and hit TV series like Daredevil and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Marvel has rather conclusively proved that it can touch virtually anything and turn it into gold.
But what's keeping the company from total domination? The answer to that question isn't a lack of new heroes or new storylines (there are plenty in the works). Chief rival DC Comics isn't even the main impediment.
Rather, the name you will always hear when discussing the future of Marvel is Isaac "Ike" Perlmutter. Perlmutter isn't an artist like Jack Kirby, nor is he a writer like Stan Lee, or an editor like Roy Thomas. He is Marvel's CEO, the man who saved Marvel from financial ruin and became its ruler.
When the dust settled during Marvel's bankruptcy in 1996, Perlmutter and Avi Arad gained control of the company. Perlmutter, 72, was and is known as a savvy businessman with a fidelity to budgets. Perlmutter's methods, along with the foresight to set up a film studio and stock splits, helped Marvel dig itself out of a financial mess. (Disney purchased Marvel in 2009 for $4 billion.)
But now those stingy financial methods that stabilized the company, and by extension Perlmutter himself, are seen as the things holding it back.
The more successful Marvel becomes, the more stories about Perlmutter start creeping up. In 2009, Mickey Rourke was allegedly offered just $250,000 to star in Iron Man 2, a movie that ended up grossing over $320 million in the US. In 2011, a round of layoffs at Marvel were traced back to Perlmutter. Those layoffs yielded weird and embarrassing stories about having one bathroom per gender at Marvel HQ, or Perlmutter not wanting to waste memo paper. (He'd rip a sheet into eight parts, supposedly.)
The final disagreement between Marvel's filmmaking arm and Perlmutter has, according to the Hollywood Reporter, revolved around Captain America: Civil War. Perlmutter and a cabal of executives known as Marvel's creative committee wanted to scale it down. Perlmutter has apparently lost this fight, and is no longer in charge of Marvel's filmmaking decisions.
Here's how it happened.
Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige took on Perlmutter and won
In the credits of Marvel movies — even films about heroes owned by other studios — the name that comes up, over and over, is Kevin Feige, named president of Marvel Studios in 2007. Feige started out as an associate producer on Fox's first X-Men film. That was a massive hit, and X-Men's success forever married Feige's name to the idea of superhero blockbusters.
Being able to cash in on superheroes isn't as easy as it seems. Marvel has a much bigger shield now than it did in 2007, and is at the point where it can gamble with movies like Guardians of the Galaxy or Ant-Man.
But for every superhero gem Marvel Studios turns out, there are still stinkers like Fantastic Four from Fox or The Amazing Spider-Man 2 from Sony. As the architect of Marvel Studios' cinematic strategy, Feige is seen as the common denominator in all of the company's successful films.
Feige's success calls into question the role of directors in these films. Over the past year or so, we've seen Joss Whedon (Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron) openly criticize Marvel tampering with his movie; Edgar Wright walk away from Ant-Man; and Ava DuVernay courted and then walking away from Marvel's upcoming Black Panther movie. Names were not named — all we know is that these talented directors have had run-ins with Marvel. That said, in Disney's eyes, Feige is revered.
But while Feige has been massively successful, he still reported to Perlmutter. And Feige wanted a change. But rather than challenge Perlmutter head on (a losing battle for sure), he smartly sidestepped his boss. The Hollywood Reporter reports that Feige, after "several years of frustration," called for a reorganization that, as of last week, has him reporting to Disney studio chief Alan Horn.
Feige's move exposes just how successful you must be to break free of Perlmutter. But it also underscores that it's going to be difficult for Marvel's other properties — its comic books and TV projects — to execute a similar maneuver.
The Sony hack revealed Perlmutter's worst qualities
Back in May, in the midst of controversy over the seeming sexism of Avengers: Age of Ultron, an email from Perlmutter to Sony CEO Michael Lynton about women superhero movies bombing was uncovered. It read:
To: "Lynton, Michael"
Subject: Female Movies
Date: Thu, 7 Aug 2014 05:32:50 -0400
As we discussed on the phone, below are just a few examples. There are more.
1. Electra (Marvel) – Very bad idea and the end result was very, very bad. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=elektra.htm
2. Catwoman (WB/DC) - Catwoman was one of the most important female character within the Batmanfranchise. This film was a disaster. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=catwoman.htm
3. Supergirl – (DC) Supergirl was one of the most important female super hero in Superman franchise. This Movie came out in 1984 and did $14 million total domestic with opening weekend of $5.5 million. Again, another disaster.
Let's try to give Perlmutter the generous benefit of the doubt. This email appears out of context, and he could possibly just be laying out the history of women superhero movies. And Marvel Studios has moved forward with the first woman superhero movie produced under its banner (though later than many would have liked). In October 2014 (around two months after the above email was sent), it was announced that Marvel was going forward with a film about Captain Marvel, the first woman Avenger to get her own movie.
But even with the benefit of the doubt, Perlmutter is overlooking several hugely successful women-led franchises (think The Hunger Games and Underworld) and using a narrow definition of women superheroes. There are, of course, plenty of male superhero movies (Green Lantern, The Green Hornet, Daredevil) that bombed, too. Some of Perlmutter's critics say this email is further evidence that he's sexist. (In 2012, three black women executives filed complaints against Perlmutter.)
Perlmutter also isn't well-liked because he reportedly made Marvel adhere to scanty budgets, even after its considerable success. The Comics Beat reported on Perlmutter's budget-tightening ways in 2011:
If Ike thinks an expenditure is unnecessary, there’s no way around it, and anyone caught doing it is in danger of losing their job. Why did Marvel not have a booth at conventions for years? Ike wouldn’t allow it …
It’s also led to arcane practices within Marvel to keep the budget low. Reportedly, Ike gives new Marvel execs a book that says the best way to make money is to spend as few resources possible while keeping the same pace—or doubling it. Marvel employees are kind of like the rats in those caloric restriction experiments. They’re given the lowest possible amount of resources to get the job done.
Perlmutter has also been called "frugal," a "cost-cutter," and a "budget-obsessed maniac." If losing money is Perlmutter's primary fear, it makes sense that he would look at women-led superhero movies that bombed and not want the company to make one. Even if he is sexist, that quality isn't what fuels Perlmutter here — it's the risk and the cost.
Creative companies like Marvel need to take risks every once in a while. As consumers, we don't want to be fed the same Marvel movie (and we already have been) just because it makes money. And creators, as evidenced by Wright and DuVernay's departures, don't want to work with those kinds of creative and budgetary restraints.
Future Marvel movies will establish just how much influence Perlmutter had
Filming for Captain America: Civil War and Dr. Strange is underway, and it's unclear how this reorganization will change them — the scripts and storylines were ostensibly approved under Perlmutter's supervision. The same goes for Marvel's Phase Three schedule. Those dates and movies were selected while Feige was reporting to Perlmutter.
It's the next batch of movies — Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Thor: Ragnarok, and Marvel and Sony's Spider-Man film — that will be Perlmutter-free. It's unclear what "Perlmutter-free" even means. And that idea of an Ike-less movie reinforces Perlmutter's importance as a Marvel scapegoat.
Was he really the only man holding a solo woman superhero movie back? Is he the only reason we've been waiting so long to see a Black Panther movie? Is he what's rubbing high-profile directors the wrong way?
There's no definitive proof, but there's a knee-jerk reaction to trace fault back to Perlmutter.
Whenever things went wrong with Marvel films (see: the lack of Black Widow toys during the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron), Perlmutter usually took the fall.
In that respect, he was a wonderful movie villain — and will continue to play that role for Marvel's comic book and TV properties — and it'll be fascinating to see what happens if a Marvel movie goes south without him at the helm. Executives like Feige won't have as big of a shield when it comes to questions about women superheroes or LGBTQ representation or people of color in Marvel movies. But that's a small price to pay knowing that Marvel's greatness (on the movie side, at least) will be in its own hands.