It can be strange to consider how much the superhero movie landscape has changed since the MCU started back in 2008. When Iron Man released, it felt like the bubble was either going to burst - both Spider-Man and X-Men trilogies had burnt out - or things would pivot away from comic book feel entirely - not only was Tony Stark grounded but just a few months later The Dark Knight stripped Batman down to gritty crime epic. That the superhero genre didn't crash hinges a lot on what Marvel did with their shared universe, which makes it all the more surprising that the now-iconic Avengers of the MCU are a far cry from the roster Marvel Studios had lined up when the company first announced it was going to start making its own movies.
Marvel Studios (née Films) started life in the 1990s as a licensing arm of the parent company, selling off packaged rights to their biggest characters for other production companies to turn into movies. At the time, that was all they could do - Marvel was in financial trouble and filed for bankruptcy in 1996 - but after major restructuring and the growth of those movies, fortunes turned around. They no longer had the rights to the icons who had made their name, but what Marvel did was have the leveraging power to build something else.
Marvel Studios' Original Avenger Line-Up Was Very Different
By 2004, Marvel Studios began to look at self-financing. As it stood, their gains from successes like Blade, X-Men and Spider-Man were entirely secondary - brand-related income, mostly merchandising - with the respective studios the characters were licensed to taking home the profits. Making movies from scratch gave them the full pie. Taking out a $525 million loan, Marvel set out to turn some of the biggest characters that it still had the rights to into movies, with ten pictures set for the coming eight years.
In 2005, that ten-property line-up was revealed: Ant-Man, The Avengers, Black Panther, Captain America, Cloak & Dagger, Doctor Strange, Hawkeye, Nick Fury, Power Pack and Shang-Chi. No detailed plans for any of the movies were revealed initially, although it was suggested early on that Doctor Strange was viewed as the universe cornerstone (similar to Iron Man), and The Avengers was presumably always a team-up of the sub-franchises.
Yet, immediately, you can see fundamental differences in makeup. Some of the biggest MCU heroes are absent, while many of those that are there would either be put into overarching support roles - Hawkeye was an Avenger but first camoed in Thor, while Nick Fury was more the glue of Phase 1 than headliner - or wouldn't be integrated until much later - Ant-Man in 2015, Black Panther (as part of Captain America: Civil War) and Doctor Strange in 2016, and Cloak & Dagger in their upcoming Freeform TV series. Indeed, in that initial eight-year window, out of the six movies Marvel released, only Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers were the projects named here (and they were the latest).
What stands out most, though, is the names we haven't yet seen in any form in the MCU. Power Pack had been a focus for Marvel Studios before the self-financing days, and as recently as 2017 a film was said to be in development, but no rumblings have matched this early citing (it's possible they were viewed as a Fantastic Four replacement akin to how Inhumans was intended to fill in for X-Men, given the similar team dynamic and wholesome nature). Shang-Chi is even more out there, and there's been seemingly no real development since (although he does offer an area Marvel is still yet to fully explore).
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