November 14, 2018updated 28 Nov 2018 11:21am

How Stan Lee’s superheroes turned Marvel into a multi-billion-dollar movie studio

By Ellen Daniel

Stan Lee, comic book writer, editor, producer, publisher, and for many the face of the Marvel franchise, has died aged 95.

After suffering from several illnesses over the last year, Lee passed away at his home in the Hollywood Hills.

Tributes to the former president of Marvel Comics and creator of some of the studio’s best-know characters have poured in, with numerous Hollywood stars sharing their condolences. Actor Chris Evans, best known for his portrayal of Captain America tweeted that “There will never be another Stan Lee”.

Lee first became a part of Marvel age 17 as an errand boy at Timely Comics, which would later go on to become Marvel Comics. He made his comic book debut writing a Captain America book in 1941.

He went on to become editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, which sold 50 million copies a year in its heyday, and later its publisher and chairman.

In later years, Lee was involved in the creation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movie franchise, and credited as executive producer on most Marvel film and television projects.

Lee was also well-known for appearing in his movies, making cameos in a total of 20 films often for just a few seconds, acting as an amusing Easter egg for dedicated fans.

Lee’s creations have seen success onscreen

Stan Lee was behind some of the most well-known superheroes to grace comic book pages and later movie screens, creating or co-creating around 362 characters in total, many of which have become icons in popular culture.

From the verge of bankruptcy in the nineties, to attracting the attention of Disney, who bought Marvel Studios for $4.24bn in 2009, many of Stan Lee’s characters, and the box office success they have received, have been credited with reviving the superhero genre.

According to Quartz, films based on Stan Lee’s characters, or those he co-created with other Marvel artists and writers, have grossed an estimated $27bn globally.

Although it is unclear how much Lee himself made from his characters, with his net worth estimated to be somewhere between $50m and $80m, it is clear that his creations have gone some way to boost the studio’s earnings.

With many of Stan Lee’s characters now the centre of blockbuster movies, here’s how some of his beloved heroes and villains have made Marvel Studios the multi-billion dollar movie giant it is today.

The following totals are based on box office earnings from films produced by Marvel Studios, not including spin-offs or merchandise, or appearances the characters have made in other films.

The Incredible Hulk

With his famous catchphrase (“you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry”) and green complexion, The Hulk, played by Eric Bana, Edward Norton and Mark Ruffalo over the years, has seen numerous reincarnations on the big and small screen.

After the mixed reception to the 2003 film Hulk, The Incredible Hulk was the second film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe when it came to cinemas in 2008, making $263.4 million, a modest figure by today’s standards.

The character will return for the much-anticipated conclusion to the Avengers series in 2019.

Box office total: $263.4m


Perhaps one of the most recognisable of Stan Lee’s characters, Spider-Man has appeared in ten live-action films since his origin in 1962 as well as being Marvel’s top selling comic book.

The first teenage superhero, Lee reportedly created the plucky high school student from Queens as a superhero that youngsters could relate to.

Spider-Man only officially joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2015, with the film rights to the character previously held by Sony.

However, the rebooted Spider-Man: Homecoming, released in 2017, raked in box office earnings of $880.2 million, with the biggest opening weekend for a single character’s introduction to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, according to Wired.

The film also propelled current Spider-Man actor Tom Holland to stardom. In a tribute to Lee, Holland tweeted that he was “indebted” to Spider-Man’s creator.

Box office total: $880.2m

Black Panther

The first black super hero when he debuted in 1966, T’Chaka aka Black Panther joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2017 to much critical acclaim.

The big-budget film was the second-highest-grossing film of 2018 behind Avengers: Infinity War, as well as becoming the highest-grossing film by a black director.

Commenting on the praise the film received over its promotion on diversity onscreen, Lee said: “If kids of all types can identify with our heroes, it’s the most gratifying thing I can think of.”

Box office total: $1.344bn


Following the adventures of the hammer-wielding demigod of thunder and his brother Loki, Thor made his comic book debut in 1962.

When the first Thor film debuted, it made the biggest global total for any comic book superhero movie, and the latest offering, Thor: Ragnorok, took seven times more than its closest rival in the US box office, proving Marvel’s enduring box office dominance.

Thor actor Chris Hemsworth tweeted his thanks to Lee for the “incredible adventures your stories took all of us on”.

Box office total: $1.94bn

Iron Man

Lee originally created billionaire inventor Tony Stark to explore Cold War themes, but since then the character has become a firm fan favourite, largely through his portrayal by Robert Downey Jr.

The film has a special place in Marvel history as the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise. Since the release of Iron Man in 2008, the series has earned Marvel an estimated $2.426bn at the box office, with Iron Man 3 becoming the highest grossing movie of 2013.

The character also features in the highest grossing Marvel film of all time, Avengers: Infinity War, with all of the films in the avengers trilogy passing the billion dollar mark.

Box office total: $2.426bn


Topics in this article: