From Bankruptcy To Billions – How Marvel Made It To The Top

Case Study & Success Stories

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is a name in the media industry that needs no introduction. 

Marvel studios gave birth to so many of our favorite superheroes ranging from Iron Man and Captain America, to Spider man, to name a few. 

But before becoming the industry giant that it is today, Marvel universe went through one of the darkest periods of its whole existence in 1996.

Read along to see how Marvel went from bankruptcy to a multi-billion business.


Sandman writer Neil Gaiman gave a speech in front of 3000 retailers in 1993, that very few wanted to hear. He argued that the success of the comic book market was a bubble.

Collectors were buying multiple editions and hoarding them up in the hope that one day they’ll be worth a fortune.


By the 1980s, collecting comic books gained the interest of the mainstream media.

Publishers were introducing new variants of covers, sometimes with foil embossing or other fancy printing techniques.

These were snapped up hungrily by readers and by speculators assuming that they will make money by storing copies up and selling them for a profit in the future.

In 1989 Ron Perelman, a millionaire businessman spent $82.5 million on purchasing the Marvel Entertainment Group. Within two years of that, Marvel got listed on the stock market.

He also bought shares in ToyBiz, a couple of trading card companies, Panini stickers, and a distribution outfit, Heroes World for a reported $700 million.

Sales of a new comic, X-Force, were huge, as the first issue came in a polybag with one of five different trading cards inside it. If collectors wanted to get hold of all five cards, they had to buy multiple copies of the same comic (Indian kids will remember the same approach Coca Cola and Pepsi took in early 2000s).

Former Comics International news editor Phil Hall recalls, fans were buying five copies pristine and unopened, and a sixth to tear into and read.

The Collapse

Between 1993 and 1996, revenues from comics and trading cards began to collapse.

“When the business turned,” observed then-chairman and CEO of Marvel, Scott Sassa, “it was like everything that could go wrong did go wrong.”

Hundreds of comic book retailers went bust as sales tumbled by 70 percent. Suddenly, the boom had turned to bust, and even Perelman admitted that he hadn’t anticipated the dark future Gaiman had warned about in his speech.

”We couldn’t get a handle on how much of the market was driven by speculators,” Perelman said; “the people buying 20 copies and reading one and keeping 19 for their nest egg.”

Perelman filed for bankruptcy, thus giving him the power to reorganize Marvel without the stockholder’s consent. He planned to buy the remaining shares in ToyBiz and merge it with Marvel, creating a single, stronger entity and pressing into new territory – The Movie Business.

When giants like marvel can suffer this much, it’s no surprise that startups suffer and fail.

After a lengthy court case, ToyBiz and Marvel Entertainment Group were finally merged in December 1998, and Perelman, CEO Scott Sassa, and some other executives were ousted in the process.

55-year-old Joseph Calamari, who’d been at the helm of Marvel in the 80s was made its new CEO.

The Marvel Movies

Israeli-born Avi Arad served as executive producer on the hit animated TV series X-Men, and by the summer of 1993, had brokered a deal with 20th Century Fox to make an X-Men movie.

Arad struggled to convince Hollywood executives of the company’s cinematic value. “It was literally a daily fight, trying to open people’s eyes to what was right in front of them,” he later said.

Blade made $70 million at the box office, but the reward for Marvel was a measly $25,000. The X-Men and Spider-Man movies were huge hits, but Marvel only saw a small percentage of the profits.

“We were giving away the best part of our business,” Arad mourned

The “Marvel” Movies

In 2003, David Maisel came to Perlmutter with a proposal. Why not produce the movies under your own banner, and reap the profits for yourself? And if you’re producing your own movies, why can’t the stories cross over with each other, just like they do in the comics?

In 2005, Marvel managed to make a deal with Merrill Lynch.

Marvel was essentially offering up the jewels of its business – characters like Thor and Captain America – as collateral. If the films didn’t make money, those superheroes would suddenly belong to the bank.

The Breakthrough

Marvel got access to a huge reservoir of cash: 525 million USD over seven years, which it could use to spend on 10 movies with budgets ranging from $45m to $180m.

Marvel managed to reacquire the rights to its characters including Iron Man, Black Widow, Thor, and Hulk.

Iron Man made 585 million USD, kick-starting a cinematic universe that is still only just unfolding.

In 2009, Disney purchased Marvel for a dizzying $4.3 billion.

“It’s a cheap price!” Arad said. “It’s nothing! It’s a very strong brand, and we planned on this brand. It wasn’t a fluke.”

The Avengers alone made billions and currently ranks as the third highest-grossing film of all time.

Iron Man 3 became the second Marvel film to gross more than $1 billion.


This was the story of how from being in debt 20 years ago to pulling a multi-billion dollar victory, Marvel survived its darkest hour.

This wasn’t easy, Marvel took some huge risks that could have resulted in the collapse of all our beloved superheroes to assume the worst.

But as Iron Man says, “I shouldn’t be alive… unless it was for a reason. I’m not crazy, Pepper.
I just finally know what I have to do. And I know in my heart that it’s right.”

…And I know in my heart that it’s right. 

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