Fifteen years ago this month, Iron Man became a genre-defining hit that launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The anniversary has Marvel Studios founding chairman David Maisel looking to the past and to the future as he plans his next venture.
Maisel recalls that over a weekend in 2003 he came up with the concept of Marvel producing its own movies — films that would combine its characters in one universe. He pitched Marvel on that idea and got hired to oversee its film efforts, working to secure financing for a slate and convincing Marvel to delay licensing more of its characters to other movie studios, ala the way Spider-Man was at Sony and X-Men was at 20th Century Fox.
More from The Hollywood Reporter
“Marvel was not what Marvel is now,” Maisel tells The Hollywood Reporter. “No one believed in us for years.”
Now Maisel, who left Marvel in 2010 after he helped orchestrate Disney’s $4 billion acquisition of the company, is plotting another universe, one he says is right for 2023 in the same way the MCU was right for 2008.
In his first interview on the topic, Maisel reveals that he has hired a dozen staff, headed by Mythos president and CEO Clint Kisker, formerly the president of MWM. Maisel has also attracted millions from investors to build The Ekos Universe, which hails from his company, Mythos Studios. In addition, he has formed an advisory group he calls Mythos All Stars, including former Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada, and Jeremy Latcham, ex-SVP of development and production of Marvel Studios.
Described as Avatar meets Marvel, The Ekos Universe’s plans include live-action, animation and gaming, all of it anchored by a series of Ekos films inspired by the work of late superstar artist Michael Turner, known for titles such as Fathom and Soulfire.
In the years since Iron Man launched, multiple studios have attempted to launch their own cinematic universe. Most have failed, some of them quite spectacularly. So Maisel understands why people might be skeptical when they hear of plans for yet shared universe. But as he points out, wouldn’t you bet on the guy who has done it before?
Indeed, that’s a bet some are already taking. Maisel’s Mythos Studios has achieved a nine-figure valuation, he says. Its stakeholders include Hybe, the South Korean label and agency that is home to BTS; billionaires Ron Burkle, Nicolas Berggruen and Jim Breyer; the metaverse-focused investment firm Sfermion; the south Korean gaming company Krafton, and the metaverse company Digital.
This is Maisel’s second stab at planning a Turner-based universe. Maisel and star music manager Scooter Braun formed Mythos Studios in 2018, acquired a 50 percent stake in Turner’s Aspen Comics, and plotted a series of animated films. (Braun’s Mythos stake went to Hybe when he sold his company in 2021, though remains involved in Mythos.) Then COVID hit, shuttering movie theaters. Maisel’s elderly mother, whom he took care of, died in that time, all of which had him thinking about what he wanted to do with his life.
“She wanted me to do something — another chapter in my my life that I was excited about and with special meaning for today’s world” he tells THR.
Ekos borrows its name from a 2003 comic from Turner and Geoff Johns, though the universe does not follow its story. Maisel is not yet revealing the unifying idea behind the Ekos Universe, but it’s one he dreamed up during the pandemic.
“In a time when there are so many great films exploring the wonder and awe of multiverses and galaxies, Ekos will focus on the wonder and awe of this planet,” Maisel says, hinting at his concept.
Maisel’s new plans will take inspiration from Turner’s work ala how Marvel Studios adapts the comics. The comics are at the heart, but the films and TV shows are very much their own thing. Case in point: Turner’s creations did not interact in the comics, but they could in the Ekos Universe. Maisel is also still developing a previously announced Justin Bieber-voiced animated Cupid movie that is separate from Ekos.
Ekos gave a first taste of what it has to offer with an auction of one-of-one digital art featuring Turner’s pencils with new coloring from frequent collaborator Peter Steigerwald. The auction, launched on May 2 (the 15th anniversary of Iron Man) was a hit, bringing in around $900,000 for 995 pieces of art. Two years earlier, Mythos brought in $100,000 at auction for an NFT of the cover to 1998’s Fathom No. 1, perhaps Turner’s most famous book.
The $1 million combined haul is nice, but more importantly, Maisel sees the digital art as a way to make people feel like they are a part of a universe in a way that wasn’t possible in 2008.
Comic art is one of Maisel’s passions. In his office near The Grove in Los Angeles, Maisel surrounds himself from mementoes from his time at Marvel and his present at Mythos.
He also has framed magazine and newspaper articles from his early Marvel days, tangible proof of his contributions to the brand. Among the mementoes is an illustration made in 2007, showing Maisel and Marvel’s Wolverine casting the Avengers. A new take on that illustration shows Maisel and Turner casting the Ekos heroes.
But amid all the art and movie posters, it is something less flashy that he considers even more meaningful.
Framed on his wall is an email signed by Ike Perlmutter, the reclusive former Marvel CEO who famously does not send emails. In the message, Perlmutter congratulates Maisel on 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, a film that he did not work on, but which was the culmination of what he put in motion. For a time, it was the top-grossing film of all time with $2.79 billion globally.
“The movie was a terrific accomplishment and we know that it all started with you, your vision and your tenacity in pushing to achieve that vision,” reads the email, signed by Perlmutter and his longtime attorney and confidant John Turitzin. Also framed is a congratulations card from Turitzin, from when Iron Man hit theaters, in which the Turitzin credited Maisel with conceiving of the idea.
Why are these notes so meaningful? Because after watching Marvel becoming the biggest film franchise in history, it seemed that history had forgotten Maisel’s role. As Maisel says, most fans believe the late Stan Lee co-created the Marvel Universe with Jack Kirby and then Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige took Lee’s creations to the next level. That’s all true, but it leaves out Maisel’s role.
For Maisel, who in the early days of the MCU he was Feige’s boss as well as friend and collaborator, this email was tangible proof Marvel leaders at the time recognized what he did.
“In the multiverse where I don’t come up with the idea in a weekend in 2003 for Marvel making its own movies and mixing its characters together — there’s never an MCU, he says.
At San Diego Comic-Con in 2008, just after the launch of Iron Man, Stan Lee told Maisel he had “taken the baton” and brought the characters to life in a new way.
“I view it as a relay race,” says Maisel. “It was Stan creating the characters, me coming up with my idea of Marvel making its own films and mixing its characters, launching this new Marvel Studios with Iron Man, and selling to Disney, and then me handing the baton to Kevin — and him doing a great job producing the films since then.”
Best of The Hollywood Reporter