Tuesday, April 28, 2015

How Marvel played the game well and how the boom inevitably leads to a bust

With the release of THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON upon us, not only has summer arrived, but the big boom of superhero films is about to explode. Seriously, enjoy 2015 for its mere 3 superhero film offerings because from here on out, things are going to explode. AOU is the eleventh Marvel Studios film, and soon the studio will ramp up from two films a year to three, even as Warners finally begins utilizing the DC Comics catalog for two movies a year as well. (And that's not even getting into the Marvel characters whose rights are still controlled by Fox - such as X-Men and Fantastic Four.)

Slashfilm put together a pretty handy list of all of the comic book-related releases, which you can see here.  The short version is that these are the total number of comic book films set for release each year:

2016: 8
2017: 7
2018: 5
2019: 4

(I'm not counting the Sony Spider-Man spinoffs listed at that link because all indications are those are on ice for now.)

Obviously there's been no shortage of thinkpieces on how long this boom can sustain. Eventually, there WILL be a crash. That's just simple logic at work. It would be naive to pretend that comic book films aren't a cyclical as every other genre that's gone through its hot and cold periods. Sitcoms were dead for years until The Cosby Show brought them back. Drama went through a similar fallow period, but was reinvigorated during the late 90s and early 00s by shows like The Sopranos. Genre TV got a big boost from Lost... until the proliferation of inferior Lost imitators like The Event ended up wearing out that genre.

Honestly, I'm not interested in trying to predict where the bust will happen. Proliferation of product will be a factor, but fortunately, a lot of these WB and Marvel properties can be fairly distinct from each other. In the hands of the right auteurs, these superhero movies don't all have to feel the same. Marvel's best successes have often come from recognizing the distinct subgenres that can make a Captain America film feel distinctly different from, say an Iron Man, or a Thor film. If you're gonna lump all the comic book properties into the same category, it's about as silly as calling THE MATRIX and JOHN WICK the same film.

When Warners announced its plans to roll out 10 superhero films over five years, Marvel loyalists were quick to accuse them of trying to "rush" what Marvel "took their time" doing. It was absurd to them that JUSTICE LEAGUE would be announced before WB saw how any of the standalones would go... but that overlooks that 2012's THE AVENGERS was announced right after IRON MAN opened in 2008. Warner's plan doesn't seem quite so crazy when compared to Marvel's pace. Marvel played the feature game well, but was we go into the big boom, it might be worth revisiting the road that got them here, just to remember they stumbled along the way too.

2008: Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk - Look up Robert Downey Jr's pre-IRON MAN credits. You've got great critically acclaimed roles in Zodiac, Good Night and Good Luck, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but then there's also the completely forgotten A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, a supporting parts in The Shaggy Dog and Lucky You, and then Charlie Bartlett. This is a guy who was on his second (maybe third?) comeback. He was an unlikely superhero lead with a character who was not considered a heavy hitter by any stretch of the imagination.

What I'm getting at is, in the alternate universe where Iron Man bombed, there's more than enough foundation for the "Of course this had no chance of working" post-mortem. But before the film's release, Marvel had already started developing not only Iron Man 2, but Thor, Captain America and Avengers. That was an announcement they had ready to go the weekend after Iron Man opened, which means the plans had been in the works for a while.

It sort of makes you wonder how the script would have gone if Iron Man opened to a whimper and it was The Incredible Hulk that smashed box office records. Edward Norton was about as big a star as Downey was at that point. Would we have seen the Hulk become the pivitol axis of the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

Fortunately Downey's casting turned out to be one of the most perfect instances of an actor becoming iconic as that particular character. It helps that unlike Norton's turn as the Hulk, he was the first to inhabit the role. Honestly, that might be the key to a lot of Marvel's freshness. On the DC side, we're on our seventh live-action Superman (ninth if you count the two SUPERBOY performers), our eighth live-action Batman, and our second live-action Wonder Woman. The Marvel Universe thus far really only has the Hulk as its rotating chair. (And Nick Fury, if you want to count the David Hasselhoff made-for-TV movie.)

It's Downey who carries the first Iron Man, and the first hour of that film is still one of the true high points in Marvel history. The script knows just how to introduce Tony Stark while giving Downey a chance to strut his stuff. He's a cocky asshole, but he's a charming, funny, cocky asshole and that makes it a lot easier to follow this guy. The goodwill of the film's first half makes it a lot easier to ignore that the second half of the film is a big weak, due in large part to some weak villains. It's an unfortunate Marvel tradition that their villains are generally weak sauce. On the other hand, it's nice to not be in the Burton/Schumacher mold of of the bad guys blowing the good guys completely off the screen.

In contrast to Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk is a serviceable but forgettable film. It's not bad enough to hate, but it's not really good enough to get excited about either. But then, it also came at a time when a comic book film could do all right by just getting on base rather than needing to hit a home run or else be called out for underperforming.

2010: Iron Man 2 - I think Marvel needed a failure like Iron Man 2, if you can call $623M worldwide a failure. (It earned more abroad than the first, but less at home.) Last year I called out Amazing Spider-Man 2 for feeling more like a business plan for future sequels than a story in its own right. After the ending of the first film teased "the Avenger Initiative" I was excited to see more Samuel L. Jackson in this sequel and the introduction of Black Widow looked promising too. What we got was kind of a mess of plotlines that get in each others way and a lot of material involving SHIELD that seems to be there just to keep them on the game board.

Director Favreau opening complained about the compromises he made on the film, which became his last experience with Marvel. It's probably also the weakest of the 10 films so far. Yet, we might owe it a debt of gratitude, as Marvel executives seemed to realize the folly of of this kind of story construction. Subsequent films have been much better about either integrating the larger storyline into that film's particular script, or at least minimizing the impact.

If we take MAN OF STEEL as WB's Iron Man, then Iron Man 2 needs to be the object lesson everyone involved with BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN should heed. BvS has a pretty full cast list as it tees-up JUSTICE LEAGUE, but hopefully most of the other heroes appearing in the former film are mere cameos. The titanic clash of Superman and Batman should be more than enough to fuel an entire film. Iron Man 2 fails because its part in teasing Avengers gets in the way of the presumably core story about Tony Stark. (It also doesn't help that Tony's arc - and the bad guy - are both weak on their own merits. Giving so much time over to Fury and Black Widow seems to have necessitated very surface-level scripting in the A-story.)

The second Captain America film, The Winter Soldier would prove to a be a much more successful instance of a "solo" movie playing with the SHIELD toys and utilizing other heroes well. Everything about that film feels much more organic than Iron Man 2. Let's hope Warners saw that too.

2011: Thor and Captain America - Chris Hemsworth's casting aside, Thor is one of the lesser Marvel films for me. It's another instance of SHIELD cluttering up the story needlessly and the whole enterprise feels like one of Marvel's cheaper affairs. I remember that after my first viewing, one of my strongest impressions was that I had a hard time seeing this as the same world that Tony Stark inhabits. The cheapness of the small town battle bugged me at the time (and reminded me of SUPERMAN II), but I've softened on that since subsequent summers have brought us a steady diet of city-destroying battles.

Captain America is my favorite solo film of Marvel's Phase One and it's probably the first time Marvel really succeeds at setting one of its properties in another genre. Hiring Joe Johnston, the director of cult favorite The Rocketeer, to helm this tale of Captain America's WWII origins has to go down as one of Marvel's savvier moves. Chris Evans probably doesn't get enough credit for how well-rounded he makes a Dudley Do-Right superhero, and part of why the film succeeds is because Steve Rodgers is a perfect contrast to the cockier, more ego-driven heroes Thor and Iron Man.

As much as Marvel gets flack for some formulaic elements in their films and the fact that most of the action sequences are previsualized before a director is even hired, they tend to be pretty good about nailing the characters. They're well-rounded, they're distinct from each other, and even in a weaker script, it tends to be fun to watch guys like Tony Stark and Thor play. Marvel's road to Avengers wasn't flawless at all, but the right elements were in place so that Avengers could galvanize all of them. In turn, this gave all the subsequent films a boost. Lately, superhero sequels tend to do better than their originals, but I don't think anyone would debate that a crowd-pleaser like Avengers did a lot more to draw people to The Winter Soldier and The Dark World than the original Captain America and Thor films did.

We look at Marvel as infallible now and some of that is projected backwards towards the start of their plan. I actually think that does a real disservice to the talent involved, making it seem like it was easy to reach the heights of Avengers and Phase 2 in general. It's foolish as fans - and VERY foolish as storytellers - to think any of this is easy. Marvel became the king of the mountain through trial and error in a time when they were mostly the only game in town.

As WB and Fox ramp up their own Marvel-style shared universes, there will undoubtedly be stumbles. But also, there are expectations now. Let's say that BATMAN V. SUPERMAN is the homerun it needs to be, but SUICIDE SQUAD and WONDER WOMAN do so-so business and don't impress audiences much. Does that hobble anticipation for JUSTICE LEAGUE in a way that the weak three-punch of Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2 and Thor didn't become a liability for Avengers?

Here's what Marvel did right - it put their guys on base and then Avengers hit a grand slam. Then it followed up those grand slams with another home run (Iron Man 3) a solid triple, in commercial terms if not artistic ones (Thor: The Dark World), and two more home runs (Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy).

Are DC and Fox playing in a game where they can afford just to get on the base? They're going to take more lumps for doing so, to say nothing of the fact that it puts a lot more pressure on the clean-up batter.

MAN OF STEEL's worldwide take of $668M puts it above the original Iron Man ($585.2M), as well as all the other pre-Avengers releases. Avengers, ($1.5B), Iron Man 3 ($1.2B), Guardians of the Galaxy ($774M) and The Winter Soldier ($714M) are the only Marvel releases to out-gross it. If BvS can hit near a billion, WB is very much a contender.

Let's also not forget to the casual viewers, they don't draw the same Marvel/DC distinctions that most people do. If Marvel has a dud that happens to coincide with some "growing pains" bombs released by WB and Fox, it's probably not great for the comic book brand as a whole. It's one reason why the whole Marvel/DC fanboy clash has never made any sense to me. You can't be rooting for your "enemy's" failure because what's bad for WB's business is bad for Marvel's business. Marvel absolutely wants to remain number one, but I guarantee you they don't want to see WB go broke competing with them.

In the next five years we'll be seeing a lot of comic book films, but there's also a lot of diversity within that genre. Let's all hope for more hits than misses. The studios have already committed to exploiting these IPs over original ideas, so they might as well be GOOD films.

And who knows, maybe if enough of them succeed, a few savvy gamblers might take their winnings and put a few chips elsewhere on the board.

I know. That's probably a more ridiculous notion than anything ever found in a comic book.


  1. The Marvel Universe thus far really only has the Hulk as its rotating chair. (And Nick Fury, if you want to count the David Hasselhoff made-for-TV movie.)

  2. I feel it's a catch twenty-two scenario for either Fox or DC -- try to beat Marvel at their own game, and be criticized for being too similar in their plans; or trying to steal home skipping second and third base, but then come across as rushing ahead to catch up. Fox at least has the advantage with X-Men already being well-established long before Marvel Studios and the Avengers initiative was a vague concept; but is clearly trying to get back in pace after some serious stumbles.

    I've always been more drawn to Marvel's stories over DC's, but I was a Batman fan since I was five and Batman Returns was just released; so I'd love to see more of his films down the pipeline, even if it means his super friends get to tag along for the ride. I only wish it felt like WB/DC had a better, more confident sense of direction with it's new cinematic universe.