Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Not a team player

If you follow behind-the-scenes entertainment news like I do, you might have heard over the past couple of days that Marvel Studios had worked out a deal to co-produce Spider-Man movies in the future. If you also happen to follow comics fandom the way I do, you might have then heard a lot of opinionated people freaking right the heck out over this development, and surprisingly not in a good way.

It’s a lot to unpack, especially if you are just getting up to speed and don’t know why this would be a big deal at all, good or bad, so let me try to lay it all out, starting with stuff which is basically common knowledge and then progressing into the really arcane stuff. So, Marvel Studios is basically everyone’s favorite Hollywood success story these days. They are the studio that brought us all the Iron Man movies, Captain America movies, Thor movies, the Avengers and the upcoming highly anticipated Avengers: Age of Ultron, and of course last year’s feel-good insta-classic Guardians of the Galaxy. These movies all made (or will make) humongous box office bank. They also happen to be really good, pretty consistent high quality entertainment. But the really revolutionary element to them, a minor but important thing, is that they are all part of a cohesive long-range shared universe approach to storytelling, which is generally referred to as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (to differentiate it from the Marvel Universe, which is what fans of the original source material comics call the single fictional setting in which all those printed stories take place).

It started with a post-credits easter egg in Iron Man where Samuel L. Jackson appeared as Nick Fury, established the existence of S.H.I.E.L.D. and dropped hints about something called the “Avengers Initiative”. Then Robert Downey Jr. appeared as Tony Stark in Incredible Hulk. Iron Man 2 introduced Black Widow, Thor introduced Thor but also Hawkeye, Captain America was a period piece set in World War II but included Howard Stark, Tony’s father, but all of those little riffs and references of interconnectedness were not the main point. The main point, obviously, was setting up six heroes across four different franchises who could then come together as the Avengers, in a movie of the same name that would be wall-to-wall spectacle and breakneck plot speed because it didn’t have to do the origins and backstories and exposition that the earlier movies had handled. This payed off enormously, we can assert after the fact. When Sam Jackson made his cameo in Iron Man, it probably seemed like a huge gamble that they might not even have the chance to pull the trigger on.

But it was a gamble that Marvel Studios had to take. Marvel Comics, the intellectual property goldmine from whence these characters and situations were obtained, had gone through so many financial difficulties over the decades prior to the founding of Marvel Studios that they had sold off movie development rights to various batches of characters for much-needed cash. Sony got Spider-Man. Fox got the Fantastic Four and the X-Men. And the world got a bunch of movies. The FF flicks were underwhelming, but the X-Men and Spider-Man series had some true bright spots; I’ll happily sit down and rewatch Spider-Man 2 or X-Men United any time. The point is, once Marvel Studios was up and running they couldn’t just call backsies on all of their auctioned-off characters. So they looked at who they had left, minus the team that had started the whole universe (the FF), minus their flagship character (Spider-Man), minus the beloved mutant outcasts (Wolverine and friends), and realized that the Avengers were biggest guns they had left to fire. So they went all in on that.

It worked, and now Universal wants to do a super-team based on the classic monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolfman, with each getting their own backstory-sketching franchise and then all of them coming together Avengers-style down the road. (Or at least that was the plan before Dracula Untold was met with indifference.) And Warner Brothers (which owns the rights to basically all of the characters from Marvel’s main competitor in superheroes, DC Comics) is going to put Batman in the next Superman movie, plus Wonder Woman and Aquaman, and call it Dawn of Justice to prime the pump for a Justice League series and various supporting franchises. And rumors have circulated about solo films starring characters from the Robin Hood legends which would culminate in a Merry Men mega-blockbuster, or King Arthur’s Round Table, &c. &c. &c. Because this is what always happens when somebody tries something new and succeeds wildly: everyone else tries to replicate the success by imitating the superficial aspects of it exactly and hoping it’s just that simple.

Another thing that often/always happens is that the innovator themselves stops innovating and just keeps hammering on the same thing that worked once again and again until it’s been run into the ground. At best, they might hedge their bets a little, but they don’t suddenly blaze off in crazy new directions. So while everyone else is playing catch-up, Marvel Studios has been announcing their future plans. More Captain America and more Thor, of course, which is only to be expected since trilogies are the minimum bar to clear for successful franchises. But also Ant-Man later this summer, and Black Panther and Captain Marvel down the road. New characters mean new franchises which is good business, and people are particularly stoked (and rightly so) that Black Panther is going to star a POC superhero and Captain Marvel is going star a female superhero. Ant-Man seems like an oddball choice, but in the comics Ant-Man was a founding Avenger, and that of course is another unifying factor with Black Panther and Captain Marvel, both of whom were Avengers on-and-off as well. Assuming Downey and Evans and Hemsworth aren’t going to want to keep making superhero movies forever, and acknowledging that in the comics there’s huge amounts of turnover on superteam rosters, it's only logical to plant seeds now that would lead to an Avengers 4 or 5 some time around the turn of the decade where the Avengers will be the Falcon (introduced in CA: The Winter Soldier), Quicksilver (soon to debut in Age of Ultron), Scarlet Witch (ditto), Captain Marvel, Black Panther and Ant-Man. At a certain point it becomes a self-perpetuating system and it makes more sense to go with it than to fight it.

Which brings us to Spider-Man, a character who has not benefited from the triumphs of Marvel Studios because he’s been in Sony’s hands all this time. As I said earlier, I really like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, and I don’t think the original Spider-Man is half-bad, either. (Spider-Man 3 I could take or leave, but even Raimi himself disavows that one.) Of course once the Marvel Studios era well and truly began, Sony rebooted with Amazing Spider-Man, and (stop me if you’ve heard this before) I really liked it. I liked the sequel, too, but apparently I’m in the minority there, and both of Marc Webb’s movies are generally considered critical and commercial disappointments, if not outright failures. Did the Amazing franchise miss the mark because they weren’t Marvel Studios products? Did they try to hit the same tone or feel as the Iron man and Cap and Thor movies but inevitably come up short? Did they try too hard to create an entire universe with Peter’s parents’ convoluted spy backstories and the multi-villain pile-up that was supposed to (and may still) yield a Sinister Six spin-off? Basically, if Marvel Studios could make a Spider-Man movie, would it be better?

We’re going to have the opportunity to find out now, thanks to the deal that made news this week. It doesn’t seem like too bold a prediction to guess that the next solo Spider-Man movie (which I kind of hope will be called The Spectacular Spider-Man) will make more money than Amazing Spider-Man 2, simply because at this point Marvel Studios is a trusted, dare-I-say beloved brand that gets butts in the cineplex seats just because. The box office is all but pre-ordained (unless between now and then Ant-Man or any other movies bomb hard and take some of the shine off the studio reputation) and yet terrible movies make huge box office all the time (see: the Transformers franchise, shudder shudder). Will a Marvel Studios Spider-Man movie be good, aesthetically, artistically, as blockbuster popcorn flicks go? Will it have mass crossover appeal, and if so will it be hand-in-hand with appeal to longtime fans of the Spider-Man comics, or can it only be one or the other but never both?

The obvious answer is “wait and see’ but of course that’s never stopped rampant frothing-at-the-mouth speculation before and it sure as dang isn’t going to now. But I’ve already blathered on for so long now that I reckon I will save that for another day. Just a day or two from now, honest, I’m not going to sit on this for a month (recent inactivity of this here blog acknowledged). To be continued!

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