Are Comic Book Movies Marvel-ous?
By Ian Wilson
01 August 2008 — Thanks to Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, 2008 has marked a new era for Marvel-based film properties. Through them, Marvel has laid the foundation for a full movie universe. As with anything, though, this could be a runaway success or squandered potential.
Regardless of their quality, these two films are very significant pictures for Marvel. With Marvel having created their own studio, allowing them a greater say in the handling of their properties, they have used Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk to establish a continuity that will lead to an Avengers team-up movie three years down the road. This means that in addition to seeing Iron Man, Hulk and Nick Fury in a film together, the ranks of the Avengers will swell to include Captain America, Thor and Ant-Man, all of whom are due to have introductory films out before the Avengers movie comes along — not to mention an Iron Man sequel.
When the ill-fated Justice League of America film was still on the cards, I was wringing my hands, begging for Warner Bros. to adapt the then-rumored Marvel model — something they now appear to be considering. My issue here is the timing of the films, as well as how the producers are handling them. If handled incorrectly, this great idea could falter before our very eyes.
There's a long, unfortunate history of producers spoiling films just because it's their money on the line. One needs only watch An Evening with Kevin Smith to understand why the Superman franchise took so long to return; if you think Superman Returns annoyed me, imagine how badly I would've rated the combined "vision" of Tim Burton and Jon Peters. And whilst it's easy to think of Warner Bros. as the malevolent powerhouse that wants to shit on comic book movies, I'd say it is because of Marvel's producers that their film properties have been so achingly inconsistent over the past five years.
My theory begins in 2002. Five days after the release of Spider-Man, the release date of Spider-Man 2 was announced as 30 June 2004. Obviously the producers liked the final cut (and initial box office draw) enough to green-light a sequel (even if announcing a specific release date that early was somewhat odd). So the pressure was now on Sam Raimi to deliver again, and deliver big. This he duly did, with the sublime Spider-Man 2, but there were costs. Raimi had a falling out with composer and friend Danny Elfman, with Elfman stating:
"I've known Sam [Raimi] for almost 15 years. Spider-Man 2 was my fifth movie with him and all I can say is that the person who was there at the end of Spider-Man 2 was not Sam. I don't know who it was, but it wasn't Sam. It was as close to living out Invasion of the Body Snatchers as I've ever experienced. To see such a profound negative change in a human being was almost enough to make me feel like I didn't want to make films anymore. It was really disheartening and sad to see the way it ended up."
Spider-Man 2 was a critical hit, more so than the previous film, and the financial takings remained impressive, if not quite equaling those of its predecessor. So again the pressure was on.
The result was Spider-Man 3.
I've personally been rather kind to this movie, because I think that the things that were done well were done very well. But things were wrong from the start. Raimi, who was on record in stating his hatred for Venom, included Venom in his film. His excuse was that he'd said that to throw people off, although you can't ignore the fact that Venom had a mere 15 minutes of screen time. Why? Because the Sandman was the chief villain, as he was the guy who murdered Uncle Ben. Except he wasn't in the first film. Besides, wasn't Harry Osborn the villain? Because I distinctly remember him being in that movie. Or was he redeemed by
Alfred Bernard? I think you see my point: the film was a bit of a mess, and that's without mentioning Mary Jane Watson. Spidey 3 still grossed highly, but the drop in quality was painfully obvious and a sour end to an otherwise great series.
The more observant of you will notice that five years ago was actually 2003, so why am I talking about Spider-Man when that franchise only stumbled last year? Five years ago, X2 was released and remains my best-reviewed comic book movie to date. Again though, the powers that be thought how wonderful it would be to set a release date for the next sequel just as the current film was premiering. Now in fairness, X2 was clearly an excellent film that would take a lot of money, and the producers were anticipating that franchise mastermind Bryan Singer would still be present to helm the final film. Oh, he's dropped out to do the new Superman film, you say? Well at least Marvel could depend on the talents of up-and-coming British director Matthew Vaughn. Then again, maybe not. Vaughn walked away, later admitting that he didn't want to be the guy that destroyed the X-Men franchise, having realized the time constraints and the quality of the script. Brett Ratner had no such qualms and actively "directed" a film that became a gigantic cluster of wacky mutants going mental in a forest. The film still grossed, but left the franchise looking backwards instead of forwards, with two origin-themed spin-offs being used to continue the now-stunted film series.
From thereon in, Marvel has struggled. Not so much at the box office, but in terms of critical appreciation. The Punisher, Elektra, both Fantastic Four movies, Ghost Rider. It almost seems like 2008 is the cutoff point; it's as though any Marvel film set in production before 2008 is due a "requel" or is allowed to stand in a separate continuity. It'd be a definitive break if this were so, and not exactly disrespectful to the films that came before this new Marvel Universe either. But this would be pointless if producers don't take stock of the underlying reasons behind the inconsistency of their past films.
They could start by not announcing the release dates of sequels way in advance. That's what has happened with Iron Man 2, which is due out pretty much two years after the release of the original. In that production has yet to formally start, this doesn't give Jon Favreau much time to turn out a sequel; indeed he has less time to work on this than the first movie, and has stated as much. In fact, Marvel dragged their feet in upping the director's salary despite the revenue Favreau brought in with his vision of a non-household comic property. And had Marvel not secured Favreau for another film (which they eventually managed to thankfully), you have to believe that they risked losing Robert Downey, Jr. as well. Even if the actor has gone on record as saying he'd play Stark as many times as he's asked to, the relationship between a director and the lead actor is hugely important. Favreau / Downey, Jr. is an artistic relationship in the vein of Burton / Keaton, Raimi / Maguire and Nolan / Bale — the two men click so well creatively that their film succeeds. Trying to limit the creative process runs the risk of derailing a film series in the same way that the demands placed upon Raimi became evident by the end of Spider-Man 3.
Producers would also do well to oversee their properties as they're being developed. Obviously, that is what producers do, but with the new Marvel Studios umbrella, you would think that there would be few excuses for churning out a movie as terrible as Elektra. The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man films have shown that the new Marvel Universe is run by fans of the source material, with the many nods to supporting characters within the comics and suchlike. It is this approach that needs to remain consistent to ensure a standard within the new universe. Excessive referencing won't guarantee a great film on its own — as proven by The Incredible Hulk — but acknowledging the fans can go a long way to show that effort has gone into the films, rather than them being rushed out for a quick buck. By picking filmmakers who have clear ideas of how to handle their properties, producers should find themselves with more hits than spin-off schlock, arty extremes or forgettable popcorn fare. Those running Marvel Studios should work extra hard to make their movies succeed, because they have vested interests in the characters.
This, theoretically, gives them an advantage over DC in some respects, as Warner Bros. producers have not, historically, had the same vested interests — as shown by their green-lighting of Catwoman, Batman & Robin and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. But now the DC / Warner Bros. alliance is looking into the same universe approach, partially out of plagiarism, but moreover as a way to jumpstart the mentality that was originally behind the Justice League of America comic book: the combining of characters, all of whom just so happen to belong to a marketable superteam. The advantage of being a step off the pace from Marvel is that they can view their rival's progress from afar, learning from their competitor's mistakes like a middle child.
There are arguments for and against the universe mentality. Artistically speaking, you can do a hell of a lot within a universe, and as long as consistency is maintained alongside continuity, this could be a hugely successful venture for Marvel. But the X-Men franchise, which in itself is a collection of superpowered heroes and villains, has proven that too many cooks can indeed spoil the broth, and that the Avengers film will need to be damn careful that it doesn't become another X-Men: The Last Stand.
Time will tell how the concept comes off. And whether it works or not, it will be interesting to watch the process unfold. Whatever your opinion, the bottom line is that it means we get more comic book movies in the near future, which is certainly fine by me!