Friday, April 4, 2014

From Strip to Screen - Superhero movies post-Avengers

In the barren wilderness that is the dawning reality of No Dredd Sequel I have recently turned to the more fertile ground of superhero movies – namely, the shared movie universes of those two giants of the superhero comic industry, DC and Marvel. This is a big subject, so I might take turns to go over the landscape as it were, post-Marvel Studios, or perhaps more accurately, post-Avengers. It seems to be the enormous success of this particular movie that has led to the studio owners of various Marvel and DC characters to sit up, take notice, and in their own ways follow suit. It’s a big subject with a lot of players both on and off-screen, so let’s start with Marvel.

MARVEL STUDIOS and Marvel heroes 
A brief summary as I understand it: Marvel superheroes are currently covered by the franchises of:
Marvel Studios (Avengers, Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America (plus Hawkeye, Black Widow and Nick Fury) Guardians of the Universe, and the forthcoming Ant Man and [rumoured] Doctor Strange; also TV series Agents of SHIELD and forthcoming Netflix properties [Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist] and the ‘rested’ Ghost Rider)
Sony Pictures (Spider-Man and related forthcoming movies based on in-universe villains The Sinister Six and Venom)
Fox Studios (X-Men & Wolverine plus in-universe heroes and villains; Fantastic Four plus Silver Surfer and one undisclosed future title TBC)
And Universal Studios (Namor the Sub-Mariner)

Marvel’s properties being scattered across three to four studios has turned out to be something of a boon to Marvel Studios themselves; forcing them to dig deeper into their so-called B-list of heroes gave us the very audacious Avengers plan, whereas had rights not been an issue it might simply have been easier for them to just tackle the big hitters of, say, Spider-Man and maybe Hulk year-in. Marvel Studios not having the X-Men is an arguable misfortune, but with next to no X-Men and no Spider-Man we instead get a very charismatic Iron Man boosted up in profile, and on the strength of his success, Captain America and the improbably successful Thor. These successes seem so self-evident that there’s the sense that Marvel are simply too big to fail at this stage, but it should be noted that like DC there are properties and heroes they appear to have deliberately side-lined so as to not scare the horses – the fate of the Daredevil franchise means that Old Horny is relegated to Netflix for the mean-time, and Ghost Rider faces his own limbo.

Nevertheless, conventional wisdom has it thus: Marvel = doing splendidly, thanks. Sure, it smarts to some that they’ve once again lost Spider-man to Sony (who are EVIL and venal in keeping Spidey, etc) but what with the Avengers shared universe going gangbusters they can afford to take risks a la Guardians of the Galaxy. The Guardians movie is a deliberate step into the more extreme comic world of Marvel, with an off-world setting and more outlandish characters. I didn’t really get much out of the mid-credits tease in Thor 2 of The Collector because its look seemed so out of place alongside what had gone before. And yet, there’s the sense that with the Phase 3 of Marvel’s plan there’s a deliberate mission to push things further – out into space, and into a world where magic is a fact of life (Scarlet Witch paves the way for Doctor Strange). Alongside these properties the forthcoming Ant Man seems quite normal, but where to from there?

Everywhere, it seems. Hopefully, all things to everyone, especially if Marvel can make good on the expectation that their roster will soon expand to even more off-world heroes and outlandish concepts. Thor gets a pass, Guardians will probably do well on its goofy charm, but magic is pretty much untested, and a Marvel universe that incorporates elements of the genuinely supernatural (Ghost Rider, Doctor Strange, Morbius the Vampire) is also untested (unless you count the Blade movies from a long time ago) Maybe that’s a minor concern – a decade of teen vampire movies as high fantasy should probably inure audiences to such boundary-pushing.

For me however there’s the sense that the Marvel cinematic universe is also becoming less forgiving to the casual viewer. I experienced this a few weeks ago when Mrs Simian and I were watching Thor 2, not long after also watching the highly-explodey Iron Man 3, both perhaps some six months after having watched The Avengers. Already there was a need to stop play for a recap, and even then, Thor 2 seemed rather choppily edited, removing the resolution of what seemed a major subplot (the Thor-Jane-Sif love triangle) and leaving a lot of Christopher Eccleston’s one-note villain Malketh on the cutting room floor. Such fragmentation of smaller plot elements actually looks sloppier than major ones being reconvened in later movies. Some tightening up may be required, presumably while Marvel Studios are able to politely wrap up their current arcs and franchises. Chris Evans has indicated that his contract as Captain America has an end date of six movies (he is filming movie 4 now), and Robert Downey Jr is presumed to have a similar arrangement. Success is success, but the bigger the Marvel Universe gets, the more control will be needed to keep it tidy for both committed fans and casual audiences. And once superhero fatigue sets in? Latest reports indicate that Marvel Studios' president Kevin Feige has a game plan that stretches through to 2028 - that's a lot of time to see a universe grow and fall. I wuold venture to guess that the fate of other studio superheroes are bound to the success and longevity of the Marvel plan.

At least to Feige and his colleagues the other heroes Marvel Comics have in the hands of Fox, Sony and to a much lesser extent Universal, are really the concerns of others, and I’ll come to those in my next post.

1 comment:

  1. Nice work!

    As we've discussed, I'd love to see Marvel bring it's supernatural titles to the big screen, as they now seem to be diversifying to include more science-fiction orientated characters.

    As well as the titles you mention, I loved the John Carradine-styled Tomb of Dracula and Werewolf by Night (which spawned the memorable Moon Knight)
    I also recall Frankenstein's monster guesting in these titles and a heroic take on the Mummy as a resurrected ancient Nubian Prince.
    Actually, it puzzles me that these titles never lasted, but that's probably a whole story on its own.

    Looking forward to your next instalment.