A look back at Marvel's long road to 'The Avengers'
It was over a decade ago, and my writing partner and I found ourselves seated in a conference room across a table from Avi Arad and Kevin Feige. We were at Lionsgate, and the reason for our meeting was to pitch our version of "Deadpool." At the time, Lionsgate had struck a deal with Marvel to make movies based on their lesser-known characters, many of which they had inherited from Artisan.
We ended up not getting the job, but that was my real introduction to the team who were determined to turn Marvel into a viable movie studio, and in the years since, I've watched as they have slowly but surely pulled off what I would have sworn was impossible as I was growing up.
Now, as "Captain America: The First Avenger" opens in theaters and next summer's "The Avengers" wraps up shooting, it's time to look back at how Marvel got here, what they did right, what they did wrong, and where all of this could be headed next.
It seems that Marvel has always been aware of the inherent value of their intellectual property, even when Hollywood wasn't, and for years, they stuck to animation, where it seemed like they had the potential to at least try to build out the world around their characters. Most of the animation or the live-action TV series that they tried in early days, like "The Incredible Hulk" with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno or "Spider-Man" with Nicholas Hammond, were unable to really dig deep with storytelling or to realize the character properly. The versions of Daredevil and Thor that showed up in the TV movies based on the "Hulk" series were flat-out embarrassing, and even so, I was riveted to my TV every single time that show aired. I was hungry to see these characters brought to life, even if I couldn't really articulate it at the time.
When the '90s rolled around, Marvel dabbled with bringing the characters to life again, no doubt spurred by 1989's insane box-office returns for "Batman." At the time, there was a scramble by studios to figure out what comic books they could adapt, but for some reason, no one really stepped up to any of the Marvel titles. So what we got instead of a big-budget studio response to "Batman" with an A-list director and cast was 1990's "Captain America" by Albert Pyun and 1991's "Power Pack" TV movie. When those went nowhere, deservedly, Marvel retreated to animation, and that's where they kept the brands active for most of the '90s.
That changed, though, in 1998, when New Line took a chance on a lesser-known title. Thank god they did, too, because "Blade" was a real treat. Stephen Norrington and Wesley Snipes both seemed to understand exactly what they needed to do to make their film something that was both true to the iconography of comic books and organic as a movie.
Keep in mind, that was only 13 years ago, but it seems like a different industry altogether. "Blade" isn't perfect, but it gets a lot right, and when you consider that the only other Marvel movie that year was a TV movie called "Nick Fury: Agent Of SHIELD" that starred David Hasselhoff, "Blade" looks pretty amazing by comparison. Oddly, both films were scripted by David Goyer, who has to be acknowledged after his work on the "Blade" films and Nolan's "Batman" movies and the upcoming "Superman" reboot as one of the main architects of the modern superhero movie. "Blade" may not have been a billion-dollar-grossing film, but it was enough of a hit that studios started to realize that they didn't need to focus only on the giant-name heroes, and I would wager that the film's modest success was at least a small factor in getting the next big Marvel film a greenlight.
And that next film? That changed everything.
OTHER PEOPLE'S MONEY
Marvel didn't jump in and start self-financing their films because, frankly, they couldn't. They needed studio partners to step up and help them, and that meant handing over some control on how those characters were portrayed, something that has always made Marvel nervous. DC has it easy with Warner Bros. as a parent company because there is some corporate overlap there. The divisions are at least aware of one another and occasionally manage to synch up their interests. With Marvel, they handed out their characters all over town, and then had to work incredibly hard to be part of each of the movies, building their own brand even as they negotiated the brutal politics that define modern blockbuster filmmaking.
Let's take it year by year, starting with the film that really drove Hollywood insane regarding superheroes, the one that opened the door for everything we've seen in the last eleven years.
Bryan Singer's "X-Men" was a movie that was in development for the better part of the '90s, and even during production, the budget was slashed and the schedule was pushed forward. The film was treated like a half-hearted experiment at the executive level, but thankfully was handled on the production side by people who loved and understood the characters and, more importantly, the dynamics that fans loved most. Hugh Jackman went from "Who?" to "Holy crap!" in the time it took him to squint, and a franchise was born, as was the entire superhero boom as everyone went hunting. One title in particular was considered a crown jewel, but had long been buried under a legal tangle, and the success of "X-Men," timed with the untangling of that mess, meant fans suddenly had something gigantic to look forward to.
Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" landed with such a big noise, becoming such an immediate pop culture crossover phenomenon, that it changed the playing field and the benchmarks by which we measured success in the genre. It's probably a good thing that the legal rights to the character were screwed up for so long because the way the film finally came together felt like the right combination at the right technological time. Raimi had been warming up to the movie for a while, and if you look at "Darkman," it's his audition to direct a superhero film. All the archetypes and mood were in place, and when he tore into "Spider-Man," he delivered in a way that could only be compared to what Burton did with "Batman" 13 years earlier. Amidst all the noise, a lot of people dismissed "Blade 2," in which Guillermo Del Toro basically set out to prove that he could make a big ballsy horror action movie that was as slick as anything anyone else was doing, and I think it's head-and-shoulders above anything else in the franchise. It was enough of a hit, though, to prove that these weren't just one-offs, but actual repeat money-makers, which only further fueled the gold-rush mentality.
This was an important year because it tested the limit of what the market would bear. Three Marvel movies in one year? Fox doubled down with both "Daredevil" and "X2," and there was good news and bad news for them. I like a lot of things about "Daredevil," but there were some big aesthetic hurdles the film never managed to clear with the general public. Ben Affleck simply didn't connect for people, and his supporting cast ended up overwhelming him. With "X2," though, it looked like Fox had cracked the code, giving Bryan Singer and his cast room to play. It's thematically ambitious and big, and there's a lot packed into its running time. At the time, it was one of the best superhero films so far, and it promised great things to come from the series. Ang Lee's "Hulk" remains one of the most divisive of the movies in this entire article, but I think it's one of the most stylish and heartfelt films using these characters so far. At times ridiculous, at times almost too raw, and with visual effects that may not look real but that look real cool, it took chances and got slapped for it, something executives no doubt watched closely all over town.
Another three movie year kicked off with Jonathan Hensleigh's "The Punisher," a minor pleasure with a big fat hammy bad guy role for John Travolta, as well as the David Goyer-directed "Blade: Trinity," which featured the first attempt by Ryan Reynolds at playing a superhero. Neither of the films crossed over to real mainstream success, but once again, Raimi delivered with "Spider-Man 2," a movie that seemed to represent another high watermark for the genre. It was even bigger than the first one, deservedly so, and cemented the Webhead as one of Marvel's most important cross-platform characters.
You want to see a bad year for Marvel? Try "Elektra," "Fantastic Four," and the horrifying prospect of Brett Leonard's "Man-Thing." Fox continued to be the main supplier of Marvel movies, and I have to respect their willingness to try spin-offs and lesser characters even if I don't like the actual movies. "Fantastic Four" has its fans, but I think it feels like a TV production for a series I wouldn't watch, intentionally cheap and played at a juvenile pitch.
So far, when you look at the films up to this point, it's a rough list with some notable high spots. More misses than hits. Is it any wonder things started to slow down? A year like this one doesn't help. "X-Men: The Last Stand," no matter what you think of it as a film, nearly killed the franchise creatively. It seemed to represent a profound disdain for the audience and the fans, and it burned off a lot of goodwill that the previous two films had built up, showing just how easy it was to do so. They also launched the short-lived "Blade: The Series" this year, an attempt to extend a brand that had already hit the wall, less than a decade after the first film was released. That's fast, and you'd better believe people paid attention when trying to figure out what to greenlight.
Another rough year for the company, and the first time one of the truly successful titles stumbled, 2007 could easily have stopped the proposed growth if they weren't already starting to gear up on their own films. Marvel by this point had disengaged from the films they weren't in control of, but I have no doubt they were still watching closely to see where things were going right and where they were going wrong. The thing that was really surprising this year was seeing Raimi's previously-unassailable franchise falter with "Spider-Man 3," a mess of a movie that just couldn't take all the various ingredients thrown in by the various cooks. Sony also had a rough time making "Ghost Rider" work, although when I say that about any of these movies, there were still enough people going to keep development limping along on all sorts of stuff. Fox's "Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer" actually improved on the first film in some ways, but it still didn't really work as a movie overall. If Fox ever decided to spin off the Silver Surfer, they should make sure they look at how he was portrayed here, because he's the grace note from the franchise so far. Still, it wasn't enough, and all of these films seemed to upset fandom to some degree.
Now before I cover these last few years, remember, we're talking in this section about the movies that other people produced based on the Marvel characters. And there aren't many. Three films in four years is not a lot of material out there without Marvel's direct influence in how they're making the films. Fox and Sony are basically the two main companies that ended up with a fistful of properties to play with, and their deals require them to keep making the films or eventually the rights return to Marvel, which is now owned by Disney. That's Marvel's longterm goal, I'm sure. It would be great for them to get everything under one roof. In an ideal world, they could have Spider-Man show up in a Fantastic Four movie or have Cloak and Dagger show up in a Punisher film or do "What If?" as a franchise, but for now, that's not happening.
We'll get into the core Marvel Studios movies in a moment, but first…
Only one film this year, the equally-uneven reboot, "Punisher: War Zone," which did that sort of "not quite a success" business that has kept the genre chugging along. It's not a great movie. It's not a terrible movie. Ray Stevenson does what he was hired to do, and Dominic West gnaws on the scenery with zeal. I have no idea if they'll ever try with this character again, but I don't think either film is awful. I just don't think he's a character who was designed to carry his own franchise.
Only one film this year as well, and it's one of my least favorite of the entire genre. I think there are a number of talented people who worked very hard to try to make a great film, and despite that, "Wolverine: X-Men Origins" still stinks. As a follow up to "The Last Stand," it suggested a series that had run out of gas, and again, it only took a decade to go from start to finish, something that seems wrong when you have a premise as flexible as "X-Men." You should be able to make decades and decades of these movies if you're inventive and if you're willing to adapt from film to film. And yet it felt to me like even the work they were doing to set up the "Deadpool" spinoff just plain missed.
This summer, Fox redeemed the franchise with Matthew Vaughn's "X-Men: First Class," and it'll be interesting to see where they go from here. There is talk of a "Fantastic Four" reboot and David Slade is hard at work prepping the next "Daredevil" movie. I have little doubt Fox will do whatever it takes in terms of keeping their control of these properties as long as possible. It's just a question of where they go from here.
We'll find out how Sony plans to stay in the Marvel business next year with both "Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance" and "The Amazing Spider-Man." This week in San Diego, we'll get our first looks at both of them. It's worth nothing that on the trailer for Marc Webb's reboot, there's no Marvel Studios logo at all. It's all Sony at this point.
Little surprise. For the last four years, Marvel's been trying to pull off a very unusual bit of franchise-building, and that's what this has all been leading up to, what all of this effort was for.
THE BIG PICTURE
Once Marvel decided they were going to try to make it to "The Avengers," they started putting all their ducks in a row. First priority: introduce Tony Stark in "Iron Man." The casting of Robert Downey Jr. was a masterstroke, and if things had worked out between Marvel and Edward Norton on "The Incredible Hulk," that would have been great. It was important to the studio to take another shot at the Hulk because they had plans for him, but it was even more important to start launching characters who the general public really didn't know. The success of "Iron Man" was one of the most exciting things to watch because it felt like the beginning of something very cool, a promise that would take time and a lot of luck to pull off. Both of the films Marvel Studios released this year (one through Paramount, one through Universal) were enjoyable, but more importantly, they felt like they were of a world, and to see those connections start to play out in the live-action stuff was a thrill because it was new.
I like "Iron Man 2," and I think there are many things the film does right, but what it really gets wrong is the way they handed over so much time in the film to building out story points that would only pay off in "The Avengers". There's a fine line between a tease and a movie that's just not telling a whole story, and "IM2" frustrated casual viewers because it was so busy doing some heavy lifting.
And that brings us to this year. Now that I've posted my reviews of both "Thor" and "Captain America: The First Avenger," I'm able to step back and look at what they've done, and I think it's impressive. Out of all the films in this entire article, I'd argue the five films produced entirely by Marvel Studios are among the very best. And now that they've done it, that frees up the studio to start trying new things and new characters. I think my order of preference for the five films is "Iron Man," "Captain America," "The Incredible Hulk," "Thor," and "Iron Man 2," but I'll watch all five of them, happily. It feels to me like the table's been set, and next summer is the meal, and everything afterwards is dessert.
All those years ago, sitting in that Lionsgate conference room, the Q&A after we made our pitch was spirited, and Kevin Feige in particular seemed to be steering the conversation. He knew his comics, knew the story arc we were pitching, and along the way, he's become the face of Marvel. When all is said and done, if you like these films and what they're doing, then Feige is one of the main people you should thank. He's worked hard to try to make this happen, even when it seemed insane. We left that room feeling like we had a shot at the job, but more than that, I left that room convinced that these guys were serious about starting to bring the Marvel Universe to life. And now, with May 2012 just around the corner, it feels like that Universe is finally a living, breathing concern.
"The Avengers" will arrive in theaters everywhere May 4, 2012.
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