Like many people with geek tendencies, I was at a local multiplex the other night for a midnight screening of The Avengers. And, since I have some nice flexibility to my work schedule, I actually took the day off to attend the 14-hour Ultimate Marvel Marathon hosted. For anybody who may not have heard about it, Marvel Comics’ film division hosted a marathon of the five films they produced leading up to The Avengers, with the main event being the screening of the newest film as the clock struck 12:00. Or, in my case, due to technical difficulties, 12:45. (Side bar: Seriously, AMC, you don’t get to scratch your collective head and wonder why people aren’t going to the cinema as much, and then screw the pooch this badly during a heavily promoted event.)
So, yesterday morning, starting at 11:30 a.m., I got to see Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger. It was to say the least a fun day spent in the dark with a room full of strangers. But, seeing the films back-to-back like that provides an opportunity to reflect on some pretty impressive accomplishments Marvel Studios has had in a short time.
I never know for sure how much background the readers of a website called “Fanboy Comics” are going to need. After all, whether we be called geeks or nerds, we tend to sift through the internet very obsessively for details about the stuff we love. So, humor me while I throw out a very brief history of Marvel Studios. And, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.
A few years ago Marvel made the smart decision to start producing their own films instead of selling their characters to other studios. This was a great idea for them for a couple of reasons.
The obvious first reason is money. By self-producing Marvel was now set to keep the lion’s share of the revenue their films hauled in, rather than just the percent they got from selling a property’s rights. I don’t know much about running a business, but as I understand it, making money is an important part of the process.
The second reason, and in some ways this may be far more important, is creative control. By self-producing Marvel had quality control at every level of the production process. Had other studios done right by Marvel previously? Sure, to a degree. But, for every X-Men 2 there’s an X-Men 3. For every Spider-Man 2 there’s an Elektra.
So, in 2008, Marvel released Iron Man, their first film, to both critical and commercial success. This is really significant as Tony Stark’s alter ego was at the time considered one of Marvel’s minor characters. He isn’t any more.
But, the really ambitious plan Marvel was hatching wasn’t evident unless you sat through Iron Man’s end credits. In what’s become a tradition for them, Marvel added a “hidden scene” that followed the credits. It’s tiny. It can’t possibly run longer than 90 seconds. But, it ends with Nick Fury saying to Tony Stark, “I’d like to talk to you about the Avengers Initiative.”
And, with that, the game was afoot.
Marvel was going to attempt something nobody had ever tried before. Oh sure, the major movie studios love their franchises. They’re constantly trying to find that new Harry Potter-esque golden goose that lays the golden sequels. But, Marvel was attempting something radically different and much harder.
While they were attempting to have a film series based on their individual characters, Marvel set out to have these films overlap. While telling individual stories on their own, these films were also building to a crossover film in which elements from the previous five films informed the crossover film.
It was ambitious and risky. Had any of the lead up films bombed, it could have taken down any interest in an Avengers film with it. And, what about The Avengers film itself; could it possibly live up to a hype that had been building all this time? Thor and Cap exist in radically different film worlds with different visual sense, themes, and acting styles. Could these things then work in a film when they’re all thrust together?
It turns out, yeah, they could. And, they made it look kind of easy.
I may have been slaphappy by that point, but for me and my nerd soul mates The Avengers played like gangbusters. It is stupendously entertaining. I would have loved to have been in the screening room when the Disney and Marvel suits saw the completed film for the first time. In my fantasy all their eyes light up with dollar signs Scrooge McDuck-style, accompanied by that ca-ching cash register sound effect.
So, it was a lot of fun to see these movies all in a row.
Easily the worst movie they’ve made is Iron Man 2, and I don’t think it’s an all out Wolverine-style disaster. It just doesn’t work. A lot of people complained about the action in the first Iron Man film for not being “big” enough. But, at least the action in that film had stakes – you were invested emotionally in what was happening. The big action climax of Iron Man 2 is just Tony and Rhodey fighting a bunch of CGI robots. Oh and another guy (another guy!) in a suit. I’m also a little cold to The Incredible Hulk for similar reasons. Watching two CGI monsters beat the snot out of each other is like watching somebody else play a video game.
I love how they’ve cast their films, choosing the right actor instead of a recongnizable name. People forget that four years ago, Robert Downey, Jr. wasn’t a big star. He was Kryptonite. He had to audition for Iron Man. And, there was reluctance to give him the gig based on his past addiction problems.
Can you imagine anybody else as Tony Stark now?
I had never heard of Tom Hiddleston, but he crushes it as Loki. I only knew Chris Hemsworth from that opening sequence from JJ Abram’s Star Trek (and I would be remiss to point out that that sequence has reduced me to tears more than once). But, he’s great as Thor. Chris Evans was kind of a name due to those Fantastic Four movies Fox shat out. But, he’s able to take a kind of dull do-gooder in Steve Rogers and give him an inner life. The scene where Cap gets the reference to flying monkeys? One of The Avengers many highlights.
The casting carousel seems to have landed on Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, and while I feel like Edward Norton naturally conveys “scientist” much more readily, I also dig Ruffalo in the role. He was also the first of the three Banners to actually do the mo-cap work for the Hulk, and good lord is the Hulk a revelation in The Avengers!
Were any of these guys major movie stars? Nope. But, many of them are now. The Marvel Brain Trust knows that if you get the right actors in place, these are star-making performances.
Likewise, Marvel has hit paydirt with their directing choices, as well. When you’re going to launch a series of superhero movies, is the first thing that comes to mind, “Let’s get the guy who made Elf?” I know I wouldn’t have thought that way either, but Jon Favreau was a great choice for Iron Man.
He isn’t a great film stylist, but Favreau is a great storyteller. Personally, I’m sick and tired of hearing how guys like Jon Favreau aren’t great “film artists.” Is Suzanne Collins a great writer? No, not yet anyway. But, she’s a hell of a storyteller. And, for me, that’s what counts first. All the bells and whistles of the Great Film Artist are superfluous if I’m not invested in the story.
Marvel’s also hired that Shakespeare guy, that October Sky guy, and that Buffy guy to shoot their movies. And, while none of those were obvious choices, they turned out to be the right choices.
I’ve been a Joss Whedon fanboy for a really long time, and I used to watch Buffy or Angel and think to myself, “Why is this just a cult show? Why isn’t anybody watching this?” Finally (finally!), it seems the rest of the world is catching up to what we in the Circle of Joss Fandom have known for 15 years. If the bosses at Disney and Marvel don’t have him locked in a room writing Avengers 2 yet, they are idiots.
I guess the real lesson I took away from the marathon yesterday was about caring. These characters are Marvel’s babies, both creatively and financially. And, babies have to be cared for. They have to be properly nurtured and brought along. Clearly, Kevin Feige and his team care about these characters, and I think they care about the fans.
I think the rest of the industry has a lesson to learn from the House of Ideas.