Friday, 10 May 2013

Marvel's Big Screen take over

Having just stumbled out of Iron Man 3 into a damp, brisk and un-spring-like evening I can’t help but wonder at the financial behemoth Marvel has become at the big screen.
Robert Downey Jr, his last solo outing as Iron Man?
Kevin Feige is the producer and alchemist of success that seems to have turned a back catalogue as immense as it is rich with box office potential into a steamroller of seat filling blockbusters.

The end of the ‘90’s was a time when the superhero movie seemed moribund, DC’s long run as the source of comic book movie success had crumbled to an ignominious end with Christopher Reeve’s Superman franchise and the 90’s run of Batman films both finishing on face-achingly sour notes. As DC’s cinematic star waned, Marvel came to the fore. One of the lesser known of Marvel’s hero’s, Blade, became an unlikely success on film in ‘98, but the first big hit of Marvel’s re-invention as a film house rather over comic specialist was ‘X-men’, spearheaded by Hugh Jackman’s charismatic fan favourite, Wolverine. X-men has long been one of the most popular comics in the Marvel stable, with the animated adventures running almost as many plot threads and generations of mutant hero’s as the paper pages. In a Marvel multi-verse, the X-men canon is perhaps the biggest and most richly developed universe, with a giant cast of characters engaged in epic story arcs. As such it always stood poised to be successfully turned into a film franchise with endless potential.

Team X-Men suit up for a cinematic turnX-men 1’, then, with so much financial expectation hanging off it was perhaps not a time to take risks, but in what has been a trademark of Marvel’s film development strategy, risk was the route they took. In a strong rd chapter ending the first trilogy arc, and an even ropier first solo outing for the Wolverine, X-men is pushing out film number 5 next year in ‘Days Of Future Past’ (rumour has it the giant Sentinel robots, evil stars of the animated series, are due to appear) and Jackman is running solo again in a much anticipated ‘The Wolverine’ this summer.
ensemble cast, they took a chance on the then relatively unknown Jackman, and it paid off in spades, fans receiving the film well, and despite a rough 3

With such a broad array of characters to choose from, not every Marvel comic conversion would be a gem in cinematic quality or fiscal success. ‘Daredevil’ was only memorable for Colin Farrell’s ludicrous, gurning over-performance as the murderous Bullseye, and the risible spin-off it spawned in ‘Electra’ only proved that alongside the equally woeful ‘Catwoman’, Marvel are yet to successfully find the formula to a female led hero movie. Here-in lies the power of the re-boot, however. Daredevil reboots have been in discussion for several years, the failed Fantastic Four franchise is already set to be relaunched with a new look team and X-men was re-invigorated with the ‘First Class’ arc to both critical and box office acclaim.

Spiderman too has been saved by the re-boot. Tobey Maguire’s mono-expression, varnished wooden performances stacked alongside some drab plots left the franchise burned out after the Raimi’s 3rd film in a trilogy that started average and on a sharp decline, but the arrival of the infinitely more engaging Andrew Garfield and the equally watchable, but slightly less convincing as a teenager, Emma Stone delivered new success with The Amazing Spiderman in 2012, with sequel set for 2014.

Risk taking has been key to Marvel’s success as they snowballed through the 00’s. The biggest risk of all being a project so huge and so fraught with danger, Feige and co. may as well have started to build the pyramid of Giza upside down. The Avengers project was an inspired piece of high-investment cinema planning. Putting together a superhero team movie depended upon the success of the stand alone films that launched each member of the team into the film going public’s eye. Each film was challenged with communicating a rich back story, building rapport with both the character and cast and weaving together plots that would culminate in the Avengers showdown.

Each stepping stone could have brought the project to a halt had it failed, and Marvel proved they have the stones for the high stakes gambles. Left-field directors were brought in, Kenneth Brannagh doing Thor, Joe Johnston on Captain America, Jon Favreau on Iron Man and Joss Whedon on Avengers it’s self. Success built upon success however, Downey Jr’s scene stealing turns as Tony Stark made Iron Man an instant success, Captain America, despite fears its jingo-istic tone might be too much for a modern audience, delivered hard core dollars at cinemas, and even the most obtuse and difficult screen translation, Thor, did well. The only struggler remained The Hulk. After Ang Lee’s unfortunate efforts, full of retro split screen action and the ridiculous ‘flying’ Hulk, Edward Norton’s troubled production delivered a better film but a disengaged star. Indie movie darling Mark Ruffalo raised eyebrows as a choice for the Avengers blockbuster, but proved a perfect fit, and in a film dominated by Downey Jr’s pithy one liners, his is the one that steals the show in the climactic last battle. It was Norton’s Hulk movie, however, that first sent electric thrills through Marvel fans by mooting the Avengers film with a Stark cameo and casual mention of ‘We’re putting a team together’ in the final scenes.

The Avenger’s project built film cross-over like no other series before. Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury and Clark Gregg’s charmingly bureaucratic Agent Coulson (“His first name is Agent”) pop up across the web of films, building the tension and excitement to the final Avengers release with in-references to SHIELD and the
Avengers - The ultimate superhero movie?
Avengers Initiative. The now signature Marvel post-credits teasers further rewarded patient fans with snippets of forthcoming action, so come the Avengers launch, Marvel had created a monster with comic fan excitement matched by those yet to turn an illustrated page. With each character movie delivering strong financials, Avengers inevitably went ballistic on release, breaking box office records hand over fist.

The Iron Man and Pals affair that many feared was present to an extent, with Downey Jr’s screen presence dominating many scenes, but the delicate balancing act of giving each character sufficient time and development was beautifully handled. Thor might feel aggrieved that his role in the final battle was perhaps not befitting that of an actual demi-god, and perhaps Captain America wouldn’t thank Agent Coulson much for the costumer revisions that looked a little ridiculous, but to find fault like that would be like criticising Raiders of the Lost Ark for Dr Jones’ floppy hat. The only post-release voice of dissent was from Jeremy Renner, who cited Hawkeye’s slightly more marginalised role as a disappointment.

So now a set of ‘next chapters’ fall into line. Some words previously I mentioned that this diatribe was begat of viewing the first of those next chapters, the excellent Iron Man 3. Seeing an anxiety ridden Tony Stark stripped of his suit and facing his most dangerous enemy to date allows for a more paired down film following the enormity of Avengers, all until a glorious climactic sequence that literally explodes with action. End scenes to the film drop strong hints that this is Downey Jr’s swan song as a solo Iron Man, with Avengers 2 rumoured to be his last outing in the tin suit. Quite how they might fill the boots of a role owned so completely by an actor I have no idea.

Thor and Captain America sequels are imminent, with new hero’s added to the film roster rumoured to include Ant-man in his own film, and an array of new heroes reported to be joining the Avengers line up, the most popular seeming to be Wasp, as female company for Black Widow. The size of the universe at hand allows for endless excitement as fans debate on what story arcs might be tapped, what hero’s may cameo in which other films, what villains will usher forth to be vanquished and so on. What seems guaranteed is that since Disney acquired the Marvel film rights for what seems a paltry $4 billion in 2009, on current form they should see endless return on that investment.