Friday, July 26, 2013

Marvel Makes the Best Superhero Movies

Photo courtesy of FrontArmy
There is little debate that superhero movies are here to stay. Even more-so is the fact that Marvel is most likely to be the biggest reason. Just look at the box office receipts. The Avengers made $1.5 billion internationally and this year’s Iron Man 3 was no chump either with $1.2 billion. The studio is a behemoth in terms of capital gain. There is no end in sight and if last weekend’s Comic Con proves anything, it is that everyone wants a piece of the pie. This is a cultural milestone that has never been seen before. Why is that? Risks.

Before going in, I must state that my history with Marvel Comics has been very limited. I have watched my share of cartoons growing up detailing the exploits of Spider-Man and the X-Men, but never did I associate them with a brand. However, I think that the reason that Marvel produces wildly successful movies is simply because they deliver spectacle like no other. I remember being 13 when director Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man hit the circuit and became all that anyone talked about. Then came Spider-Man 2 (one of my favorites in general), and there was no contest. We were entering a golden age of some sort.

To say the least, I was the right age when Marvel began dominating the scene. I was too young to recall any 90’s phenomenon beyond the iconic Men in Black, but from 2002 onward, the blockbusters were heavily superhero-based. I won’t claim to seeing all or most of the titles, but it was a fascinating experience watching Marvel crash-and-burn to the big screen (brilliantly compiled here). For most, titles like Daredevil, Elektra, and Fantastic 4 (though I did get to meet Silver Surfer himself, Mr. Doug Jones) were all symbolic of failure despite being cash cows.

Left to right: Me, Doug Jones, and Andrew of Nerd's Eye View
It wasn’t until 2008 with director Jon Favreau’s Iron Man came that things turned for the studio. Not only did it mark the return of Robert Downey Jr. after a career stall, but it began two trends: 1. The post credit sequence, and 2. World building. While it didn’t start forming until Iron Man 2 in a more blatant way, Marvel became the studio will serious cojones. Dropping clues, it became the moment when nerd culture became mainstream culture. No longer were comics a niche category that had been reduced to a foul stereotype on The Big Bang Theory, but a reason to dress up and sell kids backpacks with familiar logos. This was a franchise that could make you believe that a Norse God, a cryogenic piece of Americana, and a bulky green guy could co-exist, and almost all done in slight nods.

Most of all, post-2008, it seemed like the films themselves got progressively better. Maybe it was because they were focused on building to one amazing goal. These films served as hype as well as just being quality entertainment. True, most were devoid of deep, spiritual meaning, but in terms of overall entertainment, the characters worked. While yes, films like Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and The Amazing Spider Man still put blemishes on their track record, it is the very idea that somehow Marvel has done it. They have made something really silly into something universally accepted and loved. There’s a reason that Iron Man 3 made billions.

Most of all, the products felt like they were the closest thing to an experimental mainstream cult that we’ll ever get. On the surface, these are all just entertaining pieces of fiction. Go deeper to threads that run through them. The most obvious fan favorite is the inclusion of Marvel creator Stan Lee, who has popped up in almost all of the films in comical ways. It almost serves as a right of passage to have him be a background character in your film now. The other, less fortunate, trend is the lack of great original music. As explored in a recent episode of the Operation Kino podcast, the music is just not that iconic. There is no Hans Zimmer or John Williams piece of music that strikes the audience as being “That’s Iron Man!” In a sense, they leave it to AC/DC music, which actually was counterintuitive as I now want a restraining order between movies and “Shoot to Thrill.”  

But nonetheless, the real reason that Marvel movies should get your love is simpler. Name another studio that is so ambitious with its directorial decision-making. Where DC Comics has a smaller selection, rarely are two of the Marvel films from the same director. In fact, the selection is astoundingly bizarre. Let’s run down a few from post-2000:

1.Sam Raimi (Spider-Man trilogy), made the highly entertaining Evil Dead trilogy.
2.Bryan Singer (the X-Men films) made the iconic mystery film The Usual Suspsects.
1.Ang Lee (The Hulk) won Academy Awards for films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain, and Life of Pi.
4.Tim Story (Fantastic 4) made Barbershop.
5.Brett Ratner (X-Men: The Last Stand) made the buddy cop action-comedy Rush Hour trilogy.
6.Jon Favreau (the Iron Man films) made the wildly successful Christmas movie Elf.
7.Louis Letterier (The Incredible Hulk) made the first two films in The Transporter series.
8.Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass/X-Men: First Class) made Layer Cake and Stardust.
9.Kenneth Branaugh (Thor) made Shakespearian films like Henry V and Hamlet.
10.Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance) made the crazy Crank movies.
11.Joe Johnston (Captain America) made the Americana film The Rocketeer.
12.Shane Black (Iron Man 3) made the Robert Downey Jr. comeback film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
13.*James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) made the low budgeted superhero parody Super.
14.*Anthony and Joe Russo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) directed episodes of Community.
15.*Edgar Wright (Ant-Man) made the modern British comedy classics Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.

*Note: These films are not currently out. This is based on recent knowledge and is unlikely, but subject to change.

That alone is an insane line-up with directors from different walks of styles. I suppose this contributes to each film not feeling like it is just a singular vision. Each film works individually or as a whole. Most of all, there is this sense that these directors are making their own visions, though in a superhero world. Anyone who has seen Iron Man 3 and is familiar with Shane Black’s work will be able to correlate themes such as the wry humor and Christmas imagery. While these are all essentially superhero tales, they work because they always feel honest to the code of entertainment.

I also admire the universal building. The way that everything builds on top of each other meticulously is something that I haven’t seen too many mainstream studios do in history. There have been crossover movies (Freddy vs. Jason, Aliens vs. Predators), but never on this scale. The films almost serve an exterior function as promotion for the crossover film. By the time that The Avengers came along, we knew who everyone was. It is more impressive that each character is allowed to go back into their own universe and show up when it’s appropriate.

Name one other franchise with this thoroughly established mythology. It may not all work, but no studio has taken such a gamble of making small comic book characters into iconography for a generation. The fact that it dominated this year’s Comic Con news cycles and is easily beating competitors in international grosses suggests that they won’t quit. In fact, there’s talk of The Avengers: The Age of Ultron. I don’t get it now, but I am sure that by that point, even my grandmother will know what an Ultron does. The studio is that good.

As many could predict, however, I am not a nerd to a degree large enough to care about this franchise continuing to go and go. I believe that in terms of a marketing ploy, The Avengers was a work of genius. I feel like only trying to top that will result in eventual failure. Maybe not financially, but just in terms of interest. It feels like if this continues for even 5 more years, it will just become fatigue for me. I need original properties and even with original takes on every character, it is keeping some people from doing clever, original work. While this isn’t just Marvel’s fault, as any box office weekend will suggest, it is something that feels almost debilitating. There’s a reason that The Lone Ranger failed.

I am beginning to feel fatigue already, as it took me two months to muster interest in seeing Iron Man 3. I keep forgetting that there’s a Thor: The Dark World coming this Fall (which I may just see to pay respects to the late Simpsons writer Don Payne). All of this hype will eventually overwhelm everyone, I guarantee. If my lack of interest in Comic Con news due to it being 80% Marvel proves anything, I may eventually crawl into an art house theater and never show my face until this is over.

But I am not over them just yet. For the time being, I am enthused to at very least rent these titles and get lost in some high caliber entertainment. For their hit-and-miss history, Marvel has cemented their place in history with intricate planning years in advance. It may begin to feel like pandering to nerd culture for the sake of commerce, but when you look at the competitions, there is a reason that they fail while Marvel succeeds. They are a mainstream artistic cult at this point, and I’ll be glad to be seduced until the hypnosis finally loses its  endearment entirely.

Who makes better movies?

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