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Why The Marvel Avengers Are No Longer Marvellous

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avengersWas the world of cinema a darker place before Joss Whedon started making movies? Can your mum name at least one Marvel Avenger? If you answered yes to these questions then you’re tightly held within Marvel Studio’s vice-like grip.

I’m a little worried about where the movie business is heading. I’ve researched it, I’ve crunched the numbers and I’ve talked to fellow film writers and comic-book lovers about it. We now live in a post-apocalyptic world where you’re not worth your salt at the multiplex unless you’re a superhero. And do you know who I blame? I blame Marvel Studios. Here’s why.

Humble beginnings

Marvel Studios started life as Marvel Films, making its name, and an awful lot of money with the Blade franchise and other co-productions with established studios. You don’t have to be a Hollywood accountant to work out that a movie that cost $45million to make and brought home $131m worldwide gross was more than enough incentive to replicate. In fact, Blade warranted two sequels and cemented the status of a new comic-led film studio.  But when Blade 3: Trinity only doubled it’s return (not tripling it like its predecessors) the studio moved on. Clever move or perhaps a first warning sign – that money is the primary language that Marvel Studios speaks.

Between Twilight and Harry Potter (and don’t get me started on The Fast and the Furious!) longer film franchises are massively permitted, nay, expected these days. But Marvel Studios took this a step further, making quick reboots as well as sprawling inter-related stories acceptable – the inner geek of modern film is out and he’s proud.  X Men continued where Blade had faltered, spinning off from the X-Men trilogy through to Wolverine’s personal back-story and now backwards to prequels like the forthcoming X-Men: days of Future Past.

And now the Marvel Avengers universe has exploded into cinemas, establishing an interesting game of thrones for the Studio:

a) Choose a new director,

b) pick new younger sexier stars,

c) take a comic book staple and plunder it for plot story, and

d) re-run films as a larger story arc.

Etched upon our brains and hearts now are the history and future of this comic universe hooking in even those with little knowledge of the Marvel back catalogue.

Don’t get me wrong, making fanboy/girldom mainstream must be commended. Avengers Assemble is now the third highest grossing film in the world of all time (by the way, I loved it), and Marvel Studios, like Miramax before it, has gone from rookie to established major player in a ten-year period.

Do not misunderstand me. I like a superhero movie. I just don’t like a monopoly, and Marvel Studios’ success has changed the modern film industry not for the better. It’s a clever ruse. The love of superheroes is an extension of the child in all of us. We will pay to see this. Heck, we’ll even pay hefty fees to see it in 3D. But Marvel Studios talks of its projects in an ethereal way. It now has phases of production and distribution for its films – Phases of world domination! Do you know who also has phases? He did and him.

Dictatorial joking aside – I do believe that the success of the superhero movie genre:

  •  bring issues of quality control, and
  • dominates modern cinema to the detriment of other genres and stories.

With great power…ironman

Dissecting this global success, Marvel is splintering its appeal. By the end of 2013 under MS’ watch we’ll have had three Iron Mans, two Thors, two Captain Americas, one Avengers (with another in production) and one often-derided but serious-money-making Marvel Hulk (the Ed Norton one).

Viewers don’t need to watch every Iron Man film to enjoy Avengers Assemble, but there’s an insidious feeling that they should do. Like you’re not one of the cool kids unless you understand the entire inter-relationship. For example, it helps to have an understanding of Loki’s motivations in AA from watching Thor or he just looks like a wet weekend on Asgard.

Next, attempting to build bridges between comic-book lovers, film purists, parents and people who couldn’t-care-what-they-watch-as-long-as-there-is-CGI is an impressive feat, but at some point there will be at least one loser. I, in fact, believe that that loser is all of those groups. Why? Because Marvel Studio’s success has galvanised the near-sighted blockbuster film industry into thinking that light-hearted superhero stories are the only subject worth investing in.

Otherwise, why would Zach Braff have to do this?

It seems that I’m not the only one wondering how thinly the Avengers storylines can spread. Our editor Phil Edwards believes that “Marvel movies seem to becoming more reliant on humour. It’s as if Marvel Studios want to distance themselves from the dark and grittiness of The Dark Knight type of comic book movie.”  Phil loved Iron Man 3, but said it “veered perilously close to self parody on occasion.”

Finding Hawkeye

This new levity might have something to do with Disney recently taking control of the Marvel Studio marketing, a move that irks me further. Marvel Studios is already treading a precarious balance between making films enjoyable for adults and making films suitable for children. And the only real reason to make a movie to suit both audiences is to make money (and maybe please parents of three-year-olds). Yes the films can be enjoyed on different levels, but The Marvel Universe is part of comic-book lore, it’s no Finding Nemo.

Yet Phase 2 *ahem*  movies Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier sound more serious than previous efforts, so maybe MS are not going Disney-style on us. Two audiences: two revenues streams. How very LucasArts! Maybe a version of The Punisher needs to be made so MS can “delve into the darker side” of the Marvel universe, as Phil believes would be welcome, but all current projects suggest that there is no end to this movie-making machine.

Thank you:  http://wickedbadsugar.tumblr.com/

Thank you: http://wickedbadsugar.tumblr.com/

One thing I am not suggesting is that MS are dumbing down movies (yet). Plenty of Marvel lovers consider themselves in the cultural elite. Having Kenneth Branagh and Joss Whedon helming a film instantly makes it higher brow. Or does it? Is the average cinema goer even aware of the subtext in a MS superhero movie or are they just going to see it because it’s what everyone else is doing? And are these movies ALL objectively good? Do they teach us anything? Or does their proliferation in the Friday night cinema schedule prevent us from seeing something truly amazing?

I am concerned that a superhero obsession will suck the lifeblood out of the independent film industry with its constant need to remake old stories instead of fleshing out new ones. It wasn’t long ago that Fantastic Four arrived, with an inferior sequel to boot. And the last ten years has seen four Spiderman movies (with another due soon).  We now know that the Fantastic Four franchise is to be rebooted in 2014 before Guardians of the Galaxy comes out in 2015, and MS has recently confirmed a third Avengers sequel to be released in 2018. I’m exhausted just writing this all down yet I’m only covering Marvel’s work, what about Man of Steel (with its frankly ludicrous marketing schedule – a Warner Bros production) and the news that the DC Universe is about to be cinematically explored? We’re back to Superhero World Domination.

Kevin Feige and Disney

wintersoldierI asked my film and comic friends for their insight on Marvel Studio’s dominance.  Carlos says “Disney has taken over the marketing and consumer products… the comics are considered R&D for Disney, that’s why they’re leaving them alone for now.”
I think ‘for now’ is the ominous part of that sentence. Carlos also thinks that with endless Hanna Montana & Jonas Brothers promotion, Disney wasn’t appealing to boys, and as he says: “boys looooove superheroes.”
Carlos credits Marvel Studios’ success  to one man, Kevin Feige, who “knows how to balance the integrity of the characters with making movies that appeal to the general audiences without compromising the brand.”  - which I may disagree with, but who am I to rain on Avi Arad’s parade (net personal worth – at least $78million)?

As Marvel shifts up a gear to Phase 2 (there it is again) will superhero movies all still remain the same? Perhaps Iron Man 3 was an action thriller disguised as a superhero movie and Winter Soldier will be a 70s spy thriller. Will Guardians of the Galaxy be Marvel’s answer to Star Wars? I hope it is- as this suggests some much-needed variation within the superhero genre. Feige is quoted at being unlikely to be around for Phase 3.

Serialised Storytelling

Perhaps I need to look at Marvel Studios in a different light. Carlos says that Marvel Studios movies have now become their own genre – people say “Let’s go see that new marvel movie”. So if a new genre has been created then can we choose not to attend? Viewers are invested in this multiverse and the characters within it. A good read on Marvel casting here makes me wonder how important the cast is to the franchise. Would viewers accept a new Tony Stark if RDJ left IronMan? Maybe I just have to be patient and money- the thing that made Marvel Studios successful – will also be its downfall.

Fiona Mcbride is a comic afficionado and thinks it’s too early to judge the Marvel Studios plans at present, but even she calls the films to date a “mixed bag” in terms of quality.

Fi sees Marvel Studio films serialised storytelling, intended to evoke the 30-minute serials that were hugely popular in the cinema of in the  ’50s (e.g. Flash Gordon). They were a huge influence on Spielberg & Lucas – who in turn are a huge influence upon Marvel Studios. I’d prefer them drawing influence from Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese.
IM3 tried to wrap up one superhero story in the middle of telling a much wider story – this angered Fi but just screams of Blade money issues to me. Fi sees MS films as “based on just one arc of a continuing story – the notion of firm & permanent closure to any given narrative has loosened across film and, in the case of Marvel Studio films, rightly so. There are still stories to be told.”
Hulk Football The Movie coming soon (ok, not really)

Hulk Football The Movie coming soon
(ok, not really)

MS films are here to stay so I’m going to have to make the most of the forthcoming schedule. At least Guardians of the Galaxy will be interesting because most people are not going to know what this is based on making it feel new. Plus there are rumours of Doctor Strange being part of the dreaded Phase 3. So MS are casting the net wider and adding new stories to the Marvel universe. I will just wait and hope this irritates graphic novel fans enough so they’ll eventually boycott!

Fi, Carlos and I should agree on one thing. The fracturing of the MS genre could leave viewers thinking they’re watching a ‘superhero movie’ but they’ll actually be watching a character study on military aggression & identity issues. That’s the day I pray for, because we, the viewers have no Thor, no Hulk not even an Iron Man (or three) to stop superhero movies crushing the rest of the film industry.

What do you think? Should the Marvel Multiverse keep multiplying? Or have you also had ENOUGH?!