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Marvel Movies Project: Closing Thoughts

Yesterday, I posted my thoughts on the Marvel movies themselves, in the form of a list of bests and worsts. For today’s final Marvel Movies Project post, I’ve put together a few ideas on comic book adaptations in general.

For me, this rewatch prompted some thoughts on superheroes and intellectual property, and on the nature of the comic book universe developed over several decades by the many different creators who’ve passed through the Merry Marvel Bullpen. It’s a massive story world which is now being translated to a new medium, with varying degrees of success. The complex interweaving of all these characters’ stories in the comic books makes for some challenges in adaptation.

At first, with the Marvel Universe having been sold off piecemeal to various different studios, the approach was to focus in on one small part of that universe and pretend the rest doesn’t exist; for example, in Fox’s Daredevil movie, Ben Urich’s employer is the New York Post because the rights to the Daily Bugle name went with Spider-Man to Sony. This is a small detail, but it serves to illustrate how the scope of the films had to be limited.

Now, with Marvel Studios in business, we’re seeing Marvel itself attempt things on a much bigger scale, building a film universe that could conceivably grow to mirror the comic book universe. Phase One has been remarkably successful in every sense — the movies are all good, they tie together extremely well, and they’ve made huge piles of money — but it remains to be seen whether Phase Two, consisting of six movies (Iron Man 3Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Avengers 2, and Ant-Man) to be released between now and 2015, can continue to grow the universe in a sustainable way.

Right now, a casual viewer can watch The Avengers without having seen Iron Man 2 or Thor and probably not be too confused (although really, I think seeing Thor probably helps … plus, Thor is awesome and everyone should see it). Will this continue as more movies are produced, introducing more characters and presumably more and more backstory? There may be a reason the world of comic book movie adaptations has so far focused so much on origin stories, to the point that Spider-Man has already been remade only 10 years after its release.

It is interesting to note that four of the Phase Two films are sequels, which means more building on already established characters and stories. Having fewer new characters to keep track of might make the MCU simpler and easier to follow. But I’m inclined to think things will rather become more complex as Thor and Captain America and Iron Man’s backstories become more and more detailed. (Of course, it’s possible any of these characters could be killed off. That’s one way of wiping the slate clean.)

The studio then has to walk a fine line between making the continuity overly complicated and keeping it meaningful. Before The Avengers, it made sense to use Agent Coulson, Nick Fury, and SHIELD as roving elements to tie the various movies together. Now, though, The Avengers have all met and worked together, and I’m not sure things can be quite so separate anymore: if the events of The Avengers have no impact whatsoever on Iron Man 3, it cheapens the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe idea. The tie-ins have to matter. They just can’t matter too much.

With 20th Century Fox looking to create its own version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Warner Bros. possibly stepping into the fray on behalf of DC Comics, it looks as though Marvel Studios may have started a trend. It will be interesting to see what happens — whether it continues to work and we get more and more linked film series, or whether the trend burns out and the studios do what Marvel and DC have been doing for years: start over at issue #1.

Marvel Movies Project: Best & Worst

After five months and 27 films, I am finally finished this Marvel Movies Project. It was a fun experience; even if a few of the movies are not of the highest quality, it was still interesting to go back and watch them all in order, seeing the evolution (and ups and downs) of Marvel on film. To wrap up, here are some of my picks for the best and worst of Marvel Movies.

Best Movies

  1. Spider-Man 2
  2. The Avengers
  3. Spider-Man
  4. Thor
  5. Iron Man
  6. X2
  7. Captain America: The First Avenger

I tried to pick a top five, but I couldn’t get it below seven. Then I tried to do a top 10, but I also couldn’t justify a number higher than seven (although X-Men came close to making the list). Basically, I think these seven are pretty easily the cream of the Marvel crop. They all feature solid casts, directors, writing, and effects, and all tell really good stories with a good mix of humour, action, and drama. All are also fun to watch — an important quality in a comic book movie.

Worst Movies

  1. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
  2. Punisher: War Zone

Again, I tried to make a top five but although there are definitely some other bad Marvel movies, I feel these two stand out in terms of total suckitude. Something like Daredevil is bad, yes, but it at least doesn’t feel like it was intended to go straight to video. Both these films are also significantly worse and more painful to watch than their predecessors.

Worst Threequels

  1. Blade: Trinity
  2. X-Men: The Last Stand
  3. Spider-Man 3

Only three Marvel franchises have made it to three instalments, and in all three cases the third instalment has been a huge step down in quality for the franchise. The first two Spider-Man movies: amazing. The first two X-Men movies: astonishing. The first two Blade movies: well, they were pretty good horror/action films. Unfortunately, Blade: Trinity features an insulting script aimed directly at the lowest common denominator, X-Men: The Last Stand sees almost all prior character development tossed out the window along with the characters’ principles, and Spider-Man 3 turns its lead character into an unsympathetic jerk to make a point about … something. The terrible threequel: a worrying trend for Marvel.

So yeah, who’s looking forward to Iron Man 3!? Don’t worry; it’s the first Marvel Studios threequel so I’m sure none of this applies to it and I will in no way regret using a vacation day to go see it on May 3.

The Noble Failure Award

I cannot in good conscience call Hulk a good movie, but I can at least see that the filmmakers were trying to do something interesting with it. Although it is a bloated, boring mess, it gets credit for its ambition.

Most Improved by Time and Lowered Expectations

Elektra, which actually seemed pretty decent this time around. It’s not a masterpiece, but in terms of comic book movies about women — a very small and not very illustrious group — it might be the best. Which also goes to show that we need more comic book movies about women.

Most Unnecessary

I’ve been told over and over by my friends from the local comic book store that the Raimi Spider-Man films have not aged well, and The Amazing Spider-Man is a big improvement. I guess this proves that even cool people can be wrong, because nothing will convince me that The Amazing Spider-Man is anything more than a tired rehash of something that was done much, much better just a decade ago. Even if it was a good movie, which it isn’t, but hypothetically — the point is, you’ve still already seen it. Recently.

Key Actors

There are two actors whose performances I think have essentially built the Marvel movie world: Hugh Jackman and Robert Downey Jr. Wolverine is of course one of Marvel’s most well-loved characters, and Jackman’s excellence ensured that his popularity carried over to the big screen. Plus, the guy has appeared in five films, with two more on the way. It’s impressive. Downey, meanwhile, deserves a huge amount of credit for the success of Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If Iron Man had tanked, things might have gone very differently for Marvel Studios. That it didn’t is in large part thanks to his charismatic presence.

Other than those two, I think Wesley Snipes has to get some credit; after all, it was Blade‘s surprising success that ushered in the modern Marvel movie era. Chris Evans is the standout actor to have played more than one Marvel character. Steve Rogers and Johnny Storm are both major figures in the Marvel universe, and Evans is great as both.

Best Female Performances

The X-Men movies give us the most to choose from here: Famke Janssen (Jean), Anna Paquin (Rogue), and Rebecca Romijn (Mystique) stand out for me, and I also think their characters are the three most interesting female mutants in the movies. In terms of love interest type roles, I like Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane a lot. Hayley Atwell and Natalie Portman are also very strong in Captain America and Thor. Speaking of Thor, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Kat Dennings’ hilarious performance. Rosemary Harris is wonderfully warm and grandmotherly as Aunt May in the Raimi Spidey films.

But most of all, there is Scarlett Johansson, who is doing spectacularly as the Black Widow and giving Marvel its first legitimate shot at making a really good female-centred movie, if they would just freaking take her up on it.

Best Villainous Performances

  1. Tom Hiddleston as Loki in The Avengers
  2. Ian McKellen as Magneto in the X-Men trilogy
  3. Michael Fassbender as Magneto in X-Men: First Class

Magneto just has a certain … animal magnetism. Unfortunately for him, he got Loki’d.

Best Comedic Performances

  1. Chris Hemsworth and Kat Dennings in Thor
  2. Mark Ruffalo/CGI Hulk in The Avengers
  3. Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and The Avengers
  4. Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis in Fantastic Four
  5. Tobey Maguire in the Spider-Man trilogy

It’s true that, strictly speaking, these aren’t all 100% comedic performances, but they all have very funny aspects and I would say the movies listed are the funniest Marvel movies. I would also give an honourable mention to Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer in Iron Man 2, because he’s so absurd and Tony’s hatred of him is so hilarious.

Tobey Maguire has a lot of haters for some reason I do not understand, but just think back to the sequence in Spider-Man 2 where Peter, having given up being Spider-Man, dons his glasses and happily goes about his everyday nerdy life. It’s very funny stuff. How much of the “comedy” in Spider-Man 3 is intentionally funny, or funny at all, is very debatable, but I think credit goes to Maguire for trying to go along with whatever Sam Raimi was trying to do.

Best Action Sequences

  1. The Avengers: Helicarrier Attack
  2. Spider-Man 2: Train (the Bank/Saving May sequence is also superb)
  3. X2: Wolverine Is the World’s Most Badass Babysitter
  4. Iron Man: Building the Suit/First Flight (this is a bit of a cheat because it could include most of the movie, but hey)
  5. Spider-Man: Wall-Crawling & First Webs

It’s tough to pick just a few scenes from 27 such action-packed movies. In the end, though, there’s a handful that stand out.

Best Cast

The Avengers wins this automatically, but other than that: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy has a truly marvellous cast. Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Rosemary Harris, Cliff Robertson, Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina, J.K. Simmons (who is like the old Spidey cartoon come to life), Elizabeth Banks, Bill Nunn, and Ted Raimi are all fantastic. They also have great chemistry as a group.

The cast of Thor would be my other choice. The Asgardians: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba, Rene Russo, Jaimie Alexander, Josh Dallas, Ray Stevenson, and Tadanobu Asano, plus Colm Feore as Laufey. The Earthlings: Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard, Kat Dennings, and Clark Gregg, with a cameo from Jeremy Renner. All of these people are good actors, and incredibly, almost all of them make a memorable impact on the movie.

Best Stan Lee Cameo

As much as I hate The Amazing Spider-Man‘s existence, I do love Stan Lee’s appearance as an oblivious school librarian. However, his cameos in the Iron Man movies as “Hugh Hefner” and “Larry King” would probably top the list if not for the fact that he plays the FF’s lovable mailman, Willie Lumpkin, in Fantastic Four.

Some Favourite Dialogue

“That’s my secret, Captain. I’m always angry.” – Bruce Banner, The Avengers

“I need a horse!”
“We don’t have horses, just dogs, cats, birds …”
“Then give me one of those large enough to ride.”exchange between Thor and a pet shop employee, Thor

“This is really … heavy …” – Peter Parker, Spider-Man 2

Those are my impressions of the movies themselves. I’ll be back tomorrow with a few final thoughts on comic book movie adaptations in general, and that will be my very last Marvel Movies Project post (as far as I know). My goal was to finish before Iron Man 3 — I made it!

Marvel Movies Project: The Incredible Hulk

Movie poster for The Incredible Hulk (2008).

The second Marvel Studios project is The Incredible Hulk (2008), starring Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, Liv Tyler as Betty Ross, William Hurt as General Thunderbolt Ross, and Tim Roth as Blonsky, a soldier who eventually turns into something even more … abominable than the Hulk. This film has no connection to Ang Lee’s father-focused Hulk from 2003, which we have already discussed. Marvel reacquired the film rights to the character around 2006 because Universal failed to start production on a sequel to Hulk on time.

So The Incredible Hulk is a reboot of sorts, though not quite: it seems to work on the assumption that the audience already knows the main characters and therefore doesn’t spend time introducing them. It also mostly skips over the Hulk’s origin in a science experiment gone wrong, showing it quickly in the opening credits.

That said, the origin story does have serious plot implications, and it’s rather different this time around: in Hulk, Bruce Banner is working on independent research on regeneration of cells for medical purposes; in The Incredible Hulk, the military was attempting to use Banner’s experiments to re-create the super soldier serum that produced Captain America, although Banner himself was not aware of the true purpose of the project. This idea of the dangers of military application, or perhaps appropriation, of superhero-related research ties in to what we’ve just seen in Iron Man via Tony Stark’s ideological conflict with Obadiah Stane.

Mostly, though, The Incredible Hulk is a monster movie which recalls classics of sci-fi like Frankenstein (Mr. Blue refers to his scientific research as “Promethean fire,” an image which goes back to Mary Shelley), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (incidentally, the last movie I saw before I watched this was the 1931 version of Jekyll and Hyde starring Fredric March — appropriate), and Godzilla. At least, I for one thought of Godzilla as I watched Abomination rampaging down a New York street. (The other thing I thought as I watched that scene is, hey, was that Omar?

It IS Omar!

Yep, that random bystander in the brightly-coloured shirt is in fact Michael Kenneth Williams. Huh. “Abomination! Abomination is coming, yo!”)

The Incredible Hulk is a decent enough movie — better than Hulk, which, granted, doesn’t say much — but nothing earthshattering. I thought Edward Norton was a good choice to play Bruce Banner, but I was actually a little disappointed with his performance and I suppose with the direction of the film. It would have been interesting to see Banner as a man constantly on the edge of snapping — a type of performance I think Norton would have done great things with; instead, this Banner is a scared weakling, and I don’t know that we ever feel his rage.

To me, this movie’s place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon became a bit questionable when Edward Norton was booted from The Avengers and replaced with Mark Ruffalo. Now it’s sort of the awkward movie that’s still part of the continuity, but somehow doesn’t really count. If they do another Hulk movie, presumably they’ll recast Betty and General Ross again, too.

Whether they’re going to do another Hulk movie at all is still up for debate: Mark Ruffalo tweeted about it a few times last week, noting that while there are currently no plans to feature the Hulk in anything other than Avengers 2, there are no concrete plans not to do another solo Hulk movie either. Ruffalo apparently signed a six movie deal with Marvel. That seems to suggest something will happen … at some point. Joss Whedon seems to have big things in mind for the Hulk in Avengers 2, but has also noted he feels the character is “the most difficult Marvel property” to build a movie around.

The big green guy can be pretty awesome as a supporting character, though, as we shall see in a few movies’ time.

Marvel Movies Project: Iron Man

For this project so far, I’ve watched 16 movies, all of which were produced by other studios which had purchased the movie rights to Marvel characters. These 16 movies combined for a total worldwide box office gross of almost $5.5 billion, but only a tiny portion of their profits went to Marvel: for example, according to Sean Howe’s book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Marvel earned about $75 million from Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, which made $1.6 billion at the box office. This article from Fortune has more details on how little money Marvel actually saw from these films.

So. You’re Marvel. You see everyone else making a crapton of money off your stuff. Not to mention, it would be nice to have more creative control because, let’s face it: nobody knows these characters better than you. What do you do? Well …

Marvel Studios Logo

You make your own darn movie studio of course! It’s actually a pretty interesting setup they’ve got. As I understand it, in 2004, Marvel essentially received a loan of $525 million to make, over a period of 8 years, 10 movies based on characters to which it still owned the film rights. These movies would be distributed by Paramount. If the movies failed and Marvel was unable to pay back its loans, the film rights for 10 Marvel characters — specifically: Ant-Man, The Avengers, Black Panther, Captain America, Cloak & Dagger, Nick Fury, Hawkeye, Power Pack, Shang-Chi, and Dr. Strange — would go to the insurance company which agreed to cover the debt. (There are more details on the arrangement here.)

Quite a bet to make. Although you can argue that maybe characters like Cloak & Dagger and Power Pack aren’t among Marvel’s most valuable intellectual property, losing Captain America and The Avengers would certainly have been a blow. Marvel has quite a lot riding on the success of this venture.

In May 2008, the first Marvel Studios project was released:

Movie poster for Iron Man (2008).

Iron Man tells the story of Tony Stark, genius billionaire playboy philanthropist arms manufacturer who gets a taste of what his company has wrought on the world when he’s attacked during a visit to Afghanistan by terrorists using Stark weapons. The attack leaves Stark badly wounded, with pieces of shrapnel in his blood and only a magnetic chest plate keeping him alive, and imprisoned by the terrorists, who demand that he build them their own version of his latest high-tech missile. With the help of his fellow prisoner, Yinsen, Stark instead builds a suit of body armour which allows him to escape his captors. His experience leads him to turn over a new leaf: he halts production on his company’s weapons, and instead dedicates himself and the company to working on clean energy sources as well as a better version of the body armour he built in Afghanistan. He faces problems from inside the company, however, as his partner Obadiah Stane is not on board with Tony’s new vision.

In the current context of debates about the US’s use of unmanned drones, Iron Man feels rather topical: at one point Tony hears his friend Rhodey discussing whether the future of air combat is with manned or unmanned planes. Rhodey doesn’t believe a drone — a plane without a pilot — could ever match a pilot’s instincts; in response, Tony muses “Why not a pilot without the plane?” Indeed, that’s pretty much what he builds with the Iron Man armour, which places the wearer in the centre of combat, unlike drone controllers, who may be thousands of miles away controlling things via satellite. As demonstrated when Tony returns to Afghanistan to fight the terrorists who abducted him, the suit allows its pilot to have an incredible level of control over its targeting systems. No collateral damage here.

Thought-provoking commentary aside, Iron Man is, at its arc reactor powered heart, basically a movie about a guy building a cool metal suit. And it’s awesome. All the scenes of Tony Stark planning and testing and building and rebuilding work really well. This is largely thanks to Robert Downey Jr., whose energy and personality make the whole thing seem like an incredible amount of fun.

Downey was the perfect choice to play Tony Stark (I’ve always thought he’d be a decent Dr. Strange, too, but this is better) and he gives one of the great comic book movie performances here. Tony is arrogant and childish, but RDJ makes him seem like a charming rogue whose change of heart is totally believable. He has great chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow — whom I don’t normally like, but she’s quite good as Pepper — and he’s very funny. Marvel owes the guy a huge debt of gratitude: if Iron Man had failed, it could have been disastrous for the whole Marvel Studios venture. But it did not ($585 million worldwide box office), and it owes much of its success to Robert Downey Jr.’s excellence.

Tony Stark in Iron Man (2008).

Iron Man also boasts a killer ending: rather than going with the prepared story that Iron Man is a bodyguard, Tony goes off-script during a press conference and reveals “I am Iron Man.” The end. It’s a good thing they ended the movie there because I’m not sure I could have taken anymore awesomeness.

Except: “I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative.” Wait, WHAT!? Does that mean … are they really … ????

Oh … holy … CRAP!!