Marvel Studios has been in the movie and television business since 1993, then called Marvel Films. They met with some successes early on, but never really found the right combination to give their properties mainstream appeal. In the 90’s, under Avi Arad they believed that the best way to proceed was to provide the characters, via licensing, and let movie heavy-hitters, like Columbia Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Sony and others, translate them to the silver screen.
The first such film released was Blade by New Line Cinema in 1998. Grossing $131 million, it was successful enough to lead to interest in other better known Marvel properties, and believe it or not, it may have stunted Marvel Studios’ growth for years to come. On a smaller scale than current epics, Blade followed a formula that would eventually lead to future successes for the fledgling movie-maker. I am a bit of a math nerd so I see that formula as…
((W + d) *A ) * X = $$
The first few factors are easy to see. The “W” is the writing. Good writers are out there, but it seems, even some of the best have issues with translating other people’s work or characters into viable screenplays. If you don’t believe me, just listen to Kevin Smith‘s An Evening with Kevin Smith (2002). In the documentary film, he rails against the Hollywood power-structure that led him through the wringer when he was asked to write a screenplay for a Superman movie. The successful writer, director, and self-professed “Comic-Book Man” actually touches on my formula’s mysterious variable “X” which we will get to shortly. The factor “d” in the equation is direction. The vision of the screenplay has to translate to the screen. In the comics industry the writer and artist work together on the direction of the book. In the movies the writer and director have to have a similar collaborative understanding of each other, the material, and the motivation. The “A” is the acting. In Blade, a known lead actor, Wesley Snipes, was used, but he was surrounded by newcomers and relative unknowns. In later movies Marvel Films seemed to prefer unknowns in the parts because they wanted the characters to be the stars, not the actors. This, while successful in some instances, X-Men (2002) and Fantastic Four (2005), was a mistake long-term, in my opinion. The lack of names to promote may have caused some projects, rumored in the early 2000’s, like Black Panther, Cloak & Dagger, Hawkeye, Power Pack, and Shang-Chi to never see the light of day. The final piece of the equation is the most elusive variable “X” , which in my opinion, is simply the understanding of the characters, their motivations, and the original material. I’m not saying that you have to be a comic aficionado to pull off a decent movie, but you must have at least a basic understanding of the characters and what makes them heroic.
Stan Lee created many of the characters that you see in today’s successful superhero movies. He made them popular by giving them real everyday problems to go along with their awesome powers. Bruce Banner was cursed to be a pawn to his own emotions, Peter Parker was a kid with teen life issues, the X-men were feared and hated by humanity, and Matt Murdock was blind. The movie makers never seemed to grasp these concepts. Take for example Daredevil (2003), while it had good acting (Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner), and a decent enough story, there was no understanding of the characters. A public sparring match between a blind lawyer and a supermodel? Really? Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003) suffered from the same problem. They took the gargantuan “Jade Giant” and turned him into a character study, instead of creating a pulse-pounding epic showcasing the kind of rage and destruction only a Hulk fight could produce. We had to wait until 2006, with Ed Norton’s tortured performance, to see some understanding of the balance between Banner and Hulk, in the re-imagining The Incredible Hulk.
So, what’s the difference? Well, in my humble opinion, it’s Marvel Studios. In 2004, under Chief Operating Officer David Maisel, Marvel Studios made three critical changes to their movie making strategy. First, they started to self-finance, which allowed them to call the shots. Second, they started to buy back licenses previously sold to the movie mills who showed little understanding of the characters, their motivations, or what made them successful in comics for decades. Last, but not least, they went back to basics and started to focus on the frailties of the characters that made them more human and accessible to the audience. In 2009 the final piece of the puzzle fell into place when The Walt Disney Company bought Marvel Entertainment in its entirety. Who better to understand the power of established properties than the company who had been leveraging their own for decades. Since then Marvel Studios and Disney have reacquired the rights to Blade, Daredevil, Elektra, Power Man, Punisher and Ghost Rider, leaving only the X-men and Fantastic Four at 20th Century Fox and Spider-Man at Sony, for now.
What does the Disney powered Marvel Studios have up their sleeves for the future? Hopefully, more of the same thought process that brought us the Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, Iron Man, and Incredible Hulk lead-ins that forged into one of the greatest comic-based movies of all time, The Avengers! We know that they are pulling out all the stops with hiring good writers (W) like Joss Whedon, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely, among others. They have the direction (d) covered with proven experts like of Joss Whedon, James Gunn, and Anthony and Joe Russo. The acting (A) has been fantastic in recent years. Actors like Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, and Chris Evans epitomize their characters. In Downey Jr.’s case, as Tony Stark, Iron Man, he made it hard to ever picture anyone else in the role. Even through reported contract negotiations Downey Jr. has shown the desire to stay on to reprise his role and the powers-that-be at Marvel seem to agree. Joss Whedon recently stated, regarding Downey Jr.’s contract status, “He is Iron Man in the way that Sean Connery was James Bond. I have no intention of making Avengers 2 without him, nor do I think I’ll be called upon to do that. I don’t think it’s in my interest, Marvel’s interest, or his interest, and I think everything will be fine. But I know that this is Hollywood and you roll with things. You have to be ready for the unexpected. But I loved working with Robert, and everybody knows he embodied that role in a way no one else can. The day he was cast, I went up to [Marvel Studios President] Kevin Feige and said, “You brilliant son of a bitch.”
I also have every confidence that Marvel and Disney understand this business and how important the right actors can be to a franchise. Just look at the cast of actors signed on for Guardians of the Galaxy (2015). It’s a veritable who’s who of notable actors including Glenn Close, Chris Pratt (Star-Lord), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Michael Rooker (Yondu), John C. Reilly (Rhomann Dey), and most recent additions Karen Gillan (Doctor Who), and Benicio Del Toro who has options for a multiple picture deal. Marvel Studios doesn’t have all their eggs in that one basket though. They are releasing Thor: The Dark World later this year, and filming continues on Captain America: The Winter Soldier due for release in 2014.
We even get weekly casting updates on projects of the future like Avengers 2. The most recent of which reports that Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass) is being considered for the role of Quicksilver in the super-team sequel planned for a 2015 release. All-in-all the future for Marvel Studios is bright and for those of us who grew up on comic books it’s the SILVER AGE all over again. They understand the value of characters, their powers, and most of all their human frailties, which I refer to as the “X” variable in my movie making success formula
((W + d) *A ) * X = Succe$$
Stay tuned, I am betting that the best is yet to come from Marvel Studios!