Let’s go back to a simpler time. Won’t you join me? The year is 1999 and the new millenium is upon us. The Digital Era is in its infancy and in spite of many flawed attempts (Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace I’m looking at you!), we’ve seen hints of what modern technology can do in cinema. Jurassic Park, The Abyss, and Titanic amazed audiences with their nearly true-to-life special effects. So, of course, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood turned its gaze to the our modern mythology: comic books.
Sure, we’d seen some great comic book films of the past. 1978’s Superman and its sequel showed us that a man really can fly. Tim Burton’s 1987 Batman gave us a romantic noir world of madcap clowns and dark knights set against a stylized city of shadows and gothic architecture. But, eventually things degenerated into mind numbing battled with two-tone villians like Nuclear Man and a campy Caped Crusader who rivaled Adam West when it came to insulting silliness.
But after the Batman and Robin almost single-handedly killed the super hero genre, a new hero arose on the scene: Bryan Singer. He gave us X-Men. Looking back a decade later, it doesn’t quite stand the test of time – but it’s still a strong film. No one can argue that Patrick Stewart is Professor Xaiver. Ian McKellen charming (yet nefarious) turn as Magento is compelling and engaging. An almost unknown Hugh Jackman surprised everyone as Logan, aka the Wolverine. The ferocity and pain he showed, along with the performances of those mentioned above, showed us that super heroes could show the depth and pathos of any other “serious” performance.
So suddenly, super hero flicks were in, and for a time they were pretty awesome. X2: X-Men United offered a perfect balance of social comenntary and great action. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man showed us a nerdy kid who was trying to do what was right, but got weighed down by the burden of great responsibility. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins introduced us to a grittier, darker, and more real Gotham City than we ever imagined and we got with it a Dark Knight who felt like he almost could be real. Almost. The political allegory of V for Vendetta gave a frightening glimpse into a world where fear dominated the mass and showed how though one man may die, an idea is invincible.
Now, that’s not to say everything was perfect. Daredevil was two steps from being a trope-ridden romance and by the time we got to Spider-Man 3 we were over-saturated with villians and a hero so whiny that he could have given Anakin Skywalker a run for his money. X3: The Last Stand became spilled over with superheroes to the point where the plot itself became a victim in the war against Mutantkind.
Still, all in all things were pretty awesome.
Then they got even awesomer. Yes awesomer. In 2007, Marvel Studios took a B-list superhero, a non-existant script, a and a no-name villian and they gave us the glory that is Iron Man. Now I think it’s hard to argue that the phenominal success of that film owes a lot to the brilliant casting and sheer charm of Robert Downey Jr. But, instead of flooding the screen with a series of unconnected films filed with new four-color crusaders, Marvel Studios did something Hollywood Studios are not often want to do: They played the long game.
Following on the repulsor-powered heels of Iron Man, Marvel Studios gave us: The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America – along with an Iron Man sequel. Over the next five years they released these films each with little post-credit teasers and hints within the films themselves that they were, in fact, all set in the same universe and same continuity. It was the long man’s game.
And it paid off in spades. Tapping the modern Patron Saint of Geeks, Joss Whedon, to pen the script for the Avengers, Marvel Studios created a new kind of team hero film. This wasn’t Fantastic Four or even X-Men, where the background of each individual hero took up the first half of the film and still felt like it had been ham-fistedly shoved down our throats and rushed. We already knew Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Bruce Banner (even if he did look strangely different in The Avengers), and Thor. We’d spent over two hours with each of them and by the time The Avengers hit the screen we already cared. So, by being patient and biding their time when The Avengers hit the screen their audience already had half a decade of investment in their heroes and even had quite a bit of love for the side characters like Nick Fury and Agent Coulson.
Something no less important, but equally subtle was also done. We’d been given hints of a large over-arching plot that existed in the background of all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The mysterious “Tesseract.” The image of a broad, grim-faced villian with purple skin smiling down on an unsuspecting earth. Hints from Asgard that great and powerful alien civiliations existed beyond the knowledge of Earthlings. It was more than a world, it was truly a universe.
And it was a rich one. The Avengers alone earned 1.5 billion dollars. Those kinds of numbers make Hollywood execs stand up and take notice. So, what did they do? What any Hollywood exec would do: They tried to make knock-offs, reboots and copycats. Sony Pictures gave us a Spider-Man reboot less than 5 years after the previous series had ended. Man of Steel was yet another attempt to re-energize a franchise that had not seen glory days in almost 30 years. And the X-Men franchise continued to degenerate into bland one-off films slathered with half-hearted heroes and villians and a prequel filled with broken continuity and C-list super heroes.
Then there’s the Fantastic Four. While they’ve always had loyal fans in the comic book world and they produced moderate (at best) success at the box office – they’re certainly not going to draw the attention of a lot of Friday night film-goers. Because, let’s face it: They’re kinda boring. So, instead of taking the few precious intellectual properties that 20th Century Fox has and trying something truly new and original, they’re clinging to their contractual obligation and pushing forward with a film production that I believe is destined to be a train wreck. Instead of taking the initiate and doing something truly innovative, both 20th Centruy Fox (with Fantastic Four) and Sony Pictures (with Spider-Man) are relying on the same old song and dance. Filling the screen with flashy special effects and making casting choices that appear to be little more than attempts to be desperate attempts to grab media atteniton.
I mean sure, they’ll get some people in the theater – but most of those people who sit up these kinds of things were most likely going to see the film once anyway because they’re already fans of the source. More importantly, while bringing fresh ideas and taking risks while casting can make a film surprisingly entertaining (Hugh Jackman as Wolverine being an example in the early X-Men films), if you deviate too far from the source material fans are left with a sour taste in their mouth and generally feel like they’re being slighted under the belief that Hollywood execs have no respect for that material or those who care about it. (I’m looking at you Arnold Schwarzenegger, aka Mr. Freeze.)
A few days ago Marvel Studios released their trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy. Now, let me be frank: I’m completely and totally stoked for this film. I can’t wait to sit down in the theater and watch two hours of a green skinned assassin, a roid-ridden madman, a butt-kicking ent and most of all a raccoon with a machine gun, all kick the living daylights out of… something. To be frank, I don’t really care what it is. This movie seems to ooze awesome. But the reason for that is that Marvel Studios took the time to earn the faith and trust of their fans. Sure, Guardians of the Galaxy is probably going to be a pulply, over-the-top, “A-Team in Space.” But you know what? That’s exactly what the trailers make it out to be and Marvel Studios isn’t trying to sell it as anything else. They’re being honest and sincere with their audience and the fans of the source material. Therein lies the truth of thier success. They’re asking us to trust them – and we’ve got every reason to do so.
Now if you’ll pardon me, I’ll be in the shower singing “Hooked on a Feeling.”