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Film: A Marvelous Summer

Marvel Comics comes of age as a summer movie player

By tt stern-enzi · May 14th, 2008 · Movies
  Iron Man's strong box-office and critical responses have opened the way for a bevy of upcoming Marvel Comics film projects.
Paramount Pictures

Iron Man's strong box-office and critical responses have opened the way for a bevy of upcoming Marvel Comics film projects.

Back in the day, I avidly read comic books. I was the kid who earned an allowance primarily so that I could rush the cigar store and newsstand every Friday to pick up my favorite titles (of course, back then comics cost 25 cents with special issues setting me back a whole dollar, but that just meant I had to work a bit harder to earn a little extra).

I was definitely more of a Marvel Comics guy than a DC Comics follower, although I knew, along with every other kid alive, a little something about Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and the rest of the members of the Justice League of America.

That was largely because DC owned the screens. Superman had made the transition from radio to television first, and he played like the great American hero that he was. The occasionally moody crime-fighting Batman lightened up, giving us the kitschy psychedelic fun of the 1960s with a cartoony Pow! right in the kisser.

By the time the country entered the 1970s, there was Linda Carter's Wonder Woman offering us a respite from the Watergate/Vietnam beat-down with some much needed sex and glam. Comics on the small screen were engaging fantasies for a country in need.

Marvel felt like the second string with major characters like Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk struggling to play catch-up, although Lou Ferrigno and Bill Bixby captured the bulked-up wandering angst of the Hulk, who came off like a gamma-ray clone of Caine from Kung Fu. But somehow the fun, the flash and the cheese (which came courtesy of The Greatest American Hero, who wasn't from either camp) eluded Marvel on the small screen.

Of course, the arrival of Superman to the big screen seemed to truly signal the dominance of DC as the king of multimedia formats.

Marvel had no answer for the glorious vision of Christopher Reeve streaking across the skies carrying an American flag or Margot Kidder's Lois Lane set to the strains of John Williams.

And when Supes started his slow decline with the dismal sequels that followed Superman 2, along came Tim Burton's Batman, which pushed the genre even further, giving a dark resonance and powerful box-office appeal based on the notion that comic book adaptations could approach the level of serious film. But thanks to Joel Schumacher, Batman descended into rubber-nippled fetish fantasies and box office-driven double whammies of star-studded villainy that nearly broke the bank and our collective interest in celluloid superheroes.

Yet, intriguingly, it was Marvel that swooped in to save the day. The rise of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man and Bryan Singer's X-Men adaptations marked a return to a more film-based approach to the genre. Technology and creative narrative filmmaking could produce films and heroes that tapped into the psyches of not just the comic book geeks, but also mainstream audiences. Maybe we did need heroes again.

And maybe heroes need heroes, too. This summer marks the dawning of a new day in comics and Marvel is leading the way. For the first time, Marvel Comics has the rights to its characters and are self-producing the recently released Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk (June 13) as its initial projects, which means that for the first time comic fans will get to see a crossover cameo (which I won't disclose here) that could become the norm within the Marvel Film Universe if these two films take off.

Jon Favreau became money after earning big bucks at the helm of Elf, although he already had a cache of indie cred in the bank for his acting work, plus he's even made a supporting appearance in the 20th Century Fox adaptation of Marvel's Daredevil. Of course, he's now on track to join the franchise ranks since Iron Man has blasted off to such a fantastic start. And why not? He scored a major coup right off the bat in casting Robert Downey Jr. as billionaire playboy industrialist Tony Stark, the true darker counterpart to Batman's Bruce Wayne who is little more than a scarred, scared kid.

Going into Iron Man, everyone will immediately sense that Downey's performance will be informed by an intrinsic connection to the character's obvious lows, but also the smart ironic quips delivered by an accomplished Academy Award nominee (for Chaplin) supported by fellow nominees Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard and Gwyneth Paltrow.

The Incredible Hulk bears the burden of being the successor to Ang Lee's ill-received spin on the origin of the green behemoth that visually locked in on the comic's panels, but was buried in talky angst and muddy CGI that smashed the life out of the character. The Transporter 2's Louis Leterrier seeks to re-invigorate the mean green machine, and the casting of Edward Norton in this reboot serves to infuse the movie with instant credibility. (Although the presence of Norton guarantees a level of creative friction -- especially his desire to involve himself in the editing process after the fact -- that attracts unnecessary publicity.)

Marvel Entertainment secured a credit deal of reportedly $525 million that financed these two productions and has the comic world salivating over the highly anticipated options that such a financial stake in the film business could mean for Marvel characters in the future. The golden box-office returns for Iron Man not only propelled stock prices but also led to the company announcing a slate of new productions extending through 2011, which would include an Iron Man sequel, a Mighty Thor movie, a Captain America feature and an Avengers movie that would unite those characters with the Hulk.

And with the current rumblings about the collapse of George Miller's proposed Justice League live-action feature film (also mired in issues regarding competing versions of characters like Batman and Superman), the Marvel Universe looks ready to smash the box-office doors for their entire stable of heroes to come rushing onto the scene like never before. ©



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