The other day I went to say Captain America: The First Avenger, the final film from Marvel Studios before the Avengers comes out next year. The film was one of the best comic book films I’ve seen with a well written story, good characters being well played and a perfect tone. A villain like the Red Skull could always be too camp and the story could easily have just been played for laughs, but the patriotic tone of it all made it a joy. It’s American all over, and all the better because of it.
One of the things it did exceedingly well though, much better than any previous effort from Marvel, is that of referencing the other films. Iron Man 2 was criticised for being more about the upcoming Avengers film than about Iron Man, but here I feel they got the balance right. The references are much more subtle and all of them are worked into the plot of this movie. Tony Stark’s dad is a key character, a Macguffin from Thor gives the villain his power and the ending leaves you wanting the Avengers to come out tomorrow.
I think now is a good moment to stop and consider what Marvel have actually achieved here, as I believe it is very impressive.
They began filming their first independent production, Iron Man, in 2007. At the same time, they had regained the rights to the Hulk film, after Ang Lee’s cerebral version was unsuccessful. They began to produce this and both were scheduled for a 2008 release date.
This meant that Marvel could do something that no other superhero property could and that was do crossovers. Iron Man came out in cinemas in May and at the end, the studio revealed that they were planning on making an Avengers film. They were so determined to do this, that they cast Samuel L Jackson in a two minute post credit role, that tied him into another nine films. By June, Iron Man had a cameo appearance in the Incredible Hulk.
This was the big advantage of the comic books making the films themselves. They had complete control of their characters and could insert as many references as they wanted. They could even choose to adjust the comics to fit their film casting if they wanted to. Only this week did they announce that after they recently killed Peter Parker, his replacement in the Spider-man costume is Miles Morales, a half black, half Latino teenager from Brooklyn. They say this is a reflection of the diverse world we live in, but it seems to me like an attack on Sony to give up the film rights.
Comics have a great following and are known for establishing characters over many issues. They are designed as a series and never as a standalone feature. They were intended to be disposable media and now the films can be treated the same. We can see Marvel isn’t afraid of rebooting, as they’ve already done it for the Hulk, and will do so again for the Avengers.
As a new studio, their record is impressive. In four years they have made five box office hits that have all been well received. By comparison, DC has only released four films (The Dark Knight, Watchmen, Jonah Hex and Green Lantern) of which two have been critically panned and failed to get back their production costs at the box office. These films are all very distinct, whereas Marvel is offering one series.
I think this is what sets them apart. You know what you’re getting with a Marvel film and while they’re all different in terms of tone and style, there is complete continuity there. They are no longer merely selling a character, but a world. They have very successfully packaged their brand into a film medium.
Their strategy was clearly realised in Iron Man 2, when they put Nick Fury in as a main character. They also put in a lot of back story for Tony Stark that would then come in useful for the Captain America story, but we didn’t know this at the time. Thor also set that up, and I think that was my overwhelming impression of Captain America; a capstone in the series that assembled the Avengers’ origin stories.
After all this preparation, I for one am keen to see the Avengers. It will be the first film that Marvel Studios release with Walt Disney logo in front of it after being bought in September 2009. In my opinion, Marvel is now the jewel in Disney’s crown after Pixar have resorted to sequels (there are even rumours of another Toy Story film being in the works).
I think this video, made after the release of Iron Man 2, best sums up the success of Marvel.