This is the final installment of “Universe Lost.” I’m working on a new feature, “Mapping the Multiverse,” which will begin in two weeks to coincide with the season premiere of CW’s The Flash. I’ll also post a couple of standalone entries to fill the gap between now and then.
I’d really like to hear what readers think of the blog so far! You can contact me directly via the form at the end of the post or get a conversation going in the comments section below.
Now let’s compare that run to feature films adapting Marvel Comics characters to the big screen between 1978 and 1997.
There was only one: Howard the Duck.
For a decade after Howard the Duck bombed at the box office, Marvel was unable to get its properties into cinemas. It was not quite a repeat of the 1944 Captain America debacle that first stranded Marvel in the media wilderness, but the company nevertheless shared in the stigma that stuck to everyone who worked behind the scenes on the 1986 flop.
Oddly enough, Marvel’s silver lining came in the form of the substandard action figures that accompanied the release of the 1989 Batman film. A bargain-basement company called Toy Biz produced the figures, in many cases using leftover molds from Kenner’s Super Powers Collection so as not to have to pay for new designs. Anything with the word “bat” affixed to it flew off the shelves in 1989, though, and Toy Biz’s success with DC characters soon drew Marvel’s attention.
In 1991, Marvel relaunched their X-Men comic with a huge marketing push that included a line of Toy Biz figures. When the X-Men animated series debuted the following year, sales of the figures went through the roof. In 1993, Toy Biz and Marvel effectively merged, with toy designer Avi Arad becoming Marvel’s chief operating officer.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Arad did for Marvel what Whitney Ellsworth did for DC half a century earlier. Arad managed Marvel characters’ appearances in non-comics media, while remaining aloof from the publishing operations. No one at Marvel had ever had a similar role before.
In 1996, Arad founded Marvel Studios in order to return Marvel’s characters to the big screen. The problem with Howard the Duck, Arad believed, was that Marvel handed over creative control to producer George Lucas when they licensed the character to Lucasfilm. There was nothing unusual or inherently bad about that type of deal, as all of the Superman and Batman films to date had been produced through similar arrangements, and were financially successful more often than not. But Arad did not think that was the right approach for Marvel.
Arad kept the development and pre-production of film adaptations in-house, meaning that Marvel would “commission scripts, hire directors and negotiate with stars” before licensing the film rights to a production studio. If you were going to make a movie about Marvel characters, you would have to make it Marvel’s way. This was Stan Lee’s unitary editorial vision seeping out of the comic books and into the movies.
In 2005, Arad announced that Marvel Studios would produce movies on their own rather than license film rights to companies like Fox or Sony. These new films would also take place in an interconnected continuity, just as Marvel’s super-hero comics did.
The creative architect behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) was Kevin Feige, who first attracted the attention of X-Men producer Lauren Shuler Donner by being “a walking encyclopedia of Marvel.” After X-Men hit big, Feige went to work for Avi Arad, succeeding Arad as head of Marvel Studios when he stepped down in 2006.
The first two MCU films, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, prompted Disney to acquire Marvel in 2009. Kevin Feige’s clout with Disney continues to grow, but he still seems more at home doing a podcast for Nerdist than talking to the New York Times.
As Marvel editor-in-chief in the 1960s, Stan Lee made uniformity and consistency the hallmark of the company’s comic book line. Avi Arad and Kevin Feige brought Marvel’s film adaptations in sync with Lee’s editorial design, but not every creator is comfortable with that approach. It drove away Lee’s closest collaborator, Jack Kirby. The same can happen in movies.
Marvel’s movies are successful, but formulaic. Mismatch between formula and talent hindered the production of Ant-Man once it was announced in 2006 with Edgar Wright, director of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, attached. It was very much a personal project for Wright, who had collected Ant-Man’s comic book appearances since childhood. Production finally began in 2014, but Wright walked away on the eve of filming, citing creative differences.
With Wright gone, Marvel Studios hired a new director and ordered last-minute changes to the script. In spite of its troubled production, Ant-Man has now brought in more than $400 million, making the debut film of a C-list Marvel character more profitable than either Batman Begins or Superman Returns. The formula continues to work, validating Disney’s early confidence in Marvel’s plans.
Marvel Studios’ insistence on uniformity and consistency means that they will likely never produce a film as critically loathed as Batman & Robin. The Marvel formula also means that its films may never transcend the super-hero genre, as did The Dark Knight.
The Dark Knight used comic book characters to metaphorically explore terrorism and the post-9/11 security state without trivializing those issues, but still delivered an entertaining, atmospheric, and powerfully acted film. X2: X-Men United is, in my opinion, the only Marvel film to come close, but it was produced under Fox’s license, not by Marvel itself.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe exists in order to minimize the creative risks that led to Howard the Duck. It exists because a comic book publisher distrusted the film industry. Now it is redefining that industry, and DC, at least in part, is adopting the Marvel model. Now the model itself is the risk, as demands for conformity can potentially alienate talent. If these cinematic mega-franchises are to remain successful, they will have to engage in enough self-criticism to know when to modify their formula to suit changing audiences and markets.
They will have to adapt.
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