Friday, April 30, 2010

A Short History of Marvel Movies

For years, Marvel Comics have wanted to crack the big time, Hollywood, swimming pools, movie stars. Instead they've just been a bunch of dudes yukking it up in the Bullpen and creating childhoods through pencil and ink for decades. Not a bad fate but they always yearned for more, and they're finally getting it.

Marvel Studios now has the clout to create and control their own movies about their own properties on their own terms. Iron Man was such a global success in money and love that it'll fund a few more expeditions into the cinematic realm, and Iron Man 2 only looks set to add more to the coffers for The House Of Ideas. So, let's have a little peek behind the curtain at how this is all working out for our favourite funny-book franchise, and why their future might just be aided by a few supplemental b-movies.

To truly appreciate what Marvel are doing, and are able to do now, we must cast our eyes to a few distant points in their past to best understand where they have come from. They have attempted the cinematic realm before, just not usually on their own terms. I will detail a few hits but this isn't a review-a-thon, nor is it meant to be comprehensive, for that list please follow this link.

The '80's

Everyone was making  movies, Joe Piscopo, Cindy Lauper, Jay Leno, even Cher (and winning Academy Awards, no less) so you had to feel like a real schlub if you didn't have your name up in lights. Marvel knew they had to join the cool kids so they finally sent something up onto the silver screen. They elected, as their cinematic emissary, Howard the Duck. Why him? Well, a simple filmmaker by the name of George Lucas had a real Jones to bring this guy to the screen. And so it was written and so was it done, poorly. The flick tanked and is very rarely mentioned whenever people bring up Marvel films, comic book films, or even decent films. I have seen it, right when it came out, and I won't be gracing my eyes with it again for some time, though I know a day will come, some rainy bastard of a Sunday where I'll have to show my son this just so he knows.

Moving on (as everyone tried to do then, too), we waited a few more years and then finally another Marvel icon appeared into the bright light of live action day; The Punisher. A cult classic of a comic character, a guy with lots of guns and lots of goombas to kill, he looked like he might just be right for a shot at capturing some imaginations. I only just found out in researching this that Boaz Yakin wrote the screenplay (and if you don't know who he is then you need to go rent Fresh, stat.) along with Robert Mark Kamen (the man who penned The Karate Kid and The Transporter...and yet still hasn't meshed them into a crossover.) but that doesn't make up for the woeful casting decision that pretty much tanked this adaptation. Let me spell it out for you;

The Punisher, Frank Castle (Francis Castiglione), is an American-Italian 'Nam vet who turns to a life of hunting down mobsters when they kill his family. So who do they cast in this role? Dolph Lundgren, a Swedish weight lifter who had previously been captured on film (I'm reticent to call him an actor, I think he just wanders onto sets in a fugue state and busts heads while the other crew members do their best to stay quiet and capture the action.) and was best known for playing a Russian boxer against Rocky Balboa. It was an interesting casting choice, perhaps even inspired, but certainly not successful. I also haven't seen this flick since it first came out.

So far, Marvel hadn't been very successful in their attempts to conquer the talkies.

The '90's

They decided to open bigger, better, and with a character who was recognizable to the huddled masses lined up outside movie theaters. They made Captain America. And boy did they (so I hear as I have never been able to locate a copy of this turkey) do a crummy job of it. They follow the usual Cap story (WWII, super-soldiers, ice, a skull that is red) but they put it together in such a manner that you'd think your dog just ate a comic and barfed it out its nose, and then ate it again and you're stuck looking at the x-ray. The plot took various creative liberties, such as making Red Skull from Italy as opposed from Germany, and is perhaps infamous for adding rubber ears to Cap's cowl. Financing problems meant that the film went direct-to-video where it obviously didn't break any ceilings in that market, and so Marvel disappeared again for a while.

But everyone loves a comeback story and so another attempt was made, and failed, kind of. Constantin Films owned the film rights to the Fantastic Four and were going to lose them if they didn't begin filming by the end of 1992. They didn't have the money needed to actually make a decent FF flick so they did what they had to, they hired Roger Corman (a 60's schlockmeister known for stretching a budget so thin you could floss with it) and gave him $2 million to get the job done. To Mr. Corman's credit, he got the job done, the film was made and the rights were kept secure once more. However, the film was never shown, it was shelved, and the sick punchline is that it was never meant to be distributed and the cast and crew weren't even aware of this. Think of poor thespians like Alex Hyde-White, who played Reed Richards, baring their souls to the world only to later find out it was all simply an exercise in red tape so the production company could keep the rights and hopefully make a real film later that would actually be shown. Crushing, and yet another fail for Marvel at the movies.

As comics fans you should always know it gets the darkest right before dawn, and that bright guiding light came in the form of a dark, somewhat horrifically gruesome, vampire-fest based on a character created in Tomb Of Dracula and someone that most people had never heard of, Blade. The titular character is a 'daywalker', a vampire who can walk in the light due to his mixed heritage. It's not exactly a superhero movie as it is a flat out horror flick, even with a fight involving a character constituted entirely of walking vampire blood. Wesley Snipes plays Blade, and does so quite well, it must be said. It's not a perfect flick but it certainly found an audience, and thus earned back three times as much as what it was made for. A Marvel comic character was finally a cinematic success, and you'd barely even know where he came from.

So by ending the decade with a fun and frightful adaptation of one of their lesser known commodities, Marvel felt it was finally time to make the big step. They were going to adapt the franchise that carried them high on the waves of awesome throughout the 90's (and possibly even drowned them in that sea of gluttony as well.).

The New Millennium

For years, I had spent countless hours casting an X-Men movie with my brothers. It was the fun game that every fan could play, you work out who would be the best actor for each part. Finally, such fantasy was cast into reality as a true X-Men movie was being made. There had been many attempts but this was the real deal. This was even directed by Bryan Singer, a man who at that stage was still the guy who did The Usual Suspects, and who doesn't want to be that guy? In the end we only had one pick right, Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier (our other locked in picks, for those who cared, and you'll have to work out which characters we wanted them for, were Sean Connery, Mel Gibson circa Mad Max, Michael Biehn, and Angela Bassett) but the rest of the film was laden with great performances in a multitude of mutant characters. This film then magically turned $75 million into almost $300 million, and thus comics on film were a  true forceful hit. The special effects had finally caught up to what artists had been drawing for decades. It was time for everything else to be made.

The rest of the past decade sees 18 more cinematic Marvel movies get made. That's pretty astounding when you think about it. They'd toiled for years to get things pushed forward, James Cameron couldn't even get Spider-Man off the ground, but had rarely been a blip on the radar. Then suddenly anything is possible on the screen and they make 19 movies in 10 years, spending approximately $2.27 billion to get it all made and then grossing approximately $6.56 billion in sales for box office receipts alone, not to mention all of the lunch pails and DVDs they sell afterwards. That's extremely good business, and as a whole, most comic films tend to return twice what their budget was. Only Punisher: War Zone (Castle's third time through the projector) recorded a loss, and Elektra showed the lowest figures to still make a profit, and there should be no surprises there. Massive money was made on the X-Men, and Wolverine in his own spin-off, the Fantastic Four finally did it properly (kind of), Ghost Rider got a shot, as did two Hulks, Daredevil, two more Blade flicks, and three of Spider-Man flicks.

This decade saw the movie industry, as a whole, shift towards making more comic properties as effects teams finally caught up with our imaginations, and more people that grew up reading the gospel from the Bullpen were finally in high places to get these things made.


Iron Man marked a change in the way movies based on Marvel characters were produced. Marvel finally have their own  movie production studio and can be in charge of their own characters. It's great to see the right minds control these properties so they can get it done exactly how they like. Previously, Marvel would have a, sometimes token, producing credit, but the story would be in the hands of outside sources. With Iron Man, Marvel had complete creative control, and they finally got to then reap all of the money made from the venture. Iron Man was a success, in so many ways, and now Marvel is looking to a future of tying all of their films together.

Iron Man 2 is set for release in a few weeks. Marvel is betting the bank on Tony Stark coming back strong now that's he's proved he can carry the weight of the box office all on his own. He's got Mickey Rourke as Whiplash, Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer, Scarlet Johannson as the Black Widow, and Jon Favreau still behind the lens. You'll notice that they've surrounded Robert Downey Jr. with even more good actors and this promises to, hopefully, be just as good a flick as the first outing.

They'll follow up their man of iron with a god of thunder. Thor is being directed by Kenneth Branagh (a man of Shakespearean talent and respectable heritage himself) and stars unknown (in America, at least) Australian powerhouse, Chris Hemsworth, in the lead role. Anthony Hopkins will dominate in the dictatorial role of Odin, and hopefully the movie as a whole will be a success. This one is a little more of a gamble as it peddles in Asgardian warriors and a bit more real mythology instead of the usual implied stuff that people love to slip into our superheroes. I think this movie is shaping up to be awesome, but it is far too early to tell. Though it's never too early to speculate or be excited, so feel free to do both.

After Thor will come Captain America: The First Avenger, with Chris Evans playing the super soldier himself, and Joe Johnston in the hot seat of director's chair. Just knowing that they've cast Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull makes me think they've got their thinking caps switched on for this one. They're looking at a more World War II feel to this flick, it would appear, and one can only assume that it will frostily lead straight into the tentpole of all of these flicks. A massive event slated to happen in 2012, and a possible rare feature film directorial outing for fanlad favourite Joss Whedon, a movie collecting all of these characters, and more, that shall only be called, The Avengers. They're Earth's Mightiest Heroes and Marvel's sacred cash cow. If pulled off it will be a superhero movie the likes have never been seen, with an ensemble of heavy hitting actors and a story that will have to be grand enough in scope to justify every hero joining together and making with the team up.

So, that's where Marvel film is now, but there are always plans. 2012 is right around the corner, from the next corner, which bends slightly to the right of where we are now, and you have to think further than that if you're going to make it in this town. You have to think forever, and so Marvel Films are in discussions to think about a lot more for their future.

The Future

By 2012, Marvel will have used Iron Man twice, Cap and Thor once, and all of them in The Avengers, not to mention Nick Fury, and a cast of other characters, yet to be named. They can't use Spider-Man, the X-Men, Daredevil, the Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider, or Blade due to them being owned by other studios. I'm not exactly sure of where the Hulk's film rights lie, and I'm hoping they'll just ignore the Punisher for a decade or two, at least. So who does that leave them with to put in front of the camera?

I wouldn't suggest rushing another Iron Man flick too quickly, though you do want to capitalise on Downey Jr.'s relative youth, and I'm sure they'll possibly look to add sequels to Cap and Thor, but a diversification of the line, having more irons in the fire, is always a smart business decision, so who else can they film? That's pretty much all of their heavy hitters spoken and accounted for.

Marvel Studios are currently in talks with writers and directors to take smaller characters onto the silver screen. Apparently, from all reports, film makers are being given choices from other characters such as; Ka-Zar, Luke Cage, Dazzler, or even Power Pack. It's interesting to note, as Marvel have literally hundreds of character, but which ones could carry a movie? It seems like a smart move, as one of these B/C-list properties could be made for $20-$50 million and so don't need to gross Spidey numbers in order to make a profit. It's not about beating the records that James Cameron sets, it's about making money and there's a few four colour heroes just itching to get up on the screen. Just look at the mock-up Iron Fist movie poster created by ~DocG and *Hartter on DeviantArt and tell me you wouldn't go see that movie.

I could easily see them making movies of Nick Fury (especially now that Samuel L. Jackson has seeded him in so many Marvel movies), or even an Ant-Man flick (and there had been discussion with Edgar Wright about doing this, so perhaps it could be back on the cards), the Silver Surfer project that J. Michael Straczynski is always trying to get off the ground, or any other number of background, but no less intriguing, Marvel characters.

The sky, and indeed the stars, are the limit and Marvel seems intent on pushing even those boundaries. I would love to support a few more Marvel movies, even of those lesser known characters, just so long as they put the same amount of love, care, and talent into these flicks as they do their tentpole entries.


The movies are never going to replace the comics that we so dearly love and cherish, but they can supplement them and, when made just right, can even open our eyes to a character we hadn't considered for a while. I like that Marvel are finally getting it done right, so long the wallflower now they are the belle of the ball, and look at all the other executives clamour to be the next name on the dance card. I look forward to Marvel sending more of their characters up in lights, and I hope they get our support too, which ventures would you throw your support behind?

Check in later on for my Top Ten Marvel B-Movies That Should Be Made post, where I'll be choosing, casting, and speculating like all good fanlads should.

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Ryan Schrodt said...

I remember begging my mom to let rent me Dolph Lundgren's Punisher movie when I was ten or so, then being blown away by how violent it was. I totally loved it at the time.

I also have a soft spot for the cheesy 90s Captain America movie. I remember one summer when it was on HBO non-stop. I must have watched it 30 times that summer. Cheesy? Hells yes, but so much fun.

No love for the David Hasselhoff Nick Fury movie?

Klep said...

The most recent Hulk was a Marvel Studios film and featured a cameo by Robert Downey Jr. as Stark, so Marvel's got him.

I would love to see an Iron Fist movie, and in fact have felt that the first couple volumes of the Brubaker/Fraction run each make for excellent film material.

Ivan said...

The only thing I remember from the first Punisher movie is that all the time I was thinking, "why the hell doesn't he have the skull on his chest?"

Anonymous said...

Sadly, I saw Ironman II last night. It was boring as hell. Uneven and a lame villain.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of Thor, first on-set photo

temjin said...

Actually the Punisher movie with the Lundgren guy became a sort of cult movie to the good people studing at the Lisbon Classical University.
The movie's played twice a year at the beginning of the semester at one of the college cafeterias.
"C'mon God, answer me..."

Ryan K Lindsay said...

@Ryan S - I didn't drop the Hasselhoff/Fury because that was billed as a telemovie, the original Cap was intended for cinemas, just got shelved for being so unawesome...

@Anonymous4 - interesting view, I doubt many will ahgree with you, but I respect your individuality, I'd also respect it a lot more if it came with a name.

MIkey donuts said...

A bit unrelated but does anyone know where I can score that giant square marvel universe poster. I love that thing.

TheGoose said...

I wish you could have talked about the 70's Marvel movies. Like the two Captain America films and the Dr. Strange film.

Henrik J said...

Just to comment Anonymous, i saw Iron Man 2 last week and i think it was easily as good as the first one, though i can understand why some parts of the story might not be to everyones tastes

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