Marvel Phase One Retrospective

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© Copyright Buena Vista Pictures

© Copyright Buena Vista Pictures

There’s no denying Marvel Studios’ first wave of films changed the face of blockbuster cinema. Whereas before The Avengers (2012), a popular franchise like, say, James Bond, would generate an endless string of sequels with the same hero enacting more or less the same plot, now producers are branching out different protagonists from the same continuity, essentially importing the shared universe concept from the source comic books. Already, Disney has announced a Boba Fett movie followed by The Young Han Solo Chronicles (not actual title), while, over at Fox, the X-Men series is getting its first spinoff in the form of X-Force.

I have some reservations about this new fad, which assumes the audience cares more about the overall myth than the individual stories being told to them. After all, the comics industry is finding itself in dire straits, and one could argue the cause lies in its two major publishers having promoted this mindset to such a degree that new fans keep getting chased off for lacking the encyclopedic knowledge required to follow the adventures of a guy dressed in a rubber bat suit. Other drawbacks include the risk of watering down the brand and the inevitable sense of monotony as we’re assaulted every year with two or three instalments of the same franchise.

I’m getting ahead of myself though. At this juncture, my intent is not to speculate on the long-term effects of Marvel’s cinematic contribution but to analyse how the studio came to achieve its unprecedented vision of an interconnected movie continuity. Much of the credit has gone to Joss Whedon for paying off Phase One with his energetic popcorn extravaganza, The Avengers. However, it seems to me the very idea of such a crossover would have remained a pipe dream if not for Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008).

At a time when emo hyperbole had become the norm for super-hero flicks, Iron Man not only brought joy back to the genre; it established the building blocks for the Avengers’ entire cinematic universe. Producer Avi Arad deserves every bit of praise he got for teaming up the whirlwind of charisma that is Robert Downey Jr with a promising but untested director like Favreau. The idea of filtering the Marvel house style through a strong, character-oriented voice may strike some as a no-brainer today, but breaking from a lucrative formula is always considered a risk in Hollywood.

Mind you, Arad hedged his bets with The Incredible Hulk (2008). Shot around the same time, Louis Leterrier’s reimagining of Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) served as a safer, more likely alternative for Marvel Studios, one wherein competent but unambitious directors would bring our favourite comic book titans to the screen by way of commercially sound stock plots and Michael Bay inspired pacing. If not for Iron Man taking the world by storm, moviegoers might know Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Captain America (Chris Evans) as generic action heroes with big guns and even bigger one-liners.

© Copyright Buena Vista Pictures

© Copyright Buena Vista Pictures

Instead, we got two quaint character studies by Kenneth Branagh and Joe Johnston, modest but charming productions that perhaps lack the punch of Downey Jr’s hyperactive wit. More problematic to me is Marvel’s willingness to usurp full acts from each film, along with Iron Man 2 (2010), in order to advertise its pet crossover project. Take, for example, the way Steve Rogers’ awakening in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) got shunted forward so as to make place for another post-credit sequence, effectively destroying the tragic sense of legacy to which the entire movie was building in favour of a literal trailer for The Avengers.

You see, Whedon didn’t pay off the first wave of Marvel flicks. Rather, Favreau, Branagh, and Johnston paved the way for his success, each sacrificing a piece of their own work for the bigger picture. This is not to say a lesser director than the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly couldn’t have dropped the ball at this critical juncture. Producer Kevin Feige was wise to put his trust in a filmmaker who understands that fan service isn’t limited to obscure references and naked boobies.

However, I find myself wary of a business model that relies on us sitting through countless hours of filler entertainment just to get hyped up about this cycle’s big event. As I mentioned, comics fans eventually turned on their favoured medium for pulling the exact same stunt, and there’s no denying the potential backlash when viewers realise they’ve shelved out over fifty bucks for five feature-length trailers to the next Avengers movie. Can Hollywood learn from the mistakes of the comic book industry? Perhaps I should save the question for a discussion of Marvel Phase Two.

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