EXCELSIOR! Why the Future of Movies is Marvel
|FEATURES - MOVIES|
Making a case for Marvel being a superhero of movie studios...
So, it's official: we have reached what future historians will undoubtedly call the post-Avengers society. With box office currently breaking through the upper atmosphere and critics nodding sagely in approval, Marvel have had their cake, eaten it, baked three more cakes, danced around singing “la la la, look at all our cakes” and then eaten those as well. And why shouldn't they? Joss Whedon's bouncy superhero smash-a-thon proves that humour and intelligence can co-exist peacefully with corporate action blockbusting, and that characters once locked in the geek pop-trash ghetto really do have the mass appeal and timeless resonance we always suspected them of. Fine performances, nuanced writing, splashy visuals. Lovely stuff.
But as huge as The Avengers' success has been, it must have been equalled in size by the sigh of relief Marvel producer Kevin Feige heaved from his wearied bones when the dollars first came flooding in. After all, it's easy to forget what a gamble it was hiring Whedon to write and direct in the first place. Surely Marvel would've brought in a household name to captain their biggest endeavour? Or at least a safe, easily-controlled journeyman, a Louis Letterier or Brett Ratner – the kind of guy the studios hire to get it done by the book, with no surprises. Pre-Avenging, Joss Whedon's recent production history amounted to the sporadically interesting but extremely cancelled TV series Dollhouse, and the lovely but not tremendously successful film Serenity. His only bona fide hit, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was last on our screens nine years ago. Now, there are hundreds of artistic reasons why Whedon was the man for the job – he's a masterful genre writer, and intimately understands the Marvel universe – but on paper, he can't have looked promising to the money-men.
But then, you could apply that description to almost any previous Marvel helmer. Jon Favreau (Iron Man) had written and co-produced the edgy, adult, extremely low-budget Swingers, and directed the overlooked cosmic adventure Zathura, the Will Ferrell comedy Elf, and little else. Robert Downey Jr. was a recovering coke addict still dragging his career out of a deep, dark pit when Ol' Shellhead came calling. Kenneth Branagh's most recent high-profile film was an opera called The Magic Flute before Marvel handed him Thor. Most of these were talented but left-field film-makers (and actors) who were either at the tail-end of a storied career, or in the fledgling stages of a promising one (only Louis Leterrier and Joe Johnston, directors of The Incredible Hulk and Captain America respectively, look like safe pairs of hands in retrospect.) But, together with Joss Whedon, they had something else in common, one big dirty secret: they would all work for cheap.
The stinginess of Marvel studios has been well-documented, sometimes in despairing tones by the creatives themselves – Favreau and Downey Jr. reportedly had to fight hard to wrestle a respectable fee off of Feige and co. for Iron Man 2. Where other producers bend over backwards to snag big, recognizable talents for their summer behemoths, the (relatively) low-budget ethos embodied by Marvel has led them down some less obvious, and ultimately more successful roads, helping them strike a more harmonious balance between commercialism and quality. Whilst those directors must've looked risky in the lead-up to production, in hindsight they appear preternaturally well-matched to their material. Favreau for the loose and limber comedy of Iron Man, Branagh for Thor's Shakespearean family feud, Johnston for Cap's sleek 40's futurism. Only Leterrier, the most conventional choice, failed to really bring anything to the table for The Incredible Hulk.
Why does this matter? Well, it's long been a cliché that the budget for any of the big beasts of summer could equal the GDP of a small nation. These days, it's getting more like that of a wealthy nation. This typifies current studio thinking: enormous investment for an enormous return, with low and mid-budget flicks increasingly frozen out in the scramble to join the exclusive billion-dollar club. This can't go on forever, and the industry seems to be coming towards the end of a certain way of doing things. The sheer amount of cash invested in a single project has reached a point where a flop can do serious damage to a studio's finances. Should other production companies begin suffering from such drastically diminished returns, the Mighty Marvel Method could be the working model for the future of the summer blockbuster.
And an article bemoaning the opposite tendency to that embodied by Marvel's creative directorial choices:
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