The following first appeared in the April edition of Culture Counter Magazine. But I wrote it, so we’re also gonna post it on the blog too. Enjoy!
Part 1: Nothing Lasts Forever
The first issue of The Amazing Spider-Man, in fact Spidey’s first tussle with a super villain, features the Fantastic Four. In what is clearly a classic Stan Lee market move (their introductory caption begins “Extra Bonus Extra!!”), Peter Parker tries to get a job with the team as a way to make money to support Aunt May. It does not work out, but this idea of crossing over heroes quickly becomes a cornerstone. In fact, every one of the original Marvel superheroes had an adventure with another during their book’s first year of publication.
Unlike DC, whose signature heroes Superman and Batman didn’t meet until 13 years into their shared existence, Marvel was built as a cohesive unit. Among the many other reasons, the reason The Avengers worked so well was because it finally gave audiences the chance to see these characters the way they were meant to be seen: together.
This summer, either through their own studio or another one, there are four Marvel films coming out this summer; the second Captain America film, the second Amazing Spider-Man (fifth Spider-Man overall), the seventh X-Men film (with Days of Future Past un-rebooting the old cast), and Guardians of the Galaxy, which will be the tenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
With two amazing years back-to-back, the studio is hoping to add a third and bridge the runaway success of The Avengers to its sequel next summer. For their heroes, the Age of Ultron awaits them in 2015, but for the rest of us, we live in the age of Marvel. Over the course of the next few issues, coinciding with the release of these films, we’ll break down this age, looking back to past, what is happening in the present, and then ahead to the future, which is currently as far as 2017, going off just what Marvel has announced.
It’s fitting that Marvel is going to own this particular summer. 75 years ago, October 1939 to be more specific, after the success of other companies like Quality Comics, Fawcett, and National Allied Publications (the predecessor to DC Comics), Marvin Goodwin launched Timely Comics with the publication of Marvel Comics. Grabbing hold of the superhero craze following the debut of Superman in 1938, Goodwin, already a publisher of dime store novels and pulp magazines, laid the foundation of what would become Marvel.
By the end of 1941, Captain America had debuted, socking Hitler square in the jaw; and Stan Lee, then a young man of 19 with more fingers than writing credits, was installed as editor. They weathered the storm of the early 1950s by retreating to sci-fi and adventure, but in 1961, Stan Lee launched The Fantastic Fourwith legendary artist (and Captain America co-creator) Jack Kirby. Over the next two years, Lee, Kirby, Don Heck, and Steve Ditko created the foundations of the Marvel films we enjoy today.
The other half of this story comes just after Marvel’s brush with death in the 90s. It was during this time that Marvel Studios was first formed and their comic properties began to be licensed out to other companies. They achieved success with New Line’s Blade in 1998, 20th Century Fox’s X-Men in 2000, and the record-breaking Spider-Man in 2002. But outside of these, their properties faltered. The 2003 double-disappointment of Daredevil and Hulk, and the non-start of the Fantastic Four franchise all point to the weaknesses of superhero films in the blockbuster age, especially for people who don’t understand the medium of comics, both creators and viewers.
For all the advance praise The Winter Soldier is getting, funnily enough, you could also say that Captain America is Marvel’s low point. Not The First Avenger, but the 1990 train wreck starring J.D. Salinger’s son. Marvel may know its characters, but not everybody does and that could come back to bite them. There are at least 4 studios in the superhero mix (Warner Bros., Sony, 20th Century Fox, Marvel) and that can/will dilute the value of superheroes. It took 8 years to wipe the bad taste of Batman & Robin from our collective mouths for Batman Begins to even have a chance.
None of the competition has the same relationship with their characters, though perhaps Warner Bros. comes close. But unlike Warner Bros., which owns DC the same way Disney owns Marvel, they can’t change the source material to fit their needs. As fans have seen recently, Marvel has become pretty good at lining up the comic with their screen counterparts. New costumes have debuted, characters are given more page time if they are featured. The characterizations used for the films actually more closely matches the Ultimate line of books, launched in 2000, which were the first chance for Marvel to modernize their characters. In fact, Ultimate Nick Fury is the reason Samuel L. Jackson won the casting.
As the company began to roll out their characters for what we now know as “Phase One” back in 2006, the response to those characters was underwhelming. At the time and still to this day, Marvel’s biggest creation, its first creation, and its mascot (X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man, respectively) were in the hands of other studios, so it was widely believed that Marvel had basically played its hand already.
At the time, the first Spider-Man film still held the record for highest grossing opening weekend at the box office, though that summer it would be dethroned by Johnny Depp and Pirates 2. It should be noted that this was just before Twilight and Harry Potter reached critical mass as well. But against the wisdom of Hollywood (which is often wrong, but sounds right), Marvel was able to launch the second-tier squad into the movie stratosphere, culminating with the $200 million+ opening weekend of The Avengers, with no signs (currently) of it slowing down.
But where there’s a boom, there’s a bust. And comic fans know that story all too well as the comic book industry itself has had two near-death experiences. Nearly wiped out in the fifties by quickly sanitized tastes and again, in the mid-90s, ironically spurred by “The Death of Superman.” Marvel has seen its properties fail to grab audiences, but not while they have had control of it. Few studios have such impressive records. Pixar (another Disney company) comes to mind, but even they made Cars 2. Either Marvel so deftly knows their character or their characters are just that good. Nothing lasts forever though.
If The Avengers is the B-Team, then what happens when Marvel has to rely on their C-Team and below?
In the next installment, just in time for the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and X-Men: Days of Future Past, we will look at the present and see how Marvel is faring. Summer at the movies will officially kicked off and the performance of Winter Soldier, as well as the final ratings of Agents of SHIELD, will be available for analysis. Until then, stay tuned true believers.