The following first appeared in the June edition of Culture Counter Magazine. But I wrote it (and totally spaced on re-posting it), so we’re also gonna post it on the blog too. Enjoy!
Part 2: Cracks in the Mark 42 Armor
The “Amazing Spider-Man 2″ is basically the first post-”Avengers” superhero film.
The three films Marvel Studios has released since (“Iron Man 3″, “Thor: The Dark World”, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”) were already in motion, as part of their oft-mentioned “Phase 2,” as the heroes assembled together on-screen in the summer of 2012. “The Wolverine” from 20th Century Fox, while adopting the Marvel Studio mid-credit teaser, was more focused on polishing up the property after a disappointing first solo film from Hugh Jackman’s mutant hero, not to mention the continued stench of “X-Men: The Last Stand” rippling through the space-time continuum. Similarly, Warner Bros.’ “Man of Steel” was equal parts re-branding and capitalizing on the (at the time) recently concluded “Dark Knight” trilogy (Christopher Nolan, the series’ director, served as a producer for MoS).
The first “The Amazing Spider-Man” came out two months after “The Avengers”; and unlike the other films, its sequel was produced entirely in the wake of the $1.5 billion miracle box office “The Avengers” pulled in. And that shows in the final product. Minor characters are introduced with potentially rich back-stories, like B.J. Novak’s Alistair Smythe, creator of huge robots called Spider Slayers, a “Spider-Man” staple. Bad guys are teased with the hardware of Doctor Octopus and the Vulture on full display in the movie. Hell, even the end credits are the same, with CGI shots of character weaponry.
At this point, Sony and Fox are well aware of the winning formula of Marvel Studios (and by extension of corporate parenthood, Disney). It’s a matter of presenting a product that will lead into the next one, as well as an assurance that there WILL be future products. However, while Marvel can and has been taking its time to build it’s Cinematic Universe, the other studios can’t or won’t wait and as Ken Miyamoto points out in his review of ASM 2 on the Huffington Post:
Sadly, this has caused a ripple effect with every other studio superhero property. Everyone is trying to catch up. Everything is looking to create that multi-franchise box office beast.
The problem is they are not just rushing. They are sprinting.
In the ramp up to ASM 2’s opening, Sony announced the release dates of “Amazing Spider-Man” 3 and 4, in 2016 and 2018 respectively, as well as concrete plans to pursue Sinister Six and Venom spin-off films. The super-development of franchises lend themselves to the serialized nature of comics, which really are the blueprints of how these studios are presenting these properties, with Marvel Studios being the one to first set the example.
The term now is “megafranchise;” interlocking films based in a shared universe. It’s basically a standard cable TV season. 12 hours of content telling an on-going story, building towards a finale that is complete, but open-ended. Did I just describe a season of “The Walking Dead” or Marvel’s “Phase 1” (“Iron Man” – “The Avengers”)? This is the brand new world of movies. When discussing the importance of this supersized serial filmmaking, Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal said in a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, “It means you can live – that’s how important [megafranchises are].”
Marvel Studios appears to be on their way to their third straight summer/year with the highest grossing film. After back-to-back $1 billion films, “The Winter Soldier” currently stands at #1 with $679 million, $222 million above second place, the surprise hit “The Lego Movie” (and for the DC comparison, Cap stands $11 million above “Man of Steel”).
And when it comes to ASM 2, while it’s opening is nothing to slouch about, “Winter Solder” is beating it at every stride, with Spidey opening in more theaters (which only further pronounces their differences at the box office). Critically, it is even more in favor of “Winter Soldier”, both with your average viewer and the critics. At this point, it’s going to take a far heavier blow to dethrone Marvel at the box office than any of the other summer slate can offer, with the single glimmer being “X-Men: Days of Future Past”, a daunting task for a series that hasn’t risen past $475 million.
So while Marvel Studios reigns at the movie theaters, where they show real weakness is on television.
When “Agents of SHIELD” was first announced, there was an excitement behind it. A weekly small screen dose of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to tide us over between movies was (and still is) a fan’s dream, especially when led by the hand of Odin himself, Joss Whedon. Yet, far too quickly, the real relationship between the films and the series was revealed. It wasn’t symbiotic (no pun intended), but rather the show getting the hand-me-downs from the movies. Plots reactionary and dependent on viewers going to the theaters opening weekend, cameos for ratings, even Agent Phil Coulson; no matter how well Clark Gregg portrays Agent Coulson, the simple matter is that he was showcased in the films so the show could use him. Instead of striking out to new territory, Agents of SHIELD feels more like the Marvel version of “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead”.
The best example of Marvel’s secondary focus on the show is the reveal of the nefarious HYDRA infiltrating and dismantling SHIELD in Winter Soldier. An earth-shattering revelation that completely changes the landscape of the MCU and the show that has SHIELD had nothing to do with it; it was never Agent’s secret to reveal, to the point that it couldn’t even hint or foreshadow to this event, only able to retroactively give motive at best.
To give Marvel’s rivals their credit, this has always been where DC has shined. While Marvel, partnered with Fox, made the enjoyable, but aging, 90s hits Spider-Man and X-Men, DC created the timeless “Batman: The Animated Series”. Marvel has yet to produce a quality series, excluding “The Incredible Hulk” from the 70s. DC, on the other hand, has ingrained itself into pop culture, with the 1960s Batman, and set Guinness records, with “Smallville” and its 218 episodes making it the longest running American sci-fi TV series.
Now, “Arrow” is ending its second season with serious critical and fan buzz on the CW, while Fox has unveiled the first trailer for “Gotham”. With a perfectly cast ensemble led by Ben McKenzie, the show looks to be using the best parts of police procedurals and the Nolan films. Clearly, the “Batman” created by Nolan and Christian Bale is still known and beloved by the general public, but the show doesn’t look like it is going to be a slave to that same style, and wisely so. It can create its own universe, unaccountable to any previous works.
This is the root of Marvel’s TV problems, which falls victim to corporate synergy; if everything is connected, than nothing is unconnected. As it stands now, Marvel can’t attempt something like “Gotham”. Even their cartoons are quasi-connected to the films. In the Disney XD cartoon “Ultimate Spider-Man”, a teenage Peter Parker is training with SHIELD and his school principal is an undercover Agent Coulson, voiced by Clark Gregg.
Comparatively, within four years, from 2012’s “The Dark Knight Rises” to the 2016 release of “Superman/Batman: Dawn of Justice”, with “Gotham” in between, audiences will have become accustomed to 3 different Batmen with no connection to each other. We will know soon if they’ll embrace this.
The second half of the Marvel superhero summer started a few weeks ago with the release of “Days of Future Past” on May 23, “Agents of SHIELD” has its season finale on May 13, not to mention “Guardians of The Galaxy” coming in August and Disney’s animated “Big Hero 6″ in November; Disney’s first animated film based on Marvel property. And like all good superhero stories, this is a trilogy and in our third and final part, we’ll be looking towards the future, guided by the yet unknown box office and renewal destinies of the X-Men and SHIELD. Until then, nuff said, true believers.
Editor’s Note: As of the publishing of this article, “Days Of Future Past” has opened to strong, but less than stellar numbers not quite hitting the expected $100 million for opening weekend. However, with some of the strongest film reviews I’ve seen, it’s sure to have some last power.
It’s also worth pointing out the strong comic central fall line up that TV will be delivering: For DC we have “Arrow” season 3, “The Flash” season 1, “Gotham” season 1 and “Constantine” season 1. And for Marvel we have “Agents of SHIELD” season 2 and “Agent Carter” season 1. Not to mention “Daredevil”, “Jessica Jones”, “Luke Cage” and “Iron First” series set to appear on Netflix in the coming future. Charlie Cox (Boardwalk Empire) was just announced as the new Daredevil.
Comic book fans better make some room in their DVR.