With both The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and X-Men: Days of Future Past released, it’s two down, one to go for this summer’s comic book blockbusters, specifically Marvel comic book blockbusters. It wouldn’t be possible to have this many films without Marvel Studios, Fox and Sony all owning their particular part of the larger Marvel pantheon. Marvel selling off its film rights was a necessary evil and brought Marvel out of dire straits financially, thus partly creating an environment in which Marvel Studios could have been created. Now that we have different studios bringing us Marvel material, the general consensus seems to be that Marvel Studios are doing it best with their Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). This, of course, leads to indignant cries of “Bring them back to Marvel!” every time Fox and Sony announce something Marvel-related which prolongs their ownership of beloved characters like Spider-Man and the X-Men. Well, I, for one, think that Marvel Studios doesn’t need them. Before anyone accuses me of blasphemy, let me elaborate.
The Disconnected Source Material
First of all, it has to be said that the source material supposedly entrenched in Marvel continuity does often feel like a separate universe altogether. Spider-Man went through a long period of battling J. Jonah Jameson for the public’s hearts and minds, as the latter kept framing headlines of the Daily Bugle in terms of the Spider-Menace. What has Spider-Man ever done not to earn him the respect that the Avengers have and allow someone like Jameson to get away with it? Thankfully, this became less of an issue later on, and Spider-Man got to be part of both the Fantastic Four and the Avengers, although it’s still a running gag in the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon. The X-Men, on the other hand, remain problematic. I appreciate the fact that sometimes we have to suspend our disbelief, but in a Marvel universe where people revere the Fantastic Four and the Avengers, why are mutants hated? Both are super-powered people, the only difference is that the latter are born with their powers. The fact that someone like Mister Fantastic of Ben Grimm got their powers by cosmic radiation does not make them any less freakish than Toad, Jean Grey or Beast. Even X-Men: The Animated Series made the point that mutants, are, in fact, humans:
To further drive the point home that the division between mutants and other superheroes and supervillains is artificial, members of the X-Men have also been Avengers in the comics. Interestingly enough, this has resulted in the licence to depict Quicksliver and the Scarlet Witch on film, being shared between Fox and Marvel Studios because of their shared history across the two franchises. A further interesting twist is that both Quicksilvers are played by actors who appeared in Kick-Ass, Evan Peters (who played Scott) for Fox and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (who played Dave Lizewski/Kick-Ass) for Marvel Studios.
An Incentive for Creativity
The X-Men and Spider-Man arguably remain Marvel’s most popular franchises, in no small part due to the brilliant content and some great exposure on television over they years. Should Marvel Studios have retained the film rights, we would probably be seeing one X-Men and Spider-Man film after another. Instead, Marvel Studios have been forced to be creative and to dig deeper into their wider library for inspiration. The MCU is based on a gamble which payed off beautifully, as Iron Man had a non-popular character as a protagonist played well enough to keep us wanting more. Here we are, six years later, awaiting a Guardians of the Galaxy film – adapting a franchise obscure even for casual comic book aficionados – in a few months’ time. Marvel Studios are confident enough to have their marketing be as irreverent as the tone of the film and the comics themselves. There is definitely fun to be had knowing that something not even all comic book fans are familiar with is getting to the big screen.
Quality amidst Quantity?
I won’t mince words here, but I feel that quite a lot of Marvel material produced by Sony and Fox is rubbish compared to Marvel Studios’ MCU. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has managed to subvert expectations and actually compare negatively with X-Men: Days of Future Past, despite initial reactions pointing to the contrary. To its credit, the former has the advantage of a likable Peter Parker (played by Andrew Garfield with gusto), who shares great chemistry with Gwen Stacey (played by Emma Stone). However, the film comes out feeling like an executive-driven springboard for The Amazing Spider-Man 3 and The Sinister Six. Harry Osborn – played brilliantly by Dane DeHaan – is introduced, gets rejected by his dying father and turns against Peter, becomes Green Goblin, kills Gwen Stacey and sets up the idea of the Sinister Six all in one film. The first Raimi trilogy may have its fair share of faults, but Harry Osborn had a clear character arc over the three films leading to his rise as the second Goblin which feels organic. Likewise, the comics built up the antagonistic relationship between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin before the events of The Amazing Spider-Man#121, giving them that much more weight. Over at Fox, news about the upcoming Fantastic Four film is becoming less heartening by the day. I love making changes for the sake of making a good film, but there comes a point when you just betray the spirit of the source material. I will be fair and ultimately judge the final film which is released, but things are not looking good so far. The X-Men film franchise has been pretty hit and miss, with the greatest outing so far probably being X-2. Continuity has remained a problem, The Last Stand butchered the Phoenix Saga, and let us not speak of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Not everything’s doom and gloom, though. Days of Future Past seems to have, at least, proven to be a diamond in the rough which has reinvigorated the franchise and taken it to new heights. Quicksilver, arguably one of the major put-offs against the latest film amongst fans in the run-up to its release due to his design, has proven to be a hit with audiences. I’m actually looking forward to Age of Apocalypse with some glee.
Surviving Superhero Fatigue
Apart from the three films mentioned above, we’ve already had the release of the acclaimed Captain America: The Winter Soldier this year, making the total of Marvel comic book films rise to four. Captain America 3 is, so far, set to compete at the box office with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice on 16 May, 2016. Speaking of DC and Warner Bros, the perceived rivalry of the Big Two is finally set to move to the big screen as DC may have a film released every year until 2018. What is basically happening is that other studios have seen the success of Marvel Studios’ MCU and are trying to replicate the method of inter-connecting films and a wider universe to get the same revenue. As similar comic book films become more commonplace every year and create this enormous bubble, the chances of general audiences getting superhero/comic book fatigue increase practically every minute. As Sony’s recent Spider-Man, Fox’s X-Men and the divisive Man of Steel have shown, there is a chance of the bubble bursting sooner rather than later unless audiences can become properly invested in the films they are given. Ironically enough, I would say that, in trying to emulate Marvel Studios, other studios’ attempts to build their own cinematic universes aimed at general audiences with more of the same will lead to their own eventual downfall, but leave Marvel Studios standing. The simple reason behind my hypothesis is that Marvel Studios are managing to provide us films which combine genres with the superhero/comic book genre and thus feel different. The Thor films lean towards fantasy, the fist Captain America is a war film with sci-fi elements, the second a thriller, while Ant-Man is being talked about as being a heist film. I think the diversity currently offered by Marvel Studios will keep audiences entertained far longer compared to the various grim and gritty variations of the basic comic book tropes being pumped out by the executives of other studios.
To put this simply, ultimately, the quality of the films on their own or as adaptations doesn’t matter. The original comic books and their great stories are still there to be enjoyed by anyone who is willing to look. The Phoenix Saga is still a great story – arguably the best X-Men story – despite X-Men: The Last Stand. Love Trevor Slattery or otherwise, The Mandarin is still Tony Stark’s proper nemesis in the pages of Iron Man (and out there in the MCU too, you ingrates).
… And Now for Some Hypocrisy
Having said all that, there is one film franchise which I want to go back to Marvel, and that’s the Fantastic Four (FF). Ironically enough, it’s not the FF themselves I’m interested in, but the characters surrounding them, like Doctor Doom, the Silver Surfer, Galactus and the Skrulls. I admit I’ve recently started dabbling with the cosmic Marvel stories thanks to the interest garnered by Guardians of the Galaxy, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s run in particular. It would be a real shame to be unable to explore such rich stories on the big screen because the unrelated FF are stuck with another studio which isn’t even doing them justice. Come on, Fox, give the FF back to Marvel!
An agreement has, in fact, been reached between Sony Pictures and Marvel Studios to introduce Spider-Man into the MCU. I can only be cautiously optimistic about this at best. I fear the character could become an unnecessary crutch which provides less incentive for creativity and that he will not fit in organically into an already well-constructed MCU and the well-laid plans already set out by Marvel Studios. The fact that films like Captain Marvel, Black Panther and Inhumans have had their release dates shifted to accommodate a new Spider-Man film in 2017 is not a cause for major alarm, but does not completely augur well either. The latter film has already been subtly set up in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but whatever momentum was to be built up has less chance of being kept up now. As one writer put it: “My biggest worry is that Marvel will have to spend so much time jumping through Sony hoops to include Spider-Man in their MCU that it will negatively affect all their other movies and franchises, which would be a damn shame — I’d rather have a Captain Marvel movie than a dozen Spider-Man guest-appearances in Avengers movies, but you probably guessed that.” Finally, I’m not too keen on the fact that Sony Pictures will still “have final creative control of the Spider-Man films” and the fact that Kevin Feige is reportedly not going to be involved with Sony’s Spider-Man spin-offs. One can only hope that the Sony executives put aside their past practices and let Feige and his expert team at Marvel do their thing.
- I’ve Got Issues: It’s Good Marvel Can’t Make Spider-Man and X-Men Movies (ign.com)
- The James Clayton Column: Superhero multiverse superfranchise overkill? (denofgeek.com)
- The problems with directly adapting comics (denofgeek.com)
- The current state of the big comic book movie universes (denofgeek.com)
- Why Marvel Studios Doesn’t Need Spider-Man (denofgeek.us)
- Why Marvel Studios Doesn’t Need Spider-Man For Civil War (comicbook.com)
- Spider-Man joins Marvel Cinematic Universe! (youtube.com)
- Spider-Man, Marvel, Sony, and what it all means (denofgeek.com)
- How Marvel went from bankruptcy to billions (denofgeek.com)
- I’ve Got Issues: Why Spider-Man Joining the MCU Is Bad for Black Panther (ign.com)