The Rise Fall and Rise of Marvel Comics on Film Part 3: Our Universe(s) at War

Suddenly, movies from all walks of the Marvel Universe began to rage against the big screen with three distinct universes vying for control of box office gold.

Above: Promo for The Avengers (2012)

Will the Real Marvel Universe Please Stand Up?

Suddenly, movies from all walks of the Marvel Universe began to rage against the big screen with three distinct universes vying for control of box office gold.

Previously in the pages of The Next Reel, we discussed the long, hard road Marvel Studios faced climbing from the gridded page to the small screen and from the small screen back to the big screen, what with such missteps as Captain America (1990), the never-released The Fantastic Four (1994) and the majorly difficult time Spider-Man had untangling his own web so that he could swing to the multiplex. And we haven’t even touched upon the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the X-Men films.

Of course it wasn’t merely super teams or even franchises that leapt from the gridded page to the silver screen. After 1994’s aforementioned The Fantastic Four, the next Marvel Comics movie was Blade (1998) about the title character (played by Wesley Snipes), a human/ vampire hybrid who hunts the undead with an arsenal of weaponry. Blade’s comic book origins were played down at first (after all, the most recent attempt at a comic/ movie hybrid was 1997’s atrocious Batman & Robin), but the film was successful enough to sire two sequels in Blade II (2002) and Blade: Trinity (2004).

Another attempt at a franchise was made in 2003’s Daredevil starring Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner. While Garner’s character earned her own spinoff in 2005’s Elektra the film was a commercial and critical failure and helped end that series. Over a decade after Affleck donned the red leather he was cast as DC Comics’ Batman in the upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, so clearly he did something right.

Lionsgate/ Artisan Entertainment attempted to reboot Marvel’s most violent vigilante in 2004’s The Punisher, followed by their attempt at Man-Thing in 2005 (the latter of which debuted on cable television). The Punisher 2 was reworked into yet another reboot for Lionsgate called Punisher: War Zone (2008), but its critical reception is somewhere up there with that of the 1994 Fantastic Four flick and its box office earnings only slightly better. Thus, the franchise died at the gate.

So successful was Columbia’s Spider-Man properties that they attempted to replicate the formula with Ghost Rider (2007), released the same year as Spider-Man 3. While Ghost Rider rode his way to enough box office success to warrant a sequel in 2012’s Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, the film rights to the character reverted back to Marvel and there are no plans for further films at this time.

Of course, none of these Marvel Films, nor, in fact, the entire comic book boom that we are still experiencing, would have been quite possible without the first X-Men film, which (arguably along with Blade) made the case that comic book movies could be both fun and intelligent for a new audience (the same audience who turned their noses up at the 1997 nightmare Batman & Robin, an audience that includes me).

The origins of the X-Men on film surprisingly date back to James Cameron and Carolco Pictures back in the late '80s. Cameron left the project to focus on Spider-Man (and you know how well that went), while Marvel Chief Avi Arad was producing the X-Men cartoon (1992) which was airing on the Fox Kids television block. Due to the success of the television show, 20th Century Fox (remember them?) showed interest in a big screen treatment and Laura Schuler Donner picked up the property to produce. Donner is, of course, the wife of the famous director Richard Donner who helped the world believe that a man could fly in 1978’s Superman: The Movie.

Many scripts were written (including one by Joss Whedon) and many directors were considered before Bryan Singer (who had made a big impression on Hollywood with 1995’s The Usual Suspects) was selected. Singer was once attached to direct Alien Resurrection (which was written by Whedon), but moved on to X-Men, which producers thought would be a better fit. Singer and Tom DeSanto finalized the story while David Hayter completed the screenplay (receiving sole credit in spite of the amalgamation of so much work).

While Richard Donner served as an Executive Producer on the film, X-Men was handled very differently from his own Superman. The environment for comic book movies was quite different in the year 2000 than it was in 1978 and many recent costumed hero debacles had stained the landscape. Thus, X-Men eschewed the popular costumes from the comic books (even mocking “yellow spandex” in dialogue) in favor of plain clothes and leather uniforms (more closely resembling costumes from The Matrix than X-Men).

Hugh Jackman as The Wolverine

Still, the film was a critical and commercial hit that launched the career of the previously all-but-unknown actor Hugh Jackman (who played Wolverine) onto the A-List. Patrick Stewart was perfectly cast as his gridded page look-alike Professor Charles Xavier and Ian McKellen was brought in to portray the antihero Magneto. The ensemble cast helped propel the film to make back almost four times its $75 million budget at the box office and paved the way for the current comic book movie boom we are all still riding. Without X-Men’s success, Spider-Man, Daredevil, Hulk and the entirety of the next slate of Marvel Movies might never have been made (or, at least, not on the scale that they were).

Singer returned to the Franchise for the 2003 sequel X2 which also made back almost four times its budget (now set at $110 million) and received even higher critical acclaim than its predecessor. This was followed by X-Men: The Last Stand in 2006, which was directed by Brett Ratner (as Singer had defected to direct Superman Returns (2006), heavily based on the two Superman movies directed by Richard Donner). The Last Stand made even more money than did X2, though based on a budget that had increased by $100 million, this wasn’t quite as notable. Further, the third X-Men film was the worst reviewed of the original trilogy.

Still, Marvel took notice and began production on Iron Man (which had been in pre or pre-pre-production for years) that same year with a planned reboot of its green-skinned goliath character The Incredible Hulk to immediately follow Iron Man’s 2008 release. This is in spite of the fact that there was, in fact, already a Hulk movie that was released in 2003 and helmed by the acclaimed and award-winning director Ang Lee.

Hulk (2003) received mixed-to-positive reviews from critics and made $245,360,480 against a $137 million budget. However its second weekend’s box office was a 60 percent fall from its debut and the proceeds weren’t quite enough to warrant a sequel. Or did it?

Much like Punisher: War Zone, The Incredible Hulk actually started production as a sequel, but star Edward Norton heavily rewrote the film as a standalone piece with its own origin story. That said, the 2003 film ended with Bruce Banner (AKA: The Hulk) down in South America and speaking Spanish as he went into hiding. The new film begins with Bruce Banner in hiding... in South America. Though the 2008 film was made by Marvel Studios (as part of the more unified approach to the Marvel Comics adaptations), The Incredible Hulk, like Hulk before it was released and distributed by Universal Studios (the working title was even Hulk 2).

Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man

This new film came out one week shy of Five Years after the 2003 movie. General "Thunderbolt" Ross describes the last incident with The Hulk as having taken place five years prior to the events of the 2008 film. Even the Cameo appearances are similar. Lou Ferrigno (the Hulk from the television series) plays a security guard here, as he did in the other film and Stan Lee's obligatory "Hiya" occurs while his character is at home instead of work. Arguably these could be the same characters. In short, there are enough similar moments to provide some ties to the other film, sequel or not.

It's no accident that Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk were both released the year before the first solo X-Men film in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) which was another box office success, but a critical failure, in spite of the fact that Liev Schreiber joined Jackman for the feral action of the film. Still, the success of Wolverine proved that the X-Franchise had not yet died and that spinoff adventures could earn boffo profits at the box office.

Both Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk and Jon Favreau‘s Iron Man were, however, critical and commercial successes, partially thanks to Iron Man’s reigning star, Robert Downey Jr. (who also cameoed in The Incredible Hulk).

Iron Man 2 (directed, like its predecessor, by Jon Favreau) bowed to great success in 2010 with both Captain America: The First Avenger (directed by Joe Johnston) and Thor (directed by Shakespearean Kenneth Branagh) reaping in the profits during 2011. All of these helped cement the Marvel Cinematic Universe and paved the way for The Avengers (2012) to assemble.

Chris Evans as Captain America

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) finally brought audiences a canonically accurate super soldier film with a star that could fit the bill. Although he previously played Johnny “The Human Torch” Storm in Fantastic Four (2005) and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver (2007), Marvel Studios (who had not produced the FF films) hired Chris Evans to portray Steve Rogers and he proved to be an excellent choice for the role, critics and fans agree. Meanwhile Chris Hemsworth, who had previously played Captain Kirk’s father in the Star Trek (2009) reboot, brought us a credibly Mighty Thor.

In The Avengers, Hemsworth, Evans and Downey were joined by Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow (who had previously appeared in Iron Man 2), Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye (who debuted in a cameo in Thor) and the franchise’s newest Bruce Banner/ Hulk in Mark Ruffalo. Did the Marvel Cinematic gamble pay off? If making more than $1.5 billion at the box office is any indication, The Avengers certainly seems like a payoff for Marvel Studios.

But Fox wasn’t done with its X-Men Franchise, which needed some new life. Thus a prequel/ period piece, set in 1962 (the year of the debut of the Uncanny X-Men comic book) was crafted in the form of X-Men: First Class (as directed by Matthew Vaughan, whom Ratner replaced for The Last Stand after Singer’s departure). As most of the characters from the actual comic book X-Men: First Class had been used in the original trilogy, the film focused on a set of previously unseen mutants for the initial X-Men team, while recasting the roles of Magneto and Professor X with younger actors Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy respectively.

First Class was a critical success (the first for the franchise since X2) and breathed new life into the series. Although Jackman’s Wolverine character was relegated to a brief (and hilariously profane) cameo appearance in First Class, he did return to his own solo adventure in the 2013 James Mangold film The Wolverine. Lucky for Fox, The Wolverine also made back almost four times its budget and was positively reviewed to boot. Fox is clearly keeping their claws in Jackman for the future.

By this time the Marvel Cinematic Universe was in full swing with The Avengers (written and directed by Joss Whedon) pulling in over $1.5 billion (with a B) and the follow-ups Iron Man 3 (directed by Shane Black) and Thor: The Dark World (directed by Alan Taylor) both earning super-sized box office bucks (with the Norse god pulling in over $600 million and his armored teammate snagging over $1 billion).

This, of course, launches us at full force to 2014 during which we have seen three Marvel-based movies sharing the top ten in the same month: The Amazing-Spider-Man 2 (continuing the Marc Webb series), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (the most recent film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) and X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Days of Future Past took the bold move of uniting both casts with the duos of Fassbender and McAvoy as the mutant leaders in 1973 and McKellen and Stewart riding out a post-apocalyptic future. This seventh film in Fox’s X-Men universe also marks the return of Bryan Singer to the director’s chair (he previously produced First Class and the gamble has paid off both critically and commercially already).

As previously mentioned, Days of Future Past features a sarcastic speedster based on Marvel’s own Quicksilver, a character also set to appear in Whedon’s follow-up to his Marvel Cinematic Universe bow Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). The legal battle over this character is strange considering the fact that he isn’t terribly well liked by fans, and for the outcome of the settlement. Fox can use the character provided he isn’t called “Quiksilver” (he is simply called “Peter” in the X-Men film) while Whedon can use Quiksilver, provided he is never referred to as a “Mutant” (a name which Fox claims all of the licensing rights to, in the Marvel Comics sense of the word).

Just as the Marvel Cinematic Universe is set to continue in 2014 with Guardians of the Galaxy, (three more films have already been greenlit for this sprawling Universe) and Columbia’s Spidey properties are planned to include both Venom and Sinister Six spinoff movies, Fox continues to expand its X-Men franchise. X-Men Apocalypse is scheduled for a 2016 release with another Wolverine film set to slice up screens in 2017. Films based on the Deadpool and X-Force comics are also rumored to be in pre-production.

As for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the successes of the big screen have dwarfed those of DC Comics (Nolan’s Dark Knight films notwithstanding), where DC once ruled the silver screen and Marvel ruled on Television. However, these blockbusters have, surprisingly, led Marvel back to the small screen starting with the canonical Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which began under Whedon’s hand in 2013). An Agent Carter series is also planned. As a cousin to parent company Disney’s deal with Netflix, Marvel Studios is also planning to branch out its Cinematic Universe series into made-for-Netflix original programming. Planned (or rumored) projects include shows based on The Defenders, Daredevil and Power Man and Iron Fist (be they together or separate).

Clearly Marvel has come a very long way from the sparse days in which it released a movie once every forty years or so. To say the least, Marvel (by any studio) has proven to be a cinematic juggernaut and a series of media universes that may be excellent in their own rights but also compete directly with each other for characters, themes and space at the box office. While many of these sagas rode a long hard road out of development hell to get to where they are, the wait has paid off for most every film with only a few failing to reap big rewards (and a plethora of sequels).

And so ends the long, detailed saga of The Next Reel’s research into the Rise, Fall and Rise of Marvel Comics on Film. That, my friends, is a lot of cameos by Stan Lee. So as the man who brought us so many of these major characters would say “Excelsior!” Meanwhile, I’ll continue with my own “See you in the Next Reel!”, true believers!

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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