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

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!