Up until now the studios behind the big Marvel franchises haven't put a foot wrong. Not every film has been perfect, Wolverine: Origins (2009), The Amazing Spiderman (2012), but none of the main releases have completely fallen flat (that's been reserved for Marvel's lesser titles; hello Daredevil (2003),The Punisher (2004), Elecktra (2005) and Ghost Rider (2007)) Since X-Men (1999) its been plain sailing, so much so there's been a marked shift in fan expectation. Before the mid-noughties comic aficionados approached a cinema seat with caution. Now we park ourselves fully expecting a five star movie experience. But having been so thoroughly spoilt over the last decade are we overdue are a spectacular failure?
A lot of what's made the Marvel films a success have been the performers. Casting heads wisely opted for actors over A-listers. The result has been characters that are easy to invest in, much more so than a celebrity in a costume (take note DC). How far this vast cast can go, or are willing to go, remains questionable. Hugh Jackman has said he's willing to done the adamantium claws as long as they want him to and Samuel L Jackson is likely to still be sporting the Fury eye-patch when he’s wrinkled and grey. But some of the key performers, Downey Jnr. in particular, have had careers marked by sudden changes of direction. Years spent acting in front of a green screen isn't going to maintain the interest of actors of this calibre for very long, no matter how large the pay cheque.
Recasting has worked before (Ruffalo as Hulk, Fassbender as Magneto, McAvoy as Xavier) but how much longer can this winning streak last? Fox have taken the biggest gamble yet with their Fantastic Four reboot. They've cast the African American actor Michael B Jordan as Johnny Storm (Human Torch) the brother of Sue Storm (Invisible Woman) who is to be played by the distinctly non-African American Kate Mara. They've also cast the stick thin British actor Jamie Bell as the famously bulky, gruff Ben Grimm (The Thing). As creative casting goes, it’s a hell of a gamble. Whether it’s a roll of the dice too far, we'll find out in 2015 when the Fantastic Four reboot hits screens.
Perhaps a bigger question is the direction in which the Marvel Cinematic Universe is heading. The latest release, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) made some bold moves in shaking the Universe up, but it also highlighted some growing problems (and for those yet to see it, there are spoilers ahead).
The biggest issue is a hangover from Avengers Assemble (2012). With Thor, Hulk, Ironman, Captain America, Black Widow and Hawkeye all on the same page now, the most glaringly obvious question during Winter Soldier was where were the rest of the gang while Cap was doing his best to fend off a global crisis? Supposed friend and mentor Nick Fury gets killed and other than Black Widow not one of the others turned up to mourn, help or seek vengeance. It’s clearly a question of movie-making logistics; there's no way you can have or afford every big name in every Marvel film from now on. It would also take the shine away from the upcoming Avengers sequel. But if you're going to have a world-threatening storyline, it’s not going to make much plot sense if the world's other big heroes are conspicuously absent.
Winter Soldier did well with is first half, the darkest Marvel story yet, with a juicy, conspiracy fuelled plot. But the conclusion, though spectacular to watch, was a bit been-there-done-that, another display of mid-air explosion ballet while the main combatants spent half an hour punching each other in the face. The studios need to come up with a fresh way of bringing their movies to an end before we start suffering from knuckle/TNT fatigue. And though it was a bold plot twist doing away with SHIELD, where does that leave Marvel’s television project Agents of SHIELD, which hasn’t even reached the end of its first series?
To Marvel Studios credit they have taken a big step in shaking things up further in the form of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) the upcoming movie adaptation of one of their hit-and-miss titles. Only those with a keen interest in Marvel will be familiar with the comic, so the relied upon core audience it going to be much smaller this time round. No doubt director James Gunn will be hoping that the teased links to the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe will be enough to drag along Avenger fans to. Story and theme wise, it’s a risky move as well. Asgard aside, the Avengers universe has been fairly grounded in an Earth based reality. Opening the plot up to a Star Wars-esque multi-planet universe is a sizeable shift in story perception.
As is now customary, the Winter Solider included a post credits “sting” that teased at what’s on the cards for upcoming movies, and while this particular epilogue was a humdinger it also added a large dollop of mud to the waters. What the scene showed was the villain Baron Von Strucker unveiling two prisoners, one the superfast character Quicksilver and the other his sister, the telekinetic Scarlet Witch. An exciting development, but as any Marvel fan will tell you these characters are mutants (the son and daughter of Magneto no less).
At this point one needs to understand the complex movie licensing arrangement that has spread Marvel’s greatest heroes to the four corners of Hollywood. Marvel Studios own the rights to the Avengers (Thor, Hulk, etc), Twentieth Century Fox own the movie rights to the Fantastic Four and the X-Men, and finally Sony own the movie rights to Spiderman. But Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, thanks to their unique comic history, are special cases. They are the children of Magneto and both made their first appearance in X-Men # 4 way back in 1963, but they weren’t in the comics for long before being recruited by the Avengers where they became long standing members (that having been said, Scarlet Witch had massive consequences Earth’s mutant population in one of the past decades most shocking storylines). This dual allegiance allows both Marvel Studios and Fox to make use of the characters, hence Quicksilver also appearing in the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) albeit played by a different actor.
All of this is a dance around what fans really want to see, a tying up of all of the big Marvel characters for an ultimate Marvel movie. It’s happened on the page numerous times. Indeed, Spiderman and Wolverine have been Avenger members themselves. The bringing together of plots would be complicated (why haven’t either universes referred to the others by now? where were the X-Men/Fantastic Four/Spiderman when the Chitauri attacked? why are there two different Quicksilvers? etc) but not impossible. For those comic novices who want to see how it would work in principal, there is one comic that stands out as a template, the 2002 series The Ultimates.
This Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch limited series brought the Avengers characters up to date and set them in our world; the President was drawn as George W Bush, various real-life celebrities were referenced, and the art style pushed for more realism. Rather surprisingly the Nick Fury character was drawn as Samuel L Jackson, without getting permission from the actor to do so and prior to Jackson being cast in the role. It wasn’t until one of Jackson’s friends saw the comic that the actor got on the phone to Marvel. Shrewd operator that he is, instead of threatening to sue for an illegal use of his likeness Jackson negotiated to play the SHIELD agent on the big screen for a handsome sum. Subsequently, Downey Jnr based his goateed, slick haired Tony Stark on the Ultimates look, and the other Avenger actors followed suit. Ultimates is the template upon which the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been based. On the page Ultimates embraces the entire Marvel universe, including characters from the wider canon; one memorable scene has Professor Xavier, drawn as Patrick Stewart, consoling Bruce Banner in his SHIELD prison after the big green machine trashes New York. It worked on the page, and could easily work on screen.
The comic universe has grown unbelievably complicated over the years with many different universes, timeframes, zones and planets all coming into play. Dispensing with much of the complicated detail, the standard Marvel universe that we all know and love is referred to as “Earth 616” (look out for various references to the number 616 in all Marvel’s live action outings); this is where the standard character continuity takes place. With the X-Men about to travel back in time for X-Men: Days of Future Past to give the time-space-continuum a kicking, it’s an ideal opportunity to tie their universe in with the Avengers one. The X-Men skew their own universe to end up in the “Earth 616” standard Universe of Ironman, Thor and the rest. How brilliant would it be to have an X-Men post credits scene where Wolverine travels back to the present only to find Tony Stark’s Ironman or the Hulk?
The nuts and bolts of movie making rears its head again though. Studios have come together before on projects, most notably The Towering Inferno (1974) when Fox and Warner Bros. pooled their resources after purchasing the rights to two very similar disaster novels. But with so with much bureaucracy in the way, it’s unlikely the studios would show such solidarity these days; the costs would be shared but more tellingly the profits would be to. Looking ahead at the schedule of future releases it also looks like the studios have already set out their very separate stalls:
2014: The Amazing Spiderman 2 (Sony), X-Men: Days of Future Past (Fox), Guardians of the Galaxy (Marvel)
2015: The Avengers: Age of Ultron (Marvel), The Fantastic Four (Fox), Ant Man (Marvel)
2016: Third Captain America film (Marvel), X-Men Apocalypse (Fox), Third Amazing Spiderman film (Sony)
2017: Additional Wolverine sequel (Fox), Fantastic Four sequel (Fox),
2018: Fourth Amazing Spiderman film (Sony)
With this many individual films in the pipeline the chances of a team-up seem very unlikely, and with the schedules not clear until 2019 at the earliest it raises questions over whether all of the current Marvel performers will be young enough or willing enough to keep going that long. Separate projects are still being announced, with recent confirmation of individual Venom and Sinister Six movies in the Amazing Spiderman universe in a bid by Sony to replicate the Avengers model of multiple interlocking films. Rumours abound that Fox are also looking to expand the X-Universe in a similar fashion with an upcoming flood of mutant movies encompassing all the famous X-comics from over the years, X-Factor, X-Force, Cable, etc.
Outside of this, ardent fans whisper of a dream DC vs Marvel movie project. The coming together of the two biggest names in comics is a rare occurrence but it has happened (a limited series in 1996, the JLA / Avengers story in 2003). Fans and critics were not impressed though and they were very weak comic offerings, both houses reluctant to see any of their heroes beaten by a direct competitor. It’s been the fans dream to see a DC vs Marvel computer game but judging by how unlikely that project is, a movie of the same prospect is nigh-on impossible at this point. Before it’s even considered, DC have to go a long way to get their house in order. Removing Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, the DC film arm is in a mess. Green Lantern (2011) was a disaster and Man of Steel (2013) was not well received.
Of course, DC’s position is of little concern to Marvel and they would be foolish to allow DC on to their bandwagon to ride the wave of their success. With every successful instalment the Marvel house of cards grows higher. Here’s hoping it climbs to Galactus size proportions with an ultimate Marvel tie-in featuring all the big Marvel characters sitting magnanimously at the summit.