Fanboy Meets World is a bi-weekly column dedicated to the ever-expanding world of "geek" culture. It runs on alternating Thursdays.
We are merely fourteen of your Earth days from the launch of something absolutely unprecedented in the landscape of big budget filmmaking. I'm not speaking specifically about the release of “Iron Man 3” (although that is the opening salvo) but breaking ground on what was dubbed, at least year's San Diego Comic-Con, "Marvel Cinematic Universe: Phase Two."
Never in the history of motion pictures has there been a collection of large-scale crossover features building, much like comic books themselves, to enormous team-ups - then receding, expanding, and regrouping once more. It is something so extraordinary that I don't mind taking a moment to slap us all across the face as if to say wake up, Poozers, and recognize what we're in the middle of, here.
Serialized motion picture exhibition is something our grandfathers talked about - and when they did they also blabbed about newsreels and two features for a dime and how Wendell Willkie wasn't a man of the people. Serials were for kids, and they weren't big budget.
Some might argue that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and its forthcoming Phase Two) is also for kids, but even the snoots can't deny that it is also big business. Walt Disney is a blue chip firm and its purchase of Marvel is a major line item on its ledger sheet. Marvel's unprecedented march toward "The Avengers" in "Phase One" put the House of Ideas (and all its IPs) over the top as a desirable acquisition for Disney. It's amazing to think that these movies - our movies - the comic book movies that up until very recently were considered an absolute joke are now a driving force among major international corporations. If you are a founding member of the League of Extraordinary Capitalists, you can consider this a job well done.
Let's set the wayback machine to the distant past: summer of 2007. Mid-June brings us the release of “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” yet another so-so entry in the comic book movie canon. (While furious resentment over presenting the mighty devourer of worlds, Galactus, as some kinda lame cloud will never subside, let's all admit that Jessica Alba in Sue Storm's suit of skin-hugging polymers is, as Stan Lee might say, a mitzvah.)
A month later, the first “Iron Man” trailer bursts down the door at Comic-Con's Hall H and everything is changed. Chumming the geek waters with a fake-out intro and a specially produced package, “Iron Man” was quick to let fans know that this was going to be a superhero movie done right.
Of less interest to the mouthbreathing slobs in the crowd (oh, sorry, I mean, “we exuberant residents of Fanboy Nation”) was the business deal behind the film. It was the first Marvel property to be produced by the newly formed Marvel Studios and merely distributed by those uncool dunderheads at the mainstream Hollywood majors. “Iron Man” went through Paramount, “The Incredible Hulk” went through Universal, but the intellectual property remained all Marvel, meaning an “Avengers” film (ultimately released through Marvel's not-yet parent company Disney) could have both characters.
Alas, previously produced films, like the aforementioned Fantastic Four or Spider-Man, remained tied up with other studios (20th Century Fox and Sony, respectively) which, perhaps, is good in a way. We fanboys need overarching obstacles floating out there – and these horrific legal documents which prevent Spidey and the FF to join the true Marvel movies do some nice work as an intangible arch-nemesis. (While Peter Parker didn't join the Avengers until issue #329, and even then as a backup member, the very first Avengers comic features Rick Jones of the Teen Brigade, a band of Ham Radio enthusiasts, who contact the Fantastic Four via their “special wavelength.”)
Still, though, the build-up to “Avengers,” big movies with real actors making tons of money, was something no one could predict. “Avengers” is the third-highest-grossing picture of all time and a sequel is slated for May 15, 2015. In addition to “Iron Man 3,” dates are already set for another “Thor” (November 8, 2013), another “Captain America” (April 4, 2014), a new entry, “Guardians of the Galaxy” (August 1, 2014) and the first brick in the road of Phase Three is already planned with “Ant-Man” on November 6, 2015.
There's no precedent for this. Not the James Bond series, the films of which were all just "next chapters," even though the spy's Aston Martin engine will motor on long after we're all dead. I throw down that not since Chaucer has there been such an interconnected series of epic stories contained within a greater narrative. (I also fully admit that I hardly remember my 8th grade reading of “The Canterbury Tales,” but I fully stand by the enormity of my statement.)
With no hyperbole, though, I'll state: the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its Phases are lightning in a bottle. Attempts to duplicate them are unlikely to succeed. DC Comics and its parent company, Warner Bros. can't seem to get their obvious parallel (with the Justice League as their Avengers) off the ground. A tad ironic considering that Marvel created the Avengers whilst cribbing off of DC's Justice League of America (based off its own Justice Society of America, but that's a whole other story.)
Indeed, DC's characters – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman etc – are far more famous than the Marvel ones. Your grandmother's heard of them. I've long felt that the iconic stature of the DC characters are oftentimes a burden. It's difficult to play fast and loose with such “important” figures, offering Christopher Nolan's dark and so-called realistic tone as the only ambitious spin that seems “respectful.”
Even if you prefer DC to Marvel, and even if you are sick of the mainstream approbation of nerd culture (fie to “Comic Book Men,” a pox on “The Big Bang Theory”) it's important, six years in, to still realize just how incredibly lucky we are.
Franchise films are nothing new and they'll certainly continue. But they're all linear. Universal just announced the release date of "Fast and Furious 7." Marvel's films don't go in a straight line, they moved through curved space. Other franchises have tried to expand outwards with "sidequels" - think about Jeremy Renner in "The Bourne Complacency" or whatever that chem-riddled dud was called. It's only these Marvel films, really, that have fully realized individual stories that will then again meet for the big team-ups. As new characters get introduced, there's no reason to believe that there won't be an "Avengers 7" decades from now, perhaps with new actors assuming the roles of the heroes, but playing different characters. (Peter Parker out, Miles Morales in, so to speak - that is if we can ever get the rights for Spidey away from those brutes at Sony.) If that's ever the case, we'll have truly adapted the essence of comic books on film.