Marvel Studios is a well-oiled moviemaking machine, arguably the most consistently successful production entity since Pixar. This week they're launching "Thor: The Dark World," the second solo film and third appearance for the character as portrayed by dashing Chris Hemsworth following "The Avengers." It's still early days but it seems as if these installments are becoming more and more routine, not unlike the formula comics they're based on (read our less than enthusiastic review here).
You don't make comics featuring the same characters for fifty years without losing steam ten times over, yet Marvel Studios repeats itself over and over despite only launching in 2008 with its flagship "Iron Man". If you don't believe us…
TONY STARK'S HEAD
We triple-dog dare you to tell us which film each of these three shots of Tony Stark's dome came from. Each was captured by a different filmmaker – Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon, Shane Black - but it's practically impossible to pinpoint who did what due to Marvel's strict adherence to a homogenous aesthetic. Consistency is great and all, particularly when the design is intended to reflect the particular genius of a single character, but we're already feeling some fatigue here and we're only at Phase 2 of these movies. Let's touch base again at Phase 7 when Iron Man joins forces with Man-Thing, Devil Dinosaur and the gritty reboot of Howard the Duck. Never forget, people, there is a bottom to the Marvel barrel just begging to be scraped.
DUDES IN SUITS...
… and by "dudes in suits" we don't mean the heroes. Far more damning than the recurring look of Tony Stark's in-flight navigation system, pretty much every Marvel film has featured a climax where a bad guy(s) in a massive armored exoskeleton(s) body slams the hero(es) into submission before ultimately being defeated, usually due to a defect in said armor. The ploy was used in Iron Man (Iron Monger), Iron Man 2 (Whiplash), Thor (Destroyer), Captain America (Hydra soldiers) and The Avengers (Chitauri). Even Shane Black gave voice to the studio's bemoaning another "two men in iron suits fighting each other" movie when it came time for "Iron Man 3," hence the glowing fire thugs of Extremis.
SHE BLINDED ME WITH SCIENCE
Reed Richards, Peter Parker, Professor X, Dr. Strange… almost every major figure in the Marvel Comics Universe has at least a masters-level affinity for smartitude, thus the Marvel Movieverse is chock-o-block with fake-ass scientists straight out of any random giant gila monster movie from the '50s. When Stan Lee created Tony Stark he modeled him after billionaire playboy engineer Howard Hughes, which is why in "Iron Man 2" Stark is able to cure his blood poisoning by… turning the circle in his chest into a triangle? Whaa?
That head-scratcher aside, it's actually pretty cool that the company is fostering a pro-science mindset, especially with "Gravity" currently discouraging a generation from ever stepping foot into space for fear of satellite debris. Besides Stark you have Bruce Banner/a.k.a. The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo and/or Edward Norton) doing his Jekyl/Hyde thing, Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) using his Super Soldier Serum to help Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) be the best damn Captain he can be, or Thor's main squeeze Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her partner Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) attempting to ascertain inter-dimensional portals of the nine realms.
The lens flare war has begun. Who fired the first shots (Michael Bay, J.J. Abrams, rap videos, some secret Illuminati conspiracy) is a moot point, because we're at near-total saturation with this go-to visual garnish. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is literally stupid with Lens flares. Branagh wins the "Worst Flair Offender" award for his glare-soaked "vision" for "Thor," although "Captain America: The First Avenger" is a close second. At least "Captain America" wasn't riddled with Dutch angles. While flaring the camera can produce a cool effect or emphasize something extra glow-y, it's getting to the point where viewers might as well all have cataracts.
Let's overstate the obvious: Comic books have always been an inherently superior medium to film. That is, when accounting for the amount of freedom to imagine worlds without the limitations of time, money and crew, not to mention tossing out the huge infrastructure of cooks in the kitchen, i.e. studio folk, producers, actors, etc. Comics are, generally speaking, the product of a writer, an artist, a colorist and an editor, in some cases with one person in all four roles. Sure, creators at the big houses like Marvel and DC are serving large corporate entities and can't make Iron Man a homeless schizophrenic man with armor made out of trash… at least not as canon.
Take a look at these four covers spanning decades of wildly different yet comfortably familiar takes on The Mightiest Avenger. Of course, Jack Kirby, Walt Simonson, Olivier Coipel and Esad Ribic were all towing the company line in their own way. They're not radically redesigning the character (although it was Simonson that gave ol' Thory his big bushy beard), and you won't see a suit & tie Yuppie Thor in the '80s or plaid laden Grunge Thor in the '90s. He's the same old God of Thunder with a unique artist's hand giving him life, something the producers have yet to do after three films.
With over 500 issues to his name (not to mention a few thousand years of Norse mythology before that), the noble Asgardian is a pliable character who could use a skewed reinterpretation before his cinematic run comes to a close. Spike Jonze anyone?
What does the future hold for Marvel Studios? More of the same? Hoepfully not. "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" seems to be following the "Iron Man 3" lead of crafting a Tom Clancy-like action movie around dudes in bright blue costumes. James Gunn's take on "Guardians of the Galaxy" can play faster and looser than other Marvel properties since no one but the hardcore geek mafia will be sending horses heads for ruining Rocket Raccoon. "The Avengers: Age of Ultron" should be more of the same, but we're genuinely curious what Mr. Edgar Wright ("Shaun of the Dead," "Hot Fuzz") -a genuine auteur with a frenetic genre mashing pop sensibility- will do when he works under producer Kevin Feige's thumb on "Ant-Man." Reinforcement of the brand's status quo is inevitable no matter how wacky the premise.
You'll also likely see Marvel vetting actors with far more intense scrutiny, looking not only for a Paul Rudd to play Ant-Man or a Joseph Gordon-Levitt to play Dr. Strange, but to also contractually work out how much power these heavy hitters will have as they are sequelized over time. Robert Downey Jr. found himself in the fortunate position of being able to dictate not only his level of creative input/compensation for "Avengers 2 & 3" but also act as a de facto superhero union organizer for fellow castmates like Chris Hemsworth or Jeremy Renner in their negotiations. Marvel is actively looking for someone to take Downey Jr.'s place as the central figure of the Marvel cinematic universe, and that person will likely hold more sway than whoever is chosen to actually make those movies. Oddly enough.
Thing is, it doesn't have to be that way. When Tim Burton made the original "Batman" in 1989 he was essentially a hired gun brought in to lend his dark sensibility to a studio concoction complete with oh-so-timely Prince soundtrack and 2nd unit-directed action sequences. By the time "Batman Returns" came around the studio lured Burton back with the promise of letting him make "a Tim Burton movie." AND INDEED HE DID! Despite the massive Gotham City set from the previous film sitting patiently in London for a sequel, Burton hired a new designer and shot on soundstages in LA, giving the 2nd Michael Keaton-led Batman a much more theatrical, cartoony sensibility in line with the helmer's off-kilter sensibilities. When Phase 3 swings around, now that these worlds are established, they should roll the dice a little bit more and maybe let a visionary director make a movie their way instead of that time-tested Marvel Way.