Hard-Traveling Fanboys: GIANT-SIZE (Marvel Cinematic Universe)

Mild-mannered reporters by day, Greg Phillips and Nick Duke share an intense love of comic books that has made them the Hard-Traveling Fanboys. Some events, however, call for more than just two fanboys to discuss.  Banding together with fellow comic book aficionados on these occasions, Greg and Nick will present a GIANT-SIZED edition of their weekly column.

Greg: Prepare yourselves, ladies and gentlemen, for we are about to embark on a lengthy journey. A few months ago, we debuted our very own fifth-week event: Giant-Size, our own homage to the larger-than-usual comics of days gone by. Each fifth Friday, we’ll take a look at an issue or topic that affected the comics world as a whole and lends itself to deeper analysis. For our second edition, we’re focusing in on one of the hottest topics in the superhero world: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. More specifically, we will hone in on the idea of a shared universe and how Marvel has blazed a path that other studios seem to be following. Joining us, as they did last time, will be the Place to Be Nation’s own Russell Sellers, Todd Weber and Tim Capel!


1) When did you first become aware of Marvel’s plan to unite its characters in a cinematic universe, and what were your initial impressions?

Russell: I heard rumblings of it before going to see the first Iron Man, but I wasn’t buying into rumors even back then. But when I saw Samuel L. Jackson in the post-credits scene (whoops, spoilers) I had a fan-boy squee moment along with about 90% of the other people in the theater. The other 10% were leaving just a little too soon.

Todd: I didn’t know exactly where they were going until the post-credits scene after the first Iron Man movie. To quote my German friend Dieter, “It made me happy as a little girl.”

Touch my monkey!
Touch my monkey!

Tim: When the formation of Marvel Studios was first announced and I realized that all they really had on the docket were the Avengers characters, I could kind of read the writing on the wall. Didn’t believe they would actually make the attempt until that post-credits scene in Iron Man. My reaction was something akin to, “This is great! They’ll never pull it off!”

It felt a little more like something they were seriously having a go at when Tony Stark made that cameo in Incredible Hulk shortly thereafter. By then, the sheer joy I had for Iron Man had really settled in and the strong performance of both films made me extremely optimistic for the studio’s future plans.

Nick: There were certainly rumblings pretty much from the time that Marvel started production on Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. I distinctly remember the Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury cameo rumors, and how they were supposedly debunked leading up to the movie when the scene wasn’t attached to press screenings. Anyway, I hoped it was true, but I never really thought it would be as successful as it has been. Let’s face it — Iron Man was a B or C list character before the movie, and I just didn’t see how a series of movies based on secondary characters would be worth the risk of combining them all into one giant movie down the road. I just didn’t think audiences would buy in for a Captain America movie or a Thor movie. But, they got that Iron Man movie so right that it pretty much set the stage for everything to come. Without Iron Man and its critical and financial success, I don’t know that there would have been an Avengers.

Iron Man in the '90s.
Iron Man in the ’90s. Wearing a thong.

Greg: It first hit my radar during the production of Iron Man. Rumors spread across the always-reliable Internet that Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury was going to be a link between that film and the upcoming Incredible Hulk feature. At first, I felt it was either a bogus rumor or a silly risk by the studio. After all, there was no guarantee a movie about Iron Man would succeed at the box office, especially with a star in Robert Downey Jr. that had yet to re-establish himself in Hollywood. I saw the studio pumping the breaks after what I anticipated would be a slow opening for Jon Favreau’s film.

2) How much different would the Marvel Cinematic Universe look if the company owned all the rights to its characters? Would we still get a shared universe if, for instance, the X-Men and Spider-Man were included in Marvel’s staple of characters, or was the shared universe created to compensate for the lack of “A-list” characters?

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Russell: That’s a tough on to answer for sure. I wonder if some of the casting and directorial choices would have been the same, but having a wider shared universe would have been too tempting a proposition to pass up, I think. The X-Men and Avengers films might not have been very interconnected at the beginning, but I could easily see Spider-Man being the bridge between the two franchises. And others like Punisher and Daredevil would likely still operate mostly independent of the other films. That said, I think there’s something to the idea of a shared Avengers universe was created to compensate for the lack of Spider-Man and X-Men.

Todd: Since they were acquired by Disney, Marvel Films have dreamed increasingly bigger and bigger. They’ve had the resources, imagination, and creative individuals necessary to bring whatever they imagine to screen. I don’t think having all of the film rights to their characters would hold them back. I certainly think there’d be a bit more crossover, such as Spider-Man and Wolverine in the Avengers films and they’d avoid issues such as concurrent Quicksilvers and Scarlet Witches in both Avengers II and X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Tim: I would argue that the concept of a shared cinematic universe is owed in part to Marvel’s restricted access to their own characters. That’s not to say it WOULDN’T exist if Marvel Studios had carte blanche to feature whichever characters they pleased, but one cannot overlook that it would be much easier to make X-Men and Spider-Man films year after year, while occasionally throwing a bone to their lesser-known properties. The fact is, these are established, bankable franchises. You don’t have to convince audiences that Spider-Man is worth seeing in the way that you do with a character like Iron Man. You have to build Iron Man from the ground up, and that takes a lot more effort than simply keeping a trademark alive in the public consciousness — even if the production costs, in pure economic terms, aren’t terribly different. It’s not enough for something like Iron Man to be a good movie. It has to be different; it has to be ambitious; it has to be great. Realistically, that can’t be accomplished on the cheap. At the same time, a big budget film cannot be merely well-received to mediocre returns. What, then, is the surest path to a hit for a new, unproven character? Make him feel “important.”

For Marvel Studios, lending that sense of weight meant telling viewers that the awesome new character they warmly embraced was just the start of something much bigger. And because it’s not just Iron Man facing this same hurdle, what works for him should be replicable, a new business model in fact. Hence, Thor and Captain America springing from that same successful mold. By the time you get to Avengers, you have a film that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

So that’s what got us here. It’s a lot of objectives for these second-tier characters to fulfill, yet they were the best concepts Marvel Studios could chose from. When the only association (if any) the general public has with the name “Avengers” is a terrible Sean Connery movie from 1998, the studio certainly appreciated the challenge ahead. They were on shaky ground, but these films HAD to be blockbusters. There was no alternative. Working backwards from Avengers revealed the way to that success. I just don’t see the company devoting the same resources and level of commitment if easy wins like the X-Men were options for them. We might still be looking at a shared cinematic universe to some extent, sure. I just can’t imagine it being anywhere near as interconnected as what we have now. It’s an example of a company making the most out of a less-than-ideal situation, ultimately turning a limitation to their advantage.

Without the shared Avengers universe, Chris Hemsworth may never have been cast as Thor.

Nick: This is a tough one. I think we would have gotten a shared universe, but it would have been mostly based around the X-Men and Spider-Man crossovers. I think Marvel was forced to dig a bit deeper for characters and concepts to develop, but it wound up working to their advantage. The only negative is that it’s difficult to do adaptations of stories like “Secret Wars” or “Civil War” without Spidey and the X-Men.

Greg: Plain and simple, I don’t think we’d have gotten Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger or, certainly, Guardians of the Galaxy, at least not as quickly as we got them. Let’s go back in time to 2008. Spider-Man and the X-Men were still clearly (and probably still are in 2014) the most recognized and popular Marvel characters. The studio would have little incentive to jump onto films about characters often perceived as “hokey” like Cap and Thor when Spidey and Wolverine were sitting there to be mined. We’d have been more likely to see a Spider-Man/X-Men crossover (as occurred in the ‘90s cartoons based on those franchises) than an Avengers film.

Not a great Spider-Man/X-Men crossover.
Not a great Spider-Man/X-Men crossover.

3) How well has Marvel handled its shared cinematic universe between the films? Where has it succeeded, and are there any areas that need improvement?

Russell: The shared universe has been done exceedingly well with the films we’ve had, The Incredible Hulk notwithstanding. Not that it was a bad movie, but that Hulk seems to be the character Marvel is still trying to find the right cinematic formula for. Another issue is the lack of female superheroes in this shared universe. Black Widow had some great moments in Iron Man 2 and certainly in The Avengers, but there are other female characters that could have been developed by now. Lady Sif deserves more screen time, Carol Danvers could be introduced anytime now and Wasp definitely needs to be in the Ant-Man film or my next Missed Opportunity column will be addressing Disney’s shortcomings.

Todd: They’ve handled this unprecedentedly well. Each film does staggering box office, and we are all drooling with anticipation over the next wave of films. The movies are believably in the same universe (though we end up asking questions such as “why isn’t Captain America investigating this Mandarin situation”. I’m at a loss as how to improve the vision of these films…their impressive execution has surpassed my wildest expectations. Seriously, if you were to tell me in 1989 that someday there’d be a series of Marvel Universe films that intersected and weren’t terrible, I’d have punched you in the face for giving a boy hope. The fact that the films (with the notable exceptions of the Ang Lee Hulk movie, the first boring Thor movie, and the Mickey Rourke-infested Iron Man 2) are excellent and fun in an unbelievable achievement.

Tim: Marvelously! *groan*

A pun worthy of Stan!
A pun worthy of Stan!

Look, if you told me, in 1996, that Thor would one day go on to gross $450 million as a star-making vehicle for its then-unknown principal actors, I would’ve offered you up some beachfront property in Asgard. If you said that its villain, Loki, would then beguile the Avengers and conquer Tumblr in one fell swoop, to the tune of $1.5 BILLION, I would’ve asked, “What’s Tumblr?” And if you dared claim that anyone could outperform Scott Paulin’s tour-de-force as an Italian Red Skull in the 1991 Captain America feature-film, errmm–that, I might have believed.

Seriously though, for all I make of the shared universe being a necessary evil, Marvel Studios embraced it wholeheartedly. Taking this kind of hands-on role in the business of making movies was a risky position, but they had faith in the characters to connect with their audience. Thor and Captain America got the same treatment as Iron Man because it made the most sense to market them collectively. The nature of these characters’ backgrounds on the printed page is such that it didn’t FEEL like a contrivance. In this way, the cinematic universe has been a great study in brand-building. The Marvel logo flashing before every subsequent opening credits sequence has become a mark of excellence.

The next battle is where to go from here. They have to keep pushing the envelope, lest the brand falls into a pattern of complacency. Avengers was a culmination of events and succeeded on every level, but we’re seeing that there’s still fuel left in the tanks of its constituent parts. We’re navigating uncharted territory in the continuing adventures of Iron Man and friends. These “Phase Two” solo films can’t properly be described as Avengers spin-offs — after all, they came first! So what do we call them? Spin-outs? Logically, you want the ramifications of their combined efforts in Avengers to trickle down, receive a bit of follow-up, and whet your appetite for an encore. And yet, they have to stand on their own terms. Iron Man 3, I felt, did not strike the right balance. It struggled to find its own voice apart from being a second sequel to the beloved Iron Man AND a “spin-out” from Avengers. What they came up with largely didn’t work for me. Thor: The Dark World came off a little better and Captain America: The Winter Soldier looks VERY promising. But is this a consequence of lowered expectations? It’s too soon to say.

Now that Marvel has lifted the veil on the larger world that was promised by Iron Man, I’m encouraged to see their willingness to explore the universe beyond Avengers. Guardians of the Galaxy promises an escalation of what we’ve seen to date, a cosmic threat that would’ve been inconceivable (or un-filmable) in 2008, when Iron Man was the lone entry in this series. It’s understandable that Avengers would be capitalized on to give a “rub” to something like Guardians. Eventually, though, I’d like to see some side stories taking place on the fringes of this world, wholly disconnected from the Avengers characters. The recently-announced Netflix original series for Daredevil, Iron Fist, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage appears to be a move in that direction. The strength and goodwill of the brand should enable these projects to thrive independently of anything that has come before.

Nick: I think Marvel has done very well from a broad perspective. I understand that there has to be a constant struggle when making each film on how to make it feel like it tells its own story while also tying in to the other events that have occurred in the other films. Personally, I’d like to see a bit more crossover between the solo films, something akin to Extremis showing up on “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” But, I understand that you run the risk of exhausting audiences with continuity, something that comics have done in the past, and the cinematic universe should seek to avoid at all costs.

Surely no single story could make a comic book universe too complicated to follow.
Surely no single story could make a comic book universe too complicated to follow.

Greg: In terms of the big screen, Marvel hasn’t made a misstep. Each of its individual franchises has been a rousing success financially and (usually) critically. Furthermore, I find Marvel’s approach to crossovers to be the best possible route – make a great standalone film that has brief teases and ties to the other franchises, but don’t steep the film in continuity that can dissuade fans that might prefer, say, Captain America to Iron Man. I’ll be the first to admit that I have probably only read one issue of Captain America in my life, but that didn’t keep me from enjoying the film and the character’s role in The Avengers. Getting me to care about Steve Rogers and Tony Stark is the best compliment I could possibly pay Kevin Feige and the studio executives at Marvel.

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