Monday, March 10, 2014

What Marvel Does Right

The Right Front Man
You know the name Kevin Feige even if you would not recognize Kevin Feige himself.  That is just part of the brilliance in this Marvel Studios front man.  He is not a larger than life personality, like Stan Lee or Walt Disney.  Instead he is more of a more awkward spokesperson for the internet generation.  He is able to articulate himself well without ever promoting himself over the product.

There seems to be little executive meddling and creative differences at Marvel because Kevin is a perfect blend of business and creativity.  He understands the practicality of filmmaking and the financial potential while openly having a passion for these characters.  There are of course some dissatisfaction from directors and actors, but Feige is articulate enough to address them without fueling any flames.

Honestly, I trust this guy because I relate to him.  He acts just like a fan, one that is sincere but not showy.  He does a great job constantly promoting these movies without ever spoiling them.  He has little to no ego.  Creators like Joss Whedon speak highly of his tireless work ethic.  He takes chances on filmmakers and concepts.  He clearly has a plan in place and knows what he is doing.  In this day and age where corporations run film studios it is astonishing that I can say this much about an executive.

They Know What Won’t Work
Part of what makes Marvel so different from the rest of Hollywood is that they seem to know what won’t work.  Marvel has gotten the rights back for several properties that other studios struggled with.  Punisher, Daredevil, Blade, Elektra and Ghost Rider did not quite work out as giant blockbusters.  That is because these characters really can’t translate well to these international big budget hits.  A $200 million Daredevil movie is never going to work.  Punisher is a character with no chance at international appeal.  Ghost Rider is an absolute B-movie concept.  A stuntman comes back from the dead with a flaming skull?  That is a midnight movie that spawns direct-to-video sequels for a specific audience, not the film event of the year.

Marvel gets that they don’t need to crank out giant movies based on these properties just for the sake of it.  But that doesn’t mean that they can’t find a way to utilize these great properties in the way that they are meant to.  Their upcoming Netflix initiative is absolutely brilliant.  Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and The Defenders are second-string Marvel properties.  13 episode television series culminating in a team-up miniseries will service these characters much better than a feature film.  These gritty, adult, street level anti-heroes and loners can really find a new audience in a television format where they don't have to try to find immediate success with multiple demographics and countries.

Calculated Risks
A lot has been made out of how much of a risk Guardians of the Galaxy is.  But is it really?  Sure it can’t print money like Spider-Man or Batman, but this is still a strong property.  The title Guardians of the Galaxy has been around for decades and even had a successful run by Jim Valentino in the nineties.  The 2008 DnA series has amassed a huge cult following and features beloved Jim Stalrin characters.  This franchise certainly has a lot for a feature film to draw from.

And of course there is the Marvel Now reboot which was released far enough before the movie, but close enough to the film’s announcement for readers to associate the book with an upcoming film.  The book is written by Marvel superstar Brian Michael Bendis and features several of the best working artists.  The team was reintroduced of an issue of Avengers Assemble, has Iron Man join the team along with non-Marvel character Angela.  They are currently in the middle of an X-Men crossover.  Marvel Comics is doing as much as they can to make this book a success.  And thanks to the impressive trailer the most recent issue was the month’s second best selling single issue.

The marketing of Guardians is Marvel is making all the right steps too.  They are playing to the comic con crowd but also gaining the attention of a wide audience through great social media efforts.  In Guardians of the Galaxy Marvel is making a movie that looks like a risk close to a sure thing.

The Right Talent
Marvel understands the importance of directors.  They have picked the perfect directors to launch these film franchises.  Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh, Joe Johnston, Joss Whedon are all vastly different filmmakers with extremely varied careers, but they all worked out great for their specific films.  Then Marvel turning to TV directors such as Alan Taylor and the Russo brothers for the sequels is a smart way for them to maintain consistency in the films.

Then there are the actors.  Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Chris Hemsworth, Jaimie Alexander, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas and even Robert Downey Jr. are all now big superheroes.  These are prestigious actors, unknowns, comedic actors, wrestlers and former drug addicts, not conventional action stars.  Marvel has taken a lot of chances on people and they have been rewarded for it.  Such as with Clark Gregg, an actor with a minor role that they saw a lot in.

Maintaining Quality
There are definitely arguments that can be made that some of Marvel’s movies are better than others.  It is very clear that Iron Man 2 is not as good of a movie as The Avengers.  But every movie Marvel has made lies pretty comfortably between those two.  They each have their own strengths and weaknesses, but they are all enjoyable and well made movies.

Changing it Up
Possibly the biggest compliment you can pay to Marvel is that they have not made the same film twice.  Each operates at a different scale with its own unique style.  Iron Man was a high tech comedy, Incredible Hulk was a action movie with a tragic love story, Thor was a fantasy, Captain America was a period adventure film, Avengers was a cinematic event.

Even the sequels find ways to not just raise the stakes, but to change them completely.  Iron Man 2 greatly opened up the Marvel Universe, Iron Man 3 got Tony Stark out of his armor, The Dark World took Thor’s hammer away, The Winter Soldier completely changes the setting from First Avenger.  This is helping to make the superhero genre sustainable.  These aren't the same stories about people in masks, they are exciting and different.

Positive Synergy with Disney
Big Hero 6 was never going to be an important comic book.  It was two forgettable mini-series that Marvel was never going to even give a trade paperback to.  But Disney is turning it into an animated feature.  And it will be a success too.  How can an animated superhero movie set in “San Fransokyo” not be a huge international hit?

Disney made a huge announcement that their Netflix series will be filmed in New York.  Smart move, Marvel is located in New York and all of these heroes are based in the city.  Also Disney has a lot invested in Broadway.  A working relationship with New York benefits everyone, even Good Morning America.

I can almost guarantee that Guardians of the Galaxy was greenlit because a representative of Disney Consumer Products heard the name “Rocket Raccoon” and knew that they had an insanely marketable character that they could make plush toys out of.  Also, Guardians of the Galaxy is a colorful space opera and Disney is releasing a new Star Wars movie next year.  Guardians is the perfect lead-in for Star Wars and way for people to forget about Mars Needs Moms and John Carter.

A Strengthened Publishing Line
  Marvel is not putting their entire fate in movies, they are still a comic book company and the comics are doing some cool things.  Titles such as Hawkeye and Daredevil are huge critical and commercial hits.  Marvel is launching new series for Moon Knight, Silver Surfer and others with some of the best creators.  Marvel Comics is also putting more effort into diversity with more ethnically diverse titles.  There are also female led comics with X-Men, Elektra, She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel, Black Widow and of course Captain Marvel whom Marvel is really committing to making a top tier hero.  The allegations of lack of diversity in the films is being addressed by the comic books.  As we are seeing with Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, good comics are on their way to becoming good movies.  Marvel Comics is still a House of Ideas that keeps coming up with great ideas.

They Found the Balance Between Fun and Serious
Superhero movies have always struggled with how seriously they should take the characters and how much fun they can have.  Movies such as Batman and Robin have emphasized the fun too much and became campy.  Movies such as Hulk and Superman Returns emphasized the serious and emotional and did not quite work.  But Marvel seems to have found the right balance.  They aren't afraid to make their heroes likable and humorous, but the heroes still have depth.  The movies are entertaining and dramatic.  That is what makes them work so well.

They Don’t Rush
Marvel has figured out a pace.  They are constantly developing projects, but they will happen when they are ready.  Edgar Wright has been attached to Ant-Man since Marvel Studios began, it is finally being released next year.  People have been calling for Marvel to announce Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Captain Marvel and other movies but  Marvel knows the importance of development.  And Marvel is also good enough at public relations that they are very intentional with their announcements.  They aren't starting cheap rumors just for the sake of it.

Consistency in the Excitement
Marvel is always in the news, because they are always doing something.  They always have a movie coming out, a new trailer, a one-shot, an episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a new production announced.  Marvel has done the impossible for feature films: they found a way to always stay relevant.

Compare this to 2016’s Batman vs. Superman which will have to find creative ways to stay in the news for the next two years without giving too much away.  DC will have to work to get people excited again; they can’t use the momentum from Man of Steel to its fullest potential.  I really predict that Marvel is going to change the way that Hollywood releases blockbusters.  Star Trek Into Darkness did not greatly out gross the first Star Trek because there were 4 years between the movies.  Sony has already promised/threatened a Spider-Man movie every year.

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