Friday, May 6, 2011

What will Marvel Studios do next?

Marvel Studios has been around since 1993, when it was founded to pursue film opportunities for Marvel Comics characters. Prior to this, only a handful of films had been made based on these characters, and they had been dismal, low-budget affairs. While rival comics company DC had seen the Superman and Batman franchises yield blockbusters, Marvel had yet to find the same success. Marvel Studios helped change that, negotiating deals with major studios and exerting greater creative control.

They found success early on, as partnerships with New Line Cinema, 20th Century Fox and Columbia Pictures yielded Blade (1998), X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002), respectively. Each of those three films was considered both an artistic and commercial success, and each would yield an even more successful sequel. While other Marvel properties were not as critically well received (including Daredevil, the Ang Lee-directed Hulk, two Punisher movies, Elektra, two Fantastic Four movies, Ghost Rider, and the abysmal third chapters of the Blade, X-Men and Spider-Man franchises), few were actually box office bombs and the power of Marvel Studios continued to grow.

Finally, in 2008, the company was able to begin producing films independently. This is where I come in. I had watched some of the earlier movies, and had even found some of them enjoyable, especially the first two X-Men movies, which were ridiculous in many ways but had good character development. I was not prepared for Marvel was able to do with full control of its own creations, though. I read some comic books as a kid, and had a vague idea of who all of these super-people were, but I wouldn’t have considered myself a fan-boy. However, that all changed when I saw these films. The independent Marvel movies have become like heroin to me, and I am an unapologetic junkie.

Marvel Studios does three things differently than anyone else doing superhero films:

1) They stayed true to the characters. They changed some of the details, but the essence of who those characters are did not change. They didn’t dumb anything down and they didn’t compromise their ability to tell a larger story over time by throwing the coolest parts of 17 different story lines together in the first movie. They knew their characters inside out and had faith that those characters had deep reservoirs of compelling stories to tell. They gambled that audiences would like them for who they were.

2) They stayed loyal to their fan base. Comic books are action-packed, larger-than-life, pseudo-science, short-attention-span, soap operas. So are Marvel’s movies. They tend to not hold anything back, and are filled with the same sense of wonder, humor and balls-to-the-wall excitement that got our blood pumping as eight-year-olds. Ang Lee tried to make an artistic Hulk movie that was filled with allegories of human nature. Marvel understood that the Hulk needs to smash things. Sure, there’s some romance and intrigue and other fine plot points to consider, but Marvel makes sure that it never gets in the way of what they know we want to see.

3) They created a shared universe where all of their film characters co-existed. Each movie pretty much stands on its own, but by tying together very minor plot points and adding a heaping helping of Easter eggs in the background, they drive the fan-boys wild and set up a world where anything can happen.

Here is a list of all of the independent Marvel Studios movies to date that have either been released or scheduled for release:

  • Iron Man
  • The Incredible Hulk
  • Iron Man 2
  • Thor
  • Captain America: The First Avenger
  • The Avengers
  • Iron Man 3 – Merging Iron Man into the same universe as Thor opens up the possibility of bringing in Iron Man's most famous enemy: the Mandarin and his ten magic rings.

Marvel Studios has said they would like to release two films a year. The rights to a lot of their key properties still reside with other studios, which presumably will work hard to keep the rights: Columbia has Spider-Man. Crystal Sky has Ghost Rider, and Fox has X-Men (including Wolverine and Deadpool), the Fantastic Four (including Silver Surfer) and Daredevil. (P.S. – Fox sucks. I’d kill for Marvel to get the rights to Daredevil.) However, there are still plenty of other characters that Marvel could use to create compelling movies within the shared Marvel Cinematic Universe. Assuming they do make two movies per year from 2013 on, here is my best guess of what else we are likely to see for the rest of this decade:


  • Ant-Man – A founding member of the Avengers in the comics, Dr. Henry Pym creates a process that allows him to shrink to the size of an ant or grow as big as a skyscraper. According to Marvel Studios head-honcho Kevin Feige, the script (by Scott Pilgrim vs. the World director Edgar Wright) is almost complete. With any luck, it will also introduce Pym’s eventual wife and fellow-Avenger, Janet van Dyne, a.k.a. the Wasp.

  • Doctor Strange – Rumors are that the studio is hard at work to make this one happen soon. Doctor Stephen Strange is Marvel’s master of magic, and from what I understand he has some really cool and bizarre tales that would adapt well to screen. Johnny Depp might be a good choice for the lead. Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy) should direct.
  • Captain America 2 – I would like to see this film further explore the character’s adjustment to life in the modern world, while tying in elements of his former life in World War II through flashbacks. We could learn that the evil organization Hydra has survived and that Cap has to finish a job that he started long ago. This could also set up…

  • S.H.I.E.L.D. – Bring back the non-super-powered crew from The Avengers: Nick Fury, Black Widow, Hawkeye, etc. This movie could also introduce us to Carol Danvers (the future Ms. Marvel), Falcon and any number of other cool Kung-Fu/super-gadget folk. Here’s a fact: the entire G.I. Joe franchise was originally created as a cheap copy of S.H.I.E.L.D. Let’s see what the original can do. (I’m guessing James Bond meets The Fast and the Furious.)
  • Thor 2 – I don’t know much about this character and I haven’t seen the first one yet (it opens today in the U.S.!), but I think a sequel showing Thor at full power for two hours fighting some pretty nasty enemies could be great fun.

  • The Inhumans – When I was a kid, I saw a picture of Black Bolt and thought he was the coolest super hero I had ever seen. He is the leader of the Inhumans, a group of mutant/alien/I-don’t-really-know-what people that live secretly in a secluded land. He never speaks, because a simple whisper from him will unleash enough power to knock down a building. He has other powers too, but I don’t know what they are. Comic books were weird back in the 1970s. I didn’t quite understand what I was reading. Still, from what I do understand, other people were similarly enchanted by these weirdos, and there might just be a story there.
  • The Black Panther – Dating back to 1966, this was the first major Black super-hero from either Marvel or DC, and remains a fan favorite. His real name is T’Challa, and he is king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda and a part-time Avenger. Introducing him in his own movie could set him up for a role in…

  • The Avengers 2 – Bring back the original crew, plus Ant-Man, Wasp, Black Panther and maybe Ms. Marvel. Do something over-the-top amazing that blows every other action movie that’s ever been made out of the water. Is that too much to ask?
  • Heroes for Hire – Luke Cage (a.k.a. Power Man) and his partner Iron Fist are two more fan-favorites. They are an odd couple: think Rush Hour, but with Mr. T and Bruce Lee instead of Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan.

  • Captain America 3 – Now that we've seen Cap adjust to the modern world, this installment should see his world shaken to the core again by introducing an old friend turned enemy: the Winter Soldier.
  • Planet Hulk – One of the more popular Hulk story lines sees the Hulk banished to another planet because he’s too dangerous for Earth, and he ends up conquering it or something, I think. Anyway, this would be too cool, so just do it.

  • Iron Man 4 – Sure, why not?
  • Thor 3 – Beta Ray Bill, anyone?

  • Annihilation – Featuring Nova and some of the other cosmic characters (although, sadly, not Galactus and the Silver Surfer, unless Marvel can get the rights back from Fox). It could be hinted at with references from previous cosmic movies like The Inhumans, Planet Hulk and even Thor 3 (especially if Beta Ray Bill is introduced).
  • S.H.I.E.L.D. 2 – We should be ready for another one if these if the first one did well. Winter Soldier could factor in, and maybe more new characters could make an appearance, like the Falcon. Also, this could set up…

  • The Avengers 3 – If we haven’t seen Ultron yet, now could be the time. There are a host of other heroes (the Scarlet Witch, Wonder Man, the Vision, etc.) and baddies that we could see as well.
  • Namor, the Sub-Mariner – At this point, if Marvel is still going strong, I’m guessing they can even turn their naked-pointy-eared-fish-man-(with-wings-on-his-feet-WTF?) into a winning movie! Of course, this would launch a whole new realm of cross-over possibilities if Marvel Studios shouls re-acquire the rights to the Fantastic Four by then...

UPDATE: Marvel Studios has announced Thor 2 as its second film of 2013, much sooner than I had anticipated. Meanwhile, scripts for Ant-Man and Doctor Strange movies have been completed. Here, then, is an updated prediction with an emphasis on wrapping up the three-film Thor and Captain America franchises ASAP. I am assuming Iron Man will be the only franchise to go beyond three films – and maybe without Robrt Downey Jr. beyond the third installment.

2013 – Iron Man 3, Thor 2
2014 – Captain America 2, Doctor Strange
2015 – Ant-Man, S.H.I.E.L.D.
2016 – The Avengers 2, Heroes for Hire
2017 – Iron Man 4, Thor 3
2018 – Captain America 3, Doctor Strange 2
2019 – The Black Panther, Heroes for Hire 2
2020 – The Avengers 3, Annihilation
2021 – Iron Man 5, Planet Hulk
2022 – The Inhumans, Namor the Sub-Mariner

Towards the end of the decade, the emphasis shifts more to the cosmic side of Marvel. (And, of course, hopefully to the Fantastic Four if Marvel can re-acquire the rights.) By overlapping certain story elements, Marvel should be able to maintain continuity even as they de-emphasize characters like Thor and Captain America to avoid audience fatigue and allow their current crop of actors to roll. Then, after a suitable amount of time has passed, current characters can be re-introduced (with new actors if necessary) without losing any of that continuity.

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