Catching Up with Marvel: Three Studios, Three Movies

IMDB, Catching Up with Marvel

As fans know, the Marvel cinematic universe is split across multiple production companies; the result of a coordinated sell-off to stave off bankruptcy years ago. This is why you won’t see an X-Man helping out an Avenger or Spider-man chatting with The Fantastic Four even though they live a few blocks from one another. It’s worked out well enough for all involved, but it does create some friction.

Control is split across three companies. 20th Century Fox manages the now revitalized X-Men and the less than vital Fantastic Four. Sony controls the wildly popular Spider-Man and his small stable of associated characters. Marvel Studios retains ownership of everything else including The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy. All three studios released new films in their franchises last year and I missed all three. So I gorged on missed Marvel.

X-Men Days of Future Past CapX-Men: Days of Future Past

Action/Sci-Fi, 131 Minutes, 2014.

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The original trio of “X-Men” movies and the two stand-alone “Wolverine” offerings left the franchise more than a little… confused. The studio was clearly aiming for a new start with their successful prequel film, “X-Men: First Class” [my review]. It reintroduced the main characters and altered a bit of the original timeline. A post-credits scene in 2013’s “The Wolverine” [my review] set the stage for this movie.

The main purpose was to directly connect the new prequel to the original trilogy while simultaneously completely throwing it all away. Hey, it worked in the comics, why not in the movies?! It did this by tossing Hugh Jackman’s [IMDB] Wolverine into a convoluted time-traveling plot that, in the comics, starred a woman but damn, that would be crazy!

He travels back into his younger self from a blasted version of our future where super-powered robots are killing off mutants. His goal is to stop these robots from ever being invented. While he’s there he helps Professor X, the younger (James McAvoy [IMDB]) at the request of Professor X, the elder (Patrick Stewart [IMDB]). This is somewhat confusing as the emotional centerpiece of “X-Men: The Last Stand” [IMDB] was the death – by telekinetic disintegration – of Professor X.

The movie offers no explanation for his appearance here, not even a token psycho-babble bullshit one. He was dead, now he’s not: deal with it. There are many less significant continuity issues as well. Wolverines claws, for example, shift from metal to bone across the timeline completely nonsensically. Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page [IMDB]) is suddenly given the power to send people’s minds back in time. She, by the way, was the time traveler in the original story but really, everybody knows that a girl can’t star in a movie!

Still, once you push all of that aside, there’s a remarkably good movie left over. Jackman is as charming as ever and easily carries the plot forward. The chemistry between Magneto (played in the future by Ian McKellen [IMDB] and in the past by Michael Fassbender [IMDB]) is a centerpiece of both timelines. Most importantly, Peter Dinklage [IMDB] plays the villain and he’s just plain awesome.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 CapThe Amazing Spider-Man 2

Action/Adventure, 142 Minutes, 2014.

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Sony’s decision to reboot Spider-Man in 2012 [My Review] was controversial, to say the least. Still, it’s difficult not to give credit to the result. You might naturally expect this sequel, free from the constraints of the origin story, to easily surpass the first. In some ways it does, but some notable missteps keep it from truly topping its predecessor.

Positively, Andrew Garfield [IMDB] is clearly much more comfortable as Peter Parker. He easily captures the young, snarky Spidey that became so popular among younger comic readers. The story also requires some serious dramatic work, and Garfield meets that challenge admirably as well.

He’s supported by more experienced actors on all sides, although most of them are unfortunately wasted. Emma Stone [IMDB] is terminally adorable, but isn’t given much meat in her role as Peter’s on-again, off-again romantic interest. Jamie Foxx [IMDB], as the villain Electro, is given even less. Still, both do very well with the little they had to work with.

I was less convinced with Dane DeHaan’s [IMDB] Green Goblin, although I’m hard pressed to say exactly why. The performance was decent, but something about the physicality of the character seemed off. It didn’t help that he had the outright dumbest lines or that the character design was simply uninspired.

Lack of inspiration was an issue overall. The core events are an adaptation of one of the most important Spider-Man stories ever written, but one nearly unknown by the general public. It’s a transitional story that defines the tragic line between boyhood and manhood for Peter Parker. Sadly, nearly all of the “good parts” of the story are squashed into the last few minutes.

To reach them the audience is taken on a long, often dull, trip through the origins of Electro and the Green Goblin. There’s a lot of talking and a lot of exposition. The action sequences oscillate between weirdly static and frenetically overblown. There’s little flow or balance and they’re noticeably short for an action movie.

None of this keeps the movie from being a perfectly fun, watchable popcorn flick. You’ve still got an approachable, wise-cracking Spider-Man, a wonderful (if underused) female lead and some fun (but ultimately wasted) villains. It’s a good movie, but a flawed one, making it all the sadder that it’s almost certainly the last one we’ll see from this team.

Multiple sources are confirming that Sony and Marvel Studios will bring Spider-Man into the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe. As part of this deal, Andrew Garfield will not be resuming the role of Peter Parker and all Spider-Man-related side projects have been shelved indefinitely by Sony. Yes, it looks like we’re in for yet another reboot of  Spider-Man.

Captain America The Winter Soldier Cap

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Action/Adventure, 136 Minutes, 2014.

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With “The Avengers” [my review] and “Guardians of the Galaxy” [my review] crushing revenue records across the planet, Marvel Studios seems completely unstoppable. While it slipped through the cracks for me, I was surprised to note that this sequel had the same budget ($170 million) as “Guardians” and grossed nearly as much worldwide ($715 million to “Guardians” $774 million).

That’s good. It’s contradictory, but while I prefer watching “Guardians”, I think that this is the better film. It wasn’t as fun as Guardians, but it was much more cohesive and human. Although it was a darker, more complex (and played havoc with the television spinoff, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” [IMDB]) the story was somehow cleaner and character motivations clearer.

S.H.I.E.L.D. is at the height of their influence just as Captain America (Chris Evans [IMDB]) is questioning his loyalty to the organization that he inadvertently inspired. About to cement their global reach by launching a trio of massive, satellite-controlled weapon platforms, S.H.I.E.L.D. is attacked by HYDRA which has hidden dormant in their ranks for decades. They plan to use the new new carriers to carry out a plan of, natch’, world domination!

Silly, yes, but it works.

The movie is the most “Avengers-like” of the follow-up films in both the good and the bad . On one hand there’s a quality, ensemble cast dealing with understandable, real-world problems. The quiet certitude of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s best in action is still a joy to watch. On the other hand the movie does tend to rely heavily on huge things crashing into giant things; a handicap seemingly shared by every single other Marvel movie.

This is also the closest that you’re going to see Scarlett Johansson’s [IMDB] Black Widow in a well-deserved solo movie. Marvel does have a movie, “Captain Marvel”, with a solo female lead planned for 2018, but Black Widow is a known, bankable character right now. The lack of a dedicated movie is questionable to say the least. In any case, Johansson is a highlight, as always.

While other movies are laying the groundwork for the eventual space-based “Infinity War” story-line, this meets the challenge of driving the Earth-based plot forward. Working as a sequel to both “The Avengers” and the first “Captain America” it combines the best of both into a consummate summer blockbuster.

In Conclusion

The state of Marvel movies seems, for the moment, as bright as it ever was. Each of the three studios seems to be doing what’s best for their respective characters and none of their current efforts are disappointing. The future holds even more. It’s likely we’ll see no less than three or four major motion pictures based on Marvel characters for at least the next three years.

As noted, Marvel Studios has released detailed information about their “Phase III” releases which see them releasing two or three blockbusters a year all the way through 2018. Sony and Marvel have come to terms with Spider-Man which puts all of Sony’s other efforts with the character in question, but Fox has a reboot of “Fantastic Four” and half-a-dozen “X-Men” films in the extended pipeline.

This, of course, doesn’t include DC Comics extremely large stable of planned releases and renewed interest independent characters and properties such as the proven “Hell Boy”, “Men in Black”, “Kick-ass”, “Judge Dredd” and many others. This also doesn’t include the literally dozens of comic book properties on, or headed to, television.

This brings up the obvious question: when is this bubble going to pop? It seems like everybody has an opinion on the matter. Most of them aren’t good. They point to the previous boom eras of musicals, westerns and noir. They point to the rise and fall of “New Hollywood” and the general decline in theater attendance.

Personally I don’t have an educated opinion on the matter. The doomsayers may be right; they do have history on their side. Or – like comic books themselves – movies may be able to support a large stable of popular characters indefinitely. What does seem sure is that if this bubble is going to burst, it’s going to go out with a bang, not a whimper.

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