MARVEL ON SCREEN
MODERN CINEMA WOULD LOOK VERY DIFFERENT WERE IT NOT FOR THE INNOVATION AND IMAGINATION OF STAN LEE
Charting the (sometimes rocky) cinematic journey of Stan Lee’s creations.
THE FIRST WAS on a beach, as a hot-dog vendor staring open-mouthed at a mutant out for a stroll. The most recent, which is just about to be seen by cinemagoers around the world, is rather meaningful, as a fancy-dress store owner giving advice, and a costume, to a young, confused Spider-man. In between, there were stints as a general, a beauty pageant judge, a postman (twice!), and a school bus driver.
Yes, Stan Lee’s cameos are fun. Partially because Lee was a terrible ham who loved gurning for the camera. And not least because they’re the means by which an entire generation of people who never picked up a Marvel comic know his name, and his face. He’s that old geezer who keeps cropping up in all those Marvel movies, so much so that some bright spark came up with a theory that Lee is an omnipotent being, recasting himself in various movies as a demonstration of his power.
But they’re also important. Especially the cameos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. All 20 of them (and counting — it’s believed Lee had filmed his Captain Marvel and Avengers 4 cameos before he passed; no word yet on Spider-man: Far From Home). Because there didn’t need to be 20 of them, for a start. Kevin Feige and co could have paid Lee lip service with a cameo in Iron Man
(as ‘Himself’, getting mistaken for Hugh Hefner by Tony Stark), and let that be that. But they didn’t. Because the cameos are more than cameos. They’re a way of saying thank you to the man whose vision, and Vision, set out the template which allowed the MCU to change the film industry. Possibly forever.
YOU CAN’T TRACE
every hurricane back to the butterfly whose flapping wings started it off. But in the case of Hollywood and Stan Lee’s seismic impact upon it, we absolutely can. In the early ’60s, Lee, Kirby and Ditko et al were in the middle of that inspired, feverish burst of creative activity, coming up with iconic characters at a dizzying rate. But the big twist was that these characters all lived in the same world, and for the most part, the same city (New York), and could come and go in each other’s lives, and stories, as they placed. This idea of a shared universe wasn’t a particularly new one, but Lee had a golden touch, particularly back then, and a knack for tapping into the zeitgeist. By the time
The Amazing Spider-man launched, in March of 1963, the Jack Kirby/steve Ditko cover featured the friendly neighbourhood wallcrawler surrounded by the Fantastic Four. Inside, the cover blurb promised, “Spider-man Meets The Fantastic Four”. And it made good on that promise.
Just a few months later it was followed by The Avengers, which packaged together The Hulk, Thor, Ant-man and Iron Man like they were a Domino’s meal deal. It went down a storm. Crossovers and cameos became de rigueur, not just for Marvel but the comic book industry as a whole. And, eventually, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When Kevin Feige sat in a room at Comic-con in 2006 and announced tentative plans for the first self-financed films from Marvel Studios, with a series of solo films for characters like Iron Man and Captain America, culminating with The Avengers (Avengers Assemble here), he was drawing directly from the Lee playbook.
That it took almost 40 years to get to that stage speaks volumes about Hollywood’s long, complicated relationship with comic-book movies — and some world-class idiocy into the bargain.
MOVIE STUDIOS WERE
wary, perhaps even suspicious, of comic books. They were bright, garish — y’know, for kids. Now and again, a toe would be dipped tentatively into the water, with varying degrees of success. But even when something would hit really big, as with
1978’s Superman The Movie, the lone canary down the coal mine would invariably not be followed by an opera. Which came as something of a surprise, because Hollywood was nothing if not a town largely devoid of ideas. When something came along that was a licence to print money, even briefly, they tended to run it into the ground. But through the ’60s, ’70s and most of the ’80s, they gave comic-book movies the kind of wide berth Captain America gives sex parties.
Marvel, in particular, really struggled to get its properties onto the big screen. Lee was aware of the potential of the characters he had co-created — ‘The Monster Maker’, that unproduced screenplay he wrote for French director Alain Resnais, came about as a result of meeting with Resnais to discuss a potential Spider-man movie — and, in 1981, having long since stopped writing comic books, relocated to Hollywood in an attempt to get some deals off the ground. It’s fair to say that these endeavours, by Lee and others, were less than successful and, in some cases, disastrous. Without a coherent, cogent strategy in place, rights to Marvel properties were sold seemingly willy-nilly, almost as if some kind of tombola were involved. For example, the rights to the Fantastic Four were sold to a German producer, Bernd Eichinger, for a paltry $250,000. When the rights were about to lapse back to Marvel, he teamed with Roger Corman for an ultra-cheap FF movie that was so bad, it was never officially released. Those who’ve seen it say that it’s worse than the Josh Trank movie of 2015, which is quite the statement.
Marvel really started getting serious about the movie business in 1993, when the company was acquired by toys giant Toybiz. Avi Arad came aboard, and recognised that Marvel was sitting on a potential goldmine; one which it would be wise to mine itself. Setting up Marvel Entertainment (which became Marvel Studios in 1996), the company started getting involved with adaptations of its properties. The snowball effect was almost immediate. In 1998, Blade became the first Marvel character to get his own movie, via New Line. That did well enough to convince Fox to finally take a gamble on X-men, that weird line of comics they’d had the rights to since 1994. When the first X-men movie opened in 2000, complete with Stan Lee cameo, and grossed $300 million worldwide, that quickly begat Sam Raimi’s record-breaking Spider-man, complete with another Stan Lee cameo, over at Sony. Which in turn begat Daredevil and Fantastic Four (a releasable one) at Fox, Ghost Rider at Sony, Hulk at Universal, and more. Many, many more. The comic-book movie, after years of derision, was having its day. But still, something wasn’t quite right. ESSENTIALLY, THE PROBLEM
was that the rights to major Marvel characters had been dotted around town. And while there were tentative talks at having the Fantastic Four, including a young actor called Chris Evans, cameo in an X-men movie, or vice versa, that was about it as far as emulating Lee’s utopian ideal of a shared universe went. You can almost imagine the screams of frustration from Marvel HQ at the great opportunities gone begging to do something truly groundbreaking.
Again, shared universes, where characters from one movie flit in and out of another movie that isn’t necessarily a sequel, aren’t new to cinema. Just ask Kevin Smith, or Quentin Tarantino. But Marvel saw a chance to cultivate by far the most ambitious. After an internal shuffle that saw Arad depart, with his number two, Kevin Feige, stepping into the hot seat, Marvel Studios announced that slate of films: Iron Man, Captain America, a new Hulk film, and Thor. To most of Hollywood, they were second-tier characters, nuts they had found difficult or almost
impossible to crack, with the rights reverting to Marvel in most cases. But Feige and his team were confident of the power of these characters. And you know the rest. From the moment Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury casually gatecrashed the very, very end of Iron Man, the modern movie landscape changed forever.
Yet, it’s easy to forget how easily it could all have gone wrong; how it could have crashed down around Feige’s ears had even one of those early movies gone badly wrong. Instead, they trusted in the characters they had — each one of which was co-created by Stan Lee — and kept faith in the course they were setting. Which was something that had never been attempted before — a multi-part narrative, unfolding over many years, with each new instalment informed and enhanced by what had come before. And all of it built on the platform provided by Stan Lee. The success of the MCU, which eventually attracted a $4 billion takeover from Disney in 2009, has been a validation of all those who felt, like Lee, that superheroes could work on the big screen. And what a success it has been — last year alone, two movies in the MCU, Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, passed the billion-dollar mark, and shaped the cultural narrative for months. The latter, in fact, became just the fourth movie in history to gross $2 billion.
There are those, of course, who see Marvel Studios and the MCU as the epitome of everything that’s wrong with modern blockbusters, particularly as Feige and his team make groundbreaking deals like the one that brought Spider-man, ensconced firmly at Sony, into the MCU. Or, indeed, Disney’s multi-billion takeover of 20th Century Fox, which opens the door to the X-men being incorporated into the MCU, and further world domination. They rail against the homogenisation of mass entertainment, and lay the blame for all the copycat shared universes and interlinked franchises that have sprung up in its wake. But that almost wilfully ignores the creative success of these movies. Funny, thrilling, laced with great character work, a Marvel Studios movie (important distinction: not to be confused with movies made “in association with” Marvel Studios, like Venom) is as surefire a guarantee of a good time at the movies as it’s possible to get. In just ten years, Marvel Studios has gone from being Hollywood’s great gamble (putting Iron Man on the cover of Empire in 2008 was by no means a sure thing) to transforming the business. Throw a rock in Hollywood, and chances are you’ll hit someone working on a shared universe, desperately trying to unlock the secrets of Marvel Studios’ 11 herbs and spices.
Very few of those have even come close to emulating Marvel’s success, though. And frankly, blaming Marvel Studios for the mistakes made by, say, the DCEU or Universal’s much-ballyhooed and then quietly shuttered Dark Universe — two examples of shared universes that tried to copy the Marvel model without really understanding it, or first laying the groundwork — is as futile as blaming George Lucas or Steven Spielberg for the way Star Wars and Jaws changed the blockbuster landscape in the 1970s.
Yet the MCU is now at an interesting juncture in its development. With the first decade under its belt, and next April’s Avengers 4 promising an end to so many storylines, and with it the last Stan Lee cameo, the future is uncertain for the first time in a long while. It seems inevitable that new characters will be introduced, new franchises launched, new ground broken. But whatever happens, it all stems from, and honours, the legacy of Stan Lee; the man who, 55 years ago, put a team of cosmic-powered superheroes into the same room as a teenage boy who’d been bitten by a spider and — eventually — changed the world.
Previous spread: Robert Downey Jr, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, Rocket Raccoon and Stan Lee in 2017. This page, top to bottom:Hugh Jackman in 2003’s X-men 2; Lee greets Chris Evans (Cap!) at Comic-con 2011; Ryan Reynolds reclines as Deadpool in 2016; Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Okoye (Danai Gurira) in this year’s game-changing Black Panther.
This page, top to bottom: AvengersAssemble in 2012, including Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man; Tobey Maguire slings his web in Sam Raimi’s 2004 Spider-man; Lee dressed as a postman for his Fantastic Four cameo in 2005, with Michael Chiklis (Thing); 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War: Wong (Benedict Wong), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Tony Stark (Downey Jr).