MAR­VEL ON SCREEN

MOD­ERN CIN­EMA WOULD LOOK VERY DIF­FER­ENT WERE IT NOT FOR THE IN­NO­VA­TION AND IMAG­I­NA­TION OF STAN LEE

Empire (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS CHRIS HE­WITT POR­TRAIT JA­SON BELL

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).

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