Sunday, 27 June 2010

Marvel Musings #1 - the 4-D experience, and the movies so far

This past week I took the Little Dude down to Madame Tussauds to see the Marvel Superheroes 4-D show. While the £28 entrance fee (yes, TWENTY EIGHT POUNDS for ONE ADULT) was a bit of a shocker, it was still a fun experience. As well as being able to get up close and personal with some wax effigies of some of the Marvel greats (in their movie guises, unsurprisingly), there was the '4-D' show itself: a short CG cartoon projected onto a planetarium-like screen above tilted seats, in digital 3-D, the fourth dimension coming through some William Castle-ish extras: a gust of wind in your face as Spidey swoops by or Iron Man lets rip a repulser blast; a fine spray of water when something crashes into a fountain, or when Hulk sneezes!; and perhaps most alarmingly, a sharp three-pronged nudge in the back of the seat when Wolverine goes SNIKT! And at the end of it all, a Marvel dedicated section in the gift shop, just in case you hadn't parted with enough cash already. But am I complaining? Absolutely not. For this will only go further to ensure my son remains a Marvel fanatic. Which, of course, can only be a good thing.

At 3 years old, my boy is already a true believer, it delights me to say. It began, so far as I can tell, from the simple gift of a backpack adorned with the image of the Superhero Squad, the toddler-oriented incarnation of all the Marvel greats. First, he insisted he be allowed to take that bag EVERYWHERE. Now he's a reader of the monthly Marvel Heroes comic, picks out his Marvel-related Tshirts anytime we le him choose his clothes, and breaks out the obligatory beg-and-plead-then-throw-huge-tantrum-when-we-say-no routine anytime he sees Marvel toys in a shop. He can name most of the most significant characters, secret identities and all, and he's always eager to learn more. The sheer size of the pantheon - the amount of knowledge there is to be consumed - is, I'm sure, what keeps him hungry for it. I'm sure that's how it works for anyone who becomes a big-time fan. At the present time his favourites are the Fantastic Fourin large part because theirs are the only Marvel movies we'll let him watch just yet; they're more kid-friendly than their peers, after all. But, although those films are not unjustly derided, I must admit I've warmed to them to a certain extent, thanks largely to the guy who has become the Little Dude's favourite superhero: The Human Torch, as wonderfully brought to life by Chris Evans. As such, the Dude was a little disappointed not to see a wax effigy of Evans - perhaps we'll have to wait until after Captain America for one of those. But in the meantime, he was happy enough to come close to the image of Jessica Alba's Invisible Woman.*

Such an event (and the aforementioned abundance of Marvel merchandise on the market right now) does of course give one pause to consider just how far Marvel has come as a brand this past decade. We've long since become accustomed to regularly getting new superhero movies, and while not all movies have lived up to expectations, most have at least been notable. With this in mind, here in brief are my thoughts on the past, present and future of the major Marvel franchises so far.

Where it all began. It's easy to forget now what an uncertain thing X-Men was back in 2000. Sure, the characters were beloved by comic fans, but they were considerably less familiar to the world at large; nor were there any major players to speak of in the movie, Bryan Singer being untested in blockbuster territory, Hugh Jackman being a complete unknown, even Halle Berry not yet much of a celebrity. But the subsequent movie rocked the world with its inspired casting (McKellen as Magneto - just wonderful), and near-flawless balance of four-colour thrills and sophisticated characterisations and subtext. X2 proceeded to surpass the first film in pretty much every respect, before Singer jumped ship and the series took a nosedive the likes of which we hadn't seen in superhero movies since Superman reached part 3. (No, I don't consider Schumacher's Batman movies so great a travesty, as frankly I don't think Burton's were all that good to begin with.) I understand the contempt that a lot of fans hold for 20th Century Fox due to their mishandling of this series, and their apparent lack of concern over the quality of the Fantastic Four and Daredevil movies (that is, classing Elektra as a semi-sequel). While I'd certainly sooner the rights to all these characters reverted back to Marvel, it's certainly encouraging that Matthew Vaughan is on board for X-Men: First Class. There should be no doubt in anyone's mind after Kick-Ass that he can deliver a great superhero movie; the question is whether he will be granted the artistic freedom to do so. After all, it seems likely that the lack of such freedom was what lead Vaughan to walk away from X3.

Surely the one that audiences worldwide were most anxious to see; indeed, the movie that resulted in the BBFC caving in to public demand and amending the 12 certificate to 12A, therefore allowing parents to take in young children in the line with the MPAA's PG-13. The presence of Sam Raimi gave the geek faithful further cause for optimism, and by and large that optimisim was well rewarded. The movies do suffer a little from relentless CG overload and an overabundance of dreadfully saccharine dialogue courtesy of Aunt May and the romantic scenes between Peter and MJ, and of course Spider-Man 3 has significant, well-noted problems. But Tobey Maguire fit Peter Parker like a glove, and Raimi brought a wonderful air of unreality to proceedings, clearly getting the heightened tone of all the best superhero comics. While I was not in the least shocked when Raimi quit part 4 and thus Maguire and Dunst followed suit, I remain perplexed by the decision to re-boot. I still haven't seen 500 Days of Summer so I have no idea what to expect of new director Marc Webb, but given how slow news has been to come out of this regarding script, casting and so forth, it seems like all concerned are to a certain extent taking their time. And that's a good thing. I'm not against a back to square one approach if it's done right, although I don't see why it couldn't work to continue the existing narrative if they follow the example of...

Ang Lee's Hulk was the first major misfire of the new wave of superhero movies. Well-meaning but sadly misjudged, it was entirely too dour and self-important for a movie about an angry green giant and the absurdity of the final scenes was almost Ed Wood-worthy. That Louis Letterier's The Incredible Hulk chose not to reboot but rather broadly continue from where the earlier film left off was a bold but brilliant move. We don't need all these movies to tell the origin story; these characters are so deep in our collective cultural consciousness, all we need is a quick bringing up to speed - as the first few minutes of Letterier's film does - and we're away. Ed Norton did a fine job, and I truly hope he winds up coming back for The Avengers; I'm given to understand he's the only player over whom there remains a question mark. And though it's nigh-on impossible to believe the director of The Transporter would do a better job than the director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it goes to show you never can tell. Also goes a long way to proving that Marvel's somewhat off-the-wall choices in directors tends to pay off, as was of course ably demonstrated by...

Again, people seem to forget that this movie - Marvel's biggest gamble to date, given that it was the first property produced independently by Marvel Studios - was by no means a sure-fire hit. Not only was it not one of the most well-known or well-loved characters, but also it was the first time Jon Favreau had handled such a sizeable production, and leading man Robert Downey Jr had still yet to escape the shadow of the drug problems that almost ended his career. But the rest is history: thanks to a great script, Farveau paying as much attention to the actors as the action, and RDJ oozing charisma and making it nigh-on impossible to imagine anyone else portraying Tony Stark, Iron Man wound up being quite possibly the finest Marvel movie yet made. And I must say that I'm completely bemused by the mixed reaction Iron Man 2 recieved. Not only does it stand head and shoulders above the mediocre tentpole action movies to come out of Hollywood thus far in 2010 - yes, Clash of the Titans and Prince of Persia, I'm looking in your direction - to my mind Iron Man 2 is every bit as good as the original, if not better. Once again, it brilliantly balances out the kind of spectacular action the summer market demands with a level of sophistication in the writing and acting that the blockbuster season is considerably less accustomed too. Look at all the scenes between RDJ and Sam Rockwell; how Stark and Hammer's obvious contempt for one another is masked by an air of joviality. Look at the unsentimental manner in which Stark's descent into self-destructive behaviour is handled. Revel in that final act: Iron Man and War Machine side by side battling the drone army, breaking out the heavy artillery. And that hilarious stick-it-to-the-man epilogue: beautiful. Why anyone was disappointed is beyond me. I dunno - perhaps Mickey Rourke is not given as much to do as we might like, but then neither was Jeff Bridges in the original. And maybe Scarlett Johansson's performance is a little flat, but - let's not be coy - the rest of her isn't. Hubba hubba.

So what of the future of Marvel? With Ken Branagh's Thor and Joe Johnston's Captain America coming in the next year, we're not going to be given much time to catch our breath between superhero movies - and then, at long last, it'll be time for The Avengers. Eyebrows were raised when Joss Whedon was announced as director, presumably from people who forget what a gamble the likes of Singer and Favreau were. And there remains the practical concern over a) whether a movie bringing together so many iconic superhero characters will be able to share the spotlight equally, and b) whether or not the whole thing will wind up a bit cheesy. Sure, these characters have always stepped in and out of one another's stories in the comics, but there are less examples of such crossovers in movies: might Freddy Vs Jason and the Alien Vs Predator movies soured audience taste for such an experiment?

Speaking for myself, I say bring it on. The more the merrier. The Marvel pantheon is timeless, ageless, in its own way transcendental; it may have originated in comic form, but its appeal stretches so much further. As such, pretty much every property is screaming for big screen interpretation. This is something I'll be writing more about in days to come - what has been, what may be, what was done right and what was done wrong - so keep an eye out for more Marvel Musings here at Ka-Boomski! Until then, keep the faith true believers. Excelsior. And so on and so forth.

*And, of course, so was Daddy.


  1. See what you're doing to Sue Storm there? I did that to Tony Stark. A lot. :D

    Great write up of the films, I adored Iron Man 2 as well, I really can't comprehend the bad press it seemed to attract.

    The Little Dude is adorable, too! And I agree with him - Fantastic Four are ace! :)

  2. I take it that was RDJ in his Sherlock Holmes guise? Can't imagine Iron Man bum is too good for squeezing. =)

    Madame Tussauds needs more movie stars dressed as their famous characters. If they'd had Johnny Depp dressed as Jack Sparrow, Little Dude would've have gone ballistic. In a good way. (And, of course, I agree - he is adorable!)