Downfall of a Dynasty

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Downfall of a Dynasty
By Mother Brain

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About 20 years ago, I must have been the biggest Marvel Comic fanatic on my block. This was back in the day when comic shops were popping up everywhere and I was always yearning for the next issue of Spider-Man, X-Men, Punisher, etc. I was obsessed with grabbing a hold of every Marvel Universe trading card until I finished the entire set plus the hologram cards. Even the action figures had just started up through Toy Biz with both the Marvel Super Heroes and X-Men toy lines in the early 90s. But the one thing I yearned for the most was to see these characters hit the big screen.

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Today, comic book movies are being pumped out yearly by the major studios. Although DC’s Superman and Batman franchises kicked off the genre in the 80s and early 90s, the technology was not available to make the comic panels truly translate to the screen. Nor were the studios taking the avid fans seriously since they’re all about ranking in millions of dollars off the merchandise alone. Then Marvel got their act together in the late 90s after years of bad development deals and legal ramblings and finally put out two of their prized characters to live action form: 2000’s X-Men and 2002’s Spider-Man.

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For now, I won’t dwell into how accurate those two films were to their comic counterparts. What they (and most specifically their 2nd installments) shared were strong cinematic visionaries like Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi who emphasized quality storytelling and character development over spectacular visual effects. Both films cast at-the-time non-movie stars like Hugh Jackman and Tobey Maguire who embodied the characters of Wolverine and Spider-Man respectfully and could also humanize them so they were more than just cool drawings on paper. Today, one can criticize every flaw in these films. But who was not feeling like a kid when they first saw Jackman as Wolverine unleashed his claws? Or when Maguire as Spider-Man swung high above NYC and fought the Green Goblin? These were the qualities that made these films special.

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Then the initial downturn began around 2003 when Marvel began pumping out every other character in their universe: Daredevil, Hulk, Punisher, Electra, Fantastic Four, and Ghost Rider. Some were more entertaining than others. But the quality of these films suffered due to hack directors (except Ang Lee who was just wrong for directing Hulk), miscasting, non-effective creative demands by the major studios, and 2nd rate scripts that were more about wowing audiences with 2,000+ visual effects shots than giving them quality stories. Things only took a turn for the worse when Bryan Singer dropped out of X-Men 3 to do Superman Returns and Brett Ratner took his place for what would be a disappointing final entry to the franchise. A year later, Sam Raimi released Spider-Man 3 with one too many villains, subplots, and dorky dark humor which let most fans down. Again, some blamed the studios while others pointed their fingers at the filmmakers themselves for selling out.

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While Marvel was forced to regain their focus, DC under Warner Bros. seemed to be rising from the ashes of failure from 1997’s 90 minute gay joke, Batman and Robin, when they hired Christopher Nolan of Memento fame to direct Batman Begins, a complete reboot of the Batman movie mythology starring Christian Bale. The expectations back in 2005 were mediocre at most. But when it was released that summer, Batman Begins was a welcome triumph for comic book fans and moviegoers alike. What Nolan did with Begins and its even bigger sequel, The Dark Knight, unlike most superhero franchises was to take the character and place him in a real world setting without all the fantastical gimmicks and villains that audiences were accustomed to in the comics as well as cartoon adaptations; however, Batman’s success did not translate well for Warner’s Superman reboot which despite Bryan Singer’s homage to the original Richard Donner 1978 film was not so well executed with audiences who felt that the character was long since dated. Even their upcoming Green Lantern adaptation starring Ryan Reynolds is generating a mixed reaction on the basis of the trailer. The success or failure of that film could well determine the fate of movie adaptations like Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Arrow, and even the often discussed Justice League film.

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Marvel would eventually take the next big step in their film production efforts by forming their own independent production company, Marvel Studios, with distribution rights initially handled by Paramount Pictures and soon to be Disney. Their first big effort, 2008’s Iron Man, showed a great deal of promise for what was to come. By not succumbing to the demands of a studio, Marvel was able to faithfully adapt one of their long running but less popular characters armed with a highly talented director (Jon Favreau) and took a chance on a once troubled actor turned unlikely movie superstar named Robert Downey Jr. The success of Iron Man (and the so-so success of the Incredible Hulk reboot with Edward Norton) was a good indication that the Marvel Universe would finally be expanded on film and with adaptations of Thor and Captain America on the way, an Avengers film is very close to reality.

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But now I foresee a problem and it’s more than a Disney one. With the Avengers film getting closer to its 2012 release date, questions are already being raised about the future for Marvel movies past Avengers. Will audiences be willing to pay to see these characters in their respective sequels when they’ve already paid once price to see them all in one film? Will the reality that Favreau set up in Iron Man blend well with the rest of the Marvel characters as they get into intergalactic worlds and alien super villains (i.e. Secret Wars, Infinity Gauntlet, etc.)? Will audiences be willing to pay to see even lesser popular characters like Dr. Strange and Moon Knight on the big screen? Trouble seems to be already lurking ahead when Favreau announced his departure from the 3rd Iron Man sequel due to Marvel’s own uncertainty of the future of its characters past the Avengers film.

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And what about the characters that Marvel has not brought back from the major studios? Fox is looking to reboot Daredevil and Fantastic Four, making them darker and grittier in hopes of pleasing audiences disappointed with the previous lighthearted adaptations. They also have another Wolverine movie under the direction of Black Swan’s Darren Aronofsky which might be a major improvement from the joke that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine as well as X-Men: First Class, the official prequel to the first film. Sony has a sequel/reboot of Ghost Rider in production which still stars the terribly overrated Nicholas Cage who gave a laughable performance in the previous film. Then the one that gets under everyone’s skin is the upcoming Spider-Man reboot starring Andrew Garfield of The Social Network. All we know is that the origin is being retold and the character will be more angst as depicted in the Ultimate Spider-Man comic books. For me, my problem is not removing director Raimi and his cast from the franchise but it is the idea of starting everything from scratch. The first Spider-Man movie is not even 10 years old and every fan post-1962 had waited decades for it to hit screens. The 3rd movie is still relevant having been released 4 years ago. Why reboot now instead of following up a few years later after Spider-Man 3? How can Sony be sure that the response for the reboot will be as strong as the original film or even a reboot like Batman Begins which was vastly different from the Tim Burton 1989 classic?

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My prediction is that by the time Avengers and the Dark Knight Rises are released around 2012, there will be a major downfall in comic book movies. The anticipation level for sequels to these movies will be less than they were in the 2000s, the quality of the films will drop due to executives pushing to get these films done for a fast release date (i.e. Iron Man 2), and then there’s the 3-D gimmick being used for Thor and Captain America that I believe is doing more harm than good for movies in general. In order for any franchise to survive by then, they’ll need to have grade-A scripts, strong directors with a unique vision like Singer, Raimi, Favreau, and Nolan, and breathing space between sequels (i.e. Batman). Give the fans and moviegoers enough of a break so they want to see these films even more. Even more importantly, let Marvel buy all their characters back and have them brought on the screen the right way. DC, under Warner Bros’ control, may well be screwed.

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