By Great Odin’s Raven did Thor: The Dark World clean up at the U.S. box office this weekend. With yesterday’s early estimates coming in at $86.1 million, it appears that Thor now has the most successful Marvel Studios film NOT featuring Iron Man. Surely, this should be call for celebration and thunderous applause all around, yet some fans are becoming increasingly divided on the Norse event. If one dares to clutch their Mjölnir tight and venture to the realm of Internet fandom, an obvious line of contention is building. Not unlike the reaction to Iron Man 3, fans find themselves arguing whether the movie could have been more with a longer cut of a scene here, a darker tone there or more of a villain’s screentime in the film’s brisk 112 minutes. But I would daresay that both movies delivered exactly what they were supposed to do. For the beauty of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, besides simply pulling off the logistical nightmare of a multi-franchise marketing behemoth, is its near seamless level of quality control. While everyone will have their favorite Marvel Studios film, and their least favorite Marvel movie, these flicks still are operating essentially on the same wavelength. Fans who wanted an inter-connected superhero universe have gotten it by Marvel doing what Disney has always done: Promising that the next hamburger will be more or less the same as the last one. And for brand-building, it’s brilliant. That is not to negatively say that Marvel movies are fast food. But similar to that business model, a certain level of reliability or sameness is required. You should know that your McDonald’s Big Mac will taste the same whether in California or Illinois, and that your Wendy’s Frosty will be just as sweet in Manhattan as it is in Sheboygan. Likewise, Marvel Studios is offering the same guaranteed comfort of controlled quality that any family looking for universal entertainment can depend upon. If your kids enjoyed The Avengers, then they’ll probably get a kick out of Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World or Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And for the longevity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this is a good thing. It has always been part of the plan, long before Marvel joined Disney. In May 2008, Marvel Studios shocked Hollywood conventional wisdom when Iron Man rocketed off to a $102.1 million opening weekend, making him the first non-Bat, Spider, or X-branded superhero to achieve such high honors. That same weekend, Marvel Studios Chairman David Maisel, the man who helped push Avi Arad out, gushed:
“We’re lucky to have the powerful Marvel brand that is loved, not just in comics. Like Pixar, it stands for something. It’s quality family entertainment, and we have a fan base that spreads virally. Now, we have complete creative control.”That soundbyte is both ironic and prophetic for multiple reasons. At the time, Marvel Studios was still a cushy upstart primarily at Paramount Pictures, though they would partner later that summer with Universal Pictures to release The Incredible Hulk, and were nary a proton blast near the House of Mouse. Yet Maisel, the man who purportedly first started speaking with Disney about a merger (which would eventually end with him being pushed out of Marvel too), obviously had Disney’s harmonious branding guarantee on his mind. This was for good reason. Over the course of nearly a century, The Walt Disney Company has built its brand beautifully around multiple, velvety intellectual properties (IPs). The purity of one of the nation’s six great multi-national media conglomerates is that it relies on appealing, well-defined characters and stories that can grab universal attention like a thunderbolt to the collective zeitgeist time and again. As current Disney Chair and CEO Bob Iger once explained to Walter Isaccson, biographer of Steve Jobs, “A hit animated film is a big wave, and the ripples go down to every part of our business—from characters in a parade, to music, to parks, to video games, TV, Internet, consumer products. If I don’t have wave makers, the company is not going to succeed.” This itself is a perfect description of the Marvel Studios model, even before Iger’s tenure as Disney CEO included the acquisition of Marvel Entertainment (as well as eventually Lucasfilm Ltd.); Marvel was emulating the Pixar, and by extension Disney, business model. In the early 1980s, when Disney was failing to create hit animated films and instead found itself subjugated by rival Don Bluth Productions (started by a renegade animator who left Walt Disney Animation Studios), there was some talk about dissolving the company’s role in the film business, particularly in regards to animation. This culminated when corporate raider Saul Steinberg attempted to buy The Walt Disney Company, break it up, and sell the pieces. Roy E. Disney, nephew of Walt, reacted by resigning from the Board of Directors, and bringing in Paramount wunderkind Michael Eisner. To quote the younger Disney from the Waking Sleeping Beauty documentary, “The real heartbeat of this company was, is, and will always be the film business…Somewhere along the line [I] began hearing things like, ‘Well, I don’t really think they want to stay in the movie business, because it’s not doing very well, and we don’t really need it anyway.’ And that gave me all sorts of problems, because I remember saying at one point, ‘Well if you really think that way, what you’re doing is running a museum.’” Roy Disney invited in Eisner as CEO and Frank Wells as COO, thus also bringing along Jeffrey Katzenberg to run the Motion Picture Division. Under their new stewardship, the company eventually found a winning formula for its animation studios when lyricist, writer, and stage director Howard Ashman, along with musical composing collaborator Alan Menken, discovered marrying classic Disney musical fairy tale tropes, as birthed by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), with the modern Broadway musical formula equaled a new kind of Disney magic and enormous success. When Ashman’s leading lady, a mermaid named Ariel, belted “Part of Your World” in The Little Mermaid, a Disney Renaissance was ignited. One where the animators were finally treated as real talent again, and hand drawn animation was once more the star of the Disney business plan. Over the course of a decade, roughly 1989 to 1999, Disney produced nearly a dozen films of tight unity and collaborative success that utilized that winning production line mentality coupled with wrist-breaking artistry, giving the world a Mermaid, a Beauty and the Beast worthy of a Best Picture nomination, and The Lion King, the latter of which is still considered by many (including myself) as the pinnacle of hand-drawn animated features. Eventually this era sputtered out by the end of the 1990s for many debatable reasons, but it should not be overlooked that over that time span Ashman tragically died of AIDS, Frank Wells too lost his life in a helicopter crash, and Katzenberg eventually left Disney after being passed over as COO, going on to co-found DreamWorks. But in the wake of the Disney Renaissance’s end, and the studio’s supposed second decline, another company was ready to fill the void. Pixar, co-founded by former Disney animator John Lasseter who was fired for proposing a CGI-animated film, had come home in many ways when Lasseter, and fellow co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs, enticed Disney into collaborating with their company for a three-picture deal. After years of turmoil, the first effort was Toy Story (1995), which again revolutionized a new Disney formula that lasted long past 1999. If the Renaissance films promised audiences an easy-to-relate fairy tale with catchy musical numbers and a sweet romance, Pixar promised original stories that subtly took previously existing genres (buddy cop comedies, romantic comedies, dysfunctional family comedies) and dressed them up in wholly unusual scenarios made only possible through animation. And these stories were told with an absolute clarity in theme, allowing each and every frame to build to an emotionally cohesive center in an earnest third act finale. Pixar offered a family-friendly masterpiece of catharsis nearly every time out for over a decade, which in its own way has directly influenced the Marvel model. While I would not say that Marvel strives for the emotional depths of Pixar—or for that matter the best efforts of the Disney Renaissance—the studio is still informed by Pixar’s ability to have complete brand control over its product where no one could fiddle with their visions. Indeed, that approach became engraved in stone after Jobs essentially ousted Eisner from Disney. Eisner, who had turned on Roy Disney by the early 2000s, resented the enviable success Pixar had every time at bat while Walt Disney Animation Studios floundered in the new century with films like Treasure Planet and Brother Bear. Indeed, the production war stories behind Emperor’s New Groove are infamous. Eventually, it leaked to The Los Angeles Times, much to Pixar (and Jobs’) chagrin that Eisner thought Pixar was little more than a magical genie whose three wishes were up. When speaking of the forthcoming Finding Nemo, Eisner wrote, “Yesterday we saw for the second time the new Pixar movie, Finding Nemo, that comes out next May….This will be a reality check for those guys. It’s okay, but nowhere near as good as their previous films.” Due in part to his frosty relationship with Jobs over iTunes, and largely because Pixar could leave Disney in the ensuing years, Eisner wrongfully assumed Pixar was in the decline in 2002. Finding Nemo went on to gross over $900 million worldwide the following summer, making it the most successful animated film of all time (toppling The Lion King). Disney investors sensed danger in the air if they lost Pixar, as Eisner’s feud with Jobs was heading the companies toward, while all of Pixar feared leaving characters like Buzz Lightyear and Little Nemo in the hands of a company that already tried (and failed) to make a DTV Toy Story 2 movie. The ultimate result of this clash, as well as a number of other factors, was Eisner being thrown out, and Disney buying Pixar while making Jobs majority shareholder for the overall company and Lasseter overseer of feature animation. When incoming CEO Iger talked about making this deal in a post-Eisner world, he explained that when visiting the grand opening of Disneyland in Hong Kong that “a light bulb went off.” He told Isaacson, “I’m standing next to Michael [Eisner], but I kept it completely to myself, because it was such an indictment of his stewardship of animation during that period. After ten years of The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, there were then ten years of nothing.” Iger realized that since 1994, Disney failed to produce iconic IPs that audiences could adore (though Eisner oversaw the late 20th century rejuvenation of Disney). Meanwhile Pixar WAS Disney to much of the global audience. The solution? Buy Pixar for $7.5 billion. Despite initial Wall Street humbuggery, the savvy answer created a new business model for Disney over the next decade, including when they purchased Marvel Entertainment for $4.2 billion in 2009 and Lucasfilm for $4 billion in 2012. In the wake of the Marvel decision, even after The Avengers became the third highest grossing film of all time, Bernstein Research’s Todd Juenger could only coolly admit that it was a good deal (but not a great one) after initially dismissing the purchase. Yet, when one looks at the Marvel Netflix rollout, as well as Iron Man 3’s box office returns—all preludes to a “Phase 3” and toy and ‘toons marketing beyond—methinks that this “analysis” could change in the foreseeable future. So, there were really two major reasons for Disney to become interested in Marvel circa 2009: Iron Man. The film that launched Marvel Studios as a stunning success in 2008, and still serves as the face of the studio, now essentially stands as Disney’s outreach to the young boy demographic. This is not to discredit the likes of Kevin Feige, current president of production of Marvel Studios and multi-phase mastermind, but I wonder if the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe would have looked different if Robert Downey Jr. and Jon Favreau were not the first out of the gate. For whether Downey’s Tony Stark is your favorite Marvel character or your least, he is clearly the posterboy of the MCU. Indeed, while I have my favorite Marvel Studios film (The Avengers) and my least (Iron Man 2), they are all examples of the same base line being followed with varying success: Robert Downey Jr. The reformed bad boy is that base line, and his performance in Iron Man gave the new studio its voice and a global audience its expectations. Dry, sardonic, peppy, and a bit mischievous, Downey is still the only movie superhero who audiences prefer seeing more out of the costume than in (which works wonders on a budget). Further, it is not his sparring with bad guys Obadiah Stane or Ivan Vanko that audiences recall with fondness. Hell, only card-carrying geeks will know who those two people are (Jeff Bridges and Mickey Rourke…remember?). No, the highlights of the Iron Man films have perpetually been Downey’s verbal wit-matching with the buttoned-down exasperation of Gwyneth Paltrow as a character ready to explode at any moment (quite literally in Iron Man 3). It was a winning approach that audiences responded to in a big way in 2008 and 2010, as opposed to the warmed over Bill Bixby half-an-attempt in The Incredible Hulk. And every Marvel Studios film has since been a riff on that performance. Like Pixar, Marvel has complete brand control and knows what the public wants from their stable, and they have been giving us exactly that. While none of the romantic leads in Marvel Studios’ other films have quite the Howard Hawks-esque screwball charm of Downey and Paltrow, they are all based on wit and humor bouncing off each other. The villains are all rather disposable and decidedly unthreatening, often leading to third acts that serve more as perfunctory and foregone conclusions than hard won battles. Even the only performance I would contend that matches the brilliance of Downey in the entire Marvel canon, Tom Hiddleston’s villainous Loki, is more anti-hero buffoon than threatening menace at this point. Even Joss Whedon’s staggeringly good Avengers, which spends most of its running time riffing on these disparate personalities bickering like half-a-dozen Downeys, freely admits that Loki has too little conviction to be frightening in his “puny” tantrums. Consider this week that Loki lost an argument with an elementary schooler in a TV spot. Quick villain litmus test: Can you imagine that happening to Heath Ledger’s Joker, Ian McKellen’s Magneto, or Tom Hardy’s Bane? But it doesn’t matter that he is not intimidating. He is played with such joy and devious delight by Hiddleston that the fun Loki is radiating is infectious. Somewhere between the box office receipts of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, Marvel Studios realized which direction their brand needed to head for maximum appeal, and they have reached that point with much gusto. Marvel Studios and Disney are a PERFECT match and have shown a great ability of streamlining all visuals, performances and directorial flourishes to match that first Iron Man film. Of course, The Mandarin was not going to be a Nolan-esque terrorist and Thor: The Dark World would never have the grandeur (or pretension) of a Peter Jackson fantasy. Those elements cause too much variation and otherness. Yes, some movies will inevitably be better than others, but just because one director put too much ketchup on the newest hamburger doesn’t mean that the recipe is bad. As for Thor: The Dark World, I rather enjoyed it, because it was right in line with every other single Marvel Studios film. I still found it rather middling in that bunch, failing to reach the heights of The Avengers or Iron Man, but avoiding the pratfalls of Iron Man 2, so I left entertained after getting exactly what the Marvel logo post-2008 has promised. In fact, the worst elements were the least-Marvel Studios influenced scenes. The Lord of the Rings inspired prologue fell flat and lacked the majesty or menace of a Peter Jackson opener while the villain, a wasted Christopher Eclesston as Malekith, who was so obtusely Other that they could have cut him completely in favor of the voiceless grunting bad guy running around. Conversely, the humor and popcorn expectations landed precisely as they came out of a well-oiled machine that has been chugging along for over five years. Chris Hemsworth got to be cheekier than before as Thor, particularly in his rom-com segues with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) that came far too rarely, while the “Scooby gang” (Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgard, Jonathan Howard) felt very in line with “godfather” Whedon’s sense of humor from his TV days with their constant one-liners and praftfalls. I would even go so far as to say that Thor: The Dark World has the best third act of any solo-hero Marvel film to date, because it gave up all pretense of suspense for madcap wackiness, such as Dennings’ Darcy making out with her nameless intern while an Ice Monster terrorizes downtown London, and Thor gets warped into the Underground where he is forced to take the metro. Suspenseful? Hardly. But at least it wisely went with what was working for the movie, which is more than I can say for the climaxes of the Iron Man trilogy or Captain America: The First Avenger. Obviously, the best element of the Thor sequel is Hiddleston as Loki. They even reshot sequences in the film to give him more to do. And if you stayed for the end, you know that (SPOILER) Loki does not die, because he is just too entertaining to kill. This sort of comic book revelation, where a character previously thought dead is in fact alive, may undercut a dramatic scene from earlier, but these are not standalone pieces of cinema. They are a mass-produced, inter-connected series of comic book stories. That was the most “comic book” styled death and retcon yet, which is all the more fitting for a blockbuster that imagines mainstream audiences could care about who The Collector is or what The Infinity Gems might do. This seralized, nearly television-like distributed nuggets (hence directors like Alan Taylor and the Russo brothers) allows for intense quality control, which is all the more impressive given the speed with which these films are produced and in a live-action medium that lacks less control than animation. Disney in the 1990s was unparalleled at offering high quality family entertainment that audiences could trust with predictably stunning visuals and music. Pixar, up until Cars 2 anyway, has promised original stories that only faintly resemble other tropes in an annual sincerity event. However, the animation process is so collaborative and dependent on a uniformed vision, from the animators all the way up to the executives, that there is more of a dependency on a pre-determined voice. Despite churning out Marvel stories more often than Pixar (we’re at two-a-year), and in a medium where directors and writers have far less time to nail down a plot or script but have an increased ability to leave an “auteur” stamp, Marvel’s precise seamlessness from film-to-film is astonishingly impressive. Each film creates the illusion of a new subgenre within the superhero trope (Thor is fantasy, Captain America is spy games), but as an inverse of the Pixar approach, they all feel remarkably the same. Undoubtedly, such precision will likely soon be applied to the Star Wars canon.