Marvel Renaissance: the problem with movie universes

The makers of Marvel Renaissance talk to us about their documentary, the current state of comic book movies and more...

It’s difficult to believe that 20 years ago, pop-culture behemoth Marvel hovered on the brink of oblivion. Brought low by a falling sales and ill-advised business deals, Marvel filed for bankruptcy in 1996, prompting a galactic war between executives from which it almost never recovered.

That 90s wobble is probably a period Marvel would prefer to draw a veil over – something underlined by the reaction French filmmakers Philippe Guedj and Philippe Roure received when they pitched their documentary, Marvel Renaissance. Two self-confessed comic book lovers, the filmmakers had hoped that Marvel would be happy to help them tell the story of how the company survived its darkest hour and emerged, stronger than ever, as a multimedia powehouse in the 21st century.

Instead, Marvel refused to have any involvement, leaving the two Philippes faced with the difficult prospect of making their documentary without official support. What’s resulted is an affectionate yet warts-and-all account of Marvel’s stumble and rise, as told by such interviewess as comic book writers Mark Waid and Mark Millar, executive Avi Arad, who founded Marvel Studios, and Harvey Miller, who gives a wonderfully dry account of the fight that went on for control of the company in the late 1990s.

Made for French television, the documentary has yet to find a distributor on DVD, or a television station to air it elsewhere in the world. But as Marvel Renaissance made its international debut at the Glasgow Film Festival, Guedj and Roure are hopeful that the positive social media buzz around the documentary will see it picked up very soon.

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We sat down with the filmmakers the day after its first screening, where the conversation covered the documentary’s making, the reclusive Marvel Entertainment CEO Isaac Perlmutter, the current state of comic book movies, and the problem with cinematic universes…

My only criticism was that I wanted it to be longer.

Philippe Guedj: In a perfect world, I think it should have been maybe 70 or 75 minutes long, but like I said yesterday, we really had to respect the initial commissioning, which was 52 minutes long. It has to fit into their schedule.

I know you both said you made this it out of a love for Marvel. You both grew up with the comics. But what did you discover while you were making it? What things came as a surprise to you as you were researching?

PG: One of the things that we definitely learned, that we should have known, is the cult of secrecy at Marvel. And it’s not a surprise, because Marvel is specifically known for its control freakism, and its obsession with secrecy. But then again, it’s the same with every corporation in America, so we should have guessed that when we wrote the first draft for the film. We should have guessed, but it came as a surprise. We really did not expect such a level of, I would say, not hostility but close to hostility.

Like a brick wall, kind of thing.

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PG: Yes, absolutely. And we should have expected that, but we didn’t expect that at all. To answer your question, it’s the one thing we learned about Marvel. The other thing we learned about that universe is something else we underestimated, which is the power of the love for the material from the readers and from the writers.

We really experienced by interviewing these guys, Mark Waid, Mark Millar, we really heard their passion, their dedication, their love for the Marvel universe, specifically. We really experienced the strength and the power of their love and dedication. It’s important to get that, because this passion they show is really at the core of the battle to defend and protect the Marvel heritage.

Philippe Roure: As Philippe says, it wasn’t really a surprise that Marvel didn’t help the documentary, but at the beginning maybe we were naive, but we hoped they would help us. We tried, very early on in the documentary process, to call people by phone who were still executives inside Marvel, and naturally, when we knew that they wouldn’t do the movie, we chose former executives. We didn’t have a choice.

Fortunately, we have Avi Arad, one of the four main characters who was important for the movie, because if we didn’t have one of those four main characters, it would have been impossible to make. It was a real fear we had, not to have one of the four main characters, because we don’t have Ron Perelman, we don’t have Carl Ikan – we tried, but it was not possible to get them – and Ike Perlmutter, obviously, who’s a very mysterious man. He’s invisible. Our executive producer suspects that Ike Perlmutter doesn’t exist. [Laughs]

It’s quite possible.

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PG: Like Robin Masters in Magnum PI or something.

Or Keyser Soze.

PG: Keyser Soze! Absolutely! Actually, that’s a more relevant analogy, because we sense evil in Keyser Soze and there’s also something evil, somehow, about Ike Perlmutter!

PR: He does exist, but there’s only one picture of him on the internet. You won’t find another picture of him except that one taken in the 1980s. 

So in the course of making this, you genuinely didn’t find anything else out about him? Not another photo, nothing?

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PG: Really, no. Maybe some things exist. I must say we limited our research of pictures of him to the web. And we really searched extensively, but we found nothing. We may have missed things, but I’ve never read any article, any direct focus on him – apart from stories that the Hollywood Reporter broke a year or two years ago, about some complaints that had been filed against him by a former Marvel employee over harassment, for instance.

But I think the article had been published in the summer of 2013, while we were shooting Marvel Renaissance, and even the journalist who’d written this article said at some point that Ike Perlmutter is a very secretive guy, there’s no pictures of him, he never gives any interviews, he never allows people to take their picture with him. We found nothing!

Amazing. There was something interesting you said yesterday about the film being a financial thriller, almost. I thought that really came across.

PR: Yes, yes. Absolutely. It was one of the main ideas to do this movie – that it’s a financial thriller in the comics industry. Our references were movies like Wall St or Margin Call or the documentary Inside Job, where there is the participant Harvey Miller, the former Marvel lawyer. He’s in Inside Job, too. The story in itself was something that was larger than life, like the movies we like – Once Upon A Time In America. You’re talking about the story of these two guys, Ike Perlmutter and Avi Arad, who arrived with nothing and became big businessmen. Their dreams came true, they’re at the top. It’s this typical American story, and that was important for us.

PG: Mark Waid says that it’s a typical David against Goliath story, with all the mythical and iconic imagery. I have a French word in my mind that I can’t translate into English – resonance.

Yeah, resonance. We have that word!

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PG: Resonance, okay. We played with that a lot in our interviews. Hence the shot where you see during the Mark Waid interview, of the Galactus toy with Silver Surfer [in his hand]. That was to illustrate the David against Goliath dimension to the story.

PR: We tried to work with iconic images in moments were the subjects talked.

It works, definitely. Going back to the financial thing, what I thought was interesting was, the 90s part of the Marvel story is about a bubble bursting, isn’t it?

PG: Absolutely.

They put the price of the comics up, Marvel was floated on the stock market, and so it was speculative, and then it collapsed. Without getting too political, it’s as though capitalism never learns from its own past. Because that’s pretty much what happened with the financial market in 2008.

PG: That’s what’s interesting about this story. There are so many levels to this. There’s a certain kind of capitalism that doesn’t learn from its mistakes, a form of capitalism that is mainly driven by short-term view. Our story is also a certain criticism of that. One of the main reasons while the Marvel empire faltered in the 1990s is because the man who was in charge, Ron Perelman, from 1989 to 1997, this man really led the Marvel reins with the sole purpose of using Marvel’s finances to leverage the other companies in his empire.

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It was a take-the-money-and-run philosophy, and that never works in the long term. Never. The story of Marvel in the 90s proved it again – and we don’t want to sound too pretentious, because our movie is mainly just about the comic book story – but we saw it with the sub-prime crisis in 2008, the kind of catastrophe was another take-the-money-and-run approach. It seems that capitalism never learns from its own mistakes.

PR: It wasn’t easy to make everything understandable in the movie. I mean about the financial part, because there were a lot of terms, a lot of percentages and figures. The first draft we wrote for the movie, we had all these figures, all these details, but it was just impossible for the audience to understand. So we tried to make it easier and again, today, we hope that people will understand everything. We made it was easy to understand as we could.

PG: Our main was concern was, as Philippe is saying, to make sure that the film isn’t boring. The goal was to make an entertaining, compelling story with fast cutting, and not getting too much into the financial details. The first draft of the screenplay was way too focused on the financial details of the story.

PR: The first draft was for a 90-minute movie. So we had to get it down to 52 minutes.

PG: We have to thank our executive producer Thierri Tripod – he’s been tremendously helpful to us. He helped us at some moments where we were a little bit lost in all the information we have, and he really helped us to keep on the right track, to focus what was most important in the story. We really have to thank him for that.

PR: From the beginning, when we started to prepare the movie, and when we were shooting in the United States to post-production, he was really helpful. 

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How do you two divide the job of directing between you?

PG: So the writing has been really 50-50. It was a fusion. I come from print journalism; my core job, even today, is to write for different print outlets in France, and so basically I’m not a TV director. I’m just a journalist. Philippe comes from the photographic, graphic design area, so he was more concerned with all the technical stuff.

I was more focused on the interviews and, I would say, the global storytelling of the film. That said, things intertwine. I had some specific ideas about some shots, and Philippe, obviously, had his input in the questions, in the interviews and the story. But if you want to summarise things roughly, Philippe was more the technical guy and I was more the director.

PR: I’m just the technical guy, is that what you’re saying? [Laughs]

PG: I say it as a mark of respect, of course!

PR: As he says, it’s 50-50 in the writing, and 50-50 at the end doing the post-production, when we’re editing. Between the writing and the editing, each of us has his own part.

You’ve said you don’t know when you’re going to get a DVD release. It sounds as though you need a distributor.

PG: This is so frustrating.

What do you think about crowdfunding – turning to Kickstarter or something like that?

PG: Funnily enough, Mark Millar on his Twitter account yesterday, he tweeted that he loved the documentary. I don’t know if he was being serious, but he said there should be a Kickstarter to help the movie get a DVD release. I don’t in what way Kickstarter would help specifically, because it depends on many different factors, and the decision really comes down to our producer on Canal Digitale.

PR: It’s a really disappointing point. We showed it at two festivals in France, and the screening yesterday was the international premiere. We were really close to showing it at a festival in Canada – Fantasia – but…

Was this where Guardians Of The Galaxy was playing?

PR: Yes, yes. Because of the Guardians Of The Galaxy premiere. The festival was in touch with Marvel Studios about the Guardians Of The Galaxy premiere, and they were a bit afraid of showing the documentary with a Marvel premiere so close to the screening. It was always the same problem, because Marvel didn’t support our movie, because of what we might say. But we’re Marvel fans – we don’t say anything bad about Marvel. Yes, there are some negatives nicknames for some people – Doctor Doom, for example, for Ike Perlmutter, but it’s the only one. And I think everybody knows what kind of person Ike Perlmutter is. And he’s a great businessman.

PG: Because of these reasons, maybe, the fears that Marvel inspire, it means the people who could publish the DVD are getting cold feet. It could be this reason. Maybe it’s the format of the film, it’s just 52 minutes long, which may be a bit short to justify a DVD release. Maybe it should be released with some extra content. 

That was going to be one of my questions, whether there was any extras you could put with it.

PR: We have an interview which didn’t go into the movie. We have some interviews we edited from another movie we made last year, a kind of spin-off from Marvel Renaissance. So maybe we can add some extra things.

PG: But maybe just in the aftermath of the Glasgow Film Festival, if the feedback is really positive and it spreads a little bit on the social networks, who knows? Maybe it will convince the right person to decide to maybe buy the DVD rights and do what needs to be done with that.

That’s the good thing about crowdfunding, is that it tests your potential audience. You can gauge interest that way.

PG: Once we’re back in Paris, we’ll meet with our producer and explore, maybe, the crowdfunding solution. But in any case, the strong support from Mark Millar would certainly be very helpful to give a new cycle of life to the film.

PR: Yesterday it was amazing to see an English-speaking audience response to it for the first time. We read English tweets for the first time about the movie this morning. The response from English-speaking audiences have been different from in France. In France, they also liked the movie, but it was important here, because it’s an international premiere.

PG: We have here warmer reactions to the film. In France, they’re very positive, but the French audience is more…

Reserved?

PG: Reserved, yes. Here we heard a lot of laughs during the film, and people came to see us after the screening to express how they much they enjoyed it. We didn’t meet so many outspokenly positive people in France.

PR: Also, because it’s an American pop culture thing, maybe it’s more in the genes. Not the jeans [gestures to trousers]!

So more generally, then, what do you think about the state of comic book movies right now? Not just Marvel, but the whole landscape?

PG: Well, 2016 is a very specific year, a very important year. It has a double or nothing, make or break [feeling]. DC has put huge investment, huge stakes, in Batman V Superman, and we know that the buzz is not that positive. I really hope the movie does what’s expected. So Warner-DC have made a big gamble in these two movies [the other being Suicide Squad], especially Batman V Superman, and all the strategy for years to come hinges on the numbers for Batman V Superman.

At Marvel, even if Marvel is in a much better, more consolidated place, compared to DC-Warner, it seems that Marvel is… this is just how I feel, but it feels like Marvel is looking for a second breath after Phase Two. It feels almost as though the huge Star Wars buzz has stolen Marvel’s momentum. And with Captain America: Civil War, Marvel really needs to be at the forefront of the conversation at the water cooler.

It seems that Marvel failed to do that last year with Age Of Ultron, which as you know, had really mixed reviews compared to the first one. The obviously painful experience Joss Whedon had. Marvel really needs not only a hit with Captain America: Civil War, but also positive feedback. A second breath.

Those superhero comic book movies are at a critical phase. There are so many projects to come, so if the movies that come out in 2016 do what is expected of them, so far so good, and the years to come will be really bright. Otherwise, if Batman V Superman and Captain America: Civil War don’t meet their expectations, I think there could be trouble ahead for the next few years.

Maybe we’ve reached a phase where these movies really need to reinvent themselves. And that why Deadpool seems to have done so well, even if I have criticisms of Deadpool, but still, it was fresh to at last see an R-rated Marvel property – even if it’s handled by Fox – with sex and violence and comedy.

PR: What’s funny about Captain America is that it’s become a franchise movie at the same level as the Avengers. Captain America: Winter Soldier is, for me, a better Avengers movie than Age Of Ultron. It’s the same with Captain America:Civil War – it’s a new Avengers movie, because Infinity War isn’t out until 2018. Captain America is a very important franchise for Marvel now.

There were too many things in Age Of Ultron. Too many characters. Too many plots.

I wondered if you think it’s a bit of a mistake for other companies to follow what Marvel did with building universes. Even Transformers is going to have a movie universe with a Bumblebee spin-off.

PG: Same thing with Universal. I don’t know where they’re at exactly right now with their monsters, or whether it’s in development hell. But it’s the same thing: the shared cinematic universe. But it’s the story of Hollywood – every time someone has found a creative formula, the other studios follow it. So Marvel found an incredibly creative formula with its shared cinematic universe, that had been patiently built from the first Iron Man to the Avengers movie, and now everyone wants to do it.

No, I don’t think it’s a good thing. I don’t think it’s a good thing for the global quality and global originality and the global creative freedom for writers.

Also you have that danger as well, if the next Marvel movie doesn’t do well then it affects the whole calendar. I’m thinking Amazing Spider-Man 2 – that was supposed to set up I don’t know how many films. Probably three of four films.

PG: Yes, yes. Absolutely. And all those projects went down the toilet. But it was such a bad movie! I think that Sony really harmed, severely, the Spider-Man franchise.

Didn’t you both think it was three films at once? It was like flicking between three separate stories. It couldn’t decide which one it wanted to tell.

PG: It’s a total mess. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 was much better directed than Amazing Spider-Man 2. Which is, for me, one of the worst superhero movies ever. Almost as bad as Green Lantern or Catwoman. It’s a terrible, terrible movie. I’m a huge fan of Spider-Man and Peter Parker, and when I saw that movie I was… I really hated that piece of shit! [Laughs]

Sorry. I hope with the new partnership with Marvel, and the reintroducing of Spider-Man into the Marvel universe, a new, good Spider-Man will come out of that. I’m not so sure, because I don’t know the director. It’s not Sam Raimi…

Oh, it’s the director of Cop Car. I’ve forgotten his name. Jon Watts.

PG: It’s like Colin Trevorrow.

You go from an indie film to a big blockbuster.

PG: You give him a huge toy and he’ll be very thankful.

Or like Josh Trank, who went from Chronicle to Fantastic Four.

PG: I think the future of superhero movies needs to be warranted by the fact that Mark Waid says in Marvel Renaissance, “Let the creative people do their magic.” That’s what studios should really learn. That’s what studios should really learn and put in front of their boards of directors.

PR: Fantastic Four is a franchise that really could be amazing on screen. There has never been a good Fantastic Four. They either turn it into comedy, or the last one was very dark. But they don’t know where they’re going. And it’s such a great comic.

PG: Maybe they should make it as a TV show for Netflix. Maybe make it a period piece set in the 60s or something. They should hire us, actually! [Laughs]

Philippe Guedj and Philippe Roure, thank you very much.

You can read our review of Marvel Renaissance here. We’ll keep you updated when we hear more about a DVD or TV airing for the documentary as we get it.