The James Clayton Column: the potential perils facing Marvel

As the Marvel Cinematic Universe enters phase two with Iron Man 3, James ponders the dominant position Disney has in movie entertainment...

Director Fury, commence Phase Two. It starts right now as Iron Man 3 arrives in cinemas to propel the Marvel movie plan onward through the next few years. It will carry on with a series of standalone flicks – Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy – before climaxing in May 2015 with The Avengers 2.

Those films will dominate the landscape, and that’s the way the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be unrolling. Then, once all those movies have come to pass, it’ll be on to Phase Three, then Phase Four and so on so on potentially until the end of the world. (It’ll probably keep on running in another world, such as Asgard, which is lucky enough to have Thor and various other Norse deities on hand to prevent an apocalypse.)

The cycle could carry on forever, such is the depth of the Marvelverse and the solidity of the movie super-franchise deftly developed from it over the past decade. A tremendous amount of credit is due to Marvel Studios’ masterminds – producer Kevin Feige and all his cohorts in collaboration with an array of moviemaking maestros and prime screen performers. Collectively, they’ve done an outstanding job of building up beloved print icons as cinematic characters, introducing them in staggered fashion and then ingeniously weaving them all together to maximum effect.

The end pay-off – The Avengers or Avengers Assemble if you prefer the UK title which explicitly outlines what happens – was so satisfying as a result. It’s possibly the ultimate ensemble movie, the ultimate event movie and ultimate comic book blockbuster experience. It was also the ultimate vindication for perennial outsider Joss Whedon, who finally got to avenge himself for all the creative frustrations inflicted upon his ginger genius over the ages.  

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All the carefully constructed hype and momentum culminated in that sweet shot where the camera circles round our assembled costume heroes as they gird themselves to fight back against the Chitauri fleet devastating New York City. It’s one of the greatest moments in pop culture history and one that comic book geeks have been waiting decades for – the orgasmic apex of a impossible fantasy that somehow became reality (or, at least, 3D cinema screen reality).

Epic heights and an amazing achievement, indeed. Now tasked with following up that monumental Hulksmash, Whedon is under immense pressure to deliver the goods with The Avengers 2 and the same applies for the standalone movies prefacing it.

There’s no real reason to be pessimistic or anxious, though. We’ve come to accept that it’s pretty much a given that Marvel movies – like Studio Ghibli or Pixar features – are going to be brilliant. Aside from some ambivalence about the two Hulk flicks and Iron Man 2, the Marvel Movie Universe is popularly held in great esteem and regarded as a franchise consistently operating at a high standard.

Untroubled by doubt, I’m looking forward to all the future films that’ll make up Phase Two and then the subsequent phases. Nevertheless, I’m not completely clear of all concern as I approach Iron Man 3 and its followers. I’m needled by a question that I think is worth asking: Are Marvel too good?

I’ll break it down: all rivals have been left reeling as Marvel Studios have effectively adapted comics lore into immersive, intelligent works of blockbuster entertainment. The films collectively making up Phase One have, thus far, blown geek minds and simultaneously appealed to mass audiences beyond the cult fanbase.

On movie terms, in the battle fought between the Big Two, it’s definitely a bit of an ant-and-boot affair as Marvel stomp all over DC Comics. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy aside, while Marvel has gone stratospheric, DC has been grounded with failures like Green Lantern and Jonah Hex. All hope for an incredible reversal of fortune now rest on the shoulders of the Man Of Steel.

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Meanwhile, Marvel reigns resplendent and seemingly invincible, but I question whether their excelsior edge is distorting the pop cultural playing field and potentially harming the game. Is it fair that one power player should absolutely dominate? Are we sleepwalking into a monopolised movie scene?

The crucial thing to remember here is that Marvel is now owned by The Walt Disney Company, which also owns Lucasfilm, The Muppets Studio and Pixar. Alongside the Avengers and the rest of the Marvelverse, the House of Mouse holds the Star Wars galaxy, the Muppets, Indiana Jones and much more in its mighty grip. Disney lords over modern western pop culture and pretty much rules everything around you (or, rather, everything that was around your childhood).

This is slightly disconcerting, and I can envisage a disastrous dystopian scenario where Disney takes over the entire universe and manages to do so by continually producing exceptional Marvel movies that subdue audiences into awe and erode any desires to resist against Mickeytatorship.

To ensure that this doesn’t happen, I believe that a bad Marvel movie needs to be crafted. An offensively awful effort that bombs at the box office would be a shock to the system and complacent cinemagoers will be roused to wary vigilance once again. For the sake of essential balance, Marvel Studios needs to mess it all up and handicap their own rise to pre-eminence. (Read: Walt Disney’s ghastly rise to Universal Supremacy for, as described in the Donaldducknomicon, “In his Magic Kingdom cryo-chamber, dead Walter waits dreaming.”)

Trashing the good work of the cycle is going to be difficult to do, but it is achievable if the right wrong-turns are made. Here are a few ways in which Marvel can screw up Phase Two…

Make a huge mistake in replacing Robert Downey Jr

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Speculation surrounds Tony Stark and there are questions over whether Iron Man 3 will be the last time we see Robert Downey Jr in the role. Hopefully this won’t be the case – I mean, come on! Robert Downey Jr is Tony Stark! – but if at his contract’s end he’s decided he’s done, so be it. We’ll have to embrace whoever succeeds him as Iron Man and I, for one, will do that enthusiastically.

At least, I will if they’ve made a good choice. Miscast the arc reactor heart of the Avengers, however, and the whole thing falls apart. To mess it all up, all Marvel have to do is hire the wrong man to fill Downey’s steel shoes. Pass the poisoned chalice to a performer whose talents are best deployed elsewhere and who certain audiences have an intense dislike for, and we’ll have realised the idealised atrocity. Ladies and gentleman, I introduce to you your new Tony Stark and Iron Man: Mr Adam Sandler.

Make everything too ‘child-friendly’

By desperately chasing family audiences and consciously dumbing down to appeal to kids (because people wrongly believe that children are stupid), Marvel could significantly dilute the power of its cinematic products. Sanitise the Marvelverse so that it’s stripped of death and violence, thereby eliminating suspenseful threat, and all the emotional depth and intrigue of the earlier films will be undermined. And how about if all the witty dialogue were replaced with by-the-numbers slapstick as our assembled heroes suddenly have a regressive personality shift and become goofballs specialising in repetitive poo jokes? Do this and everyone over the age of three will be disgusted and drop Marvel Phase Two faster than they would a soiled diaper.

Alternatively, make it all too ‘adult’

Attempt to ‘Nolanise’ the Marvelverse and accentuate the enhanced-gravity of Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 to extreme ends and the whole supergroup shawarma party becomes unbearably dark. I’m not talking about ‘going dark’ in the generic sense though – I mean delving to deathly grim depths and pushing the material into hardcore Rated-R regions that even the most unflinching, desensitised film aficionados would find troubling.

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Bear witness to heavy sexposition on the SHIELD Helicarrier as ultra-profane Nick Fury outlines plots while conducting sadomasochistic orgies. Observe with discomfort as Black Widow produces surrealistic ultraviolent bloodbaths while Hawkeye conducts his own cannibal holocausts. Meanwhile beneath the Brooklyn Bridge unhinged addict Captain America is going through a harrowing crystal meth problem. True believers: look upon this depravity and despair for the fun franchise you once loved.

Force ill-fitting franchise crossovers

The only thing I didn’t like in The Muppets was the moment at the movie’s end when a Mickey Mouse’s iconic ears appeared in a firework display. It felt uneasy and, actually, pretty rude – a tactless interruption from Disney’s mascot as his trademark icon photobombed the Jim Henson party.

To similarly besmirch the sanctity of the Marvelverse, all the Walt Disney Company has to do is enforce other crossover cameo appearances from other franchises’ characters. Everyone will be understandably furious when they suddenly find that Thor has been sucked into an animated alternate dimension where he has to save a singing Disney princess. Likewise, many will leave theatres when they see Sam the Eagle and Captain America tag-team fighting Boba Fett. No one will ever forgive Joss Whedon if The Avengers 2 opens with Kermit the Frog, Yoda and the Incredible Hulk lamenting about how “it’s not easy being green”.

If the next set of Marvel movies commit some of these heinous errors we’ll be okay. We’ll have dreadful films but we’ll have balance, and the House of Mouse megalomaniac monopoly mission powered by the Avengers will have been checked. Fallibility exposed, the Marvel Cinematic Universe will have shown its vulnerability and that’s important, because their vulnerability is the very quality that makes Marvel’s icons so appealing.

After the Phase Two abomination, everyone can get excited about the point where things ‘get back on track’ or ‘return to form’. I still believe in heroes, even if they went through a strange and disappointing period where their superpower seemed to be making poo jokes.

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James Clayton is going to enter the picture in Phase 5 when Nick Fury and Disney finally get their act together and make him a reasonable offer. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter.

You can read James’ previous column here.

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