The saying goes that history is written by the victors, which might explain why French filmmakers Philippe Guedj and Philippe Roure ran into a spot of bother when they made The Road To Civil War: Marvel Renaissance, a documentary detailing the near collapse of the comic book colossus in 1996.
Although the 52-minute film was almost made with the involvement of Disney France – an airing on ABC was even on the cards at one point – the directors ultimately wound up shooting Marvel Renaissance without the cooperation of its subject.
This proves to be something of a double-edged sword: on one hand, it means that interviews with current employees at Marvel are out of the question. But Guedj and Roure’s independence from Marvel also gives them the freedom to draw a warts-and-all portrait of Marvel as it was in its darkest hour – when comic book sales were falling, debts were rising and lawyers in dark suits were circling like buzzards.
For those unfamiliar with Marvel’s recent history, the documentary shows just how close the entire American comic book industry came to collapse in the mid-90s; by this point, a decade of slowly ebbing sales had been joined by an even greater threat: the arrival of Wall St executives, and a procession of puppetmasters who had little to no interest in comics. In one of Marvel Renaissance’s funniest anecdotes, we’re told that cigar-waving buyer Ronald Perelman had assumed that Superman came as part of the Marvel package – until someone quietly explained that Superman was owned by an entirely different company.
Marvel Renaissance may not have access to the likes of Kevin Feige, the producer who’s done so much to steer the Marvel Cinematic Universe to box-office glory, or Stan Lee, the chipper comic book “pope” who brought a legion comic book characters to the masses, but the interviewees the directors have assembled are garrulous and informative. These include producers Tom DeSanto and Avi Arad, comic book writers Mark Millar and Mark Waid, Incredible Hulk director Louis Leterrier and, perhaps best of the lot, dryly amusing corporate lawyer Harvey Miller, who recalls some of the extraordinary boardroom intrigue behind the Marvel crisis.
It’s Mark Millar who makes perhaps the most incisive point of all: with Marvel in such dire straits that the coffee machines and even illustrated office doors were rumoured to have been sold off, the company had no qualms about trying different things to keep the brand alive. Through desperation came a fresh burst of creativity, and the renaissance the documentary’s grand title points to: the modernisation of such moribund characters and series as Daredevil and Avengers, and the creation of the Ultimate Marvel imprint.
It was those new voices and artists, which included Millar, Joe Quesada and Brian Bendis, that kept the storytelling river flowing at Marvel while its executives began to put the pieces in place for a foray into Hollywood. Those adventures in Tinseltown would soon lead, of course, to the likes of Iron-Man and Thor, a $4bn acquisition by Disney, and the founding of the MCU.
Marvel Renaissance packs an admirable amount of history into its one-hour-ish duration – 20 years of history, in fact – but it’s somewhat disappointing that its adherence to a three-act structure means that the final third is all the stuff comic book and film fans will likely know inside out – that is, the eventual explosion in comic book movies which took place from the launch of X-Men onwards.
The documentary’s best parts are the ones well away from Hollywood; the bits where the fate of Marvel seemingly lies in the clammy hands of a bunch of hard-nosed bankers and lawyers. Given that Marvel’s characters sprang from youthfully creative minds, there’s something fascinating about a pantheon of larger-than-life superheroes being argued over in plush boardrooms at the top of a Manhattan skyscraper. As one of the filmmakers says himself, this is a financial drama like Margin Call or The Inside Job but with comic books, and it’s arguable that the documentary could have been even better had it leaned more heavily on these lean, dark years around the mid-90s rather than the millennial return to form we’re more familiar with.
Then there’s the reclusive, famously penny-pinching Isaac Perlmutter, the CEO who somehow rules Marvel without straying into the public eye. Writer Mark Waid relates an oft-told story about Perlmutter stalking Marvel’s offices, picking paperclips up off the floor and demanding to know why the employees are wasting his money. Mark Millar notes that there only appears to be one photograph of Perlmutter on the internet – quite a feat in our always-online age. It’s little details like these which give the story its spark, and it’s a pity the camera doesn’t have time to linger a little longer on the quirks of these strange, sometimes obscure people who lurk behind the Marvel story.
Even as it is, The Road To Civil War: Marvel Renaissance offers a brief yet entertaining insight into a pivotal phase in comic book history – a phase that Marvel, no doubt, would much rather forget.
The Road To Civil War: Marvel Renaissance is showing at the Glasgow Film Festival on the 24th February.