Marvel and ABC recently presented us with a TV special about the process of building the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was built on a batch of sound bites but the special also offered up a few behind the scenes anecdotes about the building of Marvel as a studio and the risk the company and the actors that jumped on board for Iron Man were taking. Watching the special brought to mind all of the magic for me and for other fans, that was and is so prevalent in those first films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Some people of a certain age grew up with Disney, some grew up with Hannah Barbara, other were fans of Looney Tunes and that stuff, and still others were engrained in the super hero world and the Marvel Comics in particular. I loved all of those things but yes the core of my existence was Marvel Comics. Spider-man, Iron Man, and Captain America were at the center of cartoons and comics that meant the most to me. The Spider-man films were really the first theatrical experiences that brought back everything that made up what I was as a child. Seeing Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane send Spider-man on his way and call him “Tiger” at the end of that first film brought back my childhood in a way I never believed possible in the theater. Little did I know what was to come.
When Iron Man was announced for a 2008 release right after The Incredible Hulk I could hardly believe what I was hearing. Seeing the Hulk on screen was something I was looking forward too but I didn’t think much of it because the green Goliath had been on the big and small screen before. I like the character but he never resonated with me that much, not even as a kid. Iron Man though was always a b list character that I loved right behind Spider-man and Captain America. For me as a child, and as an adult The Avengers comics were able to bring those b list characters together in a team book that made some of the characters better and more fun than they were in their individual books. Thor was one of my favorite characters in the Avengers but until recently I never appreciated his solo books. Iron Man though was so complicated a character and in many ways so grounded that he offered up some of the meatiest stories in his own books. The first Iron Man movie was fantastic but it was the post credits stinger that truly gave me chills, that made me feel a level of excitement that actually eclipsed that final moment of Sam Raimi’s Spider-man film. Samuel L. Jackson came in as Nick Fury and hinted at the building of the Avengers. At that point I truly began to wish my life away because I wanted that movie to be real right then. That’s jumping ahead just a little though.
Iron Man established a world of super heroes that Marvel fans knew, and the film winked at us, but it also opened the door to show non-comic book fans what’s great about the Marvel Universe and that these comic books have more to offer than just a baby sitter for kids. When the acronym for S.H.I.E.L.D. was first referenced in Iron Man it was this little inside laugh for fans but it was executed in a way that those not in the know could still laugh at the ludicrousness of it all. That moment is definitive of why these films have been working so far. Next we got Thor and Captain America and they continued to connect all of the characters within this universe but at the same time they created their own stand-alone stories and characters. I loved all of these movies but they also kept building the parts that made up my absolute favorite comic book as a child and now; The Avengers.
When it was announced that Joss Whedon would helm the Avengers and write it, and Shepard the entire universe of future films it seemed that the films and characters were going to continue to be taken seriously. Super hero films have been tried off and on in film history but the approach was always as children’s fantasy rather than real character driven stories. Prior to Spider-man the best attempt was the first Christopher Reeve’s Superman film. It was family oriented and somehow crafted an innocence that was so prevalent in the original Action Comics. That franchise withered though and laid dormant until 2013. Having the comic book company as the driving studio for the films allows a group that understands the characters in the right way to craft the films and Whedon, having written many Marvel Comics himself was a brilliant pick for the film. The eventual film that hit theaters brought the action and the humor, and the team building moments that made the Avengers comic so great. It’s kind of like a really great sports film in a way because you have a group of very talented and very different people coming together as a team. Opinions, egos, and varying levels of respect for authority get in the way of the team being successful in a typical way but each of them wants to do good so it all comes together in the end. The Avengers also continued what the first Iron Man film started with the fan boy moments but took it up a notch. The battle between Hulk and Thor for example was a blast for non-fans to watch but it meant so much more to comic book fans that have seen this happen over and over again for years in the comics. The Avengers had some issues from a standard “film” point of view; the villains in particular were not very well rendered. They were just cannon fodder for Loki to use at his discretion which I had no problem with. The ultimate villain even above Loki was only lightly revealed in that film though and that sort of stretching out of a story may be tough for some standard critics to invest in. In the end though the film was an epic, exciting, humorous, and action packed roller coaster ride that was the perfect ending to the first group or “phase” of Marvel movies.
It’s difficult to explain what these films and this studio mean to fans of these comic books. It wasn’t so long ago that Marvel Comics was bankrupt and ready to collapse. We nearly lost one of the most important contributors to modern pop culture across the globe and now it’s not only back but it’s showing non-fans why these stories are so great. Marvel’s characters, when properly executed teach kids about the challenges of just simply being human. We see Peter Parker trying to grow up, Tony Stark have everything a person could possibly want and still struggle to be whole, Captain America aka Steve Rogers have incomparable abilities and the respect of an entire country but still he feels out of place and alone. The very core existence of these characters is a metaphor for various aspects of the human condition and that’s why they resonated so much with children and why the books are so easily adapted for an all ages crowd. The bones of complex characters are there mixing that with fun action is a recipe for success.
Phase 2 of the Marvel films began with Iron Man 3 and Thor 2. Both of these films were “good” but they had more weaknesses than previous franchise installments. These flaws are growing pains though. Marvel is working to rise above simply being comic book movies and that trip is treacherous. Iron Man 3 was sort of a buddy cop techno-thriller and generally it worked but it just wasn’t as strong as the first film in the franchise. The positive side was that the franchise finally had an interesting villain which as proved by Thor can make your movie. Thor 2 in many ways was a family drama as much as it was a fantasy film and those parts of the film worked the absolute best. Those two films were truly stand-alone stories though; the mid credits stinger to Thor 2 was the first element that truly begins to tie the films to the phase 2 story arc. Captain America 2 The Winter Soldier promises to be the real game changer for the next phase of films. First of all it’s a political thriller and second it is supposed to really turn things upside down all the way through to Avengers 2. That film and this summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy as well as the ABC special are what inspired me to look back at the adventure the building of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been. This sort of massive world building has never occurred in film before and even if you can’t understand these films you have to give credit to the team behind them for truly innovating film in a way that no critic or fan could ever have expected. Marvel Studios has established a place in history that no other larger studio can claim to have ever considered. Now they have established a form of story telling that Warner Brothers and Sony are struggling to understand and are desperate to execute. everyone is chasing Marvel and so far they just aren’t catching up. This company/studio has crafted a brave new world of film and for fans of the films crafted a new reason to go to the theaters on opening nights. No elitist film critic can deny that. With that said it’s now time for Marvel Studios to bring us new forms of story, to stretch their wings, and they appear to be doing just that. This summer alone we are getting a political thriller and a space opera.
For fans like me these film remind us of a time when comic books were awe inspiring, when they took us to worlds we’d never been with characters we could relate to and allowed us to simply appreciate storytelling with innocent wide eyed exuberance. When I watch these films and experience the worlds that Marvel has built, to quote Captain James T. Kirk at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan “I feel….young, I feel young as the world was new.”