May 8, 2018

Is the Marvel Cinematic Universe Replicable?

Every single week this year, The Comics Cube's extended family did a roundtable on each movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With it done until Ant-Man and the Wasp, Katherine asks, "A really interesting thing I'd like to see someone analyze from a pop culture point of view is whether (the MCU) is lightning in a bottle at the right place / right time... because I get the feeling that this isn't replicable." So..

Is the Marvel Cinematic Universe Replicable?

BEN: The rise of Netflix and streaming services, combined with the increase in movie ticket prices, has made a trip to the movies an increasingly bigger hassle. It has to be something that can’t be missed. Iron Man benefitted from the success of the Spider-Man and X-Men movies, and solidly established a “see what comes next” approach.

KATHERINE: I also questioned whether the rise of Netflix is a factor in influencing the way we consume our entertainment now. Could this have been as big of a phenomenon back in the 90s? Audiences are now used to binging, super longform serialized storytelling and watching characters change and evolve over a long period of time. I think even 15-20 years ago, serialized dramas on TV weren't really the norm, right? It was a lot of sitcoms that you could jump into at any point or procedurals... even shows like The X-Files or Buffy were mainly monsters-of-the-week, and the overarching mythology episodes were spread out and only a few per year. And most movie sequels weren't plotted out events (unless it was Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or something), it was bringing the same characters back for another adventure, so they usually felt like the same thing, just different and bigger. The idea of having 18 movies that continue the same ongoing storyline might've seemed ludicrous back in the day, but now we're in the era of Game of Thrones where we've watched an epic story play out over something like 80 episodes in 8 years. So when you put it that way, 18 movies in 10 years doesn't sound like that big a deal.

DUY: I think it's absolutely safe to say that there's no way this is working before the days of DVD, at the very earliest.

If the MCU had started with the X-Men or Fantastic Four it would be reboots of stories we’ve already seen, and we’ve already seen them together, so why would we care to see them apart with the promise of building to something in five years that we’ve already seen? -Katherine

KATHERINE:  Also, does the internet play a part in audiences wanting to feel like everything is connected in one big universe? Had there ever even been an appetite for something like this before? What would it have been in an era without social media to keep the universe alive in between movies for ten straight years? And social media gives a home to a vocal female fanbase that might be wary of outing themselves in public spaces. Some of the funniest, most creative and craziest fans are on Tumblr, which is majority female, right? I feel like a lot of big action blockbusters in the past would just assume that these were movies made for teenage boys rather than welcome and acknowledge the other half of the audience. The MCU hasn't even really fully embraced them yet since Captain Marvel will be the first female lead, but it feels like there's something different going on here that I can't quite put my finger on - maybe it's acknowledging the female gaze, making the characters vulnerable and funny and not just uber-macho killing machines.

BEN: Am I wrong in feeling like the DC movies have more gratuitous butt shots on their female characters?

TRAVIS: Wasn't that the plot of Suicide Squad?

BEN: "Female empowerment but also with a swirl of objectification" should be the tagline of the Harley Quinn movie.

DUY: Wonder Woman should have set the tone, but then Justice League happens and then butt shots and the Amazons are in bikinis.

KATHERINE: Am I reading into things too much with thinking about the "female gaze" in these movies? Do the shirtless male hero scenes that we all appreciate make guys uncomfortable? Because I honestly don't think the guys are being objectified in them.

DUY: They're being objectified, we just don't care.

BEN: I’m all for it, appeal to all demos, it’s only fair.

KATHERINE: It's small-o objectification. Like claims of reverse racism. Racism and sexism aren’t just about individual actions, they’re power structures. Yes, this person was mean to you, but you are not systemically and invisibly oppressed by a society built on centuries of racist history and policy. Yes, a lady drooled over your abs, but she does not carry a deeply-ingrained societal endorsed expectation to now own you. The men still have the power and the agency, but we also get to look at them.  Historically, by definition, objectifying women generally takes away their power because it makes them an object to be desired and eventually obtained.

DUY: Yeah, the biggest difference between Wonder Woman ass shots and an Aquaman shirtless shot is that you can still at least see his face. But the fact that the MCU will have taken 11 years to have a female lead made me think that's an area where DC maybe had a shot. They could build their universe around Wonder Woman and Harley Quinn, and maybe have that be their Tony/Steve dynamic.

KATHERINE: Totally agree. I do think that's their best shot at salvaging what they currently have without rebooting, and that's a world that I'd finally be interested in.  I wonder if maybe we're moving past the era of full blown uber (bordering on toxic) masculinity in our big franchises where the guys are all stoic, pissed off and brooding. Even the new iteration of James Bond is one that has feelings and emotional attachments and scars.

DUY: You know when we last said that? That we're moving past those types of action heroes? Transformers with Shia Lebouf.

KATHERINE: So then why does it feel like we moved backwards on that with Superman and Batman? I wonder if the Martha thing was the attempt to soften and humanize them but it was just so dumb. 

DUY: Because the director of Batman V Superman is an adolescent child whose execution is the same every time — music video choreography with super slow motion and dark gray palettes? Your first movie sets the tone. RDJ set the tone, which is you can go funny but the heavy stuff has to be heavy. So it's a flexible blueprint. Man of Steel's tone is... not

KATHERINE: The very fact that the Batman and Superman movies look and feel the same when the characters are basically opposites already tells you a lot.Of course the magic has to be in the execution, and if Iron Man hadn't been so great, we wouldn't be here today. The technology wouldn't have looked as good in the 90s. The casting had to be perfect. But it's also interesting to wonder what other cultural factors may have also been at play.

DUY: Is there even a company that has the assets to compete? If so, who? If the answer is DC, do they need to blow it up, hit a cosmic reset ala Flashpoint, or is the current situation salvageable?

ANTONIO: Reset would be admitting failure. Failure means the audience would never let them live it down. At least for a generation or two. DC movies are a pop culture joke. They could fix it, but really that had to happen with Justice League. Doesn’t help that they don’t quite have their own RDJ to get fans pumped at conventions.

MATTHEW: I'm assuming that Flashpoint will be altering some stuff. If I were them, I'd ignore whatever I could of Snyder's stuff, and used Flashpoint to get rid of the stuff that can't be ignored.

TRAVIS: Marvel didn't have the assets to compete before this thing got moving like it is. So, there's no way to look at another cache of trademarks and go, Yeah, them.

DUY: So I'm trying to figure out the common line between Marvel's assets going into this, and here are some bits to chew on:
  1. Marvel had characters with an established source material, but not the characters that had such wide fandoms and multiple interpretations that inspired vitriol and demand for specific versions.
  2. Marvel had a throughline that connected their world, regardless of how far and wide their subgenres go, whether it's the Two-Gun Kid and Squirrel Girl, which is easy because that's built into the comics.
  3. Marvel's characters were juuuuust lacking in recognition enough that they were new to a general audience.
So given that, we need:
  1. A backlog of material, but preferably material where the characters have remained more or less consistent.
  2. The material must have some connective tissue that's firmly established and easy to adapt.
  3. The characters have to be, if not unknown, just relatively obscure to the general moviegoing audience, or at least as relatively obscure as Tony Stark was in 2007.

1, 2, and 3, all disqualify DC's current strategy, or it automatically removes Superman and Batman because they have too many interpretations. And you can't really go far and wide with them because DC's source material involves multiverse, which is something you need to build up to but not use as a building block, I think. I think by this logic you can still use DC if you focus on the characters below Superman and Batman, or just start with something completely offbeat, like the Legion of Super-Heroes or the New Gods.

LAMAR: I think if another company tried to take Marvel's formula and plug in their characters, it'd crash and burn because their approach is hand in hand with the characters in the movies.

Is there even a company that has the assets to compete?  -Duy

DUY: Funnily enough, the comics line that fits all three is CrossGen. They have a boatload of material, they're diverse in their storytelling and their aesthetics and concepts. The connective tissue is super flexible because they all take place in different worlds, but there's just this magical sigil that binds all the worlds. And the characters are all working off of set archetypes, so they'll be familiar to audiences, even if they aren't. Of course, CrossGen is also owned by Disney, so that's out the window.

JEFF: Apparently Hasbro is going to attempt this with some of their properties. They do have a highly recognized name with Transformers and have signed with Paramount for a 5-film deal for a crossover of G I Joe, M.A.S.K, Rom, Micronauts and Visionaries. Last I heard they were writing a script for a Transformers/GI Joe crossover.

LAMAR: That's going to be very difficult to not be bad.

JEFF: My expectations are low.

DUY: I do think Hasbro has the makings of the assets, but they'd have to think about how to connect all that really carefully

BEN: Hasbro is easy. The scary alien robots the Transformers. GI Joe is the response. MASK is after we appropriate some of the Transformers tech. Visionaries is the wildcard.

LAMAR: I say just have everybody show up, exchange "who the hell are you"s and start popping one another.

DUY: Similarly to Superman and Batman, I have to wonder if the audience can take Transformers seriously now as a cornerstone. Or will they just be associated with Bay for the next 20 years?

BEN: People are either happy with Bay’s Transformers, or so desperate for the movies to be good they keep going anyway.

JEFF: The last two Transformers movies disappointed at the box office and after the Bumblebee movie this year, the Bavverse is being scrapped and rebooted last I heard. But I think for a Hasbro universe to work its first movie needs to be one of the lesser-known properties and the writing quality at least five times better then anything they've done so far.

DUY: Yeah, I think a big key is to not start with your biggest gun. Not that I can actually explain why.

KATHERINE: Isn’t that weird?? It sounds so counterintuitive

DUY: To be fair, we're basing it off of this one example.

BEN: I’d start with Visionaries, since that’s the craziest idea. Or maybe MASK, since that’s the easiest to translate, and has cars and planes.

JEFF: I think G I Joe, the first two movies weren't that great but the Joes have been one of Hasbros long time staples. They need to fix this brand badly.

BEN: I think if you’re trying to project that this is a new era, you start with one of the ones that hasn’t been done yet. But I’m always ready for a good Joe movie.

For a Hasbro universe to work its first movie needs to be one of the lesser-known properties and the writing quality at least five times better then anything they've done so far. -Jeff

JEFF: I think the main reasons the MCU succeeded is Marvel made the movies themselves and RDJ. Most licensed movie rights don't leave much control with the product owners and for all his problems RDJ has a lot of friends in the film industry, a lot of people were rooting for him to turn things around with his problems and make a come back.

DUY: I think there was also the, we expected Iron Man to be good but not this good factor. Like it was just gonna be a popcorn flick that would revitalize RDJ's career. We definitely didn't expect it to be as good as it was, as big as it was, and the cornerstone of a megafranchise. Doing Superman or Batman or the Transformers, it sends a message that, well, we expect this to be as big as Iron Man was in 2008. I think the element of surprise and lowered expectations is huge here.

KATHERINE: That’s part of why I question if this is replicable! What franchise could even have that element of surprise now when it’s carrying the weight of being a supposed franchise starter? And maybe RDJ was the lightning in the bottle.

DUY: What if you just no position it as a supposed franchise starter? Like okay, just position it as a movie. And then with the option to start a franchise. You could make a franchise out of the Incredibles. It's all in the DVD, they created a whole world. I think it's possible.

KATHERINE: I feel like Kong: Skull Island kind of did that, the post credits sequence hinting at a bigger world felt like a surprise. I may be biased, but I really enjoyed Skull Island.

BEN: It was great!

JEFF: Maybe the way it could be done is with public domain characters like Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, any studio can try it since they're not licensed or exclusive you just can't call the team up League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

DUY: I see where you're coming from, but doubt that any studio would try to put such a giant investment in something they can't trademark or optimally monetize.

BEN: Iron Man also benefited from being the most suited (get it?) for adaptation to live action. He was probably the most boring Avenger in comics, but his strengths are highlighted in live action.

DUY: Also, of course this generation will identify with the high-tech superhero. Its such a no-brainer that it's easy to overlook.

KATHERINE: Since they didn’t immediately have access to their big guns, does that also lend credence to the idea that scarcity helps to drive creativity? It’s science!

BEN: I think it has more to do with a streamlined process by having their own studio. So many big studios have too many executives and producers with their hand in the pie, it’s a surprise any good movies ever get made.

KATHERINE: Of course, that’s definitely true. There needs to be a Kevin Feige true fan/visionary spearheading these franchises.. But if they had started with access to the X-Men and the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, would they have had the same kind of success? For that matter, if they had started the whole thing with Captain America or Thor (same movies, just before Iron Man) could it have been as successful?

DUY: No to both. Cap and Thor were hard sells. Starting with their most realistic character was the right call. And the connective thing between the three is they're all Avengers. You do them solo, then you combine them, then you can build to something, then you can involve the Guardians. Spidey and the FF and the X-Men would just build to something. You miss a whole step.

So many big studios have too many executives and producers with their hand in the pie, it’s a surprise any good movies ever get made. -Ben

BEN: I think it would still have been successful, but yeah, there’s no team to build towards. I’d like to say quality movies is what counts, but two of the first three MCU movies were below average. I think the constant teasing was a major factor.

DUY: It would be like if you started from Avengers and then built to Infinity War. You lose four years. I think you lose more than four years because I don't think something like Guardians ever gets made in this scenario. So you'd start presumably with the Fantastic Four, bring in Spider-Man, then the X-Men, then the Avengers. I'd doubt in this scenario that the Avengers eventually get individual movies.  So you lose a lot. This current situation still has all those guys eventually happening but you're able to maximize the Avengers.

KATHERINE: I agree, the tease and tiny payoffs along the way must have something to do with how satisfying this has all been. Would the equivalent have been making a solo Wolverine movie, then a solo Charles Xavier, then a solo Rogue, et cetera?

BEN: The X-Men are mostly so uninteresting on their own, I can’t see that working out.

KATHERINE: The Avengers being relatively unknown has to be pretty key to all this. If the MCU had started with the X-Men or Fantastic Four it would be reboots of stories we’ve already seen, and we’ve already seen them together, so why would we care to see them apart with the promise of building to something in five years that we’ve already seen?

DUY: There's something to be said too just about Tony and Steve being the perfect ones to build this universe around, like what I assume Superman and Batman should be. You set the overall tone with these guys, and from there you can do deviations. They're very complementary. The Netflix megafranchise works the same way with Daredevil, but that's it exactly, the entire tone is set by him, and would that really work with all these moviegoers from ages 5 and up? There's your issue, regardless of which franchise you're starting with. If I were DC I'd just go way deep into their bench, and maybe start with the Titans or something.

Superhero is not the genre. -Ben

LAMAR: The best thing Marvel has going for them, for the most part, is understanding what makes their characters and universe work. And instead of shying away from those things, they embrace them and it comes through even when a film isn't as good as it could be.

JEFF: I think the best thing Marvel has going for them is that they've done a pretty good job of keeping their movies accessible to all ages. Bad guys are getting killed but the heroes aren't snapping their necks when they fight em

KATHERINE: That's a great point. Though the bigger DCEU fans will claim that the neck-snapping is the reason they love it so much. So dark! So cool!

JEFF: I thought they said the darker look and neck snapping made those movies more sophisticated. I like movies that are fun and exciting, I don't mind dark but it don't fit Superman.

KATHERINE: Yeah, that all goes back to respecting the characters and actually knowing who they are. Pick the tone that works for the individual and for the story you want to tell. The variety in tone, color palette and voice (rather than just DARK GREY) has to be part of the formula for success and not getting total audience fatigue.

DUY: DC movies rely way too much on what we know about the characters going in. We're just supposed to buy that Superman is inspiring in BvS and Justice League, when nothing we've seen before shows that. Even the news montage in BvS has him being revered and feared more than him being an inspiration. This all culminates in Justice League, where they even use the old John Williams and Danny Elfman music, as if to say "Look, just pretend these are Reeve and Keaton, okay?"

KATHERINE: I think another key to their success is that Marvel expanded the definition of a superhero movie while staying grounded in the way we've always understood them. They're all definitely action movies with one foot firmly in that territory, but some are distinctly zany action-comedy, then you get the political thriller, the teen movie, the heist caper, the space rock opera, the period war movie, the Shakespearean family drama (with some being combinations of a couple of those!). So you can put on a different movie depending on your mood but still be in the same universe.

BEN: That’s what I’ve never understood when Cameron or Spielberg say that superhero movies will die as a genre. The Marvel movies are space operas, comedies, action, fantasy movies starring superheroes. Superhero is not the genre.

KATHERINE: And somehow, magically, when all those characters come together, it still works and the tone isn't jarring. I don't know how they pull that off, but highest kudos. They say it's just knowing the characters and what they would do no matter what setting they're in or what they're facing. That makes it sound so simple, but I'm sure it's anything but.

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