Franchise building vs storytelling

Captain America: Civil War

2017 and 2018 are set to be momentous years for the folks at Marvel’s studios.

The Disney-owned company will see its decade-long series of interlaced superhero movies coming to a symbolic end as the “first-generation” of super-powered beings comes closer to what they usually call ‘Phase Three’.

Marvel’s cinematic universe is a franchise that kicked off in 2008 with the first Iron Man movie, starring Robert Downey Jr. as the leading actor at the centre of this ultimate reboot.

After years of economic collapse and the risk of bankruptcy, Marvel was acquired by Disney and that was seen as a breath of fresh air and a chance to start over again.

Looking back at what Marvel was fifteen years ago it was hard to imagine such an exponential growth.

On the strength of its long term history of comic book stories, Marvel forged a successful empire not only where each character had its own sequels but where they all eventually come together for simultaneous events like The Avengers or Captain America: Civil War.

Crossing over so greatly – and so smoothly – was a thing that no other company had ever done before and only DC Comics (backed up by the Warner Bros) could succeed as well.

It was a storytelling concept that felt fresh and new for Hollywood but that was very well known to anyone in the comic world.

In comics, superheroes and characters regularly cross over from their own comic strip to make an appearance alongside other superheroes for big events.

In movies, instead, the understanding that all the characters share the same narrative universe and may appear alongside one another was a breakthrough that was considered revolutionary.

Fast forward ten years later and we find ourselves in 2018, spectating the culminating moment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Avengers: Infinity War.

At the end of next year, with more than 20 movie instalments, two TV series, four Netflix shows plus a Netflix cross-over event, Marvel will have plenty of material to be judged on.

If Stan Lee’s company was to be accounted only on the box office performances, we were talking about one of the most profitable money makers of all times.

Quality-wise, the story is a bit more complicated.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been suffering the very same disease for years: each of their movies are good, critically praised and very enjoyable.

But none of them are great, superlative or will ever even come close to being nominated for a movie award.

Even Civil War, which is thought to be the best instalment in the Marvel franchise is a movie that lacks a solid plot, a compelling villain and only survives thanks to very impressive fighting scenes.

“The company has set the template for modern blockbusters, with practically every studio in Hollywood adopting its shared-universe strategy. A large part of that success has been due to the diligent, careful orchestration that connects all the films. But we’ve seen Tony Stark’s origin story before; we’ve seen Ant-Man. We know that formula works. And when it’s repeated year after year, that’s what it becomes: a tired formula,” wrote Bryan Bishop for The Verge.

Doctor Strange

Marvel’s ‘Doctor Strange’ [Walt Disney Studios]

And that is what happened with Doctor Strange, for instance: a movie that went beyond simple story telling and experimented with visual effects and fighting scenes but that ultimately told the very same story we saw with the other instalments.

Marvel stepping outside its comfort zone in terms of tone and approach is a good start, but the studio will have to start doing the same thing with the structure of its stories, otherwise its Cinematic Universe will collapse upon itself, no matter how pretty the visual effects.

It’s pretty common in 2017 to critique Marvel for its general sameness and lack of innovative storytelling devices, with its similar origin stories and similar world-ending stakes that it’s daringly innovative to simply try a different tone (Ant-Man) or changing the background to a space opera (Guardians of the Galaxy) or even move a little further with Inception-like special effects (Doctor Strange).

On the other side of the battlefield, however, sit Warner Bros. and DC Comics. The joint-venture that intermittently shines under the Bat-signal has had a few more problems than Marvel.

With its lack of timing, DC Comics tried to catch up in the cinematic war with Marvel only a few years ago but with no critical success.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, which had the burden of successfully rebooting the franchise, performed sufficiently at the box office but poorly amongst the critics. At least they didn’t remain on Marvel’s success by copying their formula.

They might have not performed well but at least they tried to change the game playing with different rules and different narrative ideas.

The formula may not yet be successful but at least it was a breath of fresh air from the monotonous glory of its eternal rivals at Marvel.

“Lagging behind Marvel, Fox is betting big on going small, in effect creating a new formula to get audiences excited about its superhero movies again.”

Fortunately for us, there’s another player in the city. Fearing bankruptcy, in fact, Marvel sold the rights for cinematic transposition back in 2014 of many of its intellectual properties like Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four and the X-Men to Sony Studios and 20th Century Fox.

While Spidey has finally swung back to the House of Ideas, Fox still retains the film rights to many of Marvel’s characters and, to be honest, it isn’t doing such a bad job with them.

It’s a common practice in Hollywood to go bigger for action movies and their shared universes. It already defines the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it’s certainly why Warner Bros. has invested billions in Zack Snyder’s grim and bombastic aesthetic,” wrote Kwame Opam in his editorial “Why Fox is ditching Marvel’s superhero strategy” for The Verge.

“But Deadpool was a hedged bet from the start, Fox only greenlighting the hard-R project — at a relatively modest budget of $58 million — after director Tim Miller’s test footage leaked in 2014,” Opam added.

Deadpool

‘Deadpool’ played by Ryan Reynolds [20th Century Fox]

“Showing Wade Wilson punching his way through faceless goons all while quipping for the camera, the footage was received by the fan community with incredible enthusiasm,” he continues.

Fox has learnt the harsh lesson that is better to bet on small and different franchises rather than going big as Hollywood has been doing recently. This new approach has been paying off well.

This year will be the last Hugh Jackman’s performance as the Wolverine in the movie Logan. As a matter of consistency, even this last instalment will be rated R, a move that would definitely not possible for the Disney-owned Marvel.

“Not trying to simply play Marvel’s game is slowly becoming a virtue when it comes to genre properties in Hollywood.”

So, whose fault is it?

Marvel has a long history of comic book storytelling that pretty much gave birth to the genre itself. Why is it so different now with its cinematic counterpart?

There is a trend that involves editorial choices that may be summed up as “orders from the upstairs management”. How much is Disney involved in Marvel’s editorial choices?

It is a given that Disney has always had the ultimate goal to appeal to as many people as possible, with kids as its main audience.

That is probably why many of its franchises, including the Star Wars saga, all have plenty of sequels and prequels already on the timeline for the next ten years or so. And all have been lacking in quality recently.

Disney, with its interest to appeal to the largest audience possible, has created a universe in which every superhero movie is definitely enjoyable and critically acclaimed, but never close to be brilliant or as good as the comic counterpart.

2016 has been the year where Disney owned the box office, with all of its major franchises (Disney Studios, Pixar Animation, Marvel and Lucasfilm) performing well with revenues all in the $900 million to $1 billion range. By the end of 2016 the House of Mouse had capitalised more than $5 billion with the huge opening weekend for Star Wars: Rogue One.

Midway through December, Disney also announced it had become the first movie studio in history to bring home more than $7 billion in a single calendar year.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

 

 

 


Featured image by Marvel Facebook