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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Peter Jackson

marvel logos

Is Marvel Entertainment evil?

I compiled commentary from twelve experts, and the results are not good for superhero fans.

“I’m not going to head off and do a Marvel film,” director Peter Jackson said on the eve of his Hobbit 3 release. “I don’t really like the Hollywood blockbuster bandwagon that exists right now. The industry and the advent of all the technology, has kind of lost its way. It’s become very franchise driven and superhero driven.”

Since Jackson’s Lord of the Rings marked that technology advent, and since Jackson made all six of the Tolkien franchise films, that leaves superheroes as his only objection. He doesn’t like them. Or at least he doesn’t like Marvel—which, despite Warner Bros’ best efforts, is the same thing.

Even Marvel’s own Iron Man Robert Downey, Jr. is sees the rust: “Honestly, the whole thing is just showing the beginning signs of fraying around the edges. It’s a little bit old. Last summer there were five or seven different ones out.”

Actually, there were only four superhero movies last summer, and though Marvel Entertainment produced only two (Captain America, Guardians of the Galaxy), the Marvel logo appeared at the start of the last X-Men and Spider-Man installments too. But you can’t blame Downey’s miscount. New York Times film critic A. O. Scott expressed a similar opinion after seeing Downey in The Avengers two year earlier: “the genre, though it is still in a period of commercial ascendancy, has also entered a phase of imaginative decadence.”

Alan Moore’s review was even more apocalyptic: “I think it’s a rather alarming sign if we’ve got audiences of adults going to see the Avengers movie and delighting in concepts and characters meant to entertain the 12-year-old boys of the 1950s.” Even The Avengers own director Joss Whedon acknowledges that audiences are tired of at least some aspects of the formula: “People have made it very clear that they are fed up with movies where entire cities are destroyed, and then we celebrate.”

And yet when a director attempts to shake-up the formula, Marvel fires them. Marvel’s Ant-Man went into production only because of Edgar Wright’s involvement, but when Marvel wasn’t happy with his last script, they rewrote it without his input, followed by a joint announcement that Wright was leaving “due to differences in their visions of the film.” Wright joined axed Marvel directors Kenneth Branaugh, Joe Johnston, and Patty Jenkins (as well as axed actors Edward Norton and Terrance Howard), all victims of similar differences in vision.

Is this the same risk-taking Marvel that hired Ang Lee to make his idiosyncratic Hulk? Is this the same Marvel that hired drug-addict Robert Downey, Jr. after Downey couldn’t stay clean long enough to complete a season of Alley McBeal? Is this the same Marvel that hired the iconoclastic Joss Whedon after his Buffy empire expired, his Firefly franchise flopped, and his Wonder Woman script never even made it into Development Hell?

Actually, it’s not.

Kim Masters and Borys Kit of The Hollywood Reporter explain:  “Marvel and Wright were different entities when they began their relationship. Marvel was an upstart, independent and feisty as it began building the Marvel Studios brand.”

marvel logo 80s

The Marvel I grew up reading, Marvel Comics Group, hasn’t been around since 1986, when its parent company, Marvel Entertainment Group, was sold to New World Entertainment. Technically, Marvel Comics (AKA Atlas Comics, AKA Timely Comics) ceased to exist in 1968 when owner Martin Goodman sold his company to Perfect Film and Chemical Corporation. The corporate juggling is hard to follow, but that next Marvel was sold to MacAndrews Group in 1989, and then, as part of a bankruptcy deal, to Toy Biz in 1997, where it became Marvel Enterprises, before changing its name to Marvel Entertainment in 2005 when it created Marvel Studios, before sold to Disney in 2009.

marvel studios

The real question is: at what point did Hydra infiltrate it?

I would like to report that the nefarious forces of evil have seized only Marvel’s movie-making branches, leaving its financially infinitesimal world of comic books to wallow in benign neglect. But that’s not the case.

Marvel comics writer Chris Claremont, renown for his 16-year run on The Uncanny X-Men, is currently hampered in his Nightcrawler scripting because he and everyone else writing X-Men titles are forbidden to create new characters.  “Well,” he asked, “who owns them?” Fox does. Which means any new character Claremont creates becomes the film property of a Marvel Entertainment rival. “There will be no X-Men merchandising for the foreseeable future because, why promote Fox material?”

That’s also why Marvel cancelled The Fantastic Four. Those film rights are owned by Fox too, with a reboot out next August. Why should the parent company allow one of its micro-branches to promote another studio’s movie? Well, for one, The Fantastic Four was the title that launched the Marvel superhero pantheon and its subsequent comics empire in 1961.  Surely even a profits-blinded mega-corporation can recognize the historical significance?

Like I said: Hydra.

This is what drove former Marvel creator Paul Jenkins to the independent Boom! Studios: “It bugs me that the creators were a primary focus when the mainstream publishers needed them, and now that the corporations are driving the boat, creative decisions are being made once again by shareholders.” Former Marvel editor-in-chief Roy Thomas agrees: “There is a sense of loss because the tail is now wagging the dog.”

Compare that to Fantagraphics editor Garry Groth: “I think it’s a publisher’s obligation to take risks; I could probably publish safe, respectable ‘literary’ comics or solid, ‘good,’ uncontroversial comics for the rest of my life. I think it’s important, personally and professionally, to occasionally get outside your comfort zone.”

Marvel Entertainment is all about comfort zones. Even for its actors. “It’s all set up now so that you’re weirdly kind of safe,” says former Batman star Michael Keaton. “Once you get in those suits, they really know what to do with you. It was hard then; it ain’t that hard now.” New York Times’ Alex Pappademas is “old enough to remember when Warner Brothers entrusted the 1989 Batman and its sequel to Tim Burton, and how bizarre that decision seemed at the time, and how Burton ended up making one deeply and fascinatingly Tim Burton-ish movie that happened to be about Batman (played by the equally unlikely Michael Keaton, still the only screen Bruce Wayne who seemed like a guy with a dark secret).”

That’s the same Michael Keaton that just rode Birdman to the Oscars. How soon till Marvel’s Agents of H.Y.D.R.A. overwhelm that corner of Hollywood?

birdman

As Jack Black sang at the Oscars ceremony: “Opening with lots of zeroes, all we get are superheroes: Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, Jediman, Sequelman, Prequelman – formulaic scripts!”

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middle earth

My family and I spent the first half of 2011 in Middle-earth. We took a bus tour to Rivendell and Hobbiton. We have a family photo of ourselves posed where Frodo and his friends tumbled down that hill before the Dark Riders almost caught them. Minas Tirith and Helm’s Deep are gone, but we parked across the street from the industrial park where they’d been built. It turned out Isengard was just a public park. The base of Saruman’s tower had been a blue screen draped in front of a children’s swing set. When Aragorn’s horse finds him washed ashore on a Rohan river bank, they had to angle out the power lines and row of suburban houses.

map_of_wellington

Still, Middle-earth (AKA Aotearoa, AKA New Zealand) is a magical place in my book. I spent most of my time there drafting the first half of a novel (the one that shares its name with this blog) and chauffeuring my wife and kids to their various schools. My wife’s sorcery (AKA Fulbright research grant) flung us to the other side of the planet. But the real magic was my 13-year-old daughter’s transformation after we landed.

Never underestimate the power of changing worlds. Flash Gordon, John Carter, Superman, they all became extraordinary by leaving their homes and adventuring in faraway lands.

superman rocket

That means leaving your old identity behind. My daughter had been haunted by a third grade assignment where everyone wrote descriptions of their classmates. She received the same word over and over: Quiet, Quiet, Quiet, Quiet. Actually, they all misspelled it, “Quite,” but the effect was the same. A spell that bound her.

Until she stepped off that plane in Wellington, NZ. When she walked into a sea of identically uniformed Wellington Girls College students, not one of them knew her. She could be anyone. The spell was broken.

It terrified her, no safety net of friends between her and the abyss, but after a couple of weeks, she cooked up a spell of her own: The Audacious American Girl. She crossed out the word “quiet” and wrote “loud.” She took to the part like a pro, a better method actor than Sir Ian or Viggo Mortensen. Nobody could contradict her. Her laughter drowned them out.

Meanwhile, New Zealand’s directorial superhero Peter Jackson was at it again. The Hobbit was in full production. We’d toured the outskirts of his Wellington studio, glimpsed the giant green wall where he conjured universes of possibilities. He flew into a benefit event at a newly refurbished theater dressed as retro-superhero The Rocketeer, before unmasking and posing with his Hobbit cast. It made the front page of the local paper, which I showed my kids over breakfasts of crumpets and muesli.

rocketeer unmasked iwth cast

I ignored the casting call for extras, something I still half-regret. My wife loved me in that elf costume the tour bus driver made me pose in. But I had other spells to complete. I wanted to return to Virginia with most of a novel written.

And what would happen when my Supergirl had to rocket home? All those old friends and their loving shards of kryptonite, would they unmask her refurbished self and destroy the enchantment?

It turns out Middle-earth magic works in our realm too. My quiet thirteen-year-old daughter returned an audaciously loud fourteen-year-old.

Which had some downsides too. Her suddenly flourishing social life meant less family time. She would only watch the occasional Merlin or Sherlock with us now. Family movie outings were taboo.

Until The Hobbit. We didn’t even coerce her. A year and a half away from Middle-earth is long enough. We’d watched The Lord of the Rings trilogy on our Wellington couch. My wife read the series aloud to both kids about a decade ago. I’d claimed the Oz books, and they got Harry Potter from us both. I think they heard The Hobbit twice too.  The family copy is on our son’s bedroom shelves right now.

With the exception of The Cat in the Hat, The Hobbit trilogy promises to be the fist book adaptation that takes longer to watch than to read. The first installment runs a little under three hours. Leaving just enough time for my daughter to make her dinner shift at our local pizza place after the matinee.

Much of it is worthwhile. Though the two musical numbers are a bit surreal, in a bad way. And the rock giant battle should win an Oscar for most gratuitous use of CGI. I prefer Martin Freeman as the BBC’s most recent Watson, but he makes a perfectly acceptable Bilbo too. (I didn’t spot him, but I hear Sherlock got one of those no-name elf roles I spurned). It was also a delight to see our favorite vampire from Being Human (explaining why he got staked at the end of season 3). But Gollum’s scene is by far far far the most entertaining fifteen minutes of the film. Which bodes badly for the next two, since he won’t be in them.

But all that New Zealand scenery will be. Shot after breathtaking shot of south island mountain terrain, it’s actually real. I drove it. On the wrong side of the road, white knuckled, with my wife flailing in the passenger seat, Orcs and Goblins gaining in the rear view mirror. It’s a magical place. Too bad we have to wait another year to go back again. The Hobbit 2 release date is December 2013.

Who knows what new spells my daughter will have learned by then.

the-hobbit-movies

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