By Sumeet & Spencer. This edition of the Conversationalist follows up on Marvel’s surprise hit, Guardians Of The Galaxy, and what it means for the state of Marvel’s on-screen universe and the wider superhero genre.
Sumeet: The Marvel Universe took a big leap this past weekend, adding a new intergalactic set of characters to their more well-known Avengers mix. As many film folks have noted, it was an interesting risk for the Marvel/Disney machine to take on Guardians Of The Galaxy. For those even less in the know than me (I know almost nothing about the comic book characters), the Guardians are a relatively obscure and off-beat superhero team. They appeared sporadically throughout various Marvel comics but only became featured in their own comic series relatively recently. In other words, I’m not the only one that didn’t know much about them before this weekend.
However, even with that branding challenge, Marvel managed to hit another one out of the park. Guardians Of The Galaxy finished with almost $100m on opening weekend, only a smidgen behind Captain America: The Winter Soldier in terms of this year’s comic book movie openings. That may not seem like much, but it means the unknown Guardians beat the openings of both The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and X-Men: Days Of Future Past, the historical bigwigs of the Marvel comic universe.
And at least compared to The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Guardians was certainly a better movie. Like all of the recent Marvel Studios movies from The Avengers to Captain America 2, Guardians was a solid, entertaining adventure movie with fun characters, flashy-but-not-too-flashy action sequences and just the right amount of comic relief. While it was admittedly a little more irreverent and outlandish than other comic book movies, I was actually more impressed by how disciplined it was. For better or for worse, Guardians represents to me the fact that Marvel Studios is unwilling to make mistakes anymore. It’s a very good superhero movie, but it never tried to be a great one. It pushed all the right audience buttons — sad but only briefly explored origin stories, humorous team-building antics, a city-destroying final action sequence — and then called it a night.
Which brings me to my question for you, Spencer: in addition to your thoughts on Guardians in its own right, do you think it’s the peak (or edge) of what Marvel is willing to do when it comes to superhero movies?
Spencer: Well, if you stayed around for the post-credits teaser (SPOILER ALERT), then the answer to your question may be that they’re just getting started with their risk-taking. Howard The Duck? Is Marvel getting a little cocky already?
I think Marvel set exactly the right tone with Guardians Of The Galaxy. The only way you can succeed with this particular cast of characters is by making fun of yourself, and they did that in spades. Chris Pratt probably took the leap to A-list star with this one, and it’s well-deserved if you’ve seen his smaller roles in movies like Moneyball and Zero Dark Thirty. Bradley Cooper is crazy good as Rocket Raccoon, and the real surprise is wrestler Dave Bautista as Drax The Destroyer — whose straight man is the perfect foil for the comedy of the rest of the team.
But let’s be honest: the real star here is Marvel. The reason this movie succeeded at the box office (and the reason that Thor 2 and Captain America 2 both overperformed as well) is that people now trust the Marvel brand. They’ll see anything Marvel puts in front of them. So even though I have zero interest in characters like Ant-Man or Doctor Strange, I’ll be there opening weekend when Marvel gives them their own films in 2015 and 2016. Because Marvel hasn’t failed us yet.
Their winning streak is that much more remarkable when you compare it with what Sony has done with your beloved Spidey franchise. They’re flailing! A lot of people questioned the wisdom of rebooting the series so soon after the Tobey Maguire trilogy, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was a financial and critical disappointment. Now Spidey 3 is on hold, and Sony’s plans for Sinister Six and Venom standalone pics are in limbo. They’re reportedly going to give a standalone film to a female character from the Spider-Man universe (Spider-Woman? Black Cat?), but given the complete lack of direction Sony is showing, I have to take those reports with a grain of salt.
So how is Sony stumbling with Marvel Comics’ most popular character, while Marvel Studios is hitting it out of the park with Star-Lord and Rocket Raccoon? Clearly it starts with bringing in the right creative talent. But I think humor has also been a big component, starting with Robert Downey Jr.’s take on Iron Man and going right on through the ridiculousness of GOTG. I went to see GOTG with my mom, who had never seen a Marvel movie before, and to my complete surprise, she absolutely loved it. The first thing she asked was, “are they all this funny?” And basically, the answer is yes. Marvel has set itself up as the counter to the darker stylings of Christopher Nolan in the Dark Knight trilogy (or worse yet, Zach Snyder’s morbid Man Of Steel, which managed to make Superman completely joyless). They consistently make the summer’s most fun-filled movies, and so long as they keep that formula going, they’ve got a deep enough bench of characters to keep churning out quality for at least another half-decade or so.
So what’s your take on where Marvel goes from here? Are you excited or skeptical about their upcoming slate? Are there any other B-list Marvel characters that you think should make the leap to the big screen? And what does the success of GOTG mean for the broader genre of comic book movies (a genre that, some would say, has overstayed its welcome)?
Sumeet: I actually did stay until the post-credits scene (though I shouldn’t have) and I think it kind of proves my point: only the post-credits scene was not reminiscent of The Avengers. I actually agree with all of your overall points about how the movie struck the right tone in making fun of itself; how Sony appears to be entering an absolute freefall with its handling of the Spider-Man franchise; and how Marvel has brilliantly established itself as the brand to beat when it comes to superhero movies, both by incorporating humor and by ensuring their franchises have a minimum quality threshold. But to answer your questions, I think they’re just going to keep making movies that feel the same and I’m moderately excited but increasingly underwhelmed about their upcoming slate.
I liked GOTG just like I liked Captain America 2 and The Avengers and Thor and all the rest of them. They’re fun, they were extremely clever and original in establishing a multi-movie universe, and they were executed with minimal errors. I fully expect the next few movies Marvel creates will likewise be fun and well-executed (and I’ll certainly still see them). But I also think they created their universe/brand and they seem pretty content with just sticking with their status quo now. Brand momentum should carry them through the next couple of movies, but I do think they unfortunately will have overstayed their welcome by the time Doctor Strange comes out if they’re not willing to push the boundaries of originality anymore.
Ant-Man and the firing of Edgar Wright is telling. As many people have talked about, ditching Wright (best known for quirky fare like Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz) is a sign of how much Marvel is controlling their creative talent. I don’t know what Wright had in mind for Ant-Man (and it could have been total crap) but I do worry that we’re moving to Marvel bench superheroes — where arguably you can exercise more creative license precisely because they’re less iconic — and Marvel is still trying to tightly control their world. Like I said, it’ll work for them for a few years yet, but I do see at least myself becoming more and more disappointed as Ant-Man feels like Captain America, Doctor Strange feels like Thor, and The Avengers and GOTG sequels feel just like their originals. And I think that’s exactly what Marvel wants to do.
All that is a long way of saying that I think GOTG does represent the peak of the superhero genre in terms of its popularity. With Sony doing god knows what with Spider-Man at this point and Wolverine starting to look a little too aged to carry the X-Men, a decreasingly original Avengers/GOTG universe could mark the decline of the genre overall. I will say the one superhero movie I am intrigued by currently (and you’re going to hate me for this) is the Fantastic Four reboot. It admittedly has likely train wreck written all over it, and it’s definitely not an automatic must-see like a Marvel brand movie would be, but I think of the movies on the horizon it has the most potential to truly shake things up in the genre. The limited news on it so far makes you tilt your head and say “huh?”, so it’s clear they’re not afraid of a little risk-taking. And unlike Batman v. Superman, it’s not directed by Zack Snyder, whose talent seems inversely proportional to source material strength. I can’t remember — have I told you how much I despise his work on Man Of Steel?
Spencer: Oh yes, we’ve certainly discussed Man Of Steel, and I think you hated it even more than I did (which is saying something).
You’ve identified a Marvel “feel,” and you’re definitely right about that. I fully expect more of the same when Avengers: Age Of Ultron comes out next summer (and would you want it any other way?). The poster that came out during last month’s Comic Con suggests, for all your talk of safety, that they’re at least ambitious enough to try and outdo themselves in terms of scale with this one.
But to give credit where credit is due, there was nothing safe about making a movie about the Guardians Of The Galaxy. I thought it was pure idiocy when they first announced it; even as a kid, I never enjoyed that book. Of course, I could say the same about Thor, and look what they pulled off there. By going with Doctor Strange and Ant-Man next, I think Marvel is continuing to take risks. Though I’m skeptical of those characters as well, I must admit that the rumors that Joaquin Phoenix, Tom Hardy, or even Benedict Cumberbatch are under consideration to play Strange have me intrigued at the direction this might take. And hell, if you’re going to do a comic take on Ant-Man, you can’t make a better casting decision than Paul Rudd.
So control notwithstanding, I think Marvel has earned the benefit of the doubt until further notice. As for the other major comic franchises out there, I agree that X-Men will run out of gas soon — X-Men: Apocalypse is up next, and while the excellent First Class cast of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender shows potential for carrying the franchise into the future, they can only milk Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine for so much longer (and I can’t imagine anyone else playing him).
I have zero hope for Batman v. Superman. Snyder’s direction is ham-handed and his understanding of the characters is laughable. The decision to cast Ben Affleck as Batman shows that the studio is more concerned with selling this movie than with making it (an irony given that the creative decisions they’ve announced to date, including the appearance of Wonder Woman and Aquaman, and that name — Dawn Of Justice, are you effing kidding me? — have been met with near-universal mockery from the fanboys).
And the Fantastic Four reboot? I don’t think any amount of creative casting can save a franchise with such hokey characters. You might point to Guardians Of The Galaxy as proof that any B-list superhero can succeed if given the proper creative treatment. But I strongly suspect that Guardians is the exception rather than the rule.