from unreal life, by Geoff Boucher - 22nd March
The Sydney Morning Herald)
The company that gave the world
Spiderman is going into the movie-making business,
writes Geoff Boucher.
a superhero from scratch is noisy and hazardous.
"Let's find a place where it's quieter."
The man shouting is Kevin Feige, the president
of production for Marvel Studios, the Hollywood
start-up that takes flight in May with its first
film, Iron Man. Feige is walking, carefully, through
one of the film's huge Playa Vista sets on the
west side of Los Angeles where a whirling metal
saw is kicking up a cascade of sparks.
in a quieter corridor, Feige gushes about its
special effects, but then says the film's greatest
asset is a hero with weakness hard-wired into
his psyche. "That's what makes Marvel characters
special: they are people who become heroes but
also have flaws and they struggle with them,"
a big movie production company seems a dicey venture.
But the Marvel formula has been a spectacular
success for other studios in the past eight years.
The self-doubting Spider-Man, the bickering Fantastic
Four, the misunderstood X-Men and all the other
Marvel misfits have racked up $US5 billion ($5.5
billion) in worldwide box offices, most of that
for Sony and Fox. Marvel now wants its own spot
at the table.
four years of planning and winning over Wall Street,
Iron Man is the first step in the company's quest
to go from intellectual-property fount to a stand-alone
Hollywood player that can greenlight big-time
boss and friend, David Maisel, the chairman of
Marvel Studios, is pleased to be standing on the
deck of a ship that can go in deep water. "We're
the first since DreamWorks started 14 years ago
that can greenlight its own $100 million movies.
It doesn't happen very often."
though Marvel is not a studio in the traditional
sense - it has fewer than three dozen employees,
no lot, and it will turn to Paramount Pictures
as its primary distribution pipeline.
makes for an intriguing story arc for the Marvel
brand name, which next year celebrates its 70th
anniversary. The beginning was not an ambitious
one. The year after Superman landed at the newsstands,
the pulp-magazine publisher Martin Goodman decided
to take a flier on this new "comic book"
craze. The venture hardly looked like the stuff
of history - the pragmatic Goodman had a fairly
low opinion of his newsstand products. "Fans,"
Goodman once said, "are not interested in
that first issue produced two lasting characters,
the Human Torch and Namor the Sub-Mariner, and
they were soon followed by the patriotic World
War II creation Captain America. But it was not
until the 1960s that Marvel seized on an identity
that really mattered in American pop culture.
That is when Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko
and the other creators in the self-styled "House
of Ideas" gave the world its first soapy
superheroes, masked men who saved the world but
somehow lost the girl, bounced their rent cheque
and hid from the police. Kirby's art, meanwhile,
was so kinetic and surreal that Superman, over
at the rival DC Comics, instantly seemed like
a caped Pat Boone, stiff and slow to understand
the new rhythm.
Beverly Hills office of Marvel Studios has been
quite the scene in recent months. One afternoon
you might see Robert Downey jnr, the star of Iron
Man, another time it might be Edward Norton, who
gets green in The Incredible Hulk in June. The
Edge of U2 has dropped by too, working on the
music for Julie Taymor's planned Broadway musical
bright and tidy office has a gleaming statue of
the Silver Surfer in its lobby, and in a rear
room, behind a locked door, there is a giant "life-size"
image of the new Hulk. Another wall at the Marvel
office is covered with storyboards for the film,
including an arctic fight scene between the unjolly
green giant and a killer whale. That scene did
not make it into the film, but maybe it can inspire
the ride designers working on that $US1 billion
Marvel theme park announced in the United Arab
Emirates this month.
of this, it's a time of amazing confluence for
us," says Maisel, a former protege of the
uber-agent Michael Ovitz, who also made a career
stop at Disney. Maisel came to Marvel in 2004.
Feige, from the University of Southern California
School of Cinema-Television, had been there for
four years by then and had worked on the X-Men
and Spider-Man franchises.
two aspire to take Marvel into the realm of Disney
and Pixar as a film brand that speaks to audiences
with instant clarity. "I believe," Maisel
says, "we are doing something very special."
but Marvel Studios will have to do it without
its biggest names: Spider-Man, Fantastic Four
and the X-Men. Fox also has the X-Men spinoff
Wolverine (starring Hugh Jackman and now filming
in Australia) and a possible second one in Magneto.
Daredevil and Ghost Rider are other fan favourites
that already have had their bite at the screen
is fair to wonder if Marvel has already rented
out its best properties. That view is supported
by the fact that the studio's second film will
be a do-over of sorts - Ang Lee's dour Hulk was
released by Universal in 2003 and did not energise
audiences or critics (its second-week US box office
plummeted 70 per cent). The studio has also announced
that Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) will direct
Ant-Man, a character that dates to 1962 but has
gnat-sized name recognition with the public.
Moore, the vice-chairman of Paramount Pictures,
says that does not matter. Marvel has 5000 characters
in its library, and history has shown they do
not need to be household names to click - New
Line Cinema, for example, made three successful
Blade films based on an obscure Marvel character.
Pixar has the sort of streak going that Marvel
has right now … the stories, both the ones
people know and the ones they will learn about,
are fantastic," Moore says.
an awareness when people see the name that, 'Oh,
here comes another movie that I can enjoy as an
adult and take my kids to."'
Studios also has the signature characters Captain
America and Thor in active development. Black
Panther, Dr Strange and the Avengers have been
circled as other film candidates.
was the former Marvel executive Avi Arad, once
a toy designer in Israel, who came to town with
the idea of making "serious" comic-book
films and putting them in the hands of grown-up
fans of 1960s Marvel, such as director Sam Raimi,
who had a mural of Spider-Man on his bedroom wall
as a kid. Now, the "serious" approach
is standard; just look at Batman Begins, 300 and
Sin City. Marvel is keeping pace - Iron Man may
be about a guy with a red metal suit, but it stars
three Oscar nominees (Downey, Terrence Howard
and Jeff Bridges) as well as one winner (Gwyneth
Paltrow). A decade ago that would have been shocking;
now it is barely noted.
story is of Tony Stark, a narcissistic weapons
tycoon who enjoys women, booze and the sound of
lucrative explosions. But while in Afghanistan
he is wounded, kidnapped and forced to design
a weapon for the enemies of America. He makes
a battle suit that not only helps him escape but
is a life-support system for a coronary injury.