Drawn from undreal life

Drawn from unreal life, by Geoff Boucher - 22nd March 2008
(Credit: The Sydney Morning Herald)

The company that gave the world Spiderman is going into the movie-making business, writes Geoff Boucher.

Building 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.

Once 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," he says.

Launching 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.

After 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 popcorn movies.

Feige's 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."

True, 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.

It 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 quality."

Still, 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.

The 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 of Spider-Man.

The 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.

"All 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.

The 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."

Perhaps, 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 apple.

It 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.

Rob 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.

"Only 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.

"There's 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."'

Marvel 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.

It 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.

The 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.

Los Angeles Times



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