Actors Tom Hiddleston & Clark Gregg (both center), Marvel's Loki and Agent Coulson respectively, ring the opening bell on the New York Stock exchange.
A "ZERO TO HERO" MARVEL
The “Which is more popular?”, “Which is darker?”, Marvel vs. D.C., “leap frogging” phenomenon began in the 1960s - 70s as D.C.’s heroes (their darker edges shaved away in the 1950s because of national censorship concerns) became more “establishment” figures, while over at Marvel (in the way of CAPT. AMERICA, HULK, SILVER SURFER, SPIDER-MAN, FANTASTIC FOUR, X-MEN et al) became the ever-increasing-in-popularity “counter culture” equivalent.
Once the enviable “new kid on the block”, by the 1980s / 90s Marvel’s fortunes had plummeted to such a degree that its company stock shares, once selling for nearly $40, had nosedived to less than $2.50. On the verge of bankruptcy the company licensed out a number of its most valuable properties in deals which produced a series of critically derided bombs … or no films whatsoever. Then after changing ownership more than once, in the end its future filmic fate would fall into the hands of a shrewd and daring Israeli-American toy executive with a radical plan to turn the company’s fortunes around.
Just as with real estate and other popular markets, so too did the boomtown years of the 1980s / 90s comic book Renaissance to a large degree come to be based upon a fragile bubble of consumer perception (perhaps coupled with a little distribution & retail deception). Believing that the new wave of comic books would, like their WW2 era predecessors, become high-priced collectibles which just might “put my future children through college”, a huge speculator market grew during the late 1980s.
Comic shop retailers took a bath on The Guinness Book of World Records'
"Biggest Selling Comic Book Issue Of All Time" - the relaunched X-MEN #1 (Oct. 1991):
Pre-ordering over 8 million copies of the multi-cover release, only 3 million were actually sold.
Failing to acknowledge that the reason many of the comics during and immediately following the war years of the 40s / 50s had become so valuable was because many had been destroyed (due to paper drives or censorship – thus making them rare), publishers not only jumped onto, but helped stoke the coals of the growing speculator market by releasing single issues with multiple “collectible” covers. Therefore a collector would buy say five copies of the same issue, each with a different cover - keeping them unopened in their original poly bags, while buying a sixth copy to actually tear open and read.
Years later X-MEN (2000) and X2 (2003) would be among Marvel's first major film successes.
The bubble eventually burst when the buying public a) became hip to the hustle, and b) just couldn’t afford to continue going along. Scrambling to sell off their collections, the collectors suddenly became aware of how truly “valuable” their nest eggs were – which is to say “not at all”, with not only consumers in possession of multiple cover copies, but even retailers struggling to sell off boxes of the same issues as they grew mold in their basements.
With the industry propped up on “multiple run” issues, when the demand suddenly vanished, stock prices crashed and burned, and the industry went belly up. Shielded under the corporate umbrella of Warner Bros., D.C. was better able to weather the storm than Marvel, which was (for all intents and purposes) an individual entity left to fend for itself in the winds of the economic storm.
From the 1970s up to this point, in order to stay afloat as a corporate entity Marvel (under the title “MEG – Marvel Entertainment Group”) had sold off the screen options to many of its popular characters including SPIDER-MAN, THE FANTASTIC FOUR, HULK, SILVER SURFER, DAREDEVIL, IRON MAN and HOWARD THE DUCK. Then in 1986, at the height of the speculator market, MEG was purchased by New World Entertainment – formerly “New World Pictures”, the company originally founded by “B” movie king Roger Corman.
Steve Gerber's acclaimed "existential" 70s era satire
During the New World years MEG produced a mildly entertaining / moderately successful 1989 version of its THE PUNISHER with Dolph Lundgren and Louis Gossett, Jr. But the formerly “Mighty” Marvel at this time mostly became the less than marvelous butt of industry (and fan) jokes as it saw made from it’s properties a laughably cheesy adaptation of CAPTAIN AMERICA (1990) from SWORD AND THE SORCERER director Albert Pyun.
Adding insult to injury (and already hemorrhaging finances) the comic book company would also watch it’s SPIDER-MAN go unmade for half a decade after shifting hands from Pyun to Golan & Globus’ Cannon Pictures (where it was to be directed by TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and POLTERGEIST’s Tobe Hooper), then to Carolco Pictures (RAMBO, THE TERMINATOR), where an unused treatment and script were hashed out by a young up-and-coming force to be reckoned with named James Cameron.
The George Lucas produced HOWARD THE DUCK (1986) was perhaps the most high profile black-eye inflicted upon a Marvel property up to this date. But undoubtedly the greatest genuine debacle was a film which was made but never intended to be seen – 1994’s “ashcan” version of THE FANTASTIC FOUR.
With his FANTASTIC FOUR option set to expire at the end of 1992,
Eichinger approached low-budget king Roger Corman to produce a FANTASTIC
FOUR film for $1 million - Eichinger’s quoted reasoning at the time
being “They didn’t say it had to be a big movie”. Shot
in three and a half weeks in and around Los Angeles, trailers for the
film ran at the beginning of home video copies of the Corman produced
JURASSIC PARK cash-in CARNOSAUR. And the film’s four principal cast
members even appeared at San Diego Comic-Con to promote it.
In 1986 German producer Bernd Eichinger (THE NEVERENDING STORY, THE NAME OF THE ROSE, RESIDENT EVIL) optioned the film rights to THE FANTASTIC FOUR. For those unaware, an “option” is when the rights to a story and / or its characters is / are “leased” (would be the most accurate term) for a designated period of time. If the film fails to go into production by the expiration of that option, the rights revert back to the original owner. If the film is made, the “lease-er” (if the original agreement designates) maintains the rights to make another film based on that same property.
(Top) HOWARD's '86 LucasFilm adapt. and (bottom) 2014 GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY cameo.
This option "lock" is why Marc Webb’s newly rebooted THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN arrived so quickly after the final Sam Raimi SPIDER-MAN film with Toby McGuire – so that Sony might retain it's license on the character without the filmic rights reverting back to Marvel. This is also why Fox produces a new film every couple of years from the X-MEN universe - X2, THE WOLVERINE, DEADPOOL, X-MEN: APOCALYPSE, etc. Anyway …
Producers Bernd Eichinger & Roger Corman
Various versions as to why the film was never released (either
theatrically or on home video) persists to this day - with the late
Eichinger insisting the film was meant to be distributed, while Marvel’s
Stan Lee claims it was never anything but an “ashcan” write-off tossed
together in order for Eichinger to hold on to the option.
Adding to the confusion, eventual Marvel head Avi Arad would claim that, while the film showed an admirable passion for the project, it’s low production values would have ultimately proved detrimental to the property’s future integrity, and for this reason he purchased the film himself from Eichinger in order to have all prints destroyed. In spite of it all online bootleg prints continue to persist to this day. Interestingly, Eichinger would eventually get to produce (with Arad and 20th Century Fox) the 2005 FANTASTIC FOUR and its immediate 2007 follow up FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER.
Cast of the infamous (though beloved by some) "ashcan" version of THE FANTASTIC FOUR (1994)
If there is a single genuine “Iron Man” within Marvel’s “zero to hero” rise to filmic respect it is surely Avi Arad. As Marvel’s fortunes began to wane in the late 1980s / early 90s, the toy company “Toy Biz” (owned by Issac Permutter) in 1993 signed an unheard of “exclusive, perpetual, royalty free” deal with the comic book company to manufacture toys based on their characters in exchange for 46% of Toy Biz’s equity. Arad joined Toy Biz that same year for a salary and a 10% stake in the company. Then over the next few years Toy Biz saw enough success to outsell Mattel toys by a near 25% profit margin.
It’s a long and serpentine legal story, but the “Reader’s Digest” version is that in 1989 MEG (Marvel Entertainment Group) is purchased by billionaire Ronald Perelman’s diversified holding company, MacAndrews & Forbes – the group which at the time also holds Revlon, Gilette and other well known American corporations. In 1996 “Marvel Studios” is created to handle the film aspects of the company’s characters; and Arad and Permutter – because of their large stake in Toy Biz, become part of the new studio’s Board of Directors.
Perelman and corporate raider Carl Icahn (who over the years also controlled percentages of Motorola and Lear) attempt to make a huge profit by breaking up and selling off Marvel. And in 1997 they file the company for bankruptcy in an attempt to thwart any counter-actions to that plan. With personal stake in Marvel, Arad and Permutter engage in a “David and Goliath” legal battle against Perelman and Icahn, which in the end they actually win! Having secured financial backers they now embark on a plan to rebuild the studio.
Many cite 2002’s SPIDER-MAN (dir. by Sam Raimi) as the film which turned Marvel’s fortunes around. But it actually began with 1998’s BLADE (dir. By Stephen Norrington) and 2000s X-MEN (dir. by Bryan Singer) – both under the auspices of Arad.
(July 1994 / April 1999)
A part human / part vampire (and certainly part John Shaft), sword wielding, modern day vampire hunter, the BLADE character was created by Marv Wolfman (yes, that’s his real name!) and Gene Conlan, and first appeared in comic book form in 1973. Marvel had been working on a BLADE film since ’92 with rapper L.L. Cool J. attached as the lead. But when the film was set up at New Line Pictures with a script by David Goyer (who’d go on to pen the next two BLADE entries, as well as Chris Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT trilogy, MAN OF STEEL, BATMAN V. SUPERMAN and JUSTICE LEAGUE), it was Goyer who brought Wesley Snipes’ name into the mix – feeling he actually was the living essence of that character.
Always Marvel’s most deliberately socio-politically analogous comic book series, the X-MEN were created in 1963 by Stan Lee and legendary illustrator Jack Kirby. At the height of the Civil Rights, Gender Rights and Sexual Revolution movements, the X-MEN were a group of (so-called) “mutants” who represented the next step in human evolution - they able to alter matter and do other (what non-advanced humans think of as) “super-human” feats.
Because they're different, they're also feared and persecuted. Brought together by Professor Xavier, the X-MEN watch each other’s backs, learn to integrate their abilities into daily life, and more often than not end up saving from destruction a world which continues to despise them. For anyone ever part of a minority, looked down upon because of their gender, orientation, weight, shyness or whatever, the X-MEN characters resounded as spiritual kin.
Moderately successful throughout the 1960s and 70s, their adventures shot to the top of best seller lists during the 1990s comics Renaissance thanks largely to a revised version of the character the Wolverine. Originally created in 1974 as a Clint Eastwood-like anti-hero of few words who, during the era of DIRTY HARRY sequels, followed suit in “dishin’ it out to the bad guys as badly as they dished it out to others”.
In development as a film since the mid 1980s (where names such as James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow were attached), Arad and Marvel were finally able to get it launched at 20th Century Fox under producer Lauren Shuler Donner (LADYHAWKE, ST. ELMO’S FIRE, BULWORTH), who brought in THE USUAL SUSPECTS’ Bryan Singer to re-write and direct. Stressing the philosophical “Martin Luther King, Jr. vs. Malcolm X” relationship between Professor Xavier and Magneto, Singer was successful in bringing Shakespearean heavyweights Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen to the roles respectively.
And while featuring an impressive line up of character actors as various
X-MEN (incl. Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Anna Paquin and
more), the breakthrough star performance was that of Australia’s Hugh
Jackman as “Logan” (aka “the Wolverine”), primarily known at the time
outside the U.S. as a theater performer, and who took the role (on his
wife’s recommendation) after Russell Crowe turned it down, and Dougray
Scott, because of scheduling conflicts with MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE II, had
to back out.
Produced on a budget of $75 million, X-MEN took in nearly $300 million worldwide and landed on many critics yearly “Top Ten” lists. It’s sequel X-2 (2003 – also dir. by Singer) was an even bigger critical and financial hit; and it lead to not only the present series of “X-MEN Universe” films from 20th Century Fox (incl. THE WOLVERINE, X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, DEADPOOL, the upcoming GAMBIT and many others), but also (for better and for worse) signaled to the film industry that a new “mother lode” had been struck which could and would be mined throughout the coming decades.
Stan Lee and screenwriter David Goyer (DARK CITY, the BLADE trilogy, DARK KNIGHT trilogy, GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE, MAN OF STEEL, BATMAN v. SUPERMAN) discuss the1980s - 90s trend towards more adult oriented comic books.
"LITE"(ER) AT THE END OF MARVEL'S TUNNEL
Two years after the debut of the first X-MEN film, the cinematic world was rocked with its first bonafied new generation worldwide comics-to-film blockbuster in Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN (2002). A modern day reworking of arguably Marvel’s most famous character, a high school student whose life sucks; then after he’s bitten by a radioactive spider and obtains super powers … his life sucks even more!, director Raimi brought equal parts adventure, sci fi, action, humor, romance, and old fashioned tug-at-your-heart pathos to a series of three films which between 2002 – 2007 enraptured the entire globe (young, old, male, female, from all social and economic groups) to the tune of approx. $2.5 billion at the box office.
(L to R) Universal's Ron Meyer with Marvel's David Maisel
and Avi Arad at the premiere of THE INCREDIBLE HULK (6/8/08)
While Arad and Marvel were pleased their titles were finally getting the production value (and respect) they deserved, there was at the time (because the BLADE, X-MEN and SPIDER-MAN characters were controlled by other studios in agreements made long ago) a growing feeling of “making everyone rich and famous and respected … but ourselves”. So, in 2004 David Maisel was brought in by Arad as “Chief Operating Officer of Marvel Studios” to supervise the creation of the company’s new production slate.
Armed with a $525 million financial structuring deal with Merill Lynch - to produce 10 films from its current catalog of characters over the next ten years, the new “Marvel Studios” set out for the first time to self-finance its own films beginning with IRON MAN (dir. by Jon Favreau) and THE INCREDIBLE HULK (dir. by Louis Leterrier), both released during the summer of 2008. Financial successes (IRON MAN would even end up on numerous “Top Ten” lists), inherent within both films were seeds to create a larger scale interconnected “Marvel Cinematic Universe” consisting of a series of films-to-come wherein various characters of one movie would crossover into another’s, plot elements would occasionally overlap, and it would all eventually lead to and continue beyond (just as in the comic books) the assembling of the Marvel super hero force known as THE AVENGERS.
Samuel L. Jackson appeared (in a post credit sequence) as S.H.I.E.L.D commander Nick Fury at the end of IRON MAN. Robert Downy, Jr. appeared as Tony Stark at the end of THE INCREDIBLE HULK. In IRON MAN 2 (2010) the character BLACK WIDOW is introduced, Nick Fury reappears to fill Tony Stark in on how the industrialist / inventor’s father was a founding member of S.H.I.E.L.D. And, oh yes, Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir, is found in the desert of New Mexico. Nick Fury shows up again at the end of THOR (2011) – he now protecting an intergalactic artifact / power-source. And the character “Hawkeye” is also introduced.
The "Tesseract" becomes the narrative through-line of Marvel's "Phase I" Cinematic Universe
The “power source” - the Tesseract - from THOR becomes the central “McGuffin” of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011). And at the end of CAPTAIN AMERICA the ever ubiquitous Fury again makes an appearance, this time helping Cap / Steve Rogers understand, and begin the critical adjustment to life in, the present day; this after Cap has been thawed from a 50+ year Rip Van Winkle-like cyro-sleep.
When Thor’s villainous brother Loki turns up, commandeers the Tesseract, and puts the entire world in danger, Nick Fury becomes the superhero genre’s version of Lee Marvin’s Capt. Reisman from THE DIRTY DOZEN; he assembling his own group of “rugged individualists who must set aside their differences for the greater good” in THE AVENGERS (2012). Marvel’s self-financed “Cinematic Universe” was off and running. What the hell could go wrong? Well …
Not seeing eye to eye on the planned rate of Marvel releases (and how the number of films debuting so closely together might possibly sap the integrity of each character down to the level of glorified cameos), Avi Arad - the man who spearheaded Marvel’s financial resurrection, left the company in 2006, just as the first IRON MAN adventure was going into production. David Maisel, the young Chief Operating Officer brought in by Arad in 2004, was made Marvel Studios’ Chairman. And Kevin Feige, originally tapped by producer Lauren Shuler-Donner to be a “consultant” on Bryan Singer’s first X-MEN film, had proven his mettle enough over subsequent years with the emerging studio to be named its new President of Production.
(L to R) Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige / Producer Jeremy Latcham
Within ten years, with the exceptions of the X-MEN universe and FANTASTIC FOUR characters (both still at 20th Century Fox), and NAMOR: THE SUB-MARINER (in legal limbo between, at last count, three studios), the rights to all formerly-licensed-to-others Marvel properties have either reverted back to Marvel Studios completely (BLACK PANTHER, DAREDEVIL, GHOST RIDER, THE PUNISHER, LUKE CAGE, BLADE, HULK, etc.), or agreements have been hashed out to integrate Marvel characters presently based at other studios into the ever expanding “MCU” (Marvel Cinematic Universe). For example, in 2015 Sony agreed to allow SPIDER-MAN to appear in future MCU films (first up – CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR), while it would continue to own, finance, produce (with Marvel’s Kevin Feige) and distribute its newly rebooted franchise – the first such new SPIDER-MAN film slated for release in July 2017. The agreement also allows for the possibility of MCU characters (such as Iron Man, Black Widow, etc.) to be featured in those Sony produced Spidey films.
Before the founding and self-financing of Marvel Studios in 2006, Marvel’s Avi Arad and Kevin Feige, while officially credited as “producers” on Fox and Sony’s X-MEN and SPIDER-MAN franchises, in actuality functioned more as Marvel character “consultants” offering advice on, and filling in the backstory and histories of the characters for those who in the end legally had final say and final cut on how those characters were depicted on screen. During this time Arad and Feige learned what they liked and didn’t like in how their characters were portrayed, and they attempted to discern what audiences responded and didn’t respond to in these adaptations. So, when the time came to launch their own slate of films, they’d make the decision to primarily take things in a slightly lighter thematic direction then the BATMAN and BLADE films had chosen.
Marvel Studios Manhattan Beach headquarters
While not wanting to undermine the integrity of the characters by “camping it up” Adam West-style, they also (regardless of the uber serious tone of some of the comic books– see 2005’s IRON MAN: EXTREMIS) wanted to make their MC Universe a little more “fun”. Beginning with IRON MAN Marvel Studios would take things seriously, but also infuse their films with a mostly upbeat / optimistic vibe – this upbeat-ness sometimes crossing over into light comedy in adventures such as GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014) and ANT-MAN (2015) - two films the tone of which are considerably lighter than their more serious comic book sources.