This week the big film is undoubtedly Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel’s shot at expanding their universe from their fairly well known characters to some that aren’t. It stands right now as perhaps a bigger risk than Iron Man for any number of reasons. Right now Marvel Studios stands on the precipice of something that will either limit them creatively when it comes to film-making … or perhaps throw gasoline on a fire that’s been raging since they thought they opted to make their own film about Tony Stark and his alter ego instead of just naming their price and licensing it out.
It was one thing to start making films in house with Iron Man, a well-known character but not in that first tier of Marvel superheroes. We forget that Iron Man was an insane risk, as Marvel was banking on a star (Robert Downey Jr.) who was the poster boy for screwing things up and a hero that didn’t have the same cache as Captain America, et al.
They threw down $140 million and the way we look at the cinematic world has changed since. Iron Man has now become the culmination of RDJ’s redemption story, of an actor who kicked off the comic book film boom with a tour de force performance in a genre film, but it still represents one of the biggest risk/reward moments in recent Hollywood history. It was also a film that spread like wildfire via word of mouth, too, and made a ton more money than people thought it would.
Marvel Studios gambled that Downey would keep it together in his personal life, that Jon Favreau could turn into a great action film director and that they could get into the movie business as a production house instead of just as a publishing house with a lucrative content licensing money stream.
If it hadn’t worked it would’ve really changed things up. Marvel would never have gone into the production business until the Disney buyout. They were making a ton of money just licensing out their characters for big bucks like they did with Spider-Man and the X-Men film franchises. With the boom of the comic book film as a blockbuster, tentpole event film it made sense for them to try and go for the big score instead of settling for a piece of the action. It’s the difference between robbing liquor stores for a thrill on a Sunday night in the summer and deciding to go all in and try to pull off a HEAT style bank robbery.
Crazy enough if they had failed the ability to do an Avengers film could’ve been compromised by their licensing everything out to the highest bidder. The landscape we currently enjoy developed from their $200 million plus investment (The film’s budget plus publicity, advertising and marketing). Marvel is now in the position of being unable to use a substantive chunk of their universe because of long ago deals for short money as opposed to the long money of being a production house. They no longer wait for their cut; they are the ones splitting up the spoils of cinematic war. It’s an entirely different direction from what it looked like the genre was going, which was to ape The Dark Knight.
Warner Bros. had started to develop something with Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman, as well, but that franchise never really felt like a comic book film. It felt more like a true genre film, not a comic book film. The franchise’s dark tone made it feel more adult (for lack of a better word) than the genre has been in the past. Arguably no film in the genre has had that sort of “grown up movie with a guy in tights in it” feel since, either.
The difference between Nolan’s Batman films and the Marvel Studios impact on the genre has been that the latter have a sort of inherent silliness to them. We know it and all the hallmarks of fun action films are evident, from cheeky one liners to over-sized explosions for the sake of. There was a nobility to Nolan’s take on Batman and it’s why The Dark Knight Rises was such a disappointment. We expected more than just a perfunctory end; Nolan had given us this big, operatic pair of films and the big denouement to finish it never happened. We would expect this from Marvel but not Nolan.
Marvel essentially created the template for the modern comic book film, and established the genre as a tent pole event film, with Iron Man in one fell swoop. A summer blockbuster about caped superheroes was already established but to be fair most of them were closer to being a Transformers film, but slightly less dumb, in many cases. Most of them haven’t aged as well as we thought they would, too. Spider-Man 2 was a high water mark at the time … but now it’s kind of silly. So are the early X-Men films as well. Have you watched Blade or its sequels lately? Yeah, same thing for the most part.
Essentially what Marvel did in one fell swoop was make comic book films more palatable as a genre without making them stupid, cringe fests like both films in the Fantastic Four franchise were. They didn’t feel as disposable but retained the fun, popcorn nature that the summer blockbuster is rooted in.
Marvel Studios has found a way to make them good genre films without sacrificing quality story-telling. People have followed suit and the genre as a whole is flourishing; there’s now attempts at fairly intelligent film-making despite the inherent silliness of caped superheroes saving the world. It’s like how Die Hard turned action films from one man armies into plucky underdogs; Marvel introduced competent film-making to the genre and everyone’s stepped their game up.
The big to do after The Dark Knight was about how studios wanted something darker in tone for the genre but what we’ve seen happen is that Iron Man has proven to be an easier film to mimic. It’s also a much more profitable one to make en masse. Darkness works best for Batman because he’s one of the few characters that have that sort of angst. Darkness in the genre requires it; it’s difficult to do. The Green Lantern couldn’t ape it as a dark, broody film for that reason … but it could ape Iron Man. This is what it did for huge portions … and other films have done so as well.
Guardians of the Galaxy is a large, calculated and demonstrable risk of a film. In a way I think it’s the biggest risk they’ve taken since Iron Man. They’re doing something they avoided with Iron Man and are going against the grain with GotG in any number of ways. So far it’s tracking well both commercially and critically, with plans for the film to eventually become a part of the grander Marvel Universe. But it’s still an insane risk by any stretch of the imagination.
This is a cast of decently known actors with very few people of not in main roles. The two biggest stars of the film are Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel … both of whom are lending voices to the film, nothing more. If they didn’t advertise them in the trailers you wouldn’t know it, either. The one thing Iron Man didn’t get enough credit for was having a top heavy cast of some names of substance (Terrance Howard, Oscar winners Jeff Bridges and Gwyneth Paltrow) on top of the mercurial former drug addict.
Downey was a wild card, akin to being that athlete on a sports franchise who was supposed to be great early in his career and let his personal demons nearly derail everything. Then he kicks them and wins the big game; headlining something like this was supposed to be in the cards for him for a long time. He just never had his act together long enough to pull it off. Downey had everything to be the leading man we wanted him to be, just not sobriety, and when he finally had it Iron Man was the touchstone on a multi-year, multi-film arc of redemption personally and professionally. It had a grand storyline to it that was easy to write about.
GotG doesn’t have that and it’s relying on a pro wrestler (Dave Bautista), a franchise veteran (Zoe Saldana) who has never been anything more than the 3rd lead and the douchebro from Wanted (Chris Pratt) as its live action heroes. The biggest star in the trailer has been a brief appearance by John C. Reilly; while Reilly is certainly a famous actor it’s telling that they’re banking on a cast that’s not as known as it could be. Saldana is the biggest star and her biggest role was originated by someone else 50 years ago. She’s Uhara for this generation but most Trek fans will name Nichelle Nichols when asked who played Uhara. It’s the difference between originating a character and playing one. And this is a film about originating characters.
GotG is about Marvel Studios showing the muscle of the brand; Marvel is trying to take a group of fairly unknown characters to people outside the comic book readership and make them into a brand. It’s fairly ballsy. They are banking on people coming out en masse in part because of the Marvel brand and not because they know the characters already. This is a case of presenting potentially interesting characters who aren’t as known as the superhero personas of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers under the Marvel brand as opposed to iconic characters being brought to screen for the first time.
That’s a huge risk coming in as well. GotG isn’t a part of the American pop culture lexicon to a significant degree (unlike the rest of the Marvel Studios film franchises).
One thing the Avengers franchise, along with the individual films, all have in common is that they were fairly well known commodities going into their launch. As a culture we knew who these guys were before the trailer was announced. While the minor characters were filled in the blanks in discussion among comic geeks, and those who looked them up on Wikipedia, comic characters like Captain America and Iron Man are fairly known commodities to the public at large. The Guardians of the Galaxy are profoundly not; hell you could be a double goofus like me and remember the other Guardians of the Galaxy led by Major Victory from the ‘90s.
Normally in this cinematic environment you don’t take this sort of risk at $100 million plus worth of budget. On the grandest of stages of cinema, the summer blockbuster season, it’s rare to see a studio take a risk. This is arguably the biggest risk in cinema since Christopher Nolan made a heist film about stealing secrets from the human mind. Both films are rarities in an era where hitting every single target demo and the foreign market are more of a priority than a quality script. A good summer movie season pays for the next slate of big budget films, or really good hookers and blow depending on your position in the industry, and being profitable is never a bad thing.
We can talk about prestige season, where everyone battles it out for the right to call themselves the best in a purely subjective manner, but the clear winners and losers of Hollywood are measured on the field of combat called blockbusters season. It’s the real Super Bowl of film. Prestige season is fairly uninteresting for the most part because the spoils of war involve trying to win over judges. It’s gymnastics for the film set. Summer blockbuster season is pro football; nothing is given to you. You take every single inch of box office you can and don’t sacrifice it for anything.
Summertime movie season is as big as it gets and is by far my favorite time of the year for film. Blockbuster season at the movies is like playing Carnegie Hall, stepping into the Octagon for a main event fight at a UFC PPV or finding yourself naked with a Playboy cover girl with a “come hither” look on her face in a swank hotel room with a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door. This is the big time, don’t kid yourself. You have to absolutely nail it the first time or a second chance will be much tougher to come by. You can’t rebound with a disaster of a film, especially in a genre like a Marvel Comic Book film. Marvel hasn’t yet had a misfire either commercially or critically; most of their films haven’t hit masterpiece levels but there isn’t a Jonah Hex level disaster in there either. They’re the Pixar for the comic book set; they may not be brilliant all the time but odds are they’ll be really good.
Marvel hasn’t played with fire in a long time. And that’s exactly what this is.
Stuff for General George S. Pimpage, Esq
I reviewed two awful films: Hercules with The Rock and Lucy with The Rack.
Brendan Campbell took a look at the first season of Ray Donovan.
And now on MMC … Mike Tyson’s continued stretch of awesome hilarity continues. It’s like someone had a conversation with 8-year-old me and wanted a cartoon concept involving the heavyweight champ on the world.
If you want to pimp anything email it to me with a good reason why. It helps to bribe me with stuff, just saying ….
A Movie A Week – The Challenge
This week’s DVD – HEAT
I mentioned HEAT above and it’s one of my favorite films. I used to have an A-Sheet of the film poster framed somewhere; it got lost several moves ago. I was disappointed when I couldn’t find it because it was the first thing I wanted to hang in my condo. I have a framed print of Ali/Liston over the fireplace but I have a whole bunch of movie posters I want to throw up in the near future. It’s one of them and I’m not putting anything up until I go out and get another one, then frame it. I have film posters of The Wild Bunch and El Mariachi that will go up at some point but HEAT will be the first.
And it’s this week’s film, as it was lying around and I thought it’d be a fun watch again. Plus it was one of my first reviews on this website, as well.
McCauley (Robert De Niro) leads a group of high level crooks who specialize in big scores. Hanna (Al Pacino) is a cop who picks up his case after a high level robbery turns into a gun fight with three people dead. From there Michael Mann weaves a near three hour masterpiece about cops and crooks chasing one another. McCauley has scores he wants to take before he can get out. He’s an obsessive type, planning things out in details and living every aspect of his life by one rule: If you feel the heat, you walk away from everything.
Hanna is equally obsessed, throwing away a couple marriages (including his current one) with his obsession about taking down crooks. It’s an interesting character culminating in one of the great movie scenes either De Niro or Pacino had, set up brilliantly by Mann in a great scene that’s insanely underrated. Both guys easing back, preparing to talk but having their weapons ready, is such a great setup. No introductions are necessary; they both know each other and don’t need the formality of it all.
One of the things I’ve noticed about HEAT over the years is that it is a film that gets aped regularly, as Mann crafted the ideal “cat and mouse” setup of cop and crook, but it’s not a film that introduced us to anything in terms of long term concepts. The greatness of film as a medium is that the best directors are often the best at adapting concepts 50-60 years old and make them feel new. Mann doesn’t do anything that Melville didn’t do in any number of films but the way he’s done it has been copied fairly regularly in any number of films.
The Dark Knight is insanely influenced by this film and Takers was basically a ripoff of the TV movie that inspired this film (Mann originally made this as L.A Takedown for television and then adapted it further for a film). But the one thing is that no has ever directly remade it, either in the Tarantino “homage” manner or convincing Mann to outright let them remake it either. Hollywood seems to content to just take parts from it and not commit outright theft, which is very interesting.
Still a great film, highest recommendation.
What Looks Good This Weekend, and I Don’t Mean the $2 tall boys of Red Fox and community college co-eds with low standards at the Fox and Hound
Guardians of the Galaxy – A bunch of super powered criminals, and the douchebro from Wanted, save the galaxy.
See it – James Gunn is a director who makes interesting films and I’m curious what his take on the comic book film is.
Get on Up – James Brown gets his own biopic.
See it – James Brown was an exceptional live act; I saw him in 2001 at Summerfest in Milwaukee with some friends from my university days. Thus I’ll want to see his biopic if only for nostalgia, before the kids and the noise turned us from twenty something kids trying to find out way in this world into adults with jobs & mortgages. Plus Brown had a wild, messed up life and this could be an interesting film to say the least.
Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings his trademarked irreverence and offensive hilarity to Twitter in 140 characters or less. Follow him @ScottSawitz .
Tags: Guardians of the Galaxy, Heat, Iron Man, James Gunn, Michael Mann, Monday Morning Critic