A MARVELous Summer at the Movies

The summer is young, and already two MARVEL comics properties – “Thor” and “X-Men” – have barnstormed into theaters to excellent reviews and boffo business (“Thor” slightly underperformed domestic expectations, but still has made nearly half a billion in worldwide receipts). And coming in July, the star-spangled avenger himself, Captain America, will at last get his own big-budget showcase.

More MARVEL madness looms next summer, with a reboot of “Spider-Man,” possibly another “Wolverine” (if the sequel’s Japanese production can get back on track after this year’s tsunami temporarily derailed it), and of course, MARVEL’s piece de resistance, “The Avengers.”

The Avengers represents the apex of MARVEL’s long term strategy for its movie properties: Each character will have their own series, as well as make guest appearances in other character’s movies. And all will join forces in the Avengers’ own series, bringing Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Black Widow, and others together as a team, just like in the comics.

One of the great joys of reading MARVEL comics has always been the shared universe these characters inhabit; seeing them team up or face off in each other’s books made for a thrilling reading experience. That MARVEL is trying to replicate this phenomenon in the movies is daring, to say the least, and maybe unprecedented.

Though not without risk. Comic titles come out once a month; movies every two or three years, making it much harder to sustain interest in long-term plot lines without boring the audience and sacrificing valuable screen-time that could otherwise service the story at hand. Some MARVEL movies have already suffered as a result – one of the criticisms leveled at “Iron Man 2” was that it felt more like a two-hour trailer for “The Avengers” (then two years away) than a stand-alone Iron Man adventure.

There are signs that MARVEL has learned the lessons of that film, however: “Thor” had the mix just about right, with references to Iron Man, Hulk and the larger MARVEL universe scattered throughout the film, easily recognizable to fans, but unobtrusive enough to be safely ignored by someone who has missed those other films. The “Thor” after-credits scene nicely set up Captain America,without detracting from the thunder god’s solo adventure. Indeed, most casual move-goers left the theater as the credits rolled, leaving the Easter Egg for the fans who knew it was coming.

Personally, I love what MARVEL is doing, and hope they can make it work. The universe Stan Lee and his titanically-talented artist cohorts created in the 1960’s is a vast, multi-layered, and fun place to visit, on the page and on screen. Hopefully, MARVEL studios will re-acquire the rights to all its properties (currently Sony owns “Spider-Man” and FOX owns “X-Men”) so they, too, can be folded into this incredibly ambitious cinematic experiment.

Excelsior!

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