How a comic book company conquered Hollywood and changed cinema forever.
A lot can happen in a decade. It was 10 years ago that battleroyalewithcheese was first unleashed upon the world, and while I’m a relative newcomer to providing content, it’s great to see it flourish as time has gone on. To celebrate a decade worth of content here at BRWC I’ve been asked to write something about the last 10 years in cinema. The idea of an article so massive was, at first, daunting. What the hell can I say about a decade of cinema in a cohesive way? The world of film is a drastically different one now than it was then. How am I supposed to capture that in a single piece?
And then it hit me, like a kick to the back of the head. Battle Royale isn’t the only thing celebrating 10 years in 2018. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, perhaps the single biggest influence on modern cinema (and probably Hollywood blockbusters, outside of Jaws anyway), also had it’s tenth birthday. They celebrated by releasing the bombastic and record smashing Infinity War, which, while perfectly serviceable in terms of quality (I gave it four stars when I reviewed it on my Letterboxd), is a far different beast to the humble beginnings of 2008’s Iron Man.
So, with ten years’ worth of films to look back at, just how has the MCU changed cinema, and how has it managed to stay fresh, relevant and popular throughout?
In 2008 the highest grossing film was Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to the critically acclaimed Batman Begins, The Dark Knight. It’s hardly an understatement to say The Dark Knight is now regarded as a classic of the genre, and of film in general, but when we look at what was going on during the time we see that it’s most definitely in keeping with the tone set by films at that moment.
Just one year earlier, in 2007, the Bond franchise had been rebooted to critical and commercial success with Casino Royale, a grittier, edgier and more grounded take on the superspy who once had a car that turned into a submarine, and it would take the idea to depressing levels in that films sequel, Quantum of Solace. The year before that Nolan’s own Batman Begins paved the way for action franchises to go down this far more cynical and real route. The world was still suffering from the aftermath of 9/11, terrorism was the threat of the time, and our movies reflected that sense of horror.
Much was made about the death of the fun, dumb summer action movie. For a short while it seemed like taking a known property and injecting it with a darker tone and an altogether more current and realistic feel was the way forward. Anything and everything was in danger of being subjected to the “gritty reboot” process. And while it certainly worked in the case of Bond and Batman, it quickly became clear that not everything was suited.
But then came Marvel, themselves no stranger to the process with Fox’s X-Men taking on a far more serious and “real” tone than its comic book counterpart.
After their near bankruptcy and selling off many of their successful properties film rights, Marvel saw a chance to jump of the train of superhero success that was currently flooding cinemas. But with only their more obscure heroes in their arsenal they took what might be seen as a relatively safe approach to a pretty hefty gamble. Utilising the most well known property they had access to at the time (which was still pretty unknown all things considered) they released a fun, dumb, family friendly action movie that, all things considered, followed a pretty simple three act structure, told a well-worn origin story, featured little to no genuine surprises and had a light and breezy tone more in keeping with the comic book it came from.
As turns out, Iron Man was just the kind of film audiences wanted at the time, however. Aided by the successful transformation of Robert Downey Jr. from criminal reprobate to loveable movie star, Iron Man had the feel-good factor on its side. The movie was a success (you might even consider it a surprise one, although that seems strange by today’s standards) and suddenly Marvel Studios was born. Little did they know just how much influence their “little” movie would have.
One of the things that got fans excited, however, was the inclusion of the now iconic post-credits scene, which featured Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury approaching RDJ’s Tony Stark about putting together a team. Comic book fans knew what this meant, and the hype online was unreal. Was there really going to be an Avengers movie?
“Hold on a second, Secker,” I hear you ask, “aren’t you forgetting that other movie?”
Yeah, that’s right. 2008 also saw the release of another Marvel property under the umbrella of the as-yet untitled MCU. The Edward Norton starring The Incredible Hulk, which was met with… shall we say, disappointment? Unable to capture the fun and breezy tone of the John Favreau directed Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk was a flop at the box office and potentially killed the Studio before it even had a chance to begin. But they were smart…
It seems almost unbelievable now, but it would three years before we’d see another release from the Marvel gang. 2010’s Iron Man 2 serves almost like a soft reboot. While they knew they had a success on their hands with Iron Man, and Robert Downey Jr., they were still unproven in terms of a major Hollywood player. One film a success story does not make. Iron Man 2, probably my least favourite of the MCU films (excluding The Incredible Hulk, of course), has a different mission to it’s predecessor. Rather than simply introduce the world to an unknown property, the sequel sets about introducing the idea of an extended universe. The film suffers as a result, but this was important groundwork that needed to be laid. The studio included references to other characters and hints to a wider world, preparing audiences for the prospect that lay before them.
Their next two movies, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, would do a similar thing, albeit more successfully. Ensuring that each movie acted as an introduction to a character in the vein of 2008’s Iron Man, Marvel carefully embedded elements and ideas that would serve to set up what would eventually become known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
I remember a conversation I had with a friend of mine at the time about the rumoured Avengers movie this was all building up to. They couldn’t quite grasp the concept that one film would be a sequel to five seemingly unrelated ones. They hadn’t quite understood how each film was connected to a larger narrative, and that all these characters were meant to inhabit the same world. What’s more, it appeared to confuse them somewhat. Again, it seems bizarre to think that now, but at the time it was a wholly untested concept, and not everyone was even aware that it was about it happen.
Already we had started to feel the Marvel influence on cinema, as well. 2011’s X-Men: First Class took a decidedly different approach to its source material than the franchise had done to that point, deliberately injecting some humour and literally brightening up proceedings with a much shinier and fun colour pallet. That same year DC attempted to capitalise on the Marvel style by releasing Green Lantern, starring Ryan Reynolds, which, er… um… well, if you can’t say anything nice…
The “gritty reboot” syndrome of before had slowly started to wear off, and studio movies were beginning to resemble the Marvel films more and more. The idea that films could be fun, family friendly and not take themselves too seriously had jumped front and centre.
But in 2012 the entire foundation of cinema was shaken to its very core. Everything was different, and no one could have predicted the way in which Marvel Studios next big release would alter the world of film forever.
There are certain movies that change the way we view movies. Jaws, with its summer blockbuster formula. Star Wars with it’s stunning visual effects and limitless imagination. And then there’s Marvel’s Avengers Assemble. It’s the movie that mainstreamed every property the comic book studio turned filmmaking giants had. It’s the movie that dropped the idea of an extended cinematic universe upon audiences. It’s the movie that changed everything.
After the unbelievable success of Avengers Assemble trying to capture that Marvel feeling wasn’t just about bright colours and quippy dialogue, it was about creating a cinematic universe. And suddenly everyone was doing it. DC with their Extended Universe, Universal with their Dark Universe, Legendary with their MonsterVerse. Sony tried to do something similar with Spider-man, while everything from King Arthur to 21 Jump Street was considered by different studios.
Fox scrabbled to pick up the pieces of their own rather confusing franchise continuity with X-Men and saw a chance to attempt a similar crossover with Days of Future Past which, while a pretty decent film in its own right, failed to ignite the same kind of audience engagement.
One imagines a frantic Hollywood exec office the day after Avengers Assemble broke box-office records, filled with sleepless studio executives desperately trying to figure out what to do to compete with this total behemoth, wiping sweat from their brow with the pages of some failed pitch. It might seem like an overstatement, but it really isn’t. For better or for worse, the cinematic landscape was altered.
And Marvel didn’t stop there. Over the following years they continued to refine their style, releasing more unique films. Guardians of the Galaxy introduced us to the Cosmic Realm of the MCU, and I have seen it suggested that the success of that movie in part encouraged Disney to take on Star Wars, and, of course, Black Panther has mainstreamed the concept of Afro-Futurism, and already we’ve seen studios working on films to capitalise on its success.
It’s undeniable that Marvel have been the single biggest influence on cinema for the last decade. Since BRWC’s inception the same year as Iron Man’s release, the studio have altered the way we watch movies, changed the cinematic landscape and have continued to be at the top of the pile. But what is the secret to Marvel’s success? Why do they succeed when so many others fail?
In my humble opinion, and relatively simply put, it comes down to a willingness to do new things and offer people something they aren’t getting. When Iron Man was released in 2008, it was successful because of it’s breezy, fun and light tone in a world surrounded by dark and gritty reboots. When they released Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014, it was successful because it was an outlandish, surreal and weird space opera in a world dominated by superhero movies. And even this year, when they released Black Panther, it saw Marvel’s biggest success to-date (until Infinity War took it over) because it was a relevant, timely tale about an under-represented minority in a world where no other film was offering that.
Love it or hate it, Marvel are now a key part of the history of cinema, and their presence will continue to be felt for years to come. In the space of a decade they have conquered the world of film, and it’ll be at the very least interesting to see where they go next.
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