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How to make movies the Marvel way

How to make movies the Marvel way (photo)

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Last week, I appeared on the BBC’s “Talking Movies” for a review of “Captain America: The First Avenger” with Tom Brook. As our conversation wound down, Brook looked forward to next summer’s “The Avengers,” the superhero movie to end all superhero movies (and if it’s is a flop, it very well could). He voiced an opinion I’m hearing with increasing frequency: that all of Marvel Studios’ recent movies — from “Iron Man 2” to “Thor” and now “Captain America” — feel like “one gigantic promotional trailer, a big tease for that film.”

There are moments in all those movies that make it hard not to think he’s right. “Iron Man 2″‘s story essentially pauses at the end of Act 2 so that Samuel L. Jackson can pop in and deliver the cameo equivalent of a commercial for “The Avengers.” Over what could literally and figuratively be described as a narrative coffee break, Jackson’s Nick Fury and Robert Downey Jr.‘s Tony Stark have a conversation about S.H.I.E.L.D., Stark’s father, The Black Widow (another future Avenger, played by Scarlett Johansson) and assorted other topics that have little to do with matters at hand, and everything to do with a film coming years down the road. As a comic book reader for decades I know that Fury will ultimately unite the Avengers in their own movie. But what does someone who doesn’t know the Howling Commandos from Howlin’ Wolf think of Jackson’s endless series of payoff-less teases? After four movies and counting, I can see why some audiences might be getting frustrated. As a comic book fan, though, I see something else. I see a comic book company making movies the way they make comic books.

From “Iron Man” onward, Marvel has begun to build a shared universe akin to the one its characters populate in the pages of their monthly comics. Though the idea of a shared comics universe was pioneered by Marvel’s rival DC in the 1940s, the Marvel Comics of the 1960s was the place where the concept really took off. That’s when Stan Lee was writing and/or editing basically every book in the company’s line and began weaving this massive tapestry of interconnected four-color adventures. One month the Hulk would rampage through New York City, and the Fantastic Four would be called in to calm him down. In the next, Spider-Man might swing through Hell’s Kitchen and solve a case with Daredevil.

Shared comic book universes have never really taken off in movies, mostly because in the past comic book companies have licensed their individual characters to different movie studios: Spider-Man swings around the Sony lot, while the X-Men hang out at Fox. Even in cases where one studio controlled multiple properties, you don’t see many crossovers. Warner Brothers’ Superman and Batman’s movie universes are totally separate and distinct, and even though she’s known as a Batman villain, there was no mention of the Caped Crusader in the Halle Berry “Catwoman” spinoff movie from 2004 (I’m sure Batman was quite pleased with that arrangement).

Marvel’s gone the opposite route with these “Avengers” movies. Jackson’s recurring presence as Nick Fury (along with Clark Gregg’s equally frequent appearances as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson) is just one of the obvious symbols that Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America all exist on the same planet Earth and are destined to meet sooner or later. Amongst the easter eggs littered throughout the films: the prototype of Captain America’s shield was lying on one of Tony Stark’s work benches in “Iron Man,” while Cap fought in WWII alongside Stark’s father Howard, battling for control of an incredibly powerful tesseract that is said to have been stolen from the armory of Thor’s father Odin.

This is how you make movies the Marvel way: with an intricate web of characters battling against an endless series of cliffhangers. Every Marvel Studio movie ends with a clever tease for the next film: “Iron Man 2” gave you a glimpse of Thor’s hammer, “Thor” showed you the tesseract (or the Cosmic Cube) from “Captain America.” I often hear these bits described as fan service, since they offer narratively inessential cookies for hardcore nerds. But they also represent of the cinematic equivalent of “NEXT ISSUE: SOMEONE DIES!” dialogue boxes that pop up on the last pages of comic books. Comics work like addiction: each issue ends with the promise of even more excitement next month. To be fully satisfied, you have to come back for the next hit, but the next hit demands you return for another fix too. These credits teasers work exactly the same way.

I think there’s further to go with this idea. I would argue that the fact that many of these Marvel Studios films have, at least in my eyes, similar flaws, from their so-so action to their and rushed plotting, is indicative of a certain “house style” of moviemaking similar to the way that there was a “house style” at Marvel Comics in the 1960s when books were designed to look and sound similar. As for frustrating teases like Jackson’s, four appearances with no payoff is nothing: comic book readers routinely wait years or decades to find out closely guarded continuity secrets. If you want to see what I mean while getting an intense headache in the process, just read this Wikipedia page about the mystery of the X-Men’s Cyclops’ brother. It’s nuts.

There are probably even more parallels to be drawn between the way Marvel makes comics and movies. But I’ll leave things here for now, just like Marvel would. On a cliffhanger.

Do you like the way Marvel makes movies? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.