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How The ‘Avengers’-Izing Of Blockbusters Is Killing Movies

How The 'Avengers'-Izing Of Blockbusters Is Killing Movies

Is it enough to just
make one movie anymore? In the wake of Marvel’s audacious world-building in an
assembly line of completely indistinguishable adventure movies, the studios
would answer no. What used to be one series of movies has become a web, one
that involves various other series’ and offshoots of one particular brand.
Fittingly, the last to jump into this web was “Spider-Man,” as Sony recently
announced a writing team to tackle both a “
Sinister Six” and a “Venom” film
that would interweave themselves through the three more “The Amazing Spider-Man
films coming from 2014 to 2018. But no one should be surprised: every studio
has been headed in this direction for quite a while now.

When Marvel hired
Samuel L. Jackson for what seemed like a day of work on a post-credits sequence
in “Iron Man,” few imagined it would be the beginning of something much bigger.
The fans turned out for the “Iron Man” films, but they showed up in lesser
fashion with “Captain America: The First Avenger” and “Thor,” and few had
complimentary things to say about “The Incredible Hulk.” But joining those
characters together provided the bingo Marvel sought, with “The Avengers
becoming the third biggest film of all time. It seems clear that teaming these
characters with each other affected their individual bottom lines: “Iron Man 3
nearly doubled the gross of its predecessor, and “Thor: The Dark World” nearly
tacked on an extra $200 million from the first “Thor.” Unifying these
characters cast doubts as to whether the separate franchises were viable
afterwards, but those fears have long been put to rest.

Warner Bros.
It’s the approach
Warner Bros. has in mind for a follow-up to this year’s “Man Of Steel” as well.
$662 million worth of viewers enjoyed the latest exploits of Superman, but the
studio racked up a massive tab putting this latest adventure together, and they were out-grossed 2-to-1 by “Iron Man 3.” Their contingency plan seemed to involve dusting off Batman, who had been
retired in 2012 with “The Dark Knight Rises.” But now that we’ve had the casting of
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, as well as rumors about the involvement of major DC
Comics characters like Nightwing and The Flash, it looks like this is the WB’s
chance to chart the course for the next few years of blockbuster offerings. A
Justice League” movie has been bandied about, but this latest film,
tentatively slated for 2015, seems to be packing in plenty of heroes already.
Why just have Superman and Batman when you can have the whole crew?

20th Century Fox 
The shared universe
hasn’t been ignored by Fox, who have turned to Mark Millar and Simon Kinberg to map out the futures of their two Marvel properties.
X-Men: Days Of Future Past” will be the seventh film in that series, tying
together the various continuities set forth in these pictures, leading into
2016’s “X-Men: Apocalypse.” Lest we feel any suspense regarding the fate of
these characters, a follow-up to this year’s “The Wolverine” has also been
, while Jeff Wadlow (“Kick-Ass 2”) will write a script for an
X-Force” film. Fox also relaunches “The Fantastic Four” in summer 2015 under
the hand of director Josh Trank. Because both are under the Fox umbrella,
Millar and Kinberg have been tasked with finding a way to tie those franchises
together, possibly sharing the same stories and characters. It’s a stretch, but
it was done in the comics many times, so Fox probably isn’t fazed by the


What hasn’t been done in the comics often is the sort of experiment Sony is trying. They only have
one Marvel franchise, and “Spider-Man” isn’t necessarily team-centric (Sony
recently let go of their other Marvel property, “Ghost Rider”). Their solution
suggests they’ve been watching the Marvel films, but seek to one-up them with
villain team-up pictures. Fans know two facts: That Marvel tends to have more
relatable and exciting villains than DC, and that outside of Batman, Spider-Man
has the strongest rogue’s gallery. But those two facts are larger in opposition
of each other: Spider-Man’s villains, with the exception of grim-and-gritty Venom,
tend to be a little silly and larger-than-life. When they get together in the
source material, either they’re a one-dimensional threat, or they’re the source
of gags: the recent comic “Superior Foes Of Spider-Man” mines Peter Parker’s
villain depth chart for working-class gags about being a gimmicky bad guy in a
world of omnipotent heroes.

Walt Disney Studios
What these studios
have done, however, is to stake their claim on future films before the demand
has even materialized. It’s as if they’ve begun to anticipate the audiences’
desire for more, more, more. It’s not all superheroes:
Disney is ramping up to offer a new “Star Wars” film every year, with “Star
Wars Episode VII
” in 2015 leading into what they’re hoping is an annual
Lucasfilm offering taking place in the surrounding “Star Wars” universe,
taking advantage of a loaded back catalog of heroes and villains. And Paramount
is getting into the business with next month’s “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” where
Kevin Costner reportedly plays a mentor figure who could also heavily feature
in another Tom Clancy property, a long-planned series of films about black ops
expert John Clark. And let’s not forget they’ve also got “Mission: Impossible V” coming for 2015 and another “Jack Reacher” flick brewing.

If these projects get
off the ground, then we could be seeing a fleet of blockbusters in coming years
that are forever introducing new characters to be spun off into their own
features. On a very basic level, this could be a headache for audiences and
filmmakers, who have to ensure the availability and accommodations of each
actor involved. But it also tends to dilute the main brands, robbing them of
any real suspense. For one thing, a couple of baddies from “The Amazing
Spider-Man 2
” are surely going to make it to “The Sinister Six,” meaning that
we’ll be treated to the same menace our hero faced last time. It also
frontloads these franchises, to the point where they could be old hat fairly
quickly. “The Avengers” fought a massive alien invasion last time, barely
breaking a sweat: why should we have worried about Thor succumbing to a “Dark
Elf” in “The Dark World”? That invincible hero will be tested every time, but
once we realize the biggest threats he faces are in the “Avengers” films, who
will want to see him fight more battles against opponents at the level of a
Dark Elf?

For better or for
worse, it leads to the serialization of these franchise pictures, which is
ironic: all those years of television trying to be like movies, and now the
biggest movies in the world are being run like an NBC show. Joss Whedon has been
granted “godfather” status within the Marvel universe, writing and directing
the two “Avengers” films but also re-writing chunks of “Captain America: The
First Avenger” and “Thor: The Dark World” – the future solo Marvel movies are slave
to whatever he chooses to do in “The Avengers: Age Of Ultron.” The “Buffy The
Vampire Slayer
” creator is effectively a showrunner again.

The same goes for
Millar and Kinberg at Fox, while Zack Snyder has effectively been tasked with
introducing his “Man Of Steel” audience to the likes of Wonder Woman.That’s what made the
Sony announcement so specific. The studio announced a “brain trust” that would
connect the films, while also assigning Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci
(“Transformers”) and Ed Solomon (“Men In Black”) onto “Venom” (with Kurtzman
directing) and Drew Goddard (“Cabin In The Woods”) onto “The Sinister Six.”
It’s not an accident that these guys have hefty television experience: Kurtzman
and Orci were creative forces in “Fringe” while Goddard, another “Buffy” vet,
is currently working as showrunner on the Netflix “Daredevil” series. But
television gives you a whole season to work out the kinks, try new things and
generally take creative risks. What happens when the vision for “Venom” doesn’t
correspond with “The Sinister Six”? At one point does Goddard snap at Kurtzman
and say, “You directed ‘People Like Us’ and I directed ‘Cabin In The Woods,’ so
don’t give me any guff”?

On a practical level,
for this experiment to work, you need an alpha dog, someone with creative ideas
who takes the lead. Marvel has Whedon, which has worked out moderately well for
them in keeping a consistent (if generic) tone between these films. The WB
thought they had that with Christopher Nolan, but he seemingly has no
involvement in this “Man Of Steel” follow-up, and the guy in the next chair
might be Snyder. Fox might be answering to Bryan Singer for
the X-films (Singer was intimately involved with “X-Men: First Class”), but
would he necessarily stay put after ‘Apocalypse’?

Of course, the
“practical” level comes close to basically eliminating the role of the artist
in these endeavors. Already Andrew Garfield was quoted as saying that “The Amazing Spider-Man 4” doesn’t have “anything to do with me.” It seems like a negotiating ploy until you remember that director Marc Webb
himself claimed to be blindsided by the release date announcement for a fourth
film. Sometimes you get lucky and a Hugh Jackman falls into your lap, as
Jackman has happily played Wolverine seven times for Fox, with an eighth on the
way. But this event-izing of sequels to become Matryoshka franchises is largely
driven by giving the audience what they want, when they want, no questions

It mirrors the
collapse of the comic industry in the nineties. The marketplace became a
collector’s haven when non-fans began to amass copies of every big event and
crossover in the hopes of paying their childrens’ college tuition.  But a comic wasn’t going to be worth much if
everyone owned a copy, and somehow the first appearance of Bloodaxe simply
wasn’t going to be worth as much as “Fantastic Four #1.” That didn’t stop the
industry from doubling down on huge stories featuring dozens of characters that
promised endless spectacle after endless spectacle, a desperate gimmick that
eventually killed comics, driving Marvel into bankruptcy. Today, the major
comic companies have stayed afloat due to licensing, tie-ins and merchandising,
but the books themselves sell to primarily niche audiences. Somehow that seems
like the fate of these overstuffed, overpriced, overdone movie franchises:
doomed to reduce movies themselves to worthless, chintzy collectables,
profitable due to endless cheap revenue streams.

Or maybe just show
these studios “Batman And Robin.” Maybe that will get through to them.

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