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Daily Reads: The Secret History of Ultimate Marvel, Why Your Favorite TV Show Was Cancelled, and More

Daily Reads: The Secret History of Ultimate Marvel, Why Your Favorite TV Show Was Cancelled, and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. How Ultimate Marvel Gave Birth to the MCU. It started as a publishing experiment, and then turned into a revolutionizing strategy. Marvel Comics took a chance on rebooting its stale franchise through Ultimate Marvel and it ended up becoming “the foundation of the multi-billion-dollar Marvel cinematic empire.” How did this happen? Vulture’s Abraham Riesman explores that history in depth.

Ever since Marvel’s first comic in 1939, nearly every superhero story it published had to fit into a shared, ongoing universe of characters and events. There was some fudging of time frames (Spider-Man was introduced as a teenager in 1962, and by 1999, he was only in his 30s or so), but every story was built on the back of every previous story, and all stories were interconnected: Iron Man might talk about some battle that had occurred in “X-Men,” Mr. Fantastic would remember things that happened in comics published 20 years prior, and there were regular companywide “crossover events,” where all the heroes would fight the same evil at the same time. If you’re confused by that description, don’t worry — so was everyone else. Sixty years of continuity had set an insanely high bar for understanding what was happening in a Marvel comic, even if you were a die-hard fan. (To be fair: DC also had this problem.) What’s more, everything in Marvel looked and sounded behind-the-times. In a world where geek audiences were flocking to watch the sleek, leather-clad, hip (by 1999 standards) action of “The Matrix,” Marvel’s stories were alienatingly ridiculous. In the pages of Marvel’s flailing comics series, you might see the Avengers — wearing uniforms of clownish purple or baby-blue — fighting wooden-dialogued villains with names like Kang the Conqueror and Lord Templar. Spider-Man was a married stiff who spent years trying to solve the mystery of whether or not he was a clone. And the characters were all so old: The phenomenon of ongoing continuity meant the original X-Men hadn’t been teenagers for decades. A pop-culture empire lives and dies on young-adult interest, and Marvel’s was fast receding.

2. “Vagina Monologues'” Writer Eve Ensler on “Mad Max: Fury Road” Feminism. Twenty years ago, Eve Ensler wrote the episodic play “The Vagina Monologues” and garnered much critical attention for her feminist work. But her most recent work was split between writing a new play about trafficking and advising the “Mad Max” stars (particularly the five wives) on their motivations. BBC News’ Ian Youngs interviews Eve Ensler about her new play and what she brought to “Mad Max.”

Q: There has been a debate over whether it is a feminist film.

A: People sometimes don’t know what feminism means. To me feminism is not that complex. It means women are equal. We have equal roles, equal rights, equal pay. If you look at this film from an objective point of view, women are equally capable of fighting. Women have equal desires. Women are independent and have agency over their own lives. They exist without men. To me, what was very exciting about this film was the range of women characters and the range of ages. They weren’t relegated to one role. To me that’s feminism.

3. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody on “Mad Max: Fury Road.” In the wake of weeks of extreme reactions regarding “Mad Max: Fury Road,” it’s nice to see a measured critique from a known quantity. Veteran critic Richard Brody explores “Mad Max” and finds its story much more impressive than its visuals.

Other elements of the production are cartoonish, and calculatedly so — particularly, the vehicles themselves, welded junk-yard behemoths that play like the toluene hallucinations of a kid gluing plastic race-car models too long in a closed basement. For the most part, their delights exhaust their inventive excesses in a snapshot glance. Yet even here Miller’s logical bent prevails, as in the contrivance I found the most thrilling — extra-long rods like those used for pole vaults, attached vertically to trucks, at the top of which warriors cling and sway as they await the moment to drop from them onto Furiosa’s rig and attack it. The pendular swing as they time their leaps is a visual music unto itself, a brief but dazzling phase-game that reminded me of early work by Steve Reich. Even so, the gratifications of “Mad Max: Fury Road” are largely intellectual, not visceral or sensual. For eyebrow-singing, it can’t hold a candle (or, rather, a blowtorch) to the ultra-low-budget “Bellflower” (why hasn’t its director, Evan Glodell, made another movie yet?). For giddy action, Michael Bay has and gives more fun. For choreographic violence, John Hyams leaves Miller in the dust. Though Miller has made a nominal action film, the images themselves offer very few compositional delights. I saw the film in 3-D, and found that Miller relied on several recurring shock-tropes, such as vehicles and warriors darting into the frame as if from the foreground, taking a viewer by surprise with its proximity and the shift from the long view to the near one. But those minor jolts aren’t the same as the ecstatic rush of a complex, oblique, or revelatory composition.

4. “Game of Thrones” Features Two Kinds of People. The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg explores the depths of “Game of Thrones” every week, but this week, she makes an interesting argument about the series’ characters.

If the game of thrones from which HBO’s epic fantasy series takes its name has two outcomes — “you win or you die” — the show itself seems to be populated by two essential types of people. There are people, like Samwell Tarly (John Bradley), the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce), Petyr Baelish (Aiden Gillen), Bronn (Jerome Flynn) and Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg), who know who they are. There are people who are fundamentally deluded about themselves, among them Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) and Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon). And then there is a third category, from which the show derives a great deal of its drama: those who are trying to figure themselves out, including Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), who is grappling with the conflicts between his fanaticism and his decency; Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who has little sense of self separate from his sister Cersei; Dany (Emilia Clarke), whose ideals are being dashed against the reality of Meereen’s politics; and Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), who is struggling to find new tools in a world where the ones she was raised to wield are worse than useless.

5. Seven Reasons Why Your Favorite TV Show Was Cancelled. There’s a period of mourning that follows a beloved TV show’s cancellation, and in that moment, it’s tough to ask the real questions about why it was cancelled. Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff unpacks cancellations and the structural, behind-the-scenes strategy that goes into them.

It’s the licensing fee that is often misunderstood by TV fans. Theoretically, a studio that wanted to ensure a show reached a certain number of episodes could drop the licensing fee to zero to entice a network to keep airing the show, but that would set a dangerous precedent. After all, the studios can’t make every episode they produce a complete revenue black hole. What usually happens is that a network crunches the numbers to arrive at a licensing fee it can live with in a borderline ratings case, and the studio eats the added expenses in hopes of making that money back somewhere down the line. For a likely example of this, look to “The Mindy Project,” which was produced by NBC Universal and aired on Fox. Its ratings performance was poor, but not so poor that it merited instant cancellation. However, since another company entirely owned the show, Fox wouldn’t reap any benefits from “Mindy’s” entry into the syndication or streaming markets, which almost certainly explains why the network canceled it in 2015. (It was later picked up by Hulu, which has lower viewership thresholds to clear.) This is why networks airing shows from studios that aren’t their corporate siblings is becoming increasingly uncommon.

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