In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, as we return from another hiatus, we look at how the second chapter in the Marvel Studios’ story continued.
When we last left this column, Marvel Studios seem primed for a fall. While both Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World were financial successes, they were wobbly creatively. The former was a break from the series, placing Tony Stark not in a suit of armor, but in the role of a detective and the latter suffered from having too many characters and no plan on how to deal with them, resulting in a bland villain and lowered stakes.
And considering that 2014 would involve a sequel to Marvel’s second lowest grossing film to date and a film based around characters that the general public would not know at all, the chances of failure were fairly high. However, Marvel turned out what could have been a failure into a resounding success and, in the process, came out with two of the best films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
If Marvel hadn’t already started working on the script before Captain America: The First Avenger, you have to wonder if that film would even get a sequel. After all, like I mentioned above, it was the second lowest grossing Marvel Studios film worldwide. Only The Incredible Hulk grossed lower, and we are still waiting for a sequel to that film (and probably will still be waiting for a long time). Granted, First Avenger doubled its production budget with its grosses, something that worked in its favor of getting a sequel, but Marvel dedication to its long range planning had to also play apart.
Director Joe Johnson would not be coming back for the sequel and Marvel had to look elsewhere for a director. Who they found was Anthony and Joseph Russo, a directing pair best known for their work in television comedies such as Arrested Development and Community. Their main forays into film were Welcome to Collingwood and Me, You and Dupree. Both film were comedies and neither exactly set the critical world on fire.
If the first Cap film was a style tribute to the jingoistic war films of the 1940s, this film was a nod to the political conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s. Cap is now an operative of S.H.I.E.L.D. but does not agree with all of their tactics. He has right to, as the organization has been infiltrated by Hydra up to the highest levels, and those dirty tactics are part of Hydra’s long-term plan to make the world ready for their domination. Cap must run and fight for his life with friends old, Black Widow, and new, the Falcon. But Hydra has a deadly weapon of its own, the Winter Soldier, who it turns out is Cap’s childhood friend, Bucky.
Captain America gets criticized as a character for being too good–a boy scout. He is typically the moral center of any group he is in, and a character who will do what’s right no matter what the circumstances. He is the anti-antihero. Many comic readers consider him boring because of this, but, filmmakers were able to turn this quality into an asset.
Just as in the first film, where Steve Rogers’ inherent goodness made him the only choice for the super-soldier program, his noble nature provides an anchor for viewers into the second film’s story. When you have snakes at every turn and you are not sure who you can trust, you need audiences to be sure that whatever your antagonist does is the right thing. And that is Cap’s M.O., doing the right thing. You believe that he could be the one man to do whatever it takes to bring the corrupt organization to its knees, and that he will not back down no matter what obstacles are put in his way. And the obstacles are huge–a government organization with unlimited resources. It was a giant David vs. Goliath story with notes taken from the real world politics. What’s more, Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely was able to do what Shane Black and Drew Pearce couldn’t do with Iron Man 3, write a big story with high stakes without changing the character to fit it.
Markus and McFeely also improved upon their Thor: The Lost World screenplay, which they co-wrote with Christopher Yost, when it came to balancing the large cast. Each character has small moments in their film that define their character. Whether it be the Falcon volunteering to help veterans or Alexander Pierce going over old times with Nick Fury, we get just enough that the characters become unique individuals that we can invest our time in. The pair should also get points for introducing two plots from the comic books–the Winter Soldier and the Hydra infiltration both originated there–seamlessly into the film’s narrative and continuity. And in a world where sequels typically on present a slightly different version of the status quo, this film shook up the Marvel Cinematic Universe forever.
The Russo Brothers directed a taut, fast-moving thriller that was a reminder of how great Marvel films can really be. We would get another reminder a few months later when Guardians of the Galaxy was released.
When Guardians of the Galaxy was confirmed to be in development back in 2011, it would be safe to say that I was a little stunned. Every Marvel property up to that point had had appeared in popular media before, be it cartoons, TV shows or movies. Yet, here was a concept that would be completely foreign to mainstream audiences, a concept that wasn’t even all that popular with comic book audiences. It at once showed Marvel’s commitment to mine all of its IP, no matter how obscure, but also proved that it would be Marvel’s riskiest gamble to date because they had to sell the concept to a public that had no prior knowledge to it.
The project appeared to get off on the right foot with the hiring of James Gunn as a director. Gunn was a writer and director who got his start in the Z-movie factory that is Troma Films. He eventually rose to the level of A-level movies with his writing, working on Dawn of the Dead and the Scooby-Doo series, and B-movies in his directing, with his body-invasion horror film, Slither. But Gunn seem to genuinely be a comic book fanboy, having written the superhero parody The Specials and written and directed the realistic take on the vigilante, Super.
The selection of Gunn did hit a bit of a speed bump in November of 2012 when a blog post he made in 2011 was dug up and made the rounds in geek media. The post, a list of the comic book characters his fans would like to have sex with, was full of misogynistic and homophobic language from Gunn. A petition was circulated on Change.com asking for his removal from the film, but the petition and the controversy was dropped after Gunn issued an apology on Facebook.
That wasn’t the only potential warning sign concerning the film. Another one was the casting of Chris Pratt, and actor best known as Andy on the TV comedy, Parks and Recreation, over other actors with action experience such as Joel Edgerton and Garrett Hedlund. This, added to the joke-filled first trailer, which can be seen below, led me to believe that this might be Marvel’s first flat-out comedy. This would have taken a risky venture and made it an impossible sell.
Of course, all of this worrying was over nothing. While the film did have its fair share of humor in it, the movie as a whole was a well-balanced offering. The film was reminiscent of a really good action/sci-fi film from the 1980s. It featured colorful characters, a team of strangers who come together for a common goal, nasty bad guys, and a kick-ass soundtrack.
Peter Quill (Pratt) was an Earth child who abducted into space at age 8 by a bounty hunter/treasure hunter named Yondu (Michael Booker). Yondu raises the boy and trains him a little bit too well in the art of deception, as an adult Quill decides to steal a valuable orb before Yondu can and cash in on the high price for the object. But before he can sell it, Quill is arrested and winds up in prison with Drax, a man looking for vengeance against the people who slaughtered his family (Dave Bautista), Gamora, a woman called “Thanos’ daughter” who is looking to reform (Zoe Saldana), Rocket, a raccoon bounty hunter looking to return Quill to Yondu (voice of Bradley Cooper) and his muscle–a walking tree called Groot (Voiced by Vin Diesel). When it becomes apparent that a radical member of the Kree race named Ronan (Lee Pace) wants the orb so he can destroy an enemy planet full of innocent people, the five have to join together to keep it away from him.
Pratt now seems like the only person who could have played Quill. Quill is a lovable rogue in the tradition of Han Solo, a tricky role to pull off. Having Quill be too nice minimizes the chance for bad behavior. Having him be too nasty makes the audiences not want to root for him. Pratt struck the perfect balance.
Audiences responded to the film in droves, making into the number one highest grossing film of the year, an honor Marvel achieved last year as well. Marvel will also likely take the number one spot next year as well, when Avengers: Age of Ultron hits theaters. We’ll talk about that one next time, along with Ant-Man and what Phase III will hold.