"'Face front, true believer'," he mused. "What's that from?"
"It's how Stan Lee used to sign off a bunch of his editorials, you know, 'Stan's Soapbox'. That, and 'Excelsior!' and ''Nuff Said'..."
"But what's it mean?" he asked.
That took me aback. What the hell did it mean? It seemed obvious when I heard it, and even more so when I asked Stan to point like he was saying it, but on the spot like this, coming up with a concise explanation was tough. I took a shot at it anyways though.
"I think it probably started with the Marvel/DC rivalry. DC had these legendary heroes like Superman and Batman, while in the '60s and '70s Marvel was this upstart publisher with these crazy ideas, like superheroes in real cities like New York, not made-up ones like Gotham City and Metropolis, who had bills and everyday problems and 'hang-ups'. And it was still a time when comics were looked down upon, like one step above porn. I think, ultimately, it's about being true to what you find enjoyable about comics, especially the way Marvel did them."
My boss seemed to find that a reasonable explanation, and it satiated my need for meaning too. But back in May, just prior to Gaming & Guinness IX in Ottawa, Marvel Studios made a couple of announcements that, for many of us who consider ourselves fans, made us a little concerned, and maybe caused some of us to question that faith a little bit.
First, Drew Goddard, multi-time Joss Whedon collaborator and writer/director of the brilliant horror deconstruction Cabin in the Woods,was moving out of his position as showrunner for the Netflix Daredevil series. Not long after this, it was announced that Marvel had parted ways with the writer and director of their Ant-Man feature (by the way, I don't care if he's second tier and maybe a bit silly, he's a charter member of the Avengers, show some respect), Edgar Wright, who has not only given us some great comedy hybrids with Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, etc,), but also has a remarkable comic adaptation under his belt with Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World.
Both men possessed the single most important element for for making a successful comic-based show: they are mad fans of the source material. Goddard has been a fan of the sightless hero since childhood:
“You’re talking to a guy who had quotes from Daredevil painted on his wall while growing up. Even when I was 18, I still had the blood red door with the, ‘I have shown him that a man without hope is a man without fear.’Meanwhile, Edgar Wright has been trying trying to make a film version of the tiny crimefighter since before there even was a Marvel Studios! Losing these two individuals so closely together is one of the most serious blows Kevin Feige and the helmers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have had to face yet, and had many fans asking, "Is this it? Is this the end of the run? Have the 'suits' taken over from the fans that ran this studio so well, or worse yet...have they 'grown up'?"
In Goddard's case, it was simply a case of having the opportunity to work on an even bigger comics project: the Sony Studios Spider-Man spin-off Sinister Six, about ol' Webhead's greatest foes coming together as a tea. He has turned the reins over to another Buffy alumnus, Steven S. DeKnight (Spartacus, Smallville), and will remain on as a consulting executive producer.
With Wright, it's a little more complicated and perhaps a bit embittered. In the end, it appears that Marvel Studios gave him a bunch of 'notes' on his script. Notes are issues that the studio want to see addressed in a subsequent draft, like 'make it funnier', 'add a love interest', 'pare back the FX budget in the finale', or 'fix the pacing in the third act', that sort of thing. With Marvel though, such notes may not have had so much to do with the story itself (although the tone might have been an issue), but also with how this intellectual property (i.e. the Ant-Man character) is handled, and also how it fits in with the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe the studio is trying to build.
In the end, Wright's second draft wasn't what the studio wanted, so they had some other writers take a crack at it. When Wright read that draft, it was no longer the movie he wanted to make, so he and Marvel parted ways, and now Peyton Reed (who I only know for the Jim Carrey comedy Yes Man and a few episodes of New Girl) is going to be directing Ant-Man for a 2015 release.
It's unfortunate, but more surprisingly, no one actually appears to be the bad guy in this scenario. In the end, it simply turned out that the studio that owns the property and the writer-director who wanted to make it appeared to have two different pictures in mind, and that's just how it goes sometime. It's a bit sad sad that Wright had put so much work into his idea for so long and won't get to see it through, but on the other hand, he's free to go back and make his own, original films again.
For my part, Marvel Studios has kept the faith with their fantastic adaptations with a consistency that puts even Pixar to shame, despite casting a risky lead with substance abuse issues in a tentpole feature (Iron Man), putting the director of children's comedies in charge of an action movie (Iron Man again), right up through putting two television directors known mostly for comedy in charge of a massive action/conspiracy piece featuring one of the world's most recognizable characters (Captain America: The Winter Soldier).
Many people are surprised that the next Marvel release features the far, far lesser known Guardians of the Galaxy, a team featuring one half-human, two alien humanoids, a talking raccoon hybrid and a walking tree.
Being a fan of these characters in the comics for some time now, I immediately saw the potential for a fantastically entertaining and funny action film, but also a chance to expand the MCU into the realm of the cosmic; ground many thought would need to be ceded to Fox Studios, who control both the Silver Surfer, Marvel's pre-eminent cosmic hero, and his boss/nemesis Galactus, with their Fantastic Four license. Bringing the Marvel Cinematic Universe off Earthnot only opens the door for more Thanos (the bad guy shown after the credits in the first Avengers movie), but also broadens the audience's mind for a more unconventional hero like Dr. Strange, Earth's Sorceror Supreme (coming in June 2016, but still uncast).
Many were skeptical about Guardians of the Galaxy being successful, being weird and unknown, and largely detached from the Earth-bound Marvel continuity) but early reports from its international release this past week have been very favourable; so much so, in fact, that writer-director James Gunn has recently been confirmed as repeating the gig on the sequel in July 2017.
Most importantly, the real target audience for this film -young people who love the MCU and may never have even seen an issue of Guardians of the Galaxy (which you really should, by the way; Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning did a bang-up job running the Cosmic Marvel continuity for about three years, starting with Nova and GOTG) but have been waiting for a new space adventure to take them off-planet in the same way Star Wars did for us.
Back in May, I was at Victoria School for the Arts for a couple of the girls' performances, and while there, checked out one of the student exhibits which featured sculptures made from corrugated cardboard. There was a fantastically detailed acoustic guitar, and a miniature arcade cabinet with joystick (and remember, it's not like these kids have seen those things around a lot!), but most interesting to me was a life-size mask made to look like the one worn by Star Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy.
I loved seeing it there, and I loved seeing it even more a couple of weeks later, as the young artist who constructed it decided to wear it on stage to collect his academic honors award, because he's shown a willingness to go with the filmmakers to somewhere new, someplace colourful and fantastic and populated with intriguing characters and exotic aliens, and part of that willingness comes from knowing that this studio has yet to release a bad film.
And if further proof is needed that Marvel Studios 'gets it', take a look at this poster for the next Avengers movie, Age of Ultron, released as 8 interlinking character pieces over the past few days of the San Diego Comic Con:
Go on, blow it up. There's just so much going on in here, I hardly know where to begin in describing its awesomeness, but let's have a go anyways, shall we? What's to like about this piece of concept art from next summer's biggest movie?
- The scale (jeepers, that's a lot of robots)
- The action
- Ultron's fixed jaw (apparently Ultron 'Prime', motion-captured and voiced by James Spader, will have an articulated jaw, unlike his comics counterpart)
- The arrows sticking out of so many robots, like the hand of the one Hulk is smashing
- Black Widow electrocuting a robot
- Our first look at the Scarlet Witch doing...something cool and destructive
- Quicksilver not only racing in from behind Black Widow, but apparently somehow severing a robot's arm as he does so
- The finger scratches on Iron Man's helmet (that must sound awful inside!)
- And best of all, tucked away in the background of the upper left corner, our first look at the android Avenger, The Vision! With his trademark yellow cape, part of one of the most luridly coloured hero ensembles in comics!
The first Avengers was already an ensemble piece, and now they are adding three new heroes to the team, so a lot of people have concerns about dilution, which seems reasonable enough, but honestly, I'm still not worried.
Faith is a funny thing in that it doesn't require proof (and in some ways actually works better without it), but it can be reinforced over time with positive, anticipated results; faith being rewarded. Marvel Studios' success has a lot to do with having business savvy fans in charge of looking after the properties they are responsible for, and making choices based on the kinds of films they themselves would like to see. Other studios and publishers and 'owners of properties' (I'm looking at you, DC!) should take their cues from these upstarts, the same way comics did in the 1960s. As long as Marvel is able to keep doing this, I'm not going to worry about the decisions being made, I'm just going to keep facing front, and believing.