Apr 4, 2013

What Marvel’s “Phase Two” Project Means For Comic Book Movies

By Paul Krueger

On Wednesday, Marvel released concept art to promote what they are calling “Phase Two” of their movie universe.  The first phase began with 2008’s Iron Man and culminated in last summer’s The Avengers; Iron Man 3 is set to kick off Phase Two, which will tour through more esoteric corners of the Marvel universe before the projected 2015 release of The Avengers 2.  While Iron Man 3, set for release a month from now (May 3rd), takes up the lion’s share of the footage, the reel also offered glimpses of its siblings: sequels to Thor and Captain America, and the movie debuts of Ant-Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Having a Phase Two at all is an automatic game-changer, and living proof that a coherent universe can be created between otherwise disparate films (though perhaps someone should make sure DC gets that memo).  Right now the only one in existence is drawing from one of the most complex fictional creations in history, but it won’t always be that way.  Eventually, someone will be ambitious enough to create a cinematic universe from whole cloth, and if box office reception can sustain it the line between TV and movie storytelling will blur even further than it already has.

But all that’s speculative, and likely a long way off given how risk-averse Hollywood’s become.  So let’s bring the focus back to Marvel’s movie universe, and see what we can extrapolate from this new cache of content.

1) It’s getting weirder...  The projects on deck include a shrinking man, a war between Asgard and the dark elves, and a foul-mouthed space raccoon who totes a gun bigger than he is.  All of these have long histories in Marvel’s comics, but they were the sorts of things that never could have been used to launch the movie franchise.  With the beachhead established, Marvel is introducing some of the more out-there elements of their comics, and in the process doing something almost unheard of for a major studio: expressing genuine trust in their audience.

2) ...and they’re proud of that weirdness.  Someday I’ll dive more deeply into this subject, but one thing I’ve always noticed about DC is that they’re somewhat ashamed of the outlandishness of their properties.  In Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, great pains were taken to make Batman’s existence plausible.  Sometimes this resulted in major cool factor, while other times it came at the expense of the story.  Marvel, on the other hand, has embraced the ridiculous elements of their world.  They don’t bother explaining why there’s a flying aircraft carrier, or a rainbow portal into Norse mythology, or how either could coexist with the ridiculous notion that a man with a bow and arrows could be an effective presence in a battle where there are laser guns.  They all just are, and that’s all the explanation you’ll get.

3) They’re getting more homogenized.  Marvel’s movie product has been surprisingly consistent from film to film.  Some are better than others, but they all generally strike the same splashy, colorful chord.  The heroes of each film are never short on wisecracks.  The villains are just dangerous enough to provoke an explosive climax, but bland enough to be pushed aside after story’s end (Loki excepted).  And the world in which they live uses a bright palette evocative of its four-color ink origins.  DC’s achieved hit-or-miss results with its auteuristic approach, but even amongst the worst entries you can differentiate them tonally.  As much as I adored The Avengers (and basically all of Joss Whedon’s work ever), in it I only found traces of what’s normally one of the most distinct storytelling voices working today.  This enforced similarity adds a sense of coherence to the universe, but it also makes it more difficult for any individual film to stand out as exceptional.

4) Marvel will continue to run train unless DC can get its shit together for a Justice League movie.  Seriously, The Avengers made all of the money ever.

Perhaps the greatest test of all will be the addition of ABC’s upcoming S.H.I.E.L.D. series to the universe’s mythos.  Content throughout Phase One was restricted to a movie or two per year, but with S.H.I.E.L.D. in place there will be fresh stories to tell every single week.  The source material is fortunately rich, but this expansion brings with it its own problems.  After sixty-odd years of continuous publication, superhero comics’ universes have grown unwieldy and unstable in their over-complexity.  And so, with Phase Two looming and a possible Phase Three on the way, the question forms: how long before Marvel’s movie universe goes the same way?

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