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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Marvel-ing at movies

All things come to he who waits. Or is it “him who waits”?

Anyway, if you wait long enough, everything happens eventually. No one knows this better than really old fans of Marvel comic books.

I was there at the beginning. By that, I mean a period of time in the early 1960s when a second-rate comic book publishing company changed its name to Marvel and began introducing a whole new line of superhero titles, beginning with Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. And, frankly, I would have missed it if not for my more prescient friend, Eric. Me, I was a die-hard DC reader. That was the publisher that had the top comic book titles of the time, i.e. Superman, Batman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman et al. I was happy reading these titles. Heck, I didn’t know anything else. And I was an avid collector. I held on to every comic book I ever bought. It was nearly over for me when Eric once asked to borrow some of my comic books and, when I went over to his house to get them back, he shrugged his shoulders and explained nonchalantly, “Oh, my mom threw them out.” This traumatic incident was replayed a decade or so later when I was going to school in France and an Algerian friend, Mohammed, asked to borrow some French language comic books I had acquired with the intention of adding them to my collection at home. He wanted them to read on the car journey home for a school break. I wasn’t inclined to give them to him, but a common friend vouched for Mohammed’s trustworthiness and advised me that it would be bad form to refuse. So I gave them to Mohammed and emphasized how I wanted them back for my collection. (Comics in France were dear, and for a starving student like myself money to buy them was precious.) After Mohammed returned to school, I eagerly asked for my comic books back, but he shrugged his shoulders and responded nonchalantly, “Oh, I passed them on to a friend in Algeria.”

I’ve recounted all this to establish my bona fides in being a (former) serious comic book guy. When the first Marvel comic books came out (in what has since been dubbed the Silver Age of comics), I didn’t even notice them on the stands. I had trained myself to pretty much tune out everything that wasn’t a DC title. But Eric bought a couple of issues of Tales of Suspense, which featured a new character called Iron Man. Eric thought they were pretty cool, but I wasn’t impressed at first. This new superhero was more grounded in reality. He didn’t have the god-like powers of Superman. He was wearing an iron suit first and foremost just to stay alive, because of a grave injury. And his suit kept changing. At first it was a huge hunk of gray armor. Then it turned golden. Then it was redesigned completely to make him look more sleek and less like a klunky sumo wrestler robot. Meanwhile, other titles kept appearing. Eric liked the heavy muscular characters, like the original Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. Largely because of an interest in mythology, I was drawn to the character of The Mighty Thor. There was something entertaining about a god coming down to earth and interacting with the ordinary denizens of New York. (All the Marvel characters, at least in the beginning, were based in New York City. No fictional Metropolis or Gotham City for the prolific father of the Silver Age, Stan Lee.) The culture conflict angle was heightened by the fact that Thor spoke Shakespearean (or was it biblical?) English, sprinkling his haughty speech with thou’s and thee’s.

While the DC heroes had few personal problems and, indeed, little personal life, the Marvel superheroes had complicated personal lives—with problems and romantic issues that developed and changed over time. In those days, Clark Kent and Lois Lane never got past subtle flirting and, though Lois did suspect Clark was hiding something, whenever she seemed to discover his secret, things were always put back to the status quo by the end of the story. But Thor had an ongoing passion for the loyal nurse who worked for his human doctor alter ego. And I think we are all well aware, thanks to the three Sam Raimi movies, of Spider-Man’s complicated sentimental life. I counted the days until the new Marvel titles came out each month with an eagerness I never had with the DC titles.

For a long time the one thing that the DC characters had over the Marvel ones was movies and TV shows. Superman was on TV in the 1950s and Batman was a TV craze in the 1960s. In the 1970s and 1980s, Superman got the big-budget movie treatment with the films starring Christopher Reeve, and beginning in the 1980s Batman was a phenom again thanks to Tim Burton’s big-screen treatment. But we Marvel fans were asking, where are the cool adaptations of our heroes? To be sure, in the late 1960s some animated versions of the Marvel characters did appear. But they weren’t very good. They basically lifted the art right out of the comic books and added the minimum amount of motion to them. (The 1967 animated Spider-Man show gave us the immortal theme song that is hard to get out of one’s head once you have heard it—and invariably shows up in the current crop of blockbuster Spider-Man movies.) Other animated versions would follow over the years. It emerged that, for legal reasons too complicated to go into here, the Marvel properties were tied up for ages. At times it seemed as though we would never get the big screen versions that Superman and Batman fans had enjoyed. As time wore on, the wait became worse because we saw the special effects technology improving and despaired over whether it would ever be applied to our favorite superheroes. When we saw James Cameron’s Terminator 2, we knew that the computers that turned Robert Patrick into a silvery cyborg from the future would be ideal for bringing the Silver Surfer to life.

Now, we did get some adaptations along the way. There was a veritable boomlet of Marvel TV shows in the late 1970s, but without huge satisfaction for eager fans. A short-lived live-action Spider-Man TV series in 1977, starred Nicholas Hammon as Peter Parker and featured David White (best known as Larry Tate on Betwitched) as J. Jonah Jameson. And a year later a TV version of The Incredible Hulk, starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno (as titular alter and ego), began a run that lasted several seasons and was followed by a few TV movies, culminating in one that chronicled the big green fellow’s death—just a couple of years before Bixby’s real-life demise. This was the crème de la crème of Marvel screen offerings of the period. The series—which emphasized the hero’s tender, human side—played like a remake of The Fugitive, with a quota of two (count ‘em, two) all-too-brief scenes actually featuring the green monster.

In 1978 and 1979, a couple of failed pilot movies showed up on TV. Doctor Strange starred Sir John Mills as the sorcerer, and a pilot movie (and sequel) was made of Captain America, starring Reb Brown. Another Captain America movie, starring Matt Salinger, was made in 1990 but was reportedly so bad that it never got released in the U.S. At the end of the 1980s, a movie adaptation was made of The Punisher, a latter-day, second-tier title in the Marvel canon, with Louis Gossett Jr. in the title role and Jeroen Krabbé as his arch-enemy. Two years after it was made, it went direct to video.

In 1982, a positive portent arrived in John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian, starring a future governor of California as its star. This was the first really big-budget, high-quality movie featuring a character who had appeared in the pages of Marvel Comics—although, in this particular case, the comic itself was not an original Marvel creation but an adaptation of a series of novels by Robert E. Howard. Howard himself was the subject of a movie, The Whole Wide World, directed by former Seattle International Film Festival co-founder Dan Ireland. Vincent D’Onofrio played Howard, and in a sort-of coincidence, his first role in a major motion picture was as someone who appears thunder-god-like to a young boy obsessed by Mighty Thor comic books in 1987’s Adventures in Babysitting.

Anyway, this is the sort of stuff we had to be happy with up through the 1990s. As well as occasional movie cameos by Marvel guru Stan Lee in movies like Larry Cohen’s The Ambulance and comic-book-obsessed Kevin Smith’s Mallrats. Another portent arrived, however, in 1998 with Blade (another latter-day title), starring Wesley Snipes. That movie has spawned two sequels. But things really changed (finally!) at the turn of the millennium with the release of Bryan Singer’s X-Men, featuring a slew of major stars, led by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, and lots of pricy special effects. That breakthrough was followed by two sequels (to date)—as well as Ang Lee’s commercially disappointing Hulk, starring Eric Bana; Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies; Mark Steven Johnson’s Daredevil, starring Ben Affleck, and followed by the spin-off Elektra; another Punisher movie; Tim Story’s Fantastic Four and recently released sequel; and the recent Ghost Rider movie, starring Nicolas Cage.

And lots more is on the way. A recent article in The New York Times described how Marvel’s movie division, Marvel Entertainment, has transitioned from merely licensing its characters to other studios to the potentially more lucrative business of actually producing the movies themselves. Future movie titles listed by the Internet Movie Database (not always a guarantee that the flick in question isn’t vaporware) include, among others, Wolverine, The Punisher 2, Nick Fury, Ant-Man, Iron Man (to star Robert Downey Jr.), The Incredible Hulk (to star Edward Norton), Thor, Silver Surfer (with a screenplay already written by Babylon 5 guru J. Michael Straczynski!), Magneto, The Avengers and Captain America.

It’s almost too much to deal with. But I won’t complain. Like I said, all things come to he (or him?) who waits. The best of the lot of recent Marvel movies? Easily, Raimi’s trio of Spider-Man epics. The most underrated? Ang Lee’s Hulk. (Maybe if Bruce Banner had been a gay cowboy…) The best Stan Lee cameo? Again, Hulk, in which Lee and Lou Ferrigno walk on as security guards and Lee mutters, “We need to do something about security.” And the most eagerly anticipated future movie? That’s easy. Thou dost verily know the answer. ‘Tis none but the mighty Thor!

-S.L., 28 June 2007

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