The Downside of the “Marvel Effect”

Intermission: Spider-Man 9x4

There’s a lot of enthusiasm about the prospect of Spider-Man entering the Marvel Cinematic Universe… but is that the right reaction?

These days you can chart out the likely reactions among fandom and the movie press (by which I mean “older fandom,” since the movie sites that move traffic today are the ones that employ the better ex-AICN and CHUD writers) to this or that superhero movie — in the pre-release stages at least — pretty accurately based on where it’s coming from. Like so:

STUDIO: Warner Bros
REACTION: Tepid excitement, tempered by jokes about overly-dark tones and aesthetic and a desire to see DC movies more in line with their Marvel counterparts. Bonus points for renewed complaints about the ending of Man of Steel.

REACTION: Immediate disdain, followed by lamentations that the character/franchise in question hasn’t reverted back to Marvel yet.

REACTION: Immediate snark, but not necessarily disdain, followed by similar lamentations about the rights not being under Marvel’s control.
CAVEAT: Fans who grew up in the 1990s are likely to be more forgiving of the X-Men movies’ “guys in dull black coats” design sensibilities.

STUDIO: Marvel
REACTION: Instantaneous, unmitigated fanboy/girl love. “The characters look like they do in the comics!” “They got the costumes right!” “I just saw [obscure supporting character]! That means they’re doing [fan-favorite storyline]!” Did they end a relationship on bad terms with the original director? Are the actors being almost humiliatingly-underpaid? Who cares!? It’s a Marvel movie — they’re always good-to-great, and they’ve got continuity so you can’t just skip one!

…we might have a problem here.

The truism you have to accept to be part of modern fandom is that there’s almost no such thing as an underdog anymore. The Internet has turned everything into a niche and every niche into a profit-center, and there’s barely anything that one can be a serious fan of anymore that doesn’t also make one by-default a fan of a synergized corporate product. Sure, that was always at least partly the case, but these days even the gradation is gone: Geeking out over Marvel comics no longer means rooting for a bunch of scrappy funnybook writers toiling in a New York office — it’s cheerleading for the success of an ultra-powerful subsidiary of the omnipresent Walt Disney Company.

Most of the time, that’s fine. Creativity can come from anywhere, and since it’s a good idea to keep fan-devotion in check to a degree the wariness that inevitably comes from big business being involved might be a value-added feature. But it’s starting to get to the point — and I say this as someone who’s done a fair bit of Marvel/Disney cheerleading as of late — where brand fealty (even to something good) is beginning to get a little worrying.

The story of the day, is the (apparent) hacking of Sony corporate documents on behalf of North Korea, which has spilled thousands of secrets out into the press. Included among those secrets has been the reveal of the worst kept secret in town: The studio’s handling of the Spider-Man franchise is an embarrassing disaster on all fronts, leading to an increased likelihood that the studio’s Japanese parent company will step in and force them to cede creative control of the series to Marvel.

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It’s easy to imagine a scenario wherein fans were against this sort of thing. Once upon a time, film geeks would’ve generally been against the idea of yanking a movie away from filmmakers with a plan for the property in favor of turning it over to its corporate masters for reworking (especially if said master was part of the Disney machine). But that’s changed now: The news that Marvel might swoop in and exercise control over Spidey has been met with near-universal welcome by fans (it must be said: the X-factor in this is that Sony’s rebooted, post-Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies are just terrible) who’re treating the idea of a branded-product changing hands from one company to another like the prospective rescue of a child hostage from kidnappers.

This would almost be expected behavior from the comic-shop set, but it’s moved beyond that at this point. Maybe that’s Marvel’s greatest stroke of genius: Not just turning movies into comics, but turning casually-devoted film buffs into the equivalent of Silver Age Marvel obsessives.

This isn’t the first manifestation of this — I opined back in August on the possibility that Fox’s curious lack of promotion for the Fantastic Four reboot was grounded less in lack of faith in the film and more in a fear that director Josh Trank’s reportedly drastic reimagining of the franchise will be met with disgust by fans. And those fans now have a very good reason to wish (and inflict, in the form of “bad buzz”) failure on the project in hopes that the rights will slip back to Marvel, who will inevitably produce the “comics accurate” version fans have clamored for.

I’d be less ambivalent about this situation if Marvel wasn’t putting out good films — or, at least, was putting out so-so films that fanboys overrate because they got the “details” right. But the fact is, the studio got to where it is by being the best in the business at what it does. It’s a conundrum: They can pull what seems like some pretty hacky, shady maneuvers regarding Edgar Wright and Ant-Man, then blow any ill-will off the front-pages by releasing something as unique and offbeat as Guardians of the Galaxy.

What worries me, though, is that homogenization can slip in very easily in situations like these. The lesson that other superhero-producers should be learning from Marvel’s success is to take pride in their source material, hire talented filmmakers and not to fear being “too strange” in a genre built on it. But the lesson they’re more likely to learn is to lean on superficial similarities like inter-film continuity or specific imitations (you just know someone at Warner Bros. looks at Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man and thinks “Isn’t Batman rich, too? Can’t we just do exactly this?”)

The swirling rumor of the moment is that the “Spider-Man Summit” Sony had already planned for January wherein its creative chiefs will hash out what to do with the franchise (at the bare minimum, it looks like another rebooting with Andrew Garfield getting the boot is on the table) will also be attended by Marvel headman Kevin Feige. If true, it likely means that Spider-Man could be rejoining the Marvel Cinematic Universe sooner rather than later.

I’m not going to lie and say the prospect of that doesn’t make me happy — the sooner the people in charge of the Amazing disaster have been shown the door the better, and (again) Marvel simply is better than everyone else at making these movies right now. But I’m wondering what things will look like when the studio starts grabbing for properties that aren’t in need of “rescue.” Good movies or not, anointing one studio as the only folks “allowed” to work in a genre isn’t good for anybody.



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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.