A modern Marvel

A world built in the 1960s resonates with audiences in the 21st century.

Published:November 19, 2013 7:30 am

The Marvel universe,which has kept expanding through more than five decades and across hundreds of titles,seems to go on forever. This alone creates a sense of awe. I was a pre-adolescent during Marvel Comics’s greatest period of market dominance over the rival DC in the early 1990s and as a Marvel partisan,I cherished the different catalogues offering an encyclopaedic taxonomy of various superheroes and villains. Marvel knew how to build loyalty among its young readership. Until 2001,every issue of every Marvel publication contained a single-page newsletter-style “Bullpen Bulletin”. This included “Stan’s Soapbox”,a chummy forum for company president and original genius Stan Lee to hold court,invariably signing off with the salutation,“Make mine Marvel!”

For years,the “Bulletin” contained rumours of forthcoming Marvel film projects that were either indefinitely delayed (Spider-Man),permanently shelved (1994’s The Fantastic Four),or released to tepid response from both fans and the general public (1990’s Captain America). While DC had big-screen successes with Superman and Batman,Marvel never followed suit,nor did it seem likely to after filing for bankruptcy in 1996,once the comic book boom went bust. Then one day,something funny happened. Beginning with 1998’s Blade,2000’s X-Men and 2002’s Spider-Man,Marvel emerged as a force in the multiplex.

There were missteps along the way — Ben Affleck in Daredevil,two less-than incredible Hulks — but the Marvel track record only improved with the implementation of standardisation and a kind of formulaic quality control. A crucial development came in 2009 when,shortly after the success of Robert Downey Jr.’s first outing as Iron Man,Marvel Entertainment was purchased by The Walt Disney Company,which promptly put its resources into snapping up the licensing rights on characters that had been scattered among various studios.

The latest product is Thor: The Dark World,which reunites Chris Hemsworth as the Asgardian god of thunder and Tom Hiddleston as his black sheep brother Loki,both seen in 2011’s Thor and 2012’s Marvel’s The Avengers. The Dark World shows no sign of breaking Marvel’s recent run of success. Marvel can certainly do spectacle: the art direction is a lavish tour through two centuries of fantasy illustration,while the main event showdown is undeniably resourceful,tumbling through the multi-dimensional settings of the nine realms. Stan Lee stops by for a gloating cameo,as does Hemsworth’s Avengers co-star Chris Evans,in what amounts to an in-film ad to hype his own sequel,Captain America: The Winter Soldier,coming in spring 2014.

The Dark World and The Winter Soldier are,respectively,the eighth and ninth films in the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” (MCU) ,a group of tentpole franchises defined by their shared plot chronology and cast of overlapping characters,like Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson as S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Nick Fury and Black Widow. The Avengers was an all-star supergroup jamboree bringing all of the MCU characters together. With box-office takings better than many a small country’s GDP,it was successful enough to ensure a sequel,2015’s Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron. For those who need something to tide them over between theatrical releases,Marvel/ Disney recently debuted Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,a weekly,hour-long series.

The MCU is an entity distinct from other films and franchises based on Marvel properties licensed to co-producer studios,like 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man (Sony/ Columbia),or the X-Men film series,like last summer’s The Wolverine. All of this is rather complicated,but the essential point is that an enormous amount of money is being spent and earned.

Why is it that the “world building” begun by Lee and artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko in the early 1960s has suddenly start paying dividends in another medium in the 21st century? The very breadth of the Marvel universe works to its advantage today,as contemporary narrative pop turns towards the immersive and maximalised,on the small screen and large. This includes the rise of the long-game multi-season story arc in dramatic television,as well as an increasing tendency to think of films not as individual units with finite beginnings and ends,but as building blocks within the architecture of a franchise,a tendency which has made terms such as “reboot” part of common parlance.

Consumers are evidently willing to go along with this,while there’s no question that manufacturers are pleased. The cliffhanger hook of serial entertainment is now standard for drumming up business in cinema,and The Dark World predictably ends with the promise of more Loki mischief to come. “World building” happens to coincide nicely with another presently popular piece of jargon: “building your brand”. It is fitting that Disney and Marvel have joined forces,for they’re selling admission to a Marvel universe theme park,where a familiar cast of characters will always be waiting. Together,they are building a new generation of return customers who will,in unison,mouth an age-old slogan: “Make mine Marvel!”

Pinkerton is a New York-based writer

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