Apparently, Marvel rules the world. “Winter Soldier” isn’t the best Marvel Studio film (for me, that’s Avengers, followed by Iron Man #1) but it demonstrates that they have learned to maintain a spooky level of consistency. And no one has ever lived long enough to count all the money it’s gonna make by hand. Considering (what seems to me) a mis-fire with the recent “Man of Steel” and the cluster-#$%% that “Batman Versus Superman” threatens to be if they don’t watch out (trying to shoehorn the Justice League into that movie is a recipe for disaster if they aren’t very, very careful: “Avengers” was a genius-level juggling act) I thought that rather than review “Winter Soldier” (it’s great. Go) I’d make some comments on why I think that this is absolutely the best time in the world to be a Marvel geek.
1) It is interesting to note critics praising the Marvel Universe films for making different movies in different genres, but the truth is that the root of that is right in the comic books themselves. And the innate variation is probably true of any comic book company, but because so many creative roots within Marvel cross at one living man--Stan Lee, there is a consistency of feeling that you can’t get if the different books were each created by different creative teams.
2) Advantage #2 took a long time to kick in: for decades the technology just wasn’t there to present the kind of visions Jack Kirby or Jim Steranko created in the pages of those comics.
Look how much they trumpeted “You’ll believe a man can fly” for Christopher Reeves, and Superman’s flight is extremely simple and straight-forward compared to the flying effects we’re used to today. And Batman can be pulled off with primarily practical, mechanical effects, as Christopher Nolan proved three times.
The Marvel Universe is just stranger, farther-out, and whackier. Spider-man just can’t be pulled off by stuntpeople without CGI--we can’t handle the gees without strain, and the ability to express Spidey’s joyous, blissed-out body language simply isn’t human. Stunt men end up looking like Tarzan swinging though a concrete jungle rather than a teen-ager expressing all the pent-up frustration of adolescence in a “look at me, Maw! Top of the World!” web-slinging version of the “Footloose” dance of freedom.
3) As I mentioned before, Stan Lee is still alive. And although he hasn’t really been a creative force for decades, he is still “Stan the Man”, super-salesman. And what is sales? A transfer of enthusiasm from one person to another. That means that the current creative minds at Marvel/Disney can sit in the room with Stan, and he can infect them with his vision of these characters, this world. So what if Walt Disney didn’t draw or write Mickey Mouse, and couldn’t even sign his own autographs? He was the human crossroads for everything that got done in his name, and as long as he was alive, there was a feel to everything that emerged under the “Walt Disney” brand.
I consider it so tragic that fans of the great “King” Jack Kirby feel it necessary to attack a 90-year old man to defend their favorite. What is even worse is that they want me to believe that Stan contributed little or nothing to the canon. I’ll say only this: I was there, a die-hard Marvel fan in the 1960’s and 70’s. I read everything that came out. And there was a common “flavor” to the writing, ALL the writing, that came out with Stan’s name on it. Artists came and went on all the different comics. But the stories and writing were pretty much the same. I refuse to believe that the artists were writing all this stuff, across two dozen books with artists swapping in and out...but maintaining the same writing flavor. You want to believe that? Go right ahead.
With a few exceptional graphic storytellers--like KIrby--there was a special magic when they teamed up, and I can believe that something very very special happened with the “Marvel Method”, where the artists were hugely trusted to create--under Stan’s editorial hand, and expressing a “Bullpen” feeling for everything happening at one extraordinary moment of time, 1965-75 or so. My God, that must have been an amazing creative environment. And it is genuinely heart-breaking that billions of dollars are being earned and Kirby’s heirs aren’t a part of that cash stream.
But that doesn’t change the fact that having Stan alive is like having the living creators of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern all in a room at the same time, telling stories of how, and why, and who. That is an AMAZING advantage.
4) It doesn’t bother me in the least that theatrical cinema’s biggest movies are popcorn-munching, franchise-fodder genre stuff. It WOULD bother me if we weren’t in a Golden Age of television. But any particular outlet for media images is just that--an outlet. We have more product BY FAR hitting audiences, with theatrical film, broadcast television, VOD, cable, net-streaming, Direct-to-DVD and probably other stuff I’m forgetting about. The traditional hierarchical “four studios controlling 90% of the screens” model is falling apart, with people absorbing content on home TVs, computers, cell phones, Ipads, theatrical screens, dedicated viewers, and in the near future probably corneal implants. For those who miss the old model--well, I’m sorry for their pain, but the truth is that I was never a controlling part of that structure to begin with, and I welcome the new avenues and the fact that chaos brings opportunity.
And I don’t blame Hollywood for seeking some sort of guarantees to pull people into theaters. Movies are first and foremost “product”. So major stars, recognizable themes, bestselling novels, adaptions of television shows, comic book heroes, or sequels of successful past films all get center stage. And what will get the biggest budgets? The films that can’t be properly made for a smaller screen. “Ordinary People” looks just fine on a small screen, an intimate story of emotion. But...blow up the world? Hell, give me an Imax screen and 3-d. The fact that these gigantic, state-of-the ILM art images need no translation is icing on a very very profitable cake.
As long as I can watch five years of “Breaking Bad” on the small screen whenever I want, I really don’t care if half the stuff at the multiplex is popcorn b.s. Choose a random year of Hollywood films and look at the output. Except for the usual up-and-down of quality you see in any field, things haven’t ever been much better. And if you look at the output of other world cinema--not just the stuff good enough for export, but the general sweep of their product--I think you’ll hold your nose just as much.
One of the fun things about having seen television in context in Europe, Africa, and South America, as well as having seen a ton of Asian cinema, is that it becomes very clear that Sturgeon’s Law is right: 90% of anything is crap. It mostly just people trying to make a living and put their kids through school married to other people trying to express themselves and tell a story that’s buzzing around in their heads. That anything really beautiful ever comes of that difficult union is a minor miracle.
Anyway, back to “Winter Soldier”. It’s big. It’s loud. It is also blessed with quiet thoughtful moments. It has great action and SFX. It also has some very nicely judged acting. It blusters and wears its patriotism on its arm. It also suggests that there are ways America has lost its way. And also celebrates the ways in which our ancestors got it wrong, without making a big thing of it. It is pure comic book, and also, in the combination of everything that Hollywood does like no one else in the world has ever been able to do, for good or ill. As said, it isn’t that perfect juggling act that raised “Avengers” into a kind of singular stratosphere--but it kicks ass all kinds of happy ways, and I cant’ wait to see it again. In the top 10 comic book movies ever.
Make Mine Marvel.