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Captain America: The Winter Soldier wird derzeit für die Presse gezeigt und die ersten Reaktionen sind sehr positiv – unter anderem auch, weil das Ende des Films anscheinend einige Auswirkungen auf die Zukunft des Marvel Cinematic Universe, besonders in Avengers: Age of Ultron zu haben scheint. Inzwischen haben für Age of Ultron sogar bereits die Dreharbeiten begonnen, aber schon im vergangenen Juli haben die Regisseure von The Winter Soldier, Joe und Anthony Russo, einer Gruppe von Bloggern ein Roundtable Interview gegeben, in dem sie einige interessante Aussagen dazu treffen, wie es ist, in einer fortlaufenden Continuity wie dem Marvel Cinematic Universe zu arbeiten. Joe Russo erklärt:

the fun part of that, if you are a comic book geek like me, you get off on [easter eggs and connections]. That’s the exciting component of that, “What can we set up for the future?” And they’re constantly pitching out ideas that not only just effects your movie, but might also have a ripple effect in the other films, and Joss [Whedon] is reading the scripts, the Thor script and the Cap script, and going, “Okay, this is where I’m getting the characters and this is where I have to pick them up in the next movie.” So, it’s a a weird sort of, I don’t know, tapestry of writers and directors working together to create this universe. It’s sort of organic, it’s not structured.

Das im Endeffekt doch relativ wenig fest vorgeplant ist, scheint mir interessant, vor allem, wenn man bedenkt, dass Marvel ja auch noch eine Supra-Storyline über Thanos und die Infinity Gems aufbaut. Anthony Russo ergänzt an dieser Stelle, dass ihnen ihre Erfahrung mit metatextuellen, komplexen Fernsehserien wie „Arrested Development“ und „Continuity“ „Community“ ihnen gute Voraussetzungen lieferte. (Eine Verbindung, auf die ich vor einem Jahr zum ersten Mal hingeweisen habe.)

I think it comes very natural to us […], we played with a lot of foreshadowing and callbacks and […] tracking that stuff over a season of television, or multiple seasons, it’s just something [that] we’re sort of patterned for […] It’s like we sort of understand how you take a larger story and wrangle it into a moment, yet keep them connected.

Joe Russo weist zudem explizit darauf hin, wie wichtig die zentrale Figur von Studiopräsident Kevin Feige ist, um den Filmkosmos inhaltlich wie kommerziell zusammenzuhalten. Feige fungiert also als eine Art Showrunner und passt sich somit auch perfekt ins zunehmend mythologische Konstrukt ein, das um diese Aufgabe herum gebaut wird.

If you knew how difficult it is to line up those kinds of salaries, stars, get that material pushed through, have ownership of that material, have control of that material, quality control, to the extent that he did, it’s almost impossible.

Feige selbst geht schließlich in einem anderen Interview kurz auf die Verbundenheit der MCU-Filme mit der „Agents of SHIELD“-Fernsehserie ein. Wenig überraschenderweise trumpfen hier interne Konzernstrukturen nach wie vor das kreative Gewebe.

[T]he studio is not involved in the day-to-day of the show. Jeph Loeb and the TV division is overseeing that. But of course there’s crossover. I was just in a meeting with those guys and I’m about in two minutes to go back to a meeting with those guys to hear the overall picture and to, you know, to hear their ideas and how they deal with the events and Thor and the events of the Cap. Their ideas for season two, should there be one, to make sure they lead into Avengers and don’t … the key to that show, just like they key to all the movies is that, it has to stand alone. It has – if you stripped out all the connective tissue, is it worth watching? And it has to be – and then it’s all bonus and it’s all gravy when there’s that connective tissue.

Übrigens: Erstmals seit einer Featurette auf der Avengers-DVD stellt Marvel sein Worldbuilding auch mal wieder öffentlich in den Mittelpunkt. In einem Fernseh-Special namens „Assembling a Universe“, das am 18. März auf ABC läuft. Für mich bleibt zu hoffen, dass es eine nette Seele anschließend irgendwo online stellt.

Quotes of Quotes (IX)

15. April 2013

What was important to us in Phase One was acclimating an audience who maybe never read the comics, who didn’t know that Iron Man and Thor and Hulk all inhabited the same Marvel universe in the comics, and start seeding that idea through the films to get them used to the notion that these characters live in the same world; that this is a shared universe […].

Now with the beginning of Phase Two, the audience knows that. The audience knows there are connective tissues leading to it and will continue so now we have the leeway and the ability to have fun with that, just like they do in the comics. We can have fun and surprises with who connects where.
– Kevin Feige über die Zukunft des Marvel Cinematic Universe

Interessant zu wissen, dass dies die offizielle Marvel-Position zu Phase 2 des Marvel Cinematic Universe ist: „fun and surprises“. Zu hoffen bleibt, dass es Marvel gelingt, die richtige Balance zwischen Insider-Verbinde-Spaß und für sich stehenden Geschichten zu erzählen. Iron Man 2 hat in dieser Hinsicht beispielsweise stark darunter gelitten, dass er gleichzeitig „Avengers 0.5“ sein musste.

[Ergänzung, 16.4. – Joss Whedon hat die Arbeit an Avengers 2 als glorious Challenge bezeichnet]

Dass Fernsehen angeblich das neue Kino ist – zumindest insofern, als dass dort derzeit die interessantesten Inhalte produziert werden – ist inzwischen schon zu einer Binsenweisheit geworden. Dazu passen diverse Beobachtung, etwa dass hochwertige Serien wie „House of Cards“ anscheinend auch nicht nach dem traditionellen Fernsehmodell gedreht, sondern eher wie ein 13-stündiger Megafilm angegangen werden, in dem verschiedene Regisseure eben verschiedene Teile inszenieren (ich habe das irgendwo gelesen oder gehört, aber ich kann leider zu keiner Quelle mehr verlinken Danke an Denis für den Link). Auch ein Artikel des „Economist“ über die derzeitige Hollywoodkrise weist in die entsprechende Richtung und das Drama Blog fragt zurecht: „Steht Hollywood eine Zeitenwende bevor?“ From Tinseltown to TV-Town?

Dabei sollte man aber nicht vergessen, dass es auch eine Bewegung in die entgegengesetzte Richtung gibt. Besonders unter dem Banner des Disneykonzerns haben sich Strukturen herausgebildet, die das sündhaft teure Filmgeschäft durch eine Art Insourcing näher an die Produktionsbedingungen von TV heranrücken. Pixar etwa, mit seinen festangestellten In-House-Autoren, deren Arbeitsweise an die Writer’s Rooms von Serien erinnern. Und Marvel, über die „/film“ vor kurzem schrieb, ihre Verträge würden denen gleichen, die im Fernsehen üblich sind.

Überhaupt: Marvel. Deren „Mavel Cinematic Universe: Phase 1“ lässt sich eigentlich auch fast wie eine gigantische Fernsehserie lesen. Sicher, diese Struktur wurde nachgeschoben, nachdem Iron Man so erfolgreich war, aber im Grunde könnte man Kevin Feige als eine Art Showrunner betrachten, der die Serie bis zum Staffelfinale in den Avengers geführt hat. Joss Whedon ist jetzt der neue Showrunner, der Überblickbehalter über das Universum, das sich ja in der zweiten Phase/Staffel nun auch tatsächlich in ein Fernsehformat vorwagen will, mit „SHIELD“.

Nicht direkt mit dem Thema dieses Artikels verwandt, aber ebenfalls bemerkenswert: Kevin Feige hat gesagt, The Winter Soldier, der zweite Film mit Captain America wird ein Polit-Thriller. Auch Iron Man 3 soll anders werden als seine beiden Vorgänger und so den Charakteren neues Leben einhauchen. Ich finde das Konzept interessant, sich zu überlegen, aus dem „Superhelden-Film“ weniger ein Genre als eine Gattung zu machen, dem man, so Feige, „Sub-Genres anheften“ kann. Wenn Marvel weiter so erfolgreich ist, könnte innerhalb des MCU theoretisch in Zukunft Filme jeden Genres entstehen. Mit Joss Whedon im Team, der ja im Buffyversum auch schon Musicals veranstaltet hat, bin ich gespannt, was da noch kommt.

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(This is a sort of summary of all the thoughts I’ve had about the Avengers movie in the last year or so, some of which I’ve already blogged about. The actual review starts about halfway through the post.)

Universal Studios‘ Missed Opportunity

The year is 1940. Imagine you are J. Cheever Cowdin, President of Universal Studios, and you have an idea. Universal has built large parts of its reputation on a slate of genre movies based on gothic novel characters from the last century. „Hang on a minute“, you might say, „all the actors from these iconic roles are still alive, we have them under contract. Why don’t we assemble them in a large-scale gothic ensemble movie and let them have a big adventure together?“

Sadly, Cowdin didn’t have this idea at the time. The best classical Hollywood cinema could come up with, in terms of character crossovers, was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. It took the medium of comic books, both to realize a pan-gothic tale of high adventure (Alan Moore’s „The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen“) and to lay the tracks for what would become one of the most ambitious projects in recent film history: Marvel Studios‘ The Avengers.

When it comes to high-end production values, TV has definitely caught up with movies in recent years. At the same time, though, movies have taken a step towards TV’s more ambitious modes of storytelling. Film franchises, nowadays, are no longer content with telling a single story over a single film. Instead, they lean more and more towards building a cinematic universe that can be filled with stories from several films communicating with each other, as well as other media like games and novels that can run alongside.

Supergroup Mechanics

One of the driving forces behind this development was, once again, comics, and the movies based on their characters, which hit their third big stride (after the Superman films of the 80s and the Batman flicks of the 90s) with the Spider-Man films in the early noughties. Comics had proven over several decades that the characters called into action every week in the serial medium could meet, fight each other and help each other out, sometimes in small ways, sometimes in gigantic climactic battles. These characters were owned by the same company, ergo: they inhabited a universe generally governed by the same rules. A crossover would draw together fans from each of the series, in the same way a musical supergroup can bet on devotees from each of their members‘ regular bands showing up at a concert – and later on checking out those other regular bands as well. You don’t need Professor Xavier to see how this concept, in reasonable doses of course, lends itself if not to artistic success then at least to financial gain.

When „The Avengers“ first assembled in 1963, they weren’t the first superhero supergroup. Rival comic book company DC’s „Justice League of America“ had already crossed over Batman, Superman and other characters several years before. I have read only a few of the „Avengers“ comics, but let’s just say that, like many of Marvel’s characters, the team members were mired in all-too-human and superhuman problems, and the actual „Avengers“ troupe saw more lineup changes in its fifty years of existence than a badly organized rock festival. Members married, fought, went to war, made up, quarreled and fell in love more often than you want to know. However, they were all still part of one giant narrative called „The Avengers“ and overseen by Marvel Comics. (For a brilliant (albeit German) assessment of superhero team dynamics, I recommend Sabine Horst’s article in the upcoming issue of epd film, which she kindly let me read in advance).

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Hinged on a Promise

Movies of course, are a different breed from comics. Making them costs a lot more and they are dependent not only on the imagination of artists and writers but also on the schedules and egos of actors and directors. And it’s very rare to make a movie that starts to tell a story and then hope that the audience comes back next week to buy the next issue (even though Peter Jackson is doing it again at the moment).

Enter Kevin Feige, President of Production of Marvel Studios, who – at least in the media version of reality – is the mastermind behind the astounding feat that is The Avengers. When Feige took over the reins in 2007, the studio had already prepared the road for him. They had their $500 Million deal with Merrill Lynch set up and they had just bought back the rights for Hulk and Thor.

But it took Feige’s post-credit stinger in Iron Man in 2008, in which Samuel L. Jackson (who signed an unusual nine-movie-deal with the studio) first mentioned the „Avengers Initative“ to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, for the transformation of comic book mechanics to big budget filmmaking to suddenly seem palpable. Everything that happened since then was no more than a gigantic buildup of expectations towards The Avengers.

Introducing characters in Iron Man 2 that were rather unnecessary to the film’s central narrative; releasing Thor and Captain America only several months apart; actually making Captain America (a film about a character which should have worried at least some executives about its limited potential in overseas markets); ending Captain America with the hero’s love interest lost and many questions unanswered; all these hinged on the promise of an as-yet-unmade movie to be directed by geek god Joss Whedon, which would be released in Spring 2012. One thing was sure: Even if The Avengers sucked, you would at least have to admire the effort.

When Fury Calls

Fortunately, it doesn’t suck. What could have turned into a huge clusterfrog of incompatible story lines, star personas battling for screen time and superhero technobabble, instead was gracefully crafted into one of the most enjoyable, clever, action packed pieces of big budget genre filmmaking in recent years. And at its centre rests, amazingly enough, a remarkable ensemble performance by mostly marquee-worthy actors not seen in this field since The Lord of the Rings.

To see the ensemble in action, however, you first have to put it together. The Avengers takes its time doing so, first introducing its main villain Loki and his attack on the headquarters of SHIELD, where he steals the energy-laden cube called the tesseract introduced in Captain America, turns several of SHIELD’s employees into his minions and plans to unleash an alien army to conquer Earth for him. SHIELD, with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury at the helm, is the smartly-constructed glue that holds the story together. It’s the Avengers‚ MI5, which monitors the superhero universe and calls upon its inhabitants as needed.

This time, Fury decides, the situation is so severe that it justifies a tryout of his masterplan – the superhero supergroup, which so far he has only discussed with the most visible of the future Avengers‘ team members, Tony Stark aka Iron Man. So it’s Fury who sends word to Stark and the recently thawed Steve „Captain America“ Rogers, and who sends Scarlett Johannsson’s Black Widow to charm Bruce Banner into returning from India – strictly for non-Hulk purposes of course. Thor finds his brother’s mischief on his own.

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Group Therapy

It will take another hour and a half until Earth’s Mightiest Heroes actually get to fight against Loki in the streets of New York. Until then, the team has to discuss among themselves, ulterior motives have to be revealed, a first test of their collaborative spirit has to pretty much go haywire. Someone, in true Joss Whedon fashion, even has to die. Most of the action takes place on SHIELD’s mobile headquarters, an airborne aircraft carrier outfitted with a command centre that would make the USS Enterprise hide in shame. While the action setpieces that dot the first two acts of the movie are well thought out and keep the suspense alive, they are really just an accompaniment to a number of well-choreographed dialogue scenes between the groups‘ members.

Lover’s of bare-bones-narratives might find these first two acts of The Avengers a bit lacking in momentum, but I think Whedon plays his cards exactly right. As a viewer, you need this array of quieter moments for the individual characters and their relationships with each other, to get a sense later on that there really is something at stake in this story, both with respect to external threats and internal morale. There is a scene in which Stark, who is obviously fascinated with the possibility of unleashing the Hulk, and Banner discuss their situation as one scientist to another, except that one of them is a loudmouthed playboy and the other one a soft spoken lost soul with what is repeatedly called „anger management issues“ in the film. Another moment pits Thor („You are all so puny!“) against Captain America’s superhuman righteousness, which simply knocks the arrogant norse god out cold. The situation is a little less clear with both Hawkeye and Black Widow, who are given back stories but cannot help but remain fighting ciphers, even referred to by Tony Stark at one point simply as „a couple of master assassins“.

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Despite this maybe somewhat wordy first part of the film, however, the story is still rather lean. Whedon never goes for cheap inside jokes unless they serve to push the narrative forward in some meaningful way. When the group finally stands in a circle in full costume, collects their orders from Cap and then sets out to put Loki’s cats back into their intergalactic bag, the audience has a clear feeling for each character’s motivation and roots for every single one of them. Loki as a villain, of course, makes for a great mirror image of the superhero team, borrowing some traits from each of them – from Thor’s arrogance and Stark’s cunning to Hulk’s uncontrollable wrath. That he still has to be a typical comic book villain with no real motive except a hunger for power stemming from a bad childhood, is a conceit that comes with the genre.

Who is the love interest?

In short: I really liked The Avengers. It’s a spectacular thrill ride for everyone who spent the last couple of years yearning for this moment and should be an entertaining ensemble action flick for everyone else, with a cast of colourful characters to match forebears like The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven. It delivers on all promises made, it’s tightly written and cool enough to look at, featuring a star-studded cast in which the performances of Samuel L. Jackson and especially Mark Ruffalo probably stand out as most memorable. Ruffalo as Banner, the only member of the team who doesn’t wear his superhero guise on his sleeves, gives the film an emotional centre otherwise often occupied by the female love interest.

One last thing though. The Avengers is exhausting and after all that climax it makes you wonder what will happen next. Kevin Feige has already commented on how he plans to avoid sequel-itis in the following years. We shall see if he manages to pull it off a second time. I wouldn’t want to bet against it.

Kevin Feige’s Masterplan

18. August 2011

The most recent episode of Jeff Goldsmith’s excellent podcast series The Q&A featured a recording of Jeff’s Panel The Art of Adapting Comics to the Screen at Comic-Con. In it, he interviewed two screenwriting duos, who have written for films set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) – Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Captain America) and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby (Iron Man). Among other things, Jeff asked them about Marvel Studios‘ president of production Kevin Feige’s overall vision for the MCU. This is what they had to say:

Hawk Ostby: Kevin, first of all, is amazingly smart. He also loves these characters and he knows this universe so well, you’re not gonna put one over on him. It was just very clever, the way he planned – just sitting around, listening to how this all was going to gel with all the other storylines and planting things in the movie. It was fascinating. (…) The big idea was really when he said: „At the end of Iron Man, he’s gonna say ‚I am Iron Man.'“ And we thought: „Wow, that’s crazy – then what happens?“ And he says: „We’ll figure it out“. That was the really big one and we thought: „Wow, this is really cool.“ Because nobody had done that.

Mark Fergus: He wore everybody down. Everyone kept saying: „We’ll come back to that, we’ll come back to that.“ And by the end of the movie, he had everyone going „Yeah, that is awesome.“ (…) [He said :] „Let’s paint ourselves into a corner and then next time figure out an awesome way out of it.“ And this teaser at the end with Sam [Jackson]. Kevin did the greatest thing. He previewed the movie all over the place and left that out. And at the first day of theatrical, it was there. That [meant] that Iron Man was just the beginning of something bigger. (…) This was now going to branch off into all these other movies. (…) It was really just a punch in the face going: „Yeah, here we go. Marvel Universe!“

(…) Chris Markus: When we went into our first meeting, the bulletin boards all around the room were all Ryan Meinerding’s concept art and at least one of them had Red Skull, Cosmic Cube in his hand, and a picture of Asgard shooting out of it, so we were like, „Okay, Thor.“ And then, they knew they wanted Howard Stark in it – it was amazing to walk into this thing that’s already interconnected with all these tentacles to all the other movies.

Listen to the whole Podcast on The Q&A.

At the end of my podcast with Kirsten Dietrich about Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, a topic of discussion came up that I would like to mull about a bit longer in this post. We talked about whether the Harry Potter movies, even if they are maybe not the best possible translation of the books into moving pictures (I still think that a TV series might have made for a better, if more expensive, adaptation), have become the definitive visual representation of the seven novels, not least because the author J. K. Rowling was very involved in the production and casting from the very beginning.

Translations from one medium into another usually involve several changes in the ur-text to fit and, indeed, adapt it to the new medium. In this way, they generally create a new universe related to but not congruent to the universe of the ur-text. In one of the videos on the Extended Edition of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, the screenwriters and some Tolkien experts broach this topic when they talk about adapting Tolkien’s novel. I think it is Brian Sibley who points out that, in the future, there will be two important Rings texts: Tolkien and Tolkien as interpreted by Jackson.1

In the case of Harry Potter, because the author was so heavily involved in the adaptation process, the two universes are almost alike. The films, although they differ from the books in some ways, have almost become part of the Harry Potter canon (and indeed are seen this way by the fans of the HP universe) and have succeeded in creating the definitive visual representations of characters and some events in the books because they have Rowling’s seal of approval. This has even been enforced legally, as Kirsten points out in the podcast. When Sabine Wilharm, the illustrator who created the covers for the Harry Potter books in Germany, created additional paintings that show other scenes from the books, Warner Bros. sued the commissioning publisher. The same brute force has been applied to creators of fan sites.

Ownership of and control over an intellectual property is the foundation of succesful franchising. While it does goes to silly extremes sometimes (as mentioned above), it’s a key ingredient to make the franchise work and fit together. For the process of adapting source material into film while controlling that source material at the same time (as Rowling did), this still seems to me to be a relatively new mainstream concept that I would trace back to the creation of Marvel Studios in 1996. I’ve read enough „development hell“ stories to believe that adaptations, for example of comics, used to be handled differently. The IP owner would sell their license and the studio would go and adapt it, sometimes screwing up, sometimes not, but always with very little input from the IP’s originators.

The early films produced with Marvel Studios in tow, such as Sam Raimis Spider-Man films and Bryan Singers X-Men films, already had a certain amount of faithfulness to the source material „in spirit“ that earlier incarnations had not achieved (or so, I gather, fans believe), similar to Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien. By setting up the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), however, the former comic book publisher has added another layer to the cake: harnessing the process of filmmaking, which involves hundreds of people in contrast to the few involved in creating a comic book, to produce a number of films that tie in to create one cinematic universe that, while not corresponding one-on-one to its source material, is canonic in its own right. In effect, they too are creating definitive cinematic versions of their comic book characters.

I have already expressed my admiration for the Avengers film, the first culmination of the MCU, in this blog one year ago and there is nothing more illuminating about the process than this quote by Marvel president Kevin Feige:

It’s never been done before and that’s kind of the spirit everybody’s taking it in. The other filmmakers aren’t used to getting actors from other movies that other filmmakers have cast, certain plot lines that are connected or certain locations that are connected but I think for the most part, in fact, entirely everyone was on board for it and thinks that its fun. Primarily because we’ve always remained consistent saying that the movie that we are making comes first. All of the connective tissue, all of that stuff is fun and is going to be very important if you want it to be. (Source)

The result might be thought of as a slap in the face to the individual artistic expression of any one director but it’s very effective. Marvel are applying to movies what has been general practice in TV series for ages, even more so since the advent of complicated series with multiple narrative strands such as The X-Files or Lost. They are continuing down this route, rebooting Spider-Man (as they already did with The Incredible Hulk) and, in effect, X-Men to integrate them into their grand scheme. And DC, with their umpteenth version of Superman (Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder) and, probably, Batman in the works, are hard on their heels.

The difference to a TV series, of course, is that there is no real linear plot to the MCU. While the films leading up to The Avengers share a certain timeline, each narrative strand also stands on its own with just a few nods to its sister narratives. If the actors are willing to participate, the films allow for endless tangents and intersections while they, at the same time, stay locked together in one unified and definitive worldtrack2 controlled by Marvel.3

This article only summarises some of the things I have been thinking about lately. I have probably forgotten important ideas and misinterpreted others. I would be very happy to discuss the thoughts sketched out above in more detail with readers of this article. Head to the comments!


1 Jackson very cleverly mediated between his version of Tolkien and the visual interpretations that had come before him by enlisting John Howe and Alan Lee as concept artists. In this way, there is no real „break“ between how many fans had always imagined Middle-Earth to look like, including cover illustrations etc. into their imaginations (as one does), and how it looked like in the film. ^
2 I have just finished reading Neal Stephenson’s novel „Anathem“ and borrowed this word from the book. ^
3 A multi-faceted adaptation of Stephen King’s „Dark Tower“ series with Ron Howard at the helm that, in its concept, shares some ideas with something like the MCU has, unfortunately, just been canned. ^