Ka-pow, Spidey!

Times Staff Writer

IF your planet is imperiled by scaly aliens or some flame-headed demigod, there’s no one better to have on your side than Captain America, Thor, Iron Man and the Ant-Man, who have saved Earth on a monthly basis for four decades in the pages of Marvel Comics. But what if you needed to launch a Hollywood franchise -- are those the superheroes you would really turn to?

That’s the multimillion-dollar question that Marvel Entertainment has decided to try to answer. Tired of watching Marvel characters become powerful economic forces for others -- the “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” movies alone have delivered worldwide grosses in the range of $2.7 billion for 20th Century Fox and Sony Pictures -- the company will unveil Marvel Studios today at the International Comic-Con in San Diego, which has become a sort of Cannes for capes and the nexus point between Hollywood and genre-film fanboys.

The new enterprise gets Marvel in the filmmaking business. Though Marvel’s current role as the Hollywood concept pipeline has given it a windfall, that pales in comparison to the amount of money the studios have made off of these films. The company will stage a Comic-Con panel today that includes three directors tapped to launch the venture: Jon Favreau (“Elf,” “Zathura”) will adapt Iron Man, Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”) will take on Ant-Man and Louis Leterrier (“Transporter II,” “The Unleashed”) will handle a new Hulk film.


No one thinks it will be easy. In other words, an ant is no spider.

“Ant-Man has always been treated as almost the runt of the litter in the comics,” Wright said of the red-suited hero who can shrink and control ants with his telepathic helmet. “There was even that old ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit where Garrett Morris played him.... This is not one of those heroes that everyone in the world knows about and will recognize.”

That’s exciting to Wright because it gives him some creative latitude and spares him the intense fan scrutiny that accompanies, say, a Batman or Superman film. But for Marvel it highlights the fact that executives there are betting on their bench.

The stakes are high: Last year, Marvel Entertainment Inc. secured a $525-million loan deal with Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc. that is earmarked for investment in 10 films, some with budgets expected to climb toward $200 million. The plan is to release two PG-13 films per year, beginning in 2008 with “Iron Man.” Paramount Pictures will be on board as Marvel’s exclusive marketing and distribution partner for the films, which are expected to include Nick Fury, Cloak & Dagger and Power Pack -- titles that will make most moviegoers scratch their heads.

Marvel’s most obviously bankable characters -- Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and Wolverine -- are already locked into deals for movies with other studios, as is Ghost Rider, a Nicolas Cage vehicle that hits theaters in February. A fair share of the other most-recognizable names -- among them Daredevil, the Punisher and Elektra -- have already seen their screen moments come and go.

On the floor of Comic-Con, comics, video games and toys are now automatically sized up for viability as a $150-million summer film -- that’s the popcorn era we live in these days. Plenty of genre-industry competitors suggest that Marvel may be opening a store with shelves that have already been picked clean of high-end merchandise.

“There is a clear benefit to their approach when it comes to smaller or niche characters that have a set audience and can reach the screen in targeted films,” said Holly Rawlinson, U.S. vice president of licensing for Pokemon, the Japanese card game and animation powerhouse. “But, really, their most special stuff has already been done if you’re talking about those huge expensive films, the franchise films ... the really big names, they’ve pretty much gone through that list.”


Marvel’s leadership has a one-word response for that sort of thinking: “Blade.” The vampire slayer who pulled in an estimated $417 million in worldwide box-office grosses (and just spawned a TV series) began as a supporting character in the 1970s Marvel comic titled “Tomb of Dracula,” one of the publisher’s second-string titles despite its cult-favorite storylines and moody Gene Colan artwork. In other words, this was not exactly a character you would see on a kid’s lunchbox.

Kevin Feige, president of production for the Beverly Hills-based Marvel Studios, said that Marvel’s deep archive is teeming with those sorts of high-concept characters. By gaining creative control and some distance from major studio bureaucracies, Feige believes the comic book company can match unexpected projects with young filmmakers who grew up loving the Marvel universe and who may be more interested in exploring characters such as, say, Deathlok, Moon Knight or Hawkeye anyway.

That certainly applies to Wright, who, as a kid in the 1980s, came across an Ant-Man adventure drawn by John Bryne that captured his imagination with its shrunken-world exploits and insect sidekicks. The director now sees a film that could meld a spy story with computer-generated visuals that evoke the memorable juxtapositions of a film like “The Incredible Shrinking Man.”

“The fact that this is not a hero that is defined in everyone’s mind is absolutely part of the appeal to me,” Wright said. “You’re less handcuffed in what you do creatively with the character.”

Still, audience recognition of a character can pack in the customers on a film’s opening weekend, which explains Hollywood’s relentless devotion to remakes, sequels and adaptations. The biggest names that the new Marvel venture has set its early sights on are Captain America and the Hulk, signature characters no doubt, but both have some uncertainty as blockbuster candidates.

Thanks in part to the popular 1970s live-action television series, the Hulk is arguably the second-most famous property Marvel has after Spider-Man. But the big green guy’s first shot at the big screen in 2003, a film Universal Studios released, ended with a bittersweet result. Director Ang Lee’s moody and psychological version of the Jekyll-and-Hyde hero did gross $132 million in the U.S., but $62 million of that was in its first week. The box office plummeted 70% in its second week amid reviews that were as dour as its plot line.


Michael Helfant, president and chief operating officer of Marvel Studios, agrees with the popular fan view that Lee’s film was more respected than enjoyed, and he said that the next film will have “a lot of fun and excitement, and it will get back to the core of what people expect from the character, the Hulk as hero.” In other words, this time Bruce Banner will be the tortured loner on an odyssey that puts him in the role of championing underdogs and suffering bullies until his lime-colored biceps start tearing at his sleeves. There is no date set yet for that film.

Captain America is one of Marvel’s oldest characters and an icon of World War II comics, when his star-spangled suit and shield made him look like a two-fisted American flag. When Marvel secured the loan last year, Avi Arad was still the chief of its film wing. (It was on his watch that Marvel became a pipeline to Hollywood; previously the company’s only film life was defined by the Conan the Barbarian films and the abysmal “Howard the Duck.”) He called Captain America the “Holy Grail” of unmade comic-book movies.

Perhaps, but this is the 21st century, and that makes the patriotic old warhorse a tougher sell, especially overseas. Feige says that will be incorporated into the film; the early concept is a story opening in the 1940s on a “sort of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ warfront” and then having the hero end up in a deep-freeze and waking up in a troubled modern America. No date is set on that film either.

Favreau said this week that the Marvel venture creates the rare opportunity “to make an independent film, but with the type of budget needed to make a movie in this sector that people are expecting to see.”

The real secret of Marvel’s success too is apparent in Iron Man’s origin story published back in 1963; it presented a wealthy arms manufacturer who is injured in Vietnam and, under the eye of his captors, is forced to design them an armored weapon suit. He uses it to escape and wears it in adventures that are geopolitical in context and centered on a character who will die without his armor. In Favreau’s film, Afghanistan and surrounding environs will be the site, but almost everything else is surprisingly easy to translate.

“It has a complex and political world, something Marvel comics never shied away from. It will be set on a world stage and presents character situations that lend themselves to making a movie that we want to make,” Favreau said.


“Everyone thinks that Marvel characters have had this success because of the heroic elements and that they are simple popcorn films, but if you look at Spider-Man and Hulk, what really makes them special is the stories and the very human characters in them.”