Marvel Imperative

Marvel Studios has just announced phase three of their master plan. Good, because we can now announce that the commercial Hollywood film industry is dead. All we need is for Stan Lee to play the fat lady waiting in the wing for her song.

The problem isn’t necessarily the Marvel Studios plan. So far, it has been a marvelous plan. Beginning with the Phase One production of Iron Man in 2008, they successfully weaved together and nurtured multiple characters and titles in a gradual development steered toward the 2012 blockbuster Marvel’s The Avengers. Phase Two has repeated, and even expanded the approach (and box office) as it heads toward next summer’s release of Avengers: Age of Ultron.

To be honest, Marvel Studios has done an amazing feat based upon a fearless commitment and a masterful sense of long term strategy. These are exceeding rare traits in modern commercial Hollywood. For that I congratulate them. I also have to add a soft but firm “Damn you!” Why? Because Marvel Studios has taken the entire commercial American film industry hostage.

OK, frankly, Hollywood has been begging for someone to take them hostage. Few studio executives are interested in making movies. They are mostly looking to make money by any means possible and are aching for someone to step in with either a fat bank account or a sure fire scheme (preferably both). Everything else is unimportant.

Between Marvel Studios (and their partner in crime, Disney), Warner Bros., and Universal, the film release schedule will be dominated by comic book styled franchises through out the first quarter of the 21st Century. Warner is attempting to force cook the DC Comics universe through a microwave oven in their attempt to rival the slow roast methods of Marvel. Universal has decided to fall back on a wildly revamped version of their horror line up from the 1930s and 1940s in order to create a comic book-like series of franchises. The tent pole has risen and the freaks and clowns have arrived.

This is when history becomes a ghost at the dinner party. Take for example the Universal plan. The past track record of this old strategy strongly suggests that Universal needs to decide who they will get to play Abbott and Costello .

The American movie industry is no stranger to the rise and fall of various entertainment cycles. Several films in a particular genre become huge hits. Quickly, everyone jumps on the bandwagon. The market rapidly swells. Inevitably, a sense of self-parody takes over. The cycle peaks and then drops into oblivion. The spy film cycle of the mid-1960s is a classic example.

There is already speculation that the super hero cycle has peaked. Sure, recent movies like Iron Man 3 and Captain America 2 have all out-grossed their earlier titles. But other titles have either performed under their original projected estimates (e.g. Man of Steel and The Wolverine) or completely flat-lined (Kick-Ass 2 and R.I.P.D.). It is perhaps too early to truly predict, but this market appears increasingly shaky.

However, a traditional indicator of the post-peak stage is parody. There are only so many serious narrative lines in any genre, and movies wear through this material pretty quickly. So does the audience. People are only interested in a limit amount of dark, edgy, brooding super heroes and it is very likely that Christopher Nolan wore out that market with The Dark Knight trilogy. Part of the huge success of Guardians of the Galaxy was based on the degree to which it didn’t take itself too seriously. But that also means that parody has arrived, and parody is a road sign on the downside of the peak.

Another factor that will destabilize the Marvel Studios master-plan is Warner. It isn’t because Warner knows what they are doing. They don’t. That’s the problem. Warner is attempting to copy the Marvel game plan but they want to skip things like long term development. They think they can magically do the process in just a few movies, as they attempt to jump from Man of Steel to next year’s Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice and then straight into Justice League, Part 1. Warner is also the same company that thought Batman and Robin was going to be a gigantic hit. I suspect that some senior executive in Burbank still has a bat-suit with nipples.

The release schedule is already turning into a titanic fight, and Marvel Studios will undoubtedly win the battle. But the movie audience (which is already diminishing) will end up severely fractured in this competition, and most likely the victory will not be worth the cost. This would be the case even if the genre had not peaked. Either way, the financial damage will be enormous.

Which might be half-survivable if there were a Plan B. But there is no Plan B. The Marvel form of cinema has strangled and stomped virtually everything else out of existence. Sure, they didn’t mean to, but that is what has happened. Much like kudzu was never intended to overgrow everything in sight, it nonetheless did so with a vengeance.

That also means that within the next four to five years, whatever does survive will do so based upon a very divergent strategy. The companies that pull this off will be the ones long-term to watch.