One year after “The Avengers” shattered box office records, “Iron Man 3” finished just behind it last weekend with $175.3 million in its first three days in North America. It's amazing to think that when I was growing up, Marvel Comics was on the verge of bankruptcy, saved (in part) by an unlikely film adaptation that proved the profitability of its characters.
Today, Marvel is mostly associated with its bright, colorful superheroes like Spider-Man, the X-Men, and Avengers characters like Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, and Thor, but it also has a much darker, grittier side, and 1998's “Blade” captured that perfectly.
The R-rated action film starred Wesley Snipes in possibly his most ironic role, a vampire hunter who is cursed with being half-vampire himself, though he has all the undead creatures' strengths and none of their weaknesses – except, of course, the need for blood, which his friend Whistler helps him with to avoid harming innocent people. Dressed in black leather and sunglasses long before “The Matrix” made it cool, the brooding badass “daywalker” dramatically cuts down hoards of vampires with his customized sword and modified weapons in sleek, stylish shots to a catchy soundtrack, spawning many copycats and two successful sequels.
It was the first film I ever owned on DVD, and as a comic fan, I couldn't have been more excited. In the original source material, Blade was nothing more than a small side character known only to hardcore fans, so this lucrative adaptation opened up the possibility for much larger characters to get the green light by major studios. Just two years later, Fox took a chance with “X-Men,” using a much bigger budget and more recognizable characters. It paid off, raking in millions and becoming one of the studio's top franchises, so while selling the film rights to its characters pulled Marvel back from the brink, it also muddled its future in Hollywood.
To this day, Fox still has the X-Men film license, and Sony still retains Spider-Man after four blockbuster movies. Marvel Studios, which took off after “Iron Man” became a hit in 2008, made both studios look like Tony Stark at an open bar when “The Avengers” became the third highest-grossing film of all time last year, proving that when you treat comics with respect and hand the creative reigns over to the right people, you're rewarded with a huge return on investment.
While Marvel's characters can live in the same cinematic “universe” and cross over into each other's movies, they can't meet those merry mutants or your friendly neighborhood web-head on screen until Fox and Sony give up the rights to Disney or compromise, which isn't likely to happen any time soon. In the meantime, however, the rights to several other properties have quietly returned to Marvel after varying periods of inactivity, leaving the possibility for a much darker “phase” in its adaptations.
With “Iron Man 3,” Marvel has already launched “Phase 2” of its film franchises. “Thor: The Dark World” is next, set for release this November, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” are planned for 2014, and “Avengers 2” will be unleashed in 2015 – all titles that will appeal to a general audience. Meanwhile, the rights to Ghost Rider, Daredevil, the Punisher, and, yes, even Blade, have come back home, which makes an adult-oriented series of films a possibility, however unlikely.
As a still fledgling studio, I understand that there is only so much money to go around despite how much each movie rakes in, but with Disney's wallet behind them now, who's to say they can't start another franchise while the family-friendly one continues? All four of those characters have been adapted in the past, with results varying from “great” to “utterly atrocious.” I'll let you decide which description applies to which, but I think many of us can agree that, for one reason or another, none of them were given exactly the big screen treatment they deserved in the long run. (Yes, even Blade – remember “Blade: Trinity?”)
These characters, along with others like Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Deathlok, Morbius, Moon Knight, and Cloak and Dagger, would benefit from unapologetically tough scripts and R ratings, and many of them have already successfully shared the same space in Marvel Knights imprint and the Midnight Sons team in the comics. I've seen Punisher skulls in Walmarts and Ghost Rider decals on motorcycles, yet there are no plans for future films despite the apparent product awareness. Much like the Avengers, each can be given their own movie that ties into a huge crossover event, but Marvel Studios doesn't even seem to want to talk about it.
Is this because they're still formulating a creative strategy, or could they really care less about the characters that kept them afloat during gloomier times?
“Whenever a character comes back to us, it's usually because the other studios don't want to make the movies anymore – and that usually means the [previous] movies may not have been particularly well-received,” President of Production Kevin Feige recently told Entertainment Weekly. “They all have potential, but we're not going to say, 'We got it back - make it!'”
Yes, they do all have potential, but if you told me in 1999 that Ant-Man is seriously closer to a film adaptation than Blade or the Punisher, I would have laughed in your face. I admire them for taking a leap of faith with “Guardians of the Galaxy,” largely unknown to the public, though it seems like a wasted opportunity to hide from the very darkness that bought this studio its bright future.
-Rich Howells is a lifelong Marvel Comics collector, wannabe Jedi master, and cult film fan. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.