01
Apr
14

Assembling a Universe I: High Profile Talent

Assembling a Universe is the first in a two part series (and potentially ongoing series) that takes a look at Marvel's strategy in building their cinematic universe. Pictured above, the announcement of The Avengers at the 2010 Comic Con.

Assembling a Universe is the first in a two part series (and potentially ongoing series) that takes a look at Marvel’s strategy in building their cinematic universe. Pictured above, the announcement of The Avengers at the 2010 Comic Con.

The gambit of Marvel’s Avengers Phase I paid off in dividends two years ago with the monumental release of The Avengers. Nothing like it had ever been undertaken before and it’s quite surprising that no one had attempted it sooner given the franchise film model that all the studios are currently operating under. Now that all the other studios are trying to chase Marvel, not only does it seem that they were ahead of the curve in every sense when building this mega franchise, but they seem to be really good at it as well.

Consider this, none of the Marvel films (post Iron Man) has been a flop and though not every film tops the last release, none has ever earned less than $370 million worldwide (not a lot when compared with the $1.5 billion that The Avengers made, but still a lot when you consider that Captain America–a film with ‘America’ in its title, is a hard sell in foreign markets). So what’s their secret then? Really, really well planning. In our first of two posts on ‘Building a Marvel Universe’ we take a look at one of the smart decisions that Marvel has made with their films: getting high profile talent.

This week marks the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Joining series regulars Chris Evans (Captain America), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury), and Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) will be Academy Award winning Robert Redford. Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman, two Oscar winners, star in Marvel’s Thor franchise, most recently last year’s Thor: The Dark World. Back in late December we also saw the announcement that another Oscar winning actor, Michael Douglas, would star in Marvel’s forthcoming Antman movie.

Robert Redford and Samuel L. Jackson debating the merits of foreign policy in The Winter Soldier.

Robert Redford and Samuel L. Jackson debating who should star in the next Marvel film in a scene from The Winter Soldier.

If you were to just look these names alone, you think that we were gathering actors together for an Oscar winner photoshoot. How about we throw in a few more names: Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Jeff Bridges, Mickey Rourke, Glenn Close, Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, and Paul Rudd. While not all of them are Oscar winners, they all are recognizable actors. What they all have in common is that they are a very important part of the world building that is the Marvel cinematic universe.

To fully realize the scope of what Marvel is undertaking, there are a couple of key questions that we need to answer; the first of which is, why are high profile actors signing up for comic book movies? Sure, we’ve always had big names in superhero movies (Jack Nicholson in Batman, Wesley Snipes in Blade, and Arnold Schwarzenegger & George Clooney in Batman & Robin), but it’s never been anything on the scale of what Marvel is putting together.

The first and most obvious answer is money and work. By nature of franchises and tv series the longer they run, the more cast members are paid for reprising their roles in future installments. While many think all actors make quite the pretty penny, by taking a gig with Marvel, an actor knows they will have job stability over the course of several years in a couple of different films.

Yes, Joss Whedon can do this all he wants after the success of the first Avengers.

Yes, Joss Whedon can do this all he wants after the success of the first Avengers.

These type of franchise films not only get actors paid, but it also affords them a certain amount of clout to work on other films that are of interest to them (independent or pet project films). Would Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, and Joss Whedon be where they are right now if it wasn’t for their roles in the Marvel cinematic universe? Sure Downey, Evans, and Whedon were known names in Hollywood before Marvel’s Avengers movies came along, but none of them were bankable or A-list. Having a leading role in an Avengers movie (or shepherding in Whedon’s case) or two gives you something that sought after and is difficult to attain . . . box office bank-ability.

Believe it or not Chris Evans turned down the role of Captain America several times before he got a call from Robert Downey Jr. convincing him to take the role. From Variety:

“I remember getting on the phone with him and strongly suggesting that he not shrink away from the offer,” Downey says. “I said, ‘Look man, you might not like the fact that you’ve played one of these guys before (in “Fantastic Four”), but you know, the thing is this can afford you all sorts of other freedoms,’ ”

later . . .

For Evans, the “Captain America” experience has been mostly positive. He credits the series with enabling him to land his dream job. “Without these movies, I wouldn’t be directing,” he reckons. “They gave me enough overseas recognition to greenlight a movie. And if I’m speaking extremely candidly, it’s going to continue to do that for as long as the Marvel contract runs.”

Evans first film as a director, 1:30 Train, is currently in post production and he hopes to start on his second film as a director after filming on Avengers 2 wraps later this summer. As stated in his interview, these types of projects wouldn’t be available to Evans if not for his role in the Marvel cinematic universe.

And even a third reason for actors joining up with Marvel is just plain curiosity and genuine interest. From IGN.com:

“One of the reasons that I did [Captain America: The Winter Soldier] was I wanted to experience this new form of filmmaking that’s taken over where you have kind of cartoon characters brought to life through high technology,” [Robert] Redford explains. “The Avengers series is a product of high technology playing a major role in the new order of filmmaking so I wanted to experience that—I just wanted to know what that was like and I had that opportunity, so for me it was like stepping into new terrain just to experience what it was like.”

So while the big name stars that Marvel brings in to populate their world get more than just a nice payday for being in their films; what does Marvel get out of it? This is where things start to get interesting. At the surface level, you put known actors in your film and you already bring a sense of heightened awareness for it. People recognize them, and by extension, put the film on their radar. A secondary surface level benefit is that you put an established actor in a role and you know you’re going to get a good solid performance out of them. Granted you ultimately don’t know what kind of performance you have until the film is finished, but any filmmaker will tell you that casting the right actor is key for any film. Those with a proven track record, who deliver time and again, give filmmakers and audiences a certain confidence about a film.

How about this for gravitas, Hannibal Lecter himself Anthony Hopkins plays Odin in the Marvel cinematic universe. He'll eat other superheroes for breakfast with fava beans and a nice chianti.

How about this for gravitas, Hannibal Lecter himself Anthony Hopkins plays Odin in the Marvel cinematic universe. He’ll eat other superheroes for breakfast with fava beans and a nice chianti.

On a larger scale and most importantly, Marvel gives these films and this world a certain sense of credibility by having these types of actors in their films. Counting all of the Marvel films released to date as well as those coming out this year, there are 19 Academy Award nominated actors starring in nine films, six of which are Academy Award winners (to give you some perspective, the Harry Potter series only has 12 spread across eight films). Add to that a number of actors who may not be nominated, but still provide high quality work and are recognizable, and you have a sizeable pool of actors who moviegoers know and love. By having quality actors in a film, it gives Marvel a strong foundation to build their cinematic universe upon as well as a sense of legitimacy. Part of the message sent is “we’re serious about these movies and we want you to come see them.” And it’s with this credibility that Marvel is using to build and sustain their shared universe.

Marvel has embarked on something that has never been done before in cinema–create a set of films that exist in the same universe. We’re not talking about franchises and franchise building like Peter Jackson and the Tolkien movies or Harry Potter; while those film exist in the same universe, they are all essentially one long story. This is all old hat.

No, Marvel’s shared universe is a bit different. They are producing a game changer. While every other studio out there is jumping on the “EPIC group superhero movie” bandwagon (Fox with another X-Men movie and Sony with multiple Spider-Man movies), Marvel is paving the way for something bigger. After the success of The Avengers, Marvel has moved on to what they call “Phase II.” While many think that Phase II is just building to another Avengers movie much like the Phase I of Marvel films did, Phase II is more than that. It will ultimately lay the groundwork for an entire universe of superheroes and potentially endless supply of movies. If Avengers 1 was a gamble that paid off, the impending success of a second Avengers movie will not only solidify the Avengers series of films, but open the door for Marvel to further populate this universe that they’ve created. The are ultimately out to create a goose that will lay them an endless supply of golden eggs.

While the superhero films of the late 90s/early 00s introduced us to the modern superhero film (Blade, X-Men, Raimi’s Spider-Man), Marvel has established it as an official genre; with the actors that they recruit to be in their films being an important cog in the larger machine. You see a universe of this size, it needs strong supports to hold it up. High caliber actors provide this type of support.

Phase I . . . Assembled. Now on to Phase II.

Phase I . . . Assembled. Now on to Phase II.

We know that the stories from Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and this summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy compose Marvel’s Phase II and lead up to next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, none of this would be possible if we as an audience didn’t believe in the characters that populate this universe. While franchises come and go, having an entire ‘universe’ of films to draw from does carry a certain gravity with it. Through calculated and shrewd decision making, Marvel’s casting of well acted and reliable talent for their films gives them an excellent foundation to build their universe.

Is part of Marvel’s success due to the shrewd casting of high profile actors in their films? Tell us what you think and more in the comments.

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