Coming off of "Iron Man 2" and its mixed reviews, and the messy divorce with Edward Norton, Marvel Studios had some damage control to do with their panel last Saturday at Comic-Con International: San Diego. As it has done several times before in this same spot, Marvel stole the show. In the process, Team Marvel showed once again that when it comes to understanding what Comic-Con is all about and how to harness all of the fanboy fervor contained under one roof, The House of Ideas still has it all over DC.
With sizzling footage, a few small but oh-so-fascinating morsels of news, and more star power than Hall H has EVER seen at one particular moment, Marvel dropped the hammer on San Diego. The moment when the entire cast of the Avengers assembled onstage, bathed in flashbulbs and video camera lights and taking in ear-piercing applause, was one of those Double Rainbow, once-in-forever moments. It's no stretch to say that no one who was inside Hall H at the time, will ever forget it.
"This is the most ambitious movie ever!" That was what Robert Downey Jr. said onstage that night. Bombastic? Sure. It's Downey Jr. The guy orders a latte with a symphony accompaniment. Accurate? Pretty darn close. What other movie project can you recall where the casting has drawn this much attention? The greatest obstacle for writer-director Joss Whedon will be living up to the immense expectations that will surround the film from now until Summer 2012. Which is probably why he was practically begging for the audience's support when he took the mic.
Something else we learned from the Marvel panel is that Chris Evans is the biggest wild card of the incredibly grand Avengers experiment. We know Robert Downey Jr. is going to bring it as Tony Stark/Iron Man, and Chris Hemsworth looks to be in lockstep with his hybrid Thor from the Ultimates universe and from Walt Simonson's classic Thor run, so it's up to Evans to carry his share of the load of the Big Three. Watching the development of this film is going to be interesting, because Cap is so important to the Marvel mythos, that without a strong effort from Evans, the whole thing could fall apart.
The Avengers casting call may have been the showstopper, but it was far from the only highlight of the evening for Marvel.
"Captain America: The First Avenger" finally established a presence in the perpetually forward-thinking Geekosphere, mainly due to the one scene they screened which hinted at a possibly genius villain turn by Hugo Weaving as Der Red Skull. But it was "Thor" and its six minutes of footage that benefited the most from the panel.
With all sorts of rumors swirling about on-set disputes between Anthony Hopkins and Hemsworth and the overwhelmingly 'meh' reaction to a few early publicity stills, this was a movie that needed a strong presentation in San Diego to get the crowd back on its side. Thanks to an extended trailer that shed light on how the film will blend the Earth and Asgard storylines, it did just that. It also went a long way toward easing concerns about whether Hemsworth has the presence to pull off the title role.
Was it risky to show as much as they did of "Thor?" Look, It's always a risk to screen early footage before thousands of rabid fans. But Marvel rolled the dice because they recognized the potential reward that could come from it, and determined it was worth it.
They also knew they needed to get fans talking about "Captain America: The First Avenger" for something else than the damn costume. That's why they showed a scene so rough it still had the time code stamp. Director Joe Johnston said it was the very first scene of the production, and what it lacked in polish it made up for in evil cool Weaving genius. If fans are worried about the "Captain America" movie, it's not because of the bad guy. As the Skull, Weaving looks like a great casting choice.
Now contrast it with what Warner Bros. did for its panel, on the same Saturday.
The WB showed only a minute of footage from "Green Lantern" at their panel. And while that brief reel had everyone who saw it recanting the Green Lantern oath as they walked through the Gas Lamp District, they didn't show any shots of Ryan Reynolds in uniform. Word has it they're retooling the GL costume after the initial image on the cover of "Entertainment Weekly" was greeted with less glowing praise. Whatever the reason, it seemed a very conservative panel, very 'play it safe.' And it's the little things, too, that matter. They only showed the footage ONCE! A 60-second clip reel, and they couldn't be bothered to show it again?! Awful decision. It's a good thing Reynolds had that nice moment with the young fan, reciting the GL oath word-for-word and then signing an autograph for the kid, because otherwise, the noise from the Marvel panel would have completely drowned out the post-Con coverage of the Warners' presentation.
Marvel saw the benefit of building excitement for a movie a year from its release, and went for it. They gambled that incomplete footage would be better than no footage. In the case of "Thor," they bet showing more than expected to turn the negative buzz around. Guess what? The Comic-Con trailer from "Thor" that was leaked all over the Interwebs this week has been getting praise across Twitter and Facebook. And the fact that Marvel & Paramount (the film's distributor) aren't exactly rushing to get the clip pulled from sites should tell you something, as well.
Could Marvel have taken the safe route and skipped the Con this year? Why not? That's what Sony and Fox did, inexplicably bypassing a chance to spread the word about the reboots of the two Marvel franchises they respectively control, "Spider-Man" and "X-Men." It's incredible that the studios decided not to bring someone, anyone, to San Diego and discuss either the slew of new cast members in "X-Men: First Class" or the decision to go with Andrew Garfield as teenager Peter Parker in the upcoming "Spider-Man" reboot. Why not bring director Marc Webb out to answer a few questions about his vision for the franchise? He would have scored more ink for that than 80% of the films and TV shows displaying at SDCC. Whatever costs the studio would have incurred in travel costs, it would have made up for in advance press.
Going back to Warners, I was shocked they didn't make more of an effort to build buzz for the mission of DC Entertainment, an entity minted after the 2009 Con season. I understand Christopher Nolan was busy with "Inception" promotion, but couldn't anyone high up the food chain impart to him the importance of flying down to San Diego to at least do an evasive Q & A? An update on "Batman 3" would have earned considerable press coverage. Even a few statements on the upcoming "Superman" reboot he's Godfathering would have been a major moment for the Con. A major missed opportunity. And before anyone points out that the third Batman movie isn't due until 2012, keep in mind "The Avengers" comes out the same summer.
Comic-Con is all about long-view marketing. It's about laying the groundwork for movies coming down the pike six months, a year, two years down the pike. While the box-office impact a successful San Diego impression makes is debatable -- and something we'll discuss in another column soon -- there is no denying the awareness a strong showing in Hall H can create. Ask Disney how it helped the "Tron: Legacy" project, or Matthew Vaughn last year with "Kick-Ass."
No studio is as aware of the importance of Comic-Con to building and sustaining buzz for a project than Marvel. One could argue rather strongly that the 2007 "Iron Man" was the birth of the MCU, the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
So many things are unique about the entire Marvel movie process, from the interlocking storylines to the way the studio seems to encourage rampant fan speculation about projects, treating such online gossip as free focus-group research. But what really sets Marvel Studios apart from the 20th Century Foxes and Paramounts and Lionsgates is Kevin Feige.
What other studio executive holds as much power right now as Feige? It's a really special position he's found himself in, as the Overlord of the MCU, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His responsibilities lie as much on the story end as with the business stuff. He has to make sure a new director like Kenneth Branagh understands all the strings that must connect "Thor" to the other films. He also needs to be the public face when the studio faces criticism over making a casting change. While there was minimal outcry over replacing Terrence Howard with Don Cheadle for "Iron Man 2," the studio experienced Hulk-like rage from many people when it very publicly cut ties with Norton.
At the Saturday night panel, the second fan question of the night was about Norton. Feige didn't seem surprised as much as he seemed uncomfortable discussing the topic. He offered up the expected company line..."Marvel loves continuity, it has the utmost respect for the character," before adding that even Ed Norton would agree that "the Hulk is bigger than any one actor."
His answer may not have been satisfying to the Norton supporters, but he did answer it. And that kind of underscores Feige's role in this entire Marvel undertaking. He's the guy with the answers, be they about plotlines, development deals or controversies. And it's a safe bet he oversees every step of the planning for Marvel's annual San Diego splashdown. He understands how important it is, and most likely presides over step of the planning, from the order of introduction for the Avengers actors to the type of bottled water in the green room. He gets it.
Having one person exert so much influence over such an immense celluloid experiment as the Marvel Universe is fraught with potential problems. But so far, aside from a few rather loud hiccups, Feige seems to be managing just fine. Further proof will come when the next three Marvel films hit theaters, of course, but he's given no reason to doubt his master plan.
About the only mistake he made this time around was somehow forgetting to get any of the nearly dozen people onstage at the end of the Marvel panel to say the words the 6,000 fans inside Hall H were dying to hear.
How the hell could anyone not say, 'Avengers Assemble'?!?