Thursday, November 14, 2013

Culture Shock 11.14.13: Marvel looks to revolutionize storytelling

Marvel Comics didn't invent serialized storytelling, but it may have perfected it.

During the publisher's formative years, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and the rest of the Marvel "bullpen" created a unified world, in which characters from one comic book might pop up in another, if only for a cameo, with little or no fanfare. Just a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man dropping by to say hello.

While DC Comics' superheroes inhabited a unified world, too, theirs was neither as cohesive nor as seemingly effortless as Marvel's. (It still isn't.) DC was selling individual characters: Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Marvel was selling the Mighty Marvel Universe, and Marvel's readership eagerly embraced the label "Marvel zombies."

With Lee's carnival-barker routine in overdrive, 1960s Marvel became a hip brand.

Fifty years later, the comics publisher turned Disney-owned entertainment juggernaut looks to revolutionize serialized storytelling in ways that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

When Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury appears following the end credits of 2008's "Iron Man" and tells Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark, "You've become part of a bigger universe. You just don't know it yet," it's aimed more at us than at the character onscreen. Fury is telling the audience there is much more to come, beyond the obligatory "Iron Man" sequels. Sure enough, when we next see Stark, it's at the end of "The Incredible Hulk."

When "Iron Man 2" rolled around, Marvel's grand plan was in full swing. There were visual nods to Captain America and the Hulk, and the post-credits scene segued supporting character Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) into the next big Marvel movie, "Thor."

After "The Avengers," "Iron Man 3" and, most recently, "Thor: The Dark World," going to the movies is more than just going to the movies. It's like watching television. Each film is appointment viewing, as each is merely an "episode" in a larger, ongoing superhero soap opera. And you can count on an average of two new episodes a year, one in the spring and another in the fall.

For the first time, the movies are like Marvel Comics. Yes, you can follow just one character, but if you do that, you'll miss out on the larger story. "Iron Man" (and "Iron Man 2" and "Iron Man 3") is, like Fury said, "part of a bigger universe." And that universe is getting bigger, by which I don't mean just next year's "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and "Guardians of the Galaxy."

Agent Coulson now headlines the television series "Agents of SHIELD," which, despite a steady decline in viewership, has secured a full-season order and seems finally to be getting a narrative footing. Apart from expanding the Marvel mythology, episodes so far have dealt with the aftermath of the Battle of New York (as seen in "The Avengers") and the "extremis" bio-weapon first seen in "Iron Man 3." This week's episode is a direct tie-in to "Thor: The Dark World."

Last week, Marvel announced a deal with Netflix that, starting in 2015, will bring four 13-episode series plus a "miniseries event" to the video streaming service. Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and superhero private eye Jessica Jones will each fly solo before teaming up as "The Defenders."

Disney clearly likes what it sees in the Marvel approach. When Disney purchased the "Star Wars" franchise, company execs promised not only a new "Star Wars" trilogy starting in 2015, but also "standalone" films taking place outside the main saga.

In this environment, DC and its corporate parent, Warner Bros., can't sit idle. They hope to spin-off a Flash TV series from The CW's "Arrow," and the "Man of Steel" sequel, also set for 2015, may feature Wonder Woman and other heroes as well as Superman and Ben Affleck's Batman.

By 2015, movie theaters could be home to three sprawling fictional universes, each as involved and time-demanding as an entire season of your favorite TV show is now.

Welcome to the brave new world of serialized storytelling.

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