Marvel’s Inhuman Gamble
Marvel has proven to have a seam of very valuable characters which have been doing great business at the box-office. The Avengers, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and Spider-Man are humongous media properties, and earning tall dollars for the company that owns them. But have you noticed? All those characters have their origins in the sixties, the fifties even. Which is also the case for properties like The Hulk and Fantastic Four that haven’t really worked out quite as Marvel would like, on the film front.
One thing to note about those characters: you can recognise each of them by their silhouettes. Can you do the same when it comes to more modern characters like Bishop and Cable? I know one of them has a metal arm, and a mullet, and one of them has a big gun. That’s the extent of my understanding. Please note: I’m not displaying my ignorance to nail my colours to the mast of old school Marvel when Smilin’ Stan Lee and Jack ‘King’ Kirby would shoot the breeze with Rascally Roy etc: nostalgia is not my thing.
Back to silhouettes: that’s kind of what this is about. The characters created way back when were immediately identifiable by children, which is who their adventures were aimed at. And the stories had simple characterisation that was equally straightforward, and in having two dimensions added one to the industry norm. Spider-Man has cool powers – but he’s guilty about his uncle’s death. The Hulk is a scientist, who becomes a monster. All straightforward propositions that are easy to identify with. Cable? Bishop? I’ve come across them a few times and I’m none the wiser.
Thing being, if you don’t get a fix on a character early and easily, there’s a good chance you never will. And Marvel has got a problem, which starts with X-Men. They had a breakout character in the form of Wolverine (claws, attitude – easy again, see?) whose soapy adventures with his colleagues were a big deal back in the day. Since then things have got more and more complicated. It gets more confusing in that the rights to show X-Men on-screen are owned not by Marvel, but by Fox. Making any cinematic plans Marvel might have for them pretty much theoretical. Oops.
All of this is the backdrop to explaining what Marvel is doing right now, which is taking a very big gamble. If they can’t do what they want with X-Men, then they need other heroes to fill that space of superpowered outcasts that stand in for any minority, and any teenager who identifies with them. And they’re turned to another Jack Kirby creation to do that, The Inhumans. What they’re hoping is that the current Inhuman crossovers will produce breakout characters that audiences will get behind, across every media platform that Marvel – now owned by Disney – has access to.
Good luck with that ambition. I’m not convinced they’re going to succeed, however much money they spray at the attempt. Their bigger picture is all about marketing, and that’s not the best starting point for true creativity in any form. Back in the sixties, Jack Kirby came up with Silver Surfer because he figured Galactus needed someone to do running about for him. Stan Lee, who’d told Jack the story and left the artist to get on with the execution, was startled when he saw that the artwork included the silvery surfboarding alien, and took it in his stride: there was no time to do anything else, the speed they operated at was a function of the economics needed to put more comics out there every week. As it happened, Silver Surfer struck a chord, down to Stan’s fake-Shakespearean dialogue for a character who really could be called iconic.
I hate that word – ‘iconic ‘ – because it’s so overused but it’s true. Can you say the same about Cable, and Bishop? And they’re two of the more successful characters to have been developed more recently. And Marvel is rolling its dice big time on coming up with a whole bunch of new Inhumans-related characters, crossing its fingers that some of them will have the easily identified look that Jack Kirby gave Black Bolt, Medusa, Karnak and the others when they first showed up.
Part of me wants them to succeed, because I enjoy the films Marvel makes even if I don’t read many of their comics, and it’d be interesting to see who they come up with. But then I think of the dead hand of marketing from some of the work I’ve done, when a company out to do a riff on Moshi Monsters asked me to develop something for them but had no spark about anything they’d done so far, because it was the product of wanting to make money from a multi-platform intellectual property, rather than the desire to make a child smile.