Comic book movies have been dominating the summer movie season for most of this century.
It doesn't look like that will be any different this year, with half a dozen superhero, superturtle and graphic novel-sourced features scheduled for Hollywood's most lucrative release period, which traditionally runs from the first weekend in May through Labor Day.
But things are getting off to an early start, with Thursday night's release of the latest Marvel Studios entry, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”
Why so early?
“There are only so many weekends in a summer,” notes Kevin Feige, president of the Disney-owned studio that produces the Captain America, Thor and Iron Man films and, two summers ago, unleashed the biggest comic book movie of them all, “The Avengers.”
“When planning out the schedule, we wanted to see if we could extend the boundaries with our films,” Feige continues. “We obviously like the two big areas, the holiday and summer seasons, but as they say, summer keeps getting earlier and earlier.”
Regardless of the timing, Marvel should have another blockbuster on its hands with “Winter Soldier.” Already a hit with critics, it's an action-packed, smartly written and just the right amount of funny sequel to both the 1940s-set “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011) and “The Avengers.”
Now living in modern times, World War II supersoldier Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) finds himself embroiled in a bewildering, world-threatening conspiracy involving the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization run by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and a whole bunch of new-to-movies Marvel characters.
There are also the humanizing dimensions that Marvel specializes in, which have helped turned superhero films from a kids genre into a format that's relevant to all audiences.
“In this movie, he's struggling being a man out of time,” Evans says of his character. “But more than that, he's struggling with the way society works now, how with technological advancements it becomes a little harder to preserve the safety that we try to guarantee people.”
Three other Marvel properties are coming this summer.
“The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” Marc Webb's sequel to his 2012 reboot starring Andrew Garfield as the troubled, superpowered teenager Peter Parker, opens May 2.
With four Spidey movies over the previous dozen years still in viewers' memories, it was vital for director Webb and company to keep this one fresh and make it even more spectacular. At least three of the comic books' villains — Electro (Jamie Foxx), The Rhino (Paul Giamatti) and The Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan) — will make appearances.
“We had to come up with something that will provoke and excite audiences,” Webb explains. “That's always been the trick, and without giving too much of the plot away, I think this is a real turning point for Spider-Man and Peter Parker. After this film, it's not going to be the same.”
The long-running X-Men series, whose first entry essentially started the comic book movie renaissance in 2000, goes the meta route when “Days of Future Past” opens May 23.
Based on a popular run of publications, the story combines characters from the first three X-Men movies with their younger selves and others that were introduced in the 1960s-set “X-Men: First Class” (2011).
In this one, directed by the first two X-Men movies' Bryan Singer, older Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) send Hugh Jackman's Wolverine back in time to convince their younger selves, played respectively by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, to take steps to prevent a devastating future calamity.
Due to long-standing contractual agreements, Sony's Spider-Man and Fox's X-Men franchises don't operate in Disney's Marvel Cinematic Universe. Hence they all have independent timelines and sets of characters (although Quicksilver, who was both an X-Men villain and heroic Avenger in the original 1960s comics, pops up in both “Winter Soldier” and “Days of Future Past,” with two separate backgrounds and played by different actors).
The Marvel approach is infused in the DNA of each series, though, and arguably can be said to have influenced even the rival DC Comics movies, like the Batman Dark Knight trilogy and “Man of Steel,” that Warner Bros. has made for 21st century summers.
“I think 15 years ago, the comic book movie genre was still somewhat fringy,” observes Simon Kinberg, a producer and/or writer of the last three X-Men movies who is now working on Fox's reboot of Marvel's Fantastic Four, which will come out in summer 2015.
“When they were done in a broad mainstream way, it was in a cartoonish tone. Bryan's first X-Men movie did a lot to change the vibe of these films,” Kinberg says.
“That eventually led to the Dark Knights, Iron Mans and Avengers; even though each of those have different tones, there's a level of maturity those films aspire to. And certainly, 10 years ago, you couldn't viably have three superhero movies come out in the span of a month and a half, which is what we're going to have with Captain America, Spider-Man and X-Men. I think all of those movies will be successful.”
The season's fourth Marvel movie will be — get ready for it — something new: “Guardians of the Galaxy,” adapted from a 2008 comics series that reimagined a group of faraway, outer space heroes who debuted in 1969 books, opens Aug. 1.
Very distantly connected, for now, to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Guardians” stars Chris Pratt, “Avatar's” Zoe Saldana, “Doctor Who's” Karen Gillan and the voices of Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper.
“I love reboots and sequels,” the studio's Feige admits. “It's our bread and butter. But I also love when we can surprise people with something original and brand-new.
“ ‘Guardians' will expand the definition of what people think a comic book movie is, what people think a Marvel or a superhero movie is. Like ‘Winter Soldier' is a cool, 1970s political thriller masquerading as a Marvel movie.
“In this case, it's a Marvel movie done in the kind of fun, giant space epic way that we loved when we were kids.”
It won't just be a Marvel Comics movie summer.
The Danish children's film “Antboy” (not to be confused with Marvel's “Ant-Man,” which we'll see in 2015), should hit U.S. theaters next month.
“Hercules,” starring Dwayne Johnson, directed by Brett Ratner and based on a comic book that obviously drew its inspiration from ancient legends, comes out July 25.
The “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” reboot, to save New York and Megan Fox from destruction, opens Aug. 8, courtesy of producer Michael Bay.
There are even a couple of movies that, although adapted from graphic novels, promise to be something like works of cinematic art.
Robert Rodriguez, who co-directed “Frank Miller's Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” (Aug. 22), promises that the follow-up to the earlier noir compendium he co-helmed with Miller, the comic's writer-artist, will have even more of the high-contrast, mostly monochromatic 3-D qualities pioneered in the 2005 “Sin City.”
“We push this one further in that direction,” Rodriguez says. “I wanted the film to go as far as Frank goes in his books, which is pretty striking. I didn't want to just take the story only and adapt it to film, I wanted to translate what Frank did on the page to film.”
“Snowpierecer” (June 27) is based on a French graphic novel, “Le Transperceneige,” and is the English-language directing debut of one of South Korea's most acclaimed filmmakers, Bong Joon-ho (“The Host,” “Mother”). It's set in a dystopian, frozen future, where the remains of humanity exist on a globe-circling train that is rigidly class-divided. A revolt breaks out among the poorer passengers, led by none other than that symbol of liberty, Evans.
“It's abstract,” Evans cautions. “It's a tough concept to process, but it's so dynamic and it has so much depth to it. It's one of those stories that, I think, you can study in film class. There are a lot of interpretations available.”
Besides “Snowpiercer” and his Captain America/Avengers gigs, Evans has appeared in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and earlier Fantastic Four movies. He's not surprised that they're on so many summer slates.
“Let's be real, dude: The reason these movies are so successful is because they're familiar properties,” he said. “Everybody knows Captain America, Batman, Iron Man, so right away you have a fan base that's already eager to see your film. And now, with digital effects, technology has finally caught up with what was on the page.”
“Spider-Man” director Webb expands on that thought.
“Comics are inherently cinematic; it's pictures and words, but fundamentally pictures, which is what cinema is,” Webb notes. “It just seems like a natural partnership, and because the capabilities of visual effects have increased dramatically in the last 10 years, you're able to really re-create the spectacle and the sense of wonder that you get when you read a comic book.”
Feige concurs, putting a Marvel spin on things.
“In an era of global cinema and and a new golden age of television, you need a reason to have people around the world get into their cars and go to the movies,” Feige says. “Obviously, a lot of action and special effects play a big part in that. Comic books clearly lend themselves to that level of spectacle, but with the Marvel Studios movies, we know that character is just as important, if not more important.”
Whatever you want to attribute it to, comics movies are the biggest thing going. And with “Avengers: Age of Ultron” scheduled to kick off summer 2015 and Warner's Batman/Superman/Justice League project up against a Marvel challenge on the first May weekend of 2016, they'll be owning summers for the foreseeable future.
“In terms of the durability of the genre, it doesn't seem to be flagging,” X-guy Kinberg observes. “It sort of reminds me of when rap music was starting to come into the mainstream when I was a kid. Everybody was saying how it was a fad, it wasn't going to last and it was just a bunch of guys talking, and 30 years later it's still among the most popular music.
“As long as comic book movies continue to innovate, I think they could be around as long as we go to the movies.”