AS "SPIDER-MAN 3" swings high above the May box office, Marvel Entertainment Inc. is closing in on a decade at the top of the global entertainment market, superhero division.
From the moment in 1998 that Wesley Snipes slipped into Kevlar and fake fangs to play vampire hunter Blade, Marvel has experienced its own startling transformation. A king of the comic book stores so flustered by Hollywood that its best movie deals once involved a talking duck (1986's "Howard the Duck") and Dolph Lundgren (1989's "The Punisher"), Marvel turned around with a string of punching-and-pathos popcorn pictures (including the "X-Men" franchise and "Ghost Rider") that have so far grossed more than $2.3 billion. But the company's next move — a mopping-up operation run mainly by second-tier players — is the kind of no-guarantees cliffhanger that could make Stan Lee, Marvel chairman emeritus, exclaim, "Read on, MacDuff!"
After nine years of providing the market with quirky and different super-hero films, Marvel is down to offering later-series sequels of familiar winners ("Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer" will join "Spider-Man 3" in theaters in June.) Other brand managers have been reimagining sturdy veterans ("Casino Royale") or looking for the next big thing (New Line's Philip Pullman debut, "The Golden Compass," with an estimated $150-million budget), but Marvel's solution to its looming blockbuster shortage may be unique in the history of film: more of the same, only less so.
In the late 1990s, Marvel, wobbly from an earlier bankruptcy and uncertain of its long-term future, used the long battle for Spider-Man movie rights as an opportunity to drum up interest in its other characters.
Marvel currently has its hand in more than a dozen productions, featuring lesser lights in terms of comic book sales and general fame — like Nick Fury and Thor. This includes movies the now-healthier company can make on its own, such as the Jon Favreau-directed, Robert Downey Jr.-starring "Iron Man," in production and scheduled to open in May 2008.
The contrasts between the big names and the others can be stark. "Spider-Man" was a youth-oriented comic book bestseller featuring an appealing teenage hero and an important life lesson: "With great power comes great responsibility." "Iron Man" has been a mostly second-tier comic starring a 40-something munitions dealer and featuring an alcoholism subplot that suggests a less teen-friendly message: "Our lives have become unmanageable."
Yet while it seems ridiculous to suggest that potential headliners like Sub-Mariner, Cloak and Dagger and Luke Cage will enjoy as much success as established Marvel characters like Spider-Man or the Incredible Hulk, Marvel has a better chance of success than its critics suggest.
It's easy to forget that until May 2002, "Spider-Man" wasn't "Spider-Man" the unstoppable box-office juggernaut. Outside the comic shop, "Spider-Man" was half a dozen uninspired animated TV series, an educational segment on "The Electric Company," an execrable live-action television show starring former child actor Nicholas Hammond, a sometimes inane and mostly forgettable newspaper comic strip, a handful of undistinguished paperback prose books and the music album "Spider-Man: Rock Reflections of a Super-Hero," about which the less said the better. "Spider-Man" became a first-class media property when Sony Pictures treated it like one.
Marvel's Hulk teaches another lesson: People enjoyed the 1970s TV show (you may remember those long shots of a forlorn Bill Bixby in his Member's Only jacket interspersed with too-brief segments of Lou Ferrigno flexing, growling, throwing someone through the air and then running away); but when Ang Lee brought "The Hulk" to the big screen, the movie was a financial and critical disappointment.
In other words, the movie's the thing. Comic book fans love their source material, but when it comes to putting people in seats, it's filmmakers like Sam Raimi and Bryan Singer and Alvin Sargent who are important, not comic creators like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Ant-Man may never be Wolverine's equal, but he and his fellow Marvel movie newcomers will provide the right director a chance to lure audiences with a big-effects film that doesn't sport a number after the title.
Marvel will continue to make those too, but it's the second-tier mission that should prove more important to its bottom line and inspire (or sour) the next chapter in Hollywood's love affair with the comic book blockbuster. Luckily, Marvel's next generation will have the best sidekick any superhero could hope for: reduced expectations.