Beyond its crass practical considerations -- promoting the soon-to-be-released "Captain America" sequel, while giving "Agents of SHIELD" a week off -- ABC's super-synergistic special "Marvel Studios: Assembling a Universe" contains a pretty interesting business and creative story. While it might all make sense in hindsight, there was appreciable audacity in Marvel's plan to release five loosely connected movies from the same hero-filled world, beginning with the cinematically unproven "Iron Man" and culminating with superhero team "The Avengers." As such, this fast-moving hour qualifies as more than just a cut-and-paste job from electronic press kits, although there's an element of that, certainly.
Of course, Marvel's positioning as an independent upstart with scant margin for error has changed since its acquisition by Disney, which beyond its deep pockets and marketing apparatus provides the shelf space for "Agents of SHIELD" and this special. At the time, though, the studio's gamble was impressive, considering the whole house of cards could just as easily have collapsed had "Iron Man" or "Thor" tanked along the way.
There's also the little matter, as is almost immediately pointed out, that Marvel's best-known titles (including "Fantastic Four," "Spider-Man" and "X-Men") had all been acquired by other studios in the company's checkered, occasionally bankrupt past, forcing its reliance on heroes without the household-name recognition possessed by DC Comics' signature properties.
Mixing interviews, clips and a lot of footage from Comic-Con, the special extensively quotes execs like Marvel mastermind Kevin Feige. He and others point to the casting of Robert Downey Jr. as crucial in the early going -- sending a message Marvel was taking the films seriously and seeking to enlist topnotch actors, despite the spandex and armor.
Writer-director Joss Whedon captures the daunting nature of making "The Avengers," saying his first thought was, "How can you possibly bring them together?"
The studio's run of good fortune will hit a wall sooner or later, especially with the looming challenge of selling the public on less familiar concepts like "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "Ant-Man." To quote a young version of Woody Allen, there's inherent danger when the universe begins expanding.
Still, with an "Avengers" sequel in the offing (to be teased within the special, but not included in the advance screener) Marvel clearly has a cushion -- and perhaps more significantly, a vision for leveraging its existing franchises to help launch and nurture new ones.
In that context, "Assembling a Universe" is a pretty instructive hour -- as well as a break from the regularly scheduled mediocrity of "Agents of SHIELD."
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