Saturday, May 23, 2020

Making a Marvel Cinematic Universe -- in the 1980s (part 4)

Previous entries in this series (from 2017!):

In which I postulated a Marvel Cinematic Universe begun with a Fantastic Four movie in 1986, followed by a tied-in Hulk movie 1987.

Contained more information about the Hulk movie (sort of a reboot of the TV show version, but with Skrulls), and Fantastic Four 2, coming out in 1988.

Is all about the Thor movie that would come out in 1989.

Thor was a late spring debut, with the Spider-Man movie set to come out in the early fall. In between, DC’s Batman movie came out and threatened to derail everything. A huge summer blockbuster, more successful than anything yet to come out in the MCU, it made Universal’s and Marvel’s execs worry. Were they on the wrong track, sticking so close to the original canon? Should they try to steal away Tim Burton and have him create a uniquely twisted take on the Marvel Universe? Despite their hand-wringing, it was too late for Spider-Man, already in post-production.

Spider-Man (the name was changed to The Amazing Spider-Man by summer, to make it stand out more) was going to be its own departure from what had come before. Director Barry Levinson had been tapped because the producers wanted the director of The Natural, Good Morning Vietnam, and Rain Man to create a superhero movie thoroughly grounded in realism. For casting, then, the teenage Peter Parker had to be an honest-to-goodness teenager and not a baby-faced twenty-something. Many teens auditioned, but the role went to unknown actor Neil Patrick Harris, who was already filming the pilot to Doogie Howser, M.D. for television and had to be bought out of his contract.

It was, like many things tried in the MCU, a gamble; young Neil was going to have to carry a movie that was all about character and story. This movie would have no supervillain -- it would be about Peter’s story of going from nerdy nobody to television celebrity, his downfall of pride, his loss and tragedy, his quest for revenge, and ultimate acceptance of responsibility, broken down into 117 minutes. The only bad guy would be The Burglar, Flash Thompson (sort-of), and at times Peter himself. This was a nuanced, adult superhero movie, but still balanced for the youth market by a PG rating, the colorful-looking hero, and lots of special effects and stunt work (though Neil worked hard to get in shape for the movie, he was not able to do his own acrobatics).

Shirley MacLaine, then 55, was cast as Aunt May. Though younger than she looked in the comic books, the Golden Globe winner was deemed important for the emotional heft she would give the part of the soon-to-be-widow. Aunt May’s part in the movie was expanded so that we follow her journey almost as much as Peter, bonding with her as she stresses over raising a teenage son who isn’t hers, and then feeling her pain when Uncle Ben is murdered.

Uncle Ben was a character who would not be appearing in any sequels, so no big budget was spent on a big star for that part. Charles Haid, best known from TV’s Hill Street Blues, was cast. Though younger than Shirley, they proved a good match with strong chemistry in their early scenes together.

Though 19 at the time and needing to pass for 16, Jonathan Ward was cast as Flash Thompson. He had the difficult task of being a bully that audiences could also warm up to as Flash came to idolize Spider-Man, unaware that he was idolizing the boy he mercilessly picked on.

Veteran stage star Frank Langella, who two years before had been Skeletor in the He-Man movie, agreed to be J. Jonah Jameson, the tough-talking, cigar-chomping, well-meaning-but-really-a-jerk publisher of the Daily Bugle. The loud critic of Spider-Man who turns out to be right about him, or the person Peter becomes before he decides to change himself for the better.

Audiences and critics loved The Amazing Spider-Man. Perhaps hungry for something more solid and satisfying after the dark confection of Batman, The Amazing Spider-Man climbed to the third highest-grossing movie of the year, beating out Back to the Future Part II and after earning $371 million -- over four times Fantastic Four 2 had made -- became by far the most successful movie yet in the franchise. Shot on a modest $12 million budget, this was a huge money-maker for Marvel and Universal and proved to them that they had been on the right track all along, but had just needed audiences to warm up to the concept of superhero movies.

The success of The Amazing Spider-Man only added to the pressure on Fantastic Four 3. Could it ride Spider-Man’s coattails and become the mega-blockbuster that the first two had failed to be?

There was early talk of replacing the FF with bigger celebrities, but the producers decided continuity was critical and kept all the same cast from the first two. Billy Zane would be back as the Sub-Mariner and he would be teaming up with Doctor Doom, the first film to have two supervillains in it. To give Doctor Doom the proper gravitas, Alan Rickman -- Hans Gruber in Die Hard -- was cast as Doom. Fans loved the irony, since FF 2 had just beat out Die Hard in the box office two years earlier. Alan affected a Latvian accent for the film; later in interviews he admitted he had been told Doom was from Latveria but, not being a comic book reader, had not understood it was a fictional country and thought he misheard. Regardless, the accent worked.

The film combined the stories of FF #5 and #6 very closely. Doom forces the FF to test his time machine and sends them back into the past to collect Blackbeard’s treasure. Rebecca de Mornay, already chaffed that the Invisible Girl had an unequal role in FF2, was given more to do this time, interacting with Doom in cut-away scenes while the boys are trapped in the past, and ultimately saving them. In the second half, Doom recruits Prince Namor in a revenge scheme and then launches all five of them and the entire Baxter Building into space. The movie is almost the opposite of The Amazing Spider-Man, being heavy on spectacle and moved by plot instead of by character. It’s advantage is a huge special effects budget. Flush from Spider-Man, Universal spent a whopping $50 million. The expenditure pays off -- audiences eager for another superhero blockbuster pour into theaters and give FF2 the no. 2 spot in the box office, pushing out Home Alone, and becoming the most successful Marvel movie to date with a whopping $480 million.

FF3 was the only MCU film of 1990. Hulk 2 was set to come out in 1991, but it was delayed until fall so so Spider-Man 2 could be rushed into production and given a big summer release.  

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