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Marvelverse at A Crossroads Leads the Way In A Big Year for Genre Franchises

04/19/2015 03:53 pm ET

In a movie year marked by a raft of famous genre franchises, the Marvelverse is set once again to lead the way. What Marvel calls its interlocking "Marvel Cinematic Universe" features the return of the Avengers -- opening in the UK on April 23 and rolling out across the world, reaching North America on May 1 -- and a quirky new title, Ant-Man, coming on July 17.

Avengers: Age of Ultron, which sees the mostly brightly-hued Marvelverse at a fateful crossroads of technology and politics, and other genre pictures will be dominant players in the spring and summer. Then, in November and December, come the long-established genre superpowers James Bond and Star Wars. The Bond franchise follows up its brilliant 50th anniversary film, Skyfall, with Spectre, a likely updating of a very old foe. The Star Wars franchise, with George Lucas on the sidelines following his multi-billion dollar buyout by Disney, reboots with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This movie comes after the highly lucrative but little loved "prequel" trilogy just over a decade ago followed the original much beloved trilogy of the late '70s and early '80s.

Avengers: Age of Ultron opens in the UK on April 23rd and begins rolling out across the world, reaching North America on May 1st. The bright picture of the near future is darkening.

Before discussing this year's genre super-heavyweights -- Marvel, Bond, and Star Wars -- with a special emphasis on the big transition underway in the Marvelverse, here's a rundown of the other big genre franchise pictures making their way to a multiplex near you.

** The Fast & Furious crew, now up to Furious 7, is getting one last ride in its final intact version with the late Paul Walker included, artfully shot around to disguise his untimely demise at, naturally, high speed in LA while the film was still in the middle of production. I've only seen the first and fifth movies in the series, which were fine, but somehow the multi-racial cast -- Walker, Vin Diesel, cool tough girl Michelle Rodriguez, Dwayne Johnson et al -- and clever producers have mixed high-octane gearhead action with global locales and a certain familial feeling to not only sustain this thinnest of premises for seven films but also turn the latest into a billion dollar worldwide blockbuster.

** Mad Max is back on May 15 with a trip down Fury Road ... well, not Mel Gibson's definitive '80s version but Brit Tom Hardy's take on the iconic post-apocalyptic Aussie road warrior. Hardy showed a knack for intelligent action in Inception and made a memorable villain in The Dark Knight Rises, so if there is life in the concept, this can work.

** It looks like there's more meat on that chicken, to borrow an Arnold Schwarzenegger phrase, in the Jurassic Park franchise, with Guardians of the Galaxy star Chris Pratt bringing his humor, smarts, and flair for action to the lead role in Jurassic World on June 12. Better make sure the power doesn't go out again.

The novelty of the '93 Spielberg classic may be absent, along with the director, but there's just something about humanity tempting fate with technology. And, of course, humongous and scary fast dinosaurs.

** Terminator Genisys, coming July 1st, has a title that looks like a typographical error and possible franchise fatigue after the misfiring fourth iteration, which was sans Arnold, as he was a little busy being Governator -- playing a huge role in California's pioneering renewable energy, clean transportation, and climate change programs -- rather than Terminator. Now Schwarzenegger, most of whose post-gubernatorial pictures have seemed ill-fated, is back along with a much younger set of castmates. Naturally, twists around time travel are involved.

The script, which I've looked at but not read, will either come off as a clever reworking of the original high concept or prove to be an overly complicated attempt to wring water from a stone. I'm guessing more the former.

While there's been a lot of concern expressed about some of the rest of the cast -- with former Doctor Who star Matt Smith continuing to intrigue in a positive way -- Schwarzenegger seems very much on target.

** On July 31, Mission Impossible rolls again. I had a somewhat disconcerting moment several years back when I noticed that my movie collection held more films starring Tom Cruise than anyone else. Did that mean the supposedly wacky superstar was my favorite movie star? Rather than Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Humphrey Bogart, Denzel Washington, Robert Downey, Jr. ... who actually have been my favorite movie star at various points? Or did it just mean that Tom Cruise makes a hell of a lot of good movies?

I've met Cruise only one time. He was upbeat, gracious, energetic, with a hint of humor. In other words, he was Tom Cruise. Scientology? It's a great satire on on religion, as I'd expect of a religion invented by a science fiction writer. The truth about his private life? I've no idea, and don't particularly care, though I am rather taken by his all of his exes.

Which is not the best segue to his latest Mission Impossible epic, Rogue Nation, fifth in the Mission Impossible series. The fourth one, 2011's Ghost Protocol, was the best yet and a mega-hit. I expect this one to be big, and quite good, too.

As Ethan Hunt, Cruise has a strong ensemble around him, as one would expect of an Impossible Missions Force team leader. Mission Impossible is one of the great franchises from the '60s, a quintessentially American answer to James Bond. I'll have a lot more on it when the time comes.

** A not so Fantastic Four tries again on August 7th. Once upon a time, the Fantastic Four were the big stars of the Marvel Comics universe. Then a previous Marvel ownership proceeded to screw everything up by licensing different Marvel characters and groups of characters to different movie studios. That's why you don't see the X-Men or, until next year, Spider-Man, in a movie with the Avengers.

There were two Fantastic Four movies in the last decade. They did well at the box office, but nobody liked them all that much. The fact that Chris Evans was one of the stars -- as Johnny Storm the Human Torch -- made me doubt his later casting as Steve Rogers/Captain America. Of course, he's a great Cap.

Now they're trying again with a rebooted Fantastic Four. Godspeed.

In the beginning, there was Tony Stark. In Vegas. Early on in 2008's Iron Man, Tony Stark (played by the inimitable Robert Downey, Jr.) has a telling encounter with a liberal journalist. In insouciant form, he says he can't be considered "the Leonardo da Vinci of our time" because he doesn't paint. But that "Merchant of Death" moniker isn't bad.

By the time the year is out, the Marvelverse will be the top movie franchise in box office history, topping the now concluded Harry Potter juggernaut. The Bond franchise will continue in third place. It won't pass Harry Potter till the untitled next picture, expected to be Daniel Craig's last in the role, assuming that Spectre and its follow-on continue to perform at a very high level.

Spectre looks likely to continue the very high-performance standard set by Skyfall. Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes is back for this one, Craig is in high form as the best Bond since Sean Connery (though Pierce Brosnan deserves mention in that debate), and with Oscar nominee Ralph Fiennes on hand as the new M and Naomie Harris weighing in as a very enhanced Moneypenny, the picture looks good to go. Judi Dench, practically a co-lead in Skyfall, was a great M and will be missed, but her demise made perfect sense in a storyline which is not over.

For Spectre will likely demonstrate that there is a continuity to the Craig-era Bonds which surpasses that in previous eras of Bond films. While M battles threats to MI6 itself, Bond has unresolved secrets from deep in his own life to at last confront. And if anybody believed that two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz is on hand simply to play the son of Bond's old ski instructor, the elegantly sinister new trailer should have disabused them of that notion.

Much is still unclear about the continuity of the new Star Wars, a sequel to the original trilogy. It takes place a few decades after the events of 1983's Return of the Jedi. Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher are on hand again as, respectively, Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Princess Leia. along with a new generation of stars to take the hand-off from the original troika.

Harrison Ford's role is evidently very large throughout the picture, which is why production shut down while the veteran action superstar healed from a leg injury. (Fortunately, his subsequent, er, forced landing on a golf course just after taking off in his small plane from Santa Monica Airport occurred in post-production.)

"You're a kite dancing in a hurricane, Mr. Bond." November brings Spectre.

I don't know exactly what Ford does in this very central role, but he sure looks great when he shows up at the end of the trailer in white shirt and Indiana Jones-style jacket.

Hopefully, writer-director J.J. Abrams does better on the continuity and logic side of things here than he did with the Star Trek reboot. The 2009 movie was an exciting hit, with a topnotch new young cast portraying timeline-altered versions of Kirk, Spock and company. Some logical inconsistencies were papered over by the film's great velocity and bravura style.

The trouble cropped up with the tardy 2013 sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, which turned out to be be a foolhardy reworking of the best Star Trek film with the original cast, The Wrath of Khan. It not only didn't make a lot of sense, it was insulting to the intelligence of many fans. And there were big inventions front and center in it that made the whole proceedings moot, such as "trans-warp beaming" (who needs a ship like, say, the Enterprise?) and Kirk's revival from death with Khan's "magic blood" (where's the risk now?). The movie was a hit but did worse domestically than its predecessor despite a much bigger budget. Then Abrams, who'd reportedly wanted control over Star Trek merchandising, jumped to the Star Wars reboot.

Star Wars returns for Christmas.

His colleagues were supposed to keep things on track but, as I reported in January, they failed.

Now with a new director with no background in Star Trek or science fiction and a pair of new writers including actor Simon Pegg -- who plays Scottie -- cramming to deliver a finished screenplay by June, things are looking very uneven for next year's 50th anniversary Star Trek film, still officially scheduled for July 8, 2016.

Meanwhile, with 11 hit films since 2008 already out, there's not much doubt about Marvel's ability to pull off its plans. I don't know yet how July's Ant-Man fits into the emerging overall Marvelverse mythos, but the film that will follow it -- and which will build on the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron -- which is Captain America: Civil War, goes into production this month for release in May 2016. A pretty tight turnaround, but the team around the Captain America films has it going now.

Last year's brilliant Captain America: The Winter Soldier -- which dealt in thinly veiled fashion with our surveillance state and drone strike programs -- vaulted Captain America, least current of the four major Avengers starting out -- into the top rank of cinematic superheroes and set up the events which will unfold in the second Avengers film. (It was also third at the domestic box office of films in general release last year, with Marvel stablemate Guardians of the Galaxy, not yet linked into the overall narrative, but that's coming, a surprise second.)

By the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, as I discussed last year, Cap -- the World War II super-soldier, a man out of time with his '40s American ethics -- has brought down SHIELD, the transnational intelligence and security organization that sponsored the Avengers in the first place. For it was not only caught up in post-9/11 style shortcuts in the name of security, it had also been taken over by a cabal of latter-day Nazis, and their fellow travelers, who infiltrated the agency when they were brought to America after World War II. For decades, they worked covertly to make the world more unstable in order to gain support for their security state agenda. And their leader, seduced by opportunism and ideology, turned out to be the charming liberal former U.S. secretary of state played by screen legend Robert Redford. Who of course played the exact opposite role in the great conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s.

So in the new Avengers film, the Avengers themselves are trying to pick up the needed slack in the absence of SHIELD. And Tony Stark/Iron Man, the genius technologist we met in the first of these Marvelverse movies in 2008, having shed his cynicism over the series, tries to use advanced technology to solve the problem. It does not go well. This marks a turning point in the Marvelverse.

From the beginning, the politics of the Marvelverse has been what I call "up-wing." Not so much conventionally left-wing or right-wing but oriented to the future rather than the past in terms of looking to uplift civilization through new technologies and social innovations. Which in the skew chart with left/right and future/past axes developed decades ago by my old friend and boss Senator Gary Hart runs upward along the future/past axis.

The dark side of advanced technology has always been there -- see Tony Stark's arms dealer past -- but in the more brightly-hued scifi version of today's world that is the Marvelverse, technology developed for good purposes may be glitchy (like Howard Stark's flying car), but it is not the cause of societal problems. Ultron is not like that.

More discord and disunity are on the way next spring in Captain America: Civil War. Which will see, in the presidential election year, Steve Rogers/Captain America and Tony Stark/Iron Man squaring off against each other over issues of political control, accountability, and liberty. There's a specific storyline in the comics on this, but I expect it will be altered and updated.

The first Avengers film, way back in 2012, turned out to be the third biggest film of all time in domestic and worldwide box office. (Behind James Cameron's Avatar and Titanic.) It bested Skyfall and the conclusion of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy that year. It was a much more joyous film than Dark Knight Rises which, despite its happy ending, was a leading exemplar of the dark trend in superhero films. The Avengers was much more joyous than that, for all its world-saving stakes. Its enemy was, after all, from outer space. If there were things to be suspicious about here on Earth, they could be swept aside in the all-for-one requirements of the moment.

So it will be interesting to see how Avengers 2 does as its "up-wing" nature turns more downbeat, due much more to problems within than without. I think it will be the biggest film of the year, Star Wars notwithstanding. The Marvelverse mythos is much more current and pertinent than that which happened "a long time ago, far far away." But whether or not it bests its predecessor is a more open question.

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