It's all happening at the zoo.
For Marvel and its ballyhooed cinematic universe, that's clear enough after seeing the brand new trailer for arguably the riskiest of its comic book extravaganzas, the rather zany Guardians of the Galaxy, opening August 1. When you've got a trigger-happy talking raccoon ("Rocket Raccoon," apologies to the Beatles) and a walking tree joining forces with a slinky green female soldier/assassin, a touchy man mountain, and a misfit human con man who styles himself as "Star-Lord" to save the galaxy, one has gone rather far down the rabbit hole of credulity. Or at least cheekiness.
Beware of spoilers, as always.
With producer Kevin Feige and the other folks at the helm of Marvel Studios delivering a master class in franchise management, the Marvelverse, bidding fair to be the global popular myth of the era, is cruising ahead this year towards the end of its Phase Two. Which comes next year with the second Avengers film. The Avengers (2012), the third biggest movie of all-time in worldwide box office, ended the Phase One multi-picture maneuverings of Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America into the team-up famed superhero supergroup. Last year's Iron Man 3, now the fifth-biggest movie of all-time in worldwide box office, kicked off Phase Two as Robert Downey, Jr.'s essential Tony Stark dealt with the aftermath of finally becoming a self-sacrificing hero in the Battle of New York.
The soon-to-open Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a superhero film as 70s conspiracy thriller, complete with All the President's Men/Three Days of the Condor hero Robert Redford in an unusually shadowy role.
What is the Marvel message, and what might it be evolving into?
And how does the new breed of superhero relate to the old breed, including California's most recent former governor, not to mention the more recently dominant dark hero stylings of The Dark Knight Trilogy?
Many happenings now with Marvel's still unfolding "Marvel Cinematic Universe."
Marvel stars were all over some of the most interesting of the recent Super Bowl ads. Tom Hiddleston (Loki) and Sir Ben Kingsley (the Mandarin) starred in a witty and elegant ad for Jaguar about why Brits are the top choice to play the villain, Scarlett Johannson (Natasha Romanov/Black Widow) used her charisma to power a controversial (because the product is made by an Israeli company in Palestinian-claimed territory) ad for a do-it-yourself soda maker, and Don Cheadle (Iron Man's sidekick Col. Rhodes aka War Machine) turned up with a llama in a charmingly loopy ad about a memorable night on the town for a Bud Light drinker. Which was actually dominated by Arnold Schwarzenegger, always game to indulge his ever present sense of humor and show he doesn't take himself too seriously -- not that the reported $3 million fee was a disincentive -- as a Bjorn Borg-esque "tiny tennis" star.
Schwarzenegger, incidentally, is definitely on to something with the big emphasis on humor, which has been part and parcel of Marvel's ascendancy over the past six years, especially in contrast to the rather dour elegance of Christopher Nolan's great Batman films.
The Avengers sequel has just begun filming in South Africa. (Italy and South Korea are also locations away from the British home base.) 2015 is shaping up as one of the biggest years for big movies ever, but all the other movies are backing away from the sequel to the third biggest movie of all-time in worldwide box office.
The second Captain America film, which reportedly does much to set up next year's sequel to The Avengers, is undergoing final tweaking ahead of its early spring release. With a near second lead role in Cap 2 and a big role in Avengers 2, Johannson's multi-black belted Black Widow secret agent is not only the latest kick-ass heroine for Avengers writer/director and overall Marvel creative consultant Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other cult genre series) but a likely choice down the line as the first successful headliner of a female superhero film.
Thor: The Dark World, released in November, is closing out its global run after finally opening in Japan. Though ranking with the sole Incredible Hulk movie (2008) as the least well-reviewed film in the Marvelverse run which began in early 2008 with Iron Man, the second Thor will finish over $640 million in worldwide box office. Combine that with Iron Man 3's $1.215 billion in worldwide box office, and 2013 goes down as an even bigger box office year for Marvel than 2012, when The Avengers vaulted past the conclusion of the Dark Knight trilogy and the biggest James Bond film in history, Skyfall, to rank third on the all-time list behind James Cameron's biggest efforts Avatar and Titanic with $1.519 billion.
With that sort of success, it's perhaps no surprise that Marvel is reaching deeper into its comic book chest for zany, lesser-known characters like the Guardians of the Galaxy. And, er, Ant Man. Following on the heels of casting Robert Redford as a shadowy Washington figure in the new Captain America, another Oscar winner, Michael Douglas, will play one of the original Marvel superhero characters in the forthcoming Ant Man. While Paul Rudd will play the current version of the titular character, Douglas will assay the original edgier version of the superhero.
The first Guardians of the Galaxy trailer finally popped this week. Not exactly the Avengers, "Earth's mightiest heroes," this collection of cosmic misfits is dismissed as "a bunch of a-holes."
But it's not all glittering success. Right after the first Iron Man shocked with its huge success in 2008 to kick things off for the Marvelverse, The Incredible Hulk, based on a much more famous character, opened to mere hit numbers. There hasn't been a second standalone film, though the character, now played by Oscar nominee Mark Ruffalo, who starred with Downey in Zodiac, had a big action and emotional impact in The Avengers.
Now a new show, Marvel's Agents of SHIELD on television, is not the success many anticipated. The ABC show, centering on a key supporting character in the movies, SHIELD Agent Phil Coulsen, and a sprawling and too young and pretty caste of non-superpowered agents, has gone up against the most watched scripted show on television, NCIS, and gotten absolutely clobbered. But that seems unlikely to stop a second season, nor is it preventing four new Marvel TV series being put together for Netflix to capitalize on the paradigm-shifting success of the somewhat overrated House of Cards. (I've loved Kevin Spacey's work since Wiseguy, but prefer the original BBC miniseries.)
But the hiccup that is Agents of SHIELD -- and the show is notably improving from the rather bland pleasantness which marked its beginnings -- is notable for how unusual it is.
Marvel's Cinematic Universe (let's call it the MCU) showed signs of an incipient backlash before the latest film featuring Thor, the odd duck character of the Avengers team. He's the one who doesn't fit, since he is an alien who is a god and essentially immortal, unlike the troubled and quirky humans who join him on the super-team placed smack dab in the middle of our own contemporary world. Being essentially a god and immortal, or at least a semi-omnipotent alien who seems immortal.
Some suggest that Thor isn't central to the Avengers because of that, and that the Thor films can be ignored. Well, no. Perhaps because he is less relatable than the classic Marvel Comics semi-misfit types who surround him in Avengers and elsewhere, central plotlines of the emerging Avengers story hinge to a large extent on Thor and his Asgard scene.
Still, despite the success of the latest Thor picture -- and despite the fact that he's played by someone who looks like a quintessential movie star, Chris Hemsworth, who was great in last fall's excellent Formula 1 racing rivalry picture Rush and whose capacity to play the hero was manifest in the opening of 2009's Star Trek, in which he is the just-born Captain Kirk's father -- Thor is still something of a problematic character.
Despite an incipient backlash, Thor: The Dark World proved to be another big hit for Marvel.
Rooting for Thor is like rooting for the ultimate BMOC. He is, of course, a super-powered Norse god from outer space, crown prince of Asgard, a Superman-sort of character.
Unlike the other Avengers, he doesn't have a set of potentially debilitating vulnerabilities to be overcome or at least held at bay.
He is also, unlike most of the others, not a genius. The Avengers are a superhero team-up founded upon the power of intellect and the Marvelverse vision that ingenuity can create a brighter future.
So perhaps it's not a surprise that Thor is overshadowed in his own movies by the villain.
Who's the best villain in the MCU? Hands down, that's Thor's brother Loki, silkily played by one of Britain's top young actors, Tom Hiddleston. He's so key that he was arguably the main player in The Avengers, now the third biggest film of all time. So popular has he become that when a nearby multiplex put up a massive pre-release promo in its three-story window for the new Thor film, the figure it depicted was actually Loki! After big roles in three of the movies so far, though he won't be in next years Avengers follow-up, look for him in another big movie. After all, he's secretly taken the throne of Asgard.
Nevertheless, Hemsworth's Thor is the star, deftly dealing the plentiful humor and action and holding the screen well opposite Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman playing his father Odin and human astrophysicist gal pal Jane Foster.
And the techno-magical MacGuffins of the franchise flow through Thor's world of Asgard. The Infinity Stones are too much for Earth to handle, as The Avengers made clear, so they flow back to space, Asgard and beyond. What can go wrong there?
Intriguingly, for a series as fundamentally in love with technology as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the hyper-advanced tech from Asgard and worlds beyond is deemed ultimately too dangerous for human consumption.
Indeed, the ambivalence about technology and human society and technology and security has been inherent from the beginning.
It's only eight minutes into the first Iron Man that this very telling exchange occurs between Tony Stark and a journalistic interlocutor/critic:
Christine Everhart: You've been called the Da Vinci of our time. What do you say to that?
Tony Stark: Absolutely ridiculous. I don't paint.
Christine Everheart: And what do you say to your other nickname, the Merchant of Death?
Tony Stark: That's not bad. Let me guess... Berkeley?
Christine Everheart: Brown, actually.
Tony Stark: Well, Ms. Brown. It's an imperfect world, but it's the only one we got. I guarantee you the day weapons are no longer needed to keep the peace, I'll start making bricks and beams for baby hospitals.
Christine Everheart: Rehearse that much?
Tony Stark: Every night in front of the mirror before bedtime.
Christine Everheart: I can see that.
Tony Stark: I'd like to show you firsthand.
Christine Everheart: [exasperated] All I'm looking for is a straight answer.
Tony Stark: [removing his shades] OK, here's a straight answer. My old man had a philosophy: peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy.
Christine Everheart: That's a great line, coming from a guy selling the sticks.
Tony Stark: My father helped defeat the Nazis. He worked on the Manhattan Project. A lot of people, including your professors at Brown, would call that being a hero.
Christine Everheart: And a lot of people would also call that war-profiteering.
Tony Stark: Tell me, do you plan to report on the millions we've saved by advancing medical technology or kept from starvation with our intelli-crops? All those breakthroughs, military funding, honey.
Christine Everheart: Have you ever lost an hour of sleep in your life?
Tony Stark: I'd be prepared to lose a few with you.
The first Iron Man film came out in in 2008, the same year as The Dark Knight, which I thought at the time was the key big movie of the decade. In retrospect, Iron Man, which snuck up on people, may be more important, the key big pop movie of this decade. Its first half is as perfect a pop movie as you'll ever see, due in large part to comeback kid Robert Downey, Jr.
On the one hand, the bright promise of technology to solve problems of scarcity and stewardship and create more meaningful work.
And on the other hand? The dark reality of technology as agent of destruction and coercion.
And throughout, of course, the trademark insouciance of RDJ which has come to define the humor of the Marvelverse.
In chronological terms, the first Captain America film, set in World War II, marks the beginning of the Marvelverse. So it's more than fitting that, very early on in that film, the pre-Captain America Steve Rogers asks his pre-Winter Soldier best buddy: "Where are you taking me?" The answer? "To the future." In this case, Howard Stark's world expo of 1943, complete with an (almost) flying car.
These films prefer to dwell in a future-oriented version of the real Earth. Think of it as Reality-Plus, a slightly brighter version of our own, in which the technological promise of real change is being carried out, or on the verge of it.
But there is a downside as well, in the form of an overly grasping security state.
Tony Stark, once he's stopped being a "merchant of death," doesn't really trust Nick Fury. And Nick Fury doesn't really trust his shadowy bosses.
Now that Robert Downey, Jr. is the biggest movie star in the world, people are discovering things they never knew, as in this recent viral video in which he sings the Police classic "Driven To Tears" to and with Sting. But it really wasn't new at all.
Ironically, given how pervasive the Marvel films have became, launching the Marvel Cinematic Universe was very bumpy. There was all sorts of business dysfunction for years blocking any progress before 2008's Iron Man. And the second film, which came out a month after Iron Man -- the much better known comic book superhero The Incredible Hulk -- really didn't catch on though it scored action film hit numbers.
Two years passed and the much anticipated Iron Man 2 was something of a disappointment. Not financially, it was a huge hit like the first, but creatively, semi-ditching an interesting doppelganger clash between Tony Stark and his dark side Russian counterpart, aggressively played by Mickey Rourke, in favor of a lot of business with Scarlett Johannson and Samuel L. Jackson setting up future films.
The film plays much better today in its broader context, with the things that annoyed at the time easy to accept or at least ignore in favor of the many inspired pieces, including lovable cad Mad Men star John Slattery (who else?) as Tony Stark's blast from the past dad in '70s future expo footage.
There's an essential optimism about it. As Tony Stark's dad Howard, played by John Slattery, Mad Men's lovable cad Roger Sterling, keeps intoning: "Everything is achievable through technology." As we see in the course of the films, Stark pere, through a series of world expos, promoted the brightly-hued techno-future we were all promised back in the Space Age. He even, in the '40s, threw in a flying car that almost did.
Son Tony, with his turn away from arms dealing to clean energy (even as he warily works with the shadowy supra-government SHIELD), pushes that optimism in his own way.
All of which makes for a much more brightly colored and humorous world than that of Nolan's magisterial Batman films, one more inviting for the audience. Yet there are streaks of darkness running throughout.
That darkness seems to be gathering for April's Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in which the stalwartly patriotic super-soldier will wonder whose side he's really on. Or, perhaps more accurately, if his side is really on his side.
The encroaching security state, a major theme in The Dark Knight, will evidently become a matter of great concern to Cap, whose World War II values seem out of step with preemptive justice.
The overall Marvel influence on cinema is even bigger than all this, of course, since The X -Men and Spider-Man and Fantastic Four franchises also come from Marvel comic books. It's just that Marvel Studios doesn't own the film rights to those characters, those having been sold off before Marvel, then under very different management, had its strategy figured out.
Ironically, after the ill-conceived deals of the '90s, Marvel was left to take lesser-known characters -- I remembered that Captain America was big from World War II till Vietnam but dropped off, the Incredible Hulk was a classic retro TV series, but Thor was some weird Viking space god and I'd barely heard of Iron Man before Robert Downey, Jr. was cast, which piqued my interest.
But take those characters they did, launching Phase 1 of a three-phase plan -- we're in the early stages of Phase II now -- in 2008 with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. The latter was a hit, but felt flat and a little rote. The former, well, the former was a smash. In fact, you could say that the first hour of Iron Man -- which featured a great deal of Downey improv according to his Oscar-winning co-star Jeff Bridges -- was as perfect an hour of comic book cinema as you are likely to see.
It was all there, under the loose but focused direction of Jon Favreau, who pushed the casting of Downey -- now the world's biggest movie star but then still recovering from a notorious spate of self-defeating behaviors -- the optimism, the insouciant cool, the wit and humor, the streaks of darkness, the sometimes pointed social commentary.
Perhaps the reason that Hulk film, while successful, was nowhere near as popular as Iron Man is that the tone was off. The incipient threat of military domination of radical emergent tech wasn't a background hum, it was front and center in the form of General Thunderbolt Ross.
The films that went forward -- Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and of course The Avengers -- come from a place of technological optimism in a universe decidedly more brightly hued than that of the Dark Knight Trilogy, based on characters for whom humor is never a last resort.
But the threat of the military industrial complex, of the super-security state in the form of SHIELD, is always there if you're paying attention. Now that threat is coming into the foreground in the second Captain America film.
Against all this, the old-school action heroics of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone have paled, notwithstanding the success of The Expendables.
This is an era more suffused with technology than the 1980s, when only a few people had even heard of email. It's also an era marked by diminished physical fitness, making bodybuilding feats even more of a major disconnect for most. And most everyone has seen everything available in a generic action film a thousand times over.
Then there is the decline of the hyper-masculine style, which was most in vogue when America was challenged only by another, more flawed superpower in the Soviet Union. Force on force seemed the order of the day. Today matters are much less clear-cut, solutions, if any, more supple.
Actually, Downey showed off his chops when he sang years ago with Sting during an early comeback as a star of Ally McBeal, as seen in this version of "Every Breath You Take."
So it stands to reason that the superheroes of today would be those who attain their powers through dint of intellect and/or technology (magic being technology that is not yet understood). And that humor and witty banter count for a lot.
Not that the superheroes of the MCU are exactly blushing violets. As the Norse demigod from space Thor, Chris Hemsworth has obviously used bodybuilding to get more muscular, the better to wield his, er, very big hammer. The same goes for Chris Evans and his Steve Rogers/Captain America, whose technologically created super-soldier is like an Olympic champ-plus in every track and field event. As for Robert Downey, Jr., whose Tony Stark wins with intellect and tech, martial arts is more his thing, as is also the case with Johannson and her Agent Romanov and Jeremy Renner and his Hawkeye.
Force is still a factor, but leavened with subtlety.
What can someone like the two-term former governor of California do in the Marvel era of action films?
For one thing, unleash the humor card. Schwarzenegger is a funny guy, as his old comedies showed. And despite many of his films featuring little dialogue from the star, he is quite a talker who enjoys witty banter.
But some time travel will still be required for Schwarzenegger to go back to the future. And a director of a hit Marvel movie won't hurt.
Fortunately for the governator, both seem on tap for the movie he will make next, a reboot of the Terminator series. Thor: The Dark World director Alan Taylor -- who has a lot of experience on Game of Thrones and won the Directors Guild Award for the seminal pilot of Mad Men -- is directing Terminator: Genesis.
But all that is in the future, still being developed.
This year, we have the zany antics of the Guardians of the Galaxy and, in a matter of weeks, the more serious stylings of Captain America.