In Steven Soderbergh's state of cinema address earlier this week, he remarked that, "Art is a very elegant problem solving model." He went on to describe his ideal model for a studio: "I think if I were going to run a studio I’d just be gathering the best filmmakers I could find and sort of let them do their thing within certain economic parameters." Now, the point of his impassioned address, which included such other applicable witticisms as "it's about horses, not races," is about what the studios should be doing versus what they are doing. But there is a studio that has followed his exact advice and it's not one you would expect: Marvel Studios.
When the comic book movie craze was starting out, Marvel had licensed its characters out to various studios (this happened for a number of reasons, and we refer you to Sean Howe's excellent, encyclopedic "Marvel Comics: The Untold Story," for a better grasp of the hardships that befell the company right before its soaring comeback). Blind vigilante "Daredevil" fought crime in Hell's Kitchen but was stationed at Fox; rage-choked scientist-cum-monster "The Hulk" was detained at Universal; and "Spider-Man" swung through the urban canyons of New York City but always came back to Sony. After the success of "Spider-Man," Marvel started to develop the characters that it still retained the rights to (second-stringers like "Iron Man" and "Captain America"), in house. Without the help of a bolt of lightning from Asgard or a radioactive spider-bite, Marvel Studios was born.
From the beginning the studio was making bold choices and positioning itself as a different kind of machine. They hired Jon Favreau -- an independent director who had steadily risen in the ranks in Hollywood and whose most Marvel-like project to date was "Zathura," a little-seen, space-set sequel to "Jumanji" -- to direct their first big tent pole, "Iron Man." What made this proposition even iffier was the fact that Favreau would be tasked with introducing this character to the masses, since at this point Iron Man was still relatively obscure. They needed someone who could not only anchor the Iron Man movie but give the studios an air of unpredictability and coolness – enter Robert Downey, Jr.
Not that Marvel was initially sold on Downey, Jr., who had just come off a history of high profile drug busts and until a few years prior was virtually unemployable due to insurance premiums and general unpredictability (RDJ's career is a whole other story). In a recent GQ article, they recount that Favreau wanted Downey, Jr. for the part, but the studio wasn't budging. (Their official verdict: "Under no circumstances are we prepared to hire him for any price.") Downey Jr. prepared himself physically, intellectually, and spiritually and eventually blew them all way. Marvel Studios had put their faith in the relatively unproven Favreau, but they knew the talent was there. They took another shot with Robert Downey, Jr. Both paid off big time.
Since then Marvel has followed a similar formula – they zero in on talent they know are capable of handling these franchises, under certain economic and creative limitations, and let them have their way. They buffer these filmmakers, some of whom, like Favreau, have very little experience in this type of thing, with the best pre-visualization artists, concept designers, and animators in the business, who help them finesse their ideas into a cohesive, workable execution. Ego isn't allowed – these movies, while massively budgeted compared to your favorite Sundance darling, aren't extravagant when compared to most studio fare. The deadlines are tight (especially when, starting this year, Marvel will get even more aggressive, releasing two major movies each year) and hubris isn't tolerated. The kind of vast creative over-world established by the cinematic Marvel Universe may seem restrictive but it actually freeing in some bold ways since whatever happens in one movie can ripple out through a half-dozen more. The Marvel Universe is wide open.
The chances Marvel takes are myriad – from allowing Kenneth Branagh, best known for his austere adaptations of William Shakespeare, to helm "Thor" (another marginal Marvel character whose introduction was of chief importance to the studio and the Universe) to assigning Joe and Anthony Russo, two obsessive comic nerds who had been stuck in television after a couple big screen misfires, to a highly anticipated, present-day "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" – the Soderbergh fantasy edict of "gathering the best filmmakers I could find and sort of let them do their thing within certain economic parameters" is followed pretty strictly. (It is also worth noting that Soderbergh, who had a history with Marvel, help facilitate the Russos getting hired for the "Captain America" sequel.)
Which brings us to "Iron Man 3," this weekend's big Marvel movie. The first "Phase Two" Marvel movie (following the events of last summer's "The Avengers," a $1 billion-grossing smash directed by Joss Whedon, a hardcore geek whose only other movie was a failed attempt at resurrecting his own defunct television series), "Iron Man 3" sees Downey, Jr. return to the robotic suit that Marvel was, at one time, so dead set against him wearing. It was directed by Shane Black, once the toast of Hollywood due to his high concept spec scripts for things like "Lethal Weapon" and "The Last Boy Scout," who had written and directed one movie prior to "Iron Man 3" – 2005's "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" (also starring Downey, Jr.), a studio-backed, Joel Silver-produced detective story that barely made a ripple at the box office.
Black's approach to the material was less than orthodox and among the surprises we're actually comfortable with giving away – he made Iron Man alter ego Tony Stark riddled with anxiety following the cosmic climax of "The Avengers" and instead of teaming him up with another superhero (or superheroes), most of the movie he's alone and without his suit, struggling desperately to stay in the game. The movie is full of reversals and weird reveals, told in a jazzy, freeform style that is everything that "Iron Man 2" (overstuffed, needlessly complicated) wasn't. It's strange to praise a $200 million superhero epic, designed to sell pajama bottoms and inspire theme park attractions, for economy of scale, but you can heap that kind of praise upon "Iron Man 3." It's not at all what you would expect and that's exactly why it's so great. Not every Marvel movie is as good as "Iron Man 3" but they're all competent, well-made entertainments.
Other studios could adopt a similar approach to the Marvel model and be all the better for it – more modestly budgeted projects, with unproven but artistically sound talent, and surround them with the best pre-production people. (Black, for his inexperience with this kind of scale and size, said he was never nervous on "Iron Man 3" thanks to the team Marvel already had in place.) They keep making bold choices and taking risky chances, which will continue as the Marvel Universe expands and deepens in complexity. Some of the next few films are being shepherded by Edgar Wright ("Ant-Man"), James Gunn ("Guardians Of The Galaxy") who's made weird-ass independent genre fare like "Super" and "Slither," and Alan Taylor, a dude most known for his episodes of HBO series "Game of Thrones." These are all exciting choices coming from one lone studio – Marvel. As Soderbergh said: it's not about the race, it's about the horse. Even if the horse turns into a giant green monster when provoked.