“Thor: Ragnarok” is here, and The New York Film Academy is just as excited as everyone else for the next installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For his third film, the Norse God’s story was placed in the hilarious and loving hands of an independent film director. Taika Waititi’s films include “The Hunt for the Wilder People,” “Things we do in the Shadows,” and “Eagle VS Shark.” They have garnered more than twenty nominations including the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, the Crystal Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, and the Bram Stoker Award. This is the first Marvel film directed by a New Zealander.
Ragnarok represents a lot of other firsts for the MCU as well. The film also features the first female villain, with Cate Blanchette debuting as Hela. Hela is Odin’s first child, banished to another dimension for trying to conquer more lands than Odin was willing to rule. Tessa Thompson also enters as the first Black woman to appear in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Storm of the X-Men cinematic franchise is owned and distributed by 20th Century Fox.
This spirit of firsts carried over into the real world. Thompson, in a press conference in Los Angeles last week, told journalists that she rounded up all the female superheroes in the MCU and brought them to Executive Producer Kevin Feige. “It’s intimidating to get a tap on the shoulder and see all of the female heroes behind you.” The implication is that fans could see an all female-led cape and cowl film sooner rather than later from Marvel Studios.
It’s these big ideas and game-changing plans that bring large crowds from all over the world to view these stories. We here at the New York Film Academy were curious as to how Marvel was able to create the first cinematic universe across multiple platforms. Since “Iron Man” was released in 2008, Marvel Studios has pushed the boundaries of what it means to have a successful franchise. Not just a trilogy, but multiple phases of films that affected not only the original comic books, but have also sold thousands of video games, toys, and entire lines of clothes.
In order to learn more about how Marvel was able to reach these heights, we sat down with two comic book experts. Chair of Screenwriting, Nunzio DeFilipps, and Associate Chair of Screenwriting, Adam Finer spoke with NYFA Correspondent Joelle Smith about how Marvel was able to break the mold.
NYFA: Why do you think so many people gravitate towards Marvel stories?
DeFilippis: There’s a joy to Marvel stories in the Cinematic Universe that is contagious. The broader Marvel properties speak to something primal like power, responsibility, community, and duty. We have always responded to superheroes because they speak to our desire to see powerful forces trying to help us. We live in a world, which more often than not, shows us powerful forces trying to hurt or control us.
Lastly, the Cinematic Universe has done a good job of pulling different genres into their shared universe. There’s a spy thriller in Winter Soldier and a comedic heist movie in Ant-Man. And yet, both films share a world and work in a coherent way.
Finer: Over the years, Marvel has done an amazing job of creating stories that have a deep emotional core. It doesn’t matter that most of the characters are superheroes. They still struggle with basic human emotions. How do you fit in when you’re different? How do you deal with alienation? How do you overcome your ego? How do you deal with great power? How far will you go for a friend?
Marvel’s stories often ask readers if they can be different and find love and acceptance? Can they overcome massive obstacles placed in their path? These are universal questions and challenges. Marvel’s characters are flawed and human even with superpowers. We can relate to those flaws and the characters’ humanity.
NYFA: How does the original comic-book form lend itself to film, video games, and long-form literature?
DeFilippis: Comics are visual storytelling, and pre-date films as a visual way to tell stories. Cave paintings and pictograms were in effect comics – art that when taken in sequence creates a story.
We learn to take in stories visually through art before we even start watching movies. Picture books, for example, are very similar to comics as a story.
There’s an argument that can be made that says our natural form for visual storytelling is sequential art. As a result, I think it lends itself very well to any visual medium because it occupies a place in our minds as basic visual storytelling. The specific language of comics (page count, panel layout) may take time to master, but the idea of taking in stories in this way is so basic, that when laying out how a movie will look, we use storyboards, which are very much like comics.
Finer: Comic books are an amazing storytelling format. If we go back to some of the earliest forms of written stories they are visual representations of life in the form of paintings on cave walls. The comic book is the natural extension of our earliest storytelling. This form of art lends itself to the tradition of visual storytelling. It is a great resource to build into other forms of storytelling. Seeing the comic book evolve into other forms of storytelling makes perfect sense. We’re seeing the renaissance of comic books evolving into other platforms, but this is not a new trend. Comic books and comic strips have been a source for other platforms going back to motion picture serials and early animated films.
NYFA: How important is an established fan relationship with these characters? Could another unknown company replicate this success?
DeFilippis: Yes, another company could replicate this success. But not right away. Marvel and DC are building off decades of established world and characters. People today want to launch similarly powerful story worlds, but they hope to hit Marvel levels of success within years of launching their story world, and that just doesn’t happen.
Finer: Yes, another company or franchise could find success but not through replication. A project that finds success would find it organically by creating a unique and compelling story world with unique characters. They have to build their own fan base. Harry Potter is a perfect example of this. In a fairly short time, in comparison to Marvel’s nearly 80 years in existence, Harry Potter has become one of the biggest franchise properties in the world.
NYFA: What is your relationship with Marvel?
DeFilippis: As a professional, my wife and I have worked for Marvel Comics for years. We’ve written X-Men comics. We have also worked with Marvel to develop a property into a film before they had their huge success with Iron Man and launched their Cinematic Universe. Our collaboration with them on the Hollywood side wasn’t nearly as successful as their later efforts.
As a fan, I was initially a DC kid. But I was a huge fan of the X-Men and Captain America. And I read a lot of Spiderman as well. While I’ve always loved both universes, I think I stayed primarily a DC fan until recently. These days I lean a bit more Marvel as a fan. But that’s because their Cinematic Universe is so well put together, while DC has been hit or miss.
Finer: I have been a comic book reader and collector since I was a kid. Marvel comics have had a huge impact on my desire to tell stories. Back in the late 1970’s, a little movie called Star Wars came out and it changed the way I thought about storytelling. Then in addition to the superhero comic books that I loved, Marvel began expanding the “Star Wars” universe through comics. I could read comics and learn more about the characters I had grown to love. Now both Marvel and the “Star Wars” universe are apart of the Disney family. We continue to see both story worlds expand and often see elements of different platforms extend and enhance the franchises.
NYFA: When they first announced the Marvel Cinematic Universe did you have any doubts?
DeFilippis: Not the Cinematic Universe. That was after the success of Iron Man, so I didn’t doubt them anymore. But I doubted Iron Man. I was teaching a class on writing comics and told my students that I didn’t think Iron Man would do well. I felt like he wasn’t iconic enough a hero. And “Iron” felt dated. Nobody’s that impressed by something being iron now that we have Titanium and other stronger metals.
But then I saw the trailer, and when Tony said, “Yeah, I just flew” with such joy, I knew they had hit exactly the right tone for superheroes. And I knew I was wrong and Iron Man would be a hit.
Finer: Marvel had some early attempts at building the Cinematic Universe before it took off. The Universal Studios “Hulk” movies have some tie-ins to the later MCU. So I think there was some trepidation about how the MCU was going to play out. I think when fans saw Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark those trepidations began to vanish. And then with Iron Man, we saw the Marvel Universe truly brought to life on screen.
NYFA: As a writer, how complicated is the process of keeping 8 storylines cohesive at one time?
DeFilippis: It’s not that different from working out a season of television. The only difference is the scope. Marvel’s got a LOT more going on than any one TV series. But the principles are the same. When you work on TV, you build stories for all characters and themes the series is exploring. Those storylines unfold over time as characters interact with one another. That’s what Marvel has to do. But for Marvel, each storyline is its own thing and could be developed with a natural sense that it could run independently. That makes the task harder but not different.
Finer: I don’t come at this as a writer but as a Transmedia Teacher and Storyteller. So, from my perspective, I work with students to refine and fine-tune their story worlds so that they are able to work on multiple storylines at the same time. The focus is on telling simple stories in often-complex worlds. It can be challenging to rope in all of the stories but we help them build the tools and techniques to make the complex worlds cohesive and connected.
That said, I personally like to think that at Disney there are several rooms with what I call the “Transmedia Wall of Crazy.” I have been told by people “in the know” that no such rooms exist, but I like to believe that somewhere there is the MCU Room and the “Star Wars” Room where stories are connected by yarn and post-it notes and crazy writings that connect the various elements of the franchises.
NYFA: Why do you think other companies struggle to be both critically and financially successful as they build out their universes?
DeFilippis: They struggle for several reasons. First, they don’t have the stable of properties that Marvel has. Second, not every story or story world should be developed like that.
Finer: Marvel took their time building up their characters, the cross character stories, and the universe as a whole. I think one of the struggles other companies deal with is that they want to launch their massive worlds all at once without giving the audience time to connect with characters and their stories first. Also, Marvel has done a terrific job injecting humor into their stories and it feels like so many other companies have wanted to go dark without the relief that humor provides.
It is important to note that companies like Blumhouse have done an outstanding job building story worlds and franchises in the horror genre. Many family films have built tremendous franchises as well (obviously Disney and Pixar but also Universal with the “Despicable Me” and “Minion” franchise).
NYFA: If you could write a solo film for a Marvel character whose story would you write and why?
DeFilippis: I’m not sure. Rogue is a favorite. Captain America is amazing, but he’s in great hands right now. Nightcrawler or Kitty Pryde are both great. But my favorite obscure character is a woman named Diamondback who’s a villain who fell in love with Captain America and then reformed to be with him. She’s not with him anymore. So what happens to a character like that?
Finer: I’d still like to see Marvel get back the “Fantastic Four” and really knock that world and those characters out of the ballpark. I think the Thing is such an interesting and tragic character. Along those lines, I remember years ago reading a Beast comic book (I don’t recall if it was a trade or a graphic novel) and my recollection was it was a tragic love story and I thought it would make a great stand-alone movie.
Catch the continuation of the Marvel Universe with Thor: Ragnarok in theaters November 2nd.