Academics Discuss their Book Marvel Comics into Film and the Secret Origins of the MCU

Matthew J. McEniry is an assistant metadata librarian at Texas Tech University and describes digital manuscripts for online discovery. Robert Moses Peaslee is an associate professor and chair of Journalism and Electronic Media at the College of Media and Communication at Texas Tech University. Robert G. Weiner is humanities/popular culture librarian at Texas Tech University.  Wanting to understand the juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, McEniry, Peaslee, and Weiner have joined forces to produce the book Marvel Comics into Film: Essays on Adaptations Since the 1940s.

Wanting to learn more about this project, the three editors were kind enough to be interviewed by Sequart. You can get a copy of this manuscript here.

Nicholas Yanes:  Since we last talked, you two just published your book on the Joker. What’s happened since then? Have either of you been awarded for your good looks?

Robert Moses Peaslee: Sadly, no. But we have been really gratified by the response to the Joker book. It’s a testament to the quality of writing and diversity of ideas presented by our incredible lineup of contributors

Robert Weiner: No, but the Joker book has come out in paperback.

Yanes: What was the inspiration for this text?

Matthew McEniry: These days, we are all familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and that 2008’s Iron Man was groundbreaking in sparking the movement. With this book we wanted to explore the works that laid the foundation for where we are now. This includes a few great films, some mediocre ones, and many flops. The chapters included in Marvel Comics into Film are a comprehensive collection of historical narratives and academic analyses for these films.

Peaslee: In 50 years, the establishment of the MCU (as we now know it) will be looked back upon as a watershed moment in the history of American cinema. We wanted in on the ground floor of the literature that is sure to blossom around this epochal change in the industry, and we wanted to explore the very first strains of DNA that would eventually mutate into the monster we know today

Weiner: This idea that there is a “Cinematic Marvel Universe” that precedes the MCU. There are all those animated, television, feature, foreign films that feature Marvel characters. I realize that many of these films are not very good, but that does not mean are not worth academic inquiry or important historically.

Yanes: When putting together this collection of essays, what were some of the topics and information that took you both by surprise?

McEniry: The relationship that Toei in Japan had with Marvel and the history surrounding that was fascinating to me. That the films Toei made was an inspiration for Power Rangers, and having grown up watching that series, was a fun surprise. The involvement of Marvel’s property in many television series was also fun to learn about. That only the Hulk succeeded where popular character shows of today’s movies (Captain America, Doctor Strange, and Spider-Man) failed was very interesting to discover.

Peaslee: For me, the history of Toei in Japan and its relationship to Marvel was largely new information, and another great example of how what we like to call “globalization” actually goes back further and appears in more places than we often think.

Weiner: What amazed me was the breadth and depth of the contributors’ passion for many of these pre-MCU films (even the bad ones). I was really surprised by the fact that Marvel Productions produced the 1986 My Little Pony film, oddities like Solarman (1986) and Battle Fever J (1979) which are not that well know. It is amazing that Marvel was producing filmic content long before the MCU and all those animated series in the 1990s.

Yanes: Movie studios would have loved a franchise of their own like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Why do you think the MCU succeeded before anyone else could come even close to this?

McEniry: There are a lot of building blocks to the Marvel Universe, and as we can see with current films, every one leading up to a team movie needs to be successful with the audiences. Marvel had the most time to trial and error this process and they’ve been able to take a look at some of the previous failures and rectify them. They’ve also really embraced the universe in which they take place. The first of these instances being the end credits scene of The Incredible Hulk (2008) when Tony Stark comes to General Ross to talk about the “team” he’s putting together. With such an interwoven and vibrant setting, Marvel and Disney have set about to bring all the interesting aspects of it to their audiences, without having to worry about timelines or gratuitous destruction.

Peaslee: They had a lot of productive failure, and that is not to be underestimated. Of course, having a determined, charismatic figure like Stan Lee around doesn’t hurt, either. But for me, it’s really the acquisition by Disney that puts Marvel’s success in context. The synergy possibilities engendered by that relationship are unsurpassed in the global media industry.

Weiner: It is easy to forget that the MCU studio was a dicey proposition in the pre-Disney days of 2005. I think the idea of the shared universe between film/television helped make the MCU films so successful AND the fact they produced so many films leading up to The Avengers and beyond. Now with that being said, it could be that future film goers will have superhero film exhaustion and grow increasingly tired of the MCU (especially if they produce a number of turkeys back-to-back). Considering we have 6 six superhero/comic related films released in 2016, it is possible people will just become sick of them. Superhero related movies continue to do well so perhaps exhaustion by the public is a long time away.

Yanes: How do you think the MCU has impacted film production going forward?

McEniry: I think the MCU’s success has driven similar film production to not be afraid to take a risk on an idea. Disney/Marvel also cares about the characters that they help bring to screen and try to show the human element to the cast even when they are in the most heroic action scenes. At the same time, they have also caused a gap for more superhero movies to appear and subsequently other studios want to fill it with their productions. DC Comics is a good example of a studio that is playing catch up in the current superhero movie expansion environment. Whether or not Justice League will pay off is up to the filmmakers.

Peaslee: Positively overall. Despite what I send a second ago, the MCU is more than just an expansive universe of properly leveraged intellectual property. It’s also (mostly) great storytelling, and it has vastly increased and facilitated the importation of one of sequential art’s primary narrative strengths – continuity across individual character manifestations – into feature film and television production. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the MCU has come of age at about the same time as on-demand, streaming content.

Weiner: Well the MCU films are template for the modern blockbuster so other studios are looking to emulate the MCU. DC is doing that with their feature films now except it is not working out very well for them.

Yanes: There are always discussions surrounding films based on books, and which are better. How do you think Marvel films work within this context? Specifically, do you think the films succeed because they don’t directly retell the comics?

McEniry: Just like Peter Jackson couldn’t please everyone when he made The Lord of the Rings franchise, Disney and Marvel can’t please every comic book reader with their movies. There are themes in every film which the characters go through, and while those ideas may be loosely based upon the comics themselves, keeping them new, fresh, and entertaining is a whole other aspect of filmmaking. Blindly copying a fight scene from a comic could be incredibly boring or could inflate the budget too high. It’s a very delicate balancing act between getting the main story/idea across and being faithful to the content at the same time. Their success in finding that happy medium has been quite astonishing, and I think having comics that explore additional story lines after the movies are released help a lot in establishing the ever evolving universe that the characters find themselves in.

Peaslee: I’m not sure that’s always the case, but my personal opinion about adaptation is that, as a producer, there’s a delicate balance between fidelity to the original text and the challenges of telling that story in a different medium. I think that as viewers we should be much less invested in fidelity and take film and television content on its own merit – otherwise we spend most of our time complaining.

Weiner: I think it is important for the MCU to continue to have the spirit of the comics, but not BE about the comics. The stories are informed by them, but not faithful adaptations. Sequential Art and film are different mediums.

Yanes: How do you think the films have impacted the comics? And on a simplistic level, do you think these influences have been positive or negative?

McEniry: I think Disney is still playing it very safe with both the movies and the comics. They are trying to keep both audiences happy, even though sometimes the comics throw out a very challenging subject (i.e. Captain America’s “Hail Hydra”). The influences on their own comics seems to be very positive. Marvel has been trying to do some different things with their comics these past couple of years to draw in and retain more audiences. Their negative influences comes from competing studios who own certain franchises. The fact that there will be no more new mutants made in the X-Men universe or that the Fantastic Four has been cancelled as a series is an outcome of the lines drawn between Fox and Disney that is unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

Peaslee: This is a very interesting question. The answer to it eludes me, but I would like very much to dig into it, primarily for this reason: if the films begin to influence the comics too heavily, particularly in terms of storytelling technique (that is, in terms of form rather than content), I think we stand to lose overall. The forms begin to merge and become solipsistic, resulting over the long term in a safer, less exciting product.

Weiner: The comics have been impacted by the films sure. In fact, it is my understanding that the powers that be have tried to make the comics more in line with the films. Obviously they are not the same and never can be completely, but they are tied together. Certainly the powers that be watch the movies and the comic storylines to see ways in which perhaps they can converge. We have Civil War 2 in the comics. Sequels are inevitable and they sell. I think it is positive (especially for new readers if they can relate the MCU to the comics they are reading. It makes marketing sense).

Yanes: Due to how Marvel Comics divided its film rights, a large number of its characters will never share the same screen. This has caused a growing number of its fans to want films to fail so that the rights can go back to Marvel. This behavior seems to show the complicated relationship between loyal fandom and toxic fan culture. What you think of this?

McEniry: It’s certainly a difficult situation for the filmmakers to be in. Last year they ceased all new mutant characters from being born in the comics just so that Fox wouldn’t inherit the rights for any new film roles. Profitability has always been considered when dealing with the rights of certain characters. There was a good step forward with Sony and Disney working out a deal to have Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War, though it’s unlikely this will ever happen with what Fox owns now. I’m not sure how to solve the problem of fandom in this case, as toxic behavior like that usually can’t even be corrected with a perfect production of what they want.

Peaslee: That last Fantastic Four movie didn’t help the situation, did it? I think that fans generally share a single characteristic, which is that they want compelling content. If one conglomerate has to take a loss so that another conglomerate can come in and make a better product, I’m not sure any of us would complain. We’re sure not going to waste a lot of time defending a corporation that treats us with contempt by dumping poor content and expecting us to lap it up.

Weiner: I understand why fans want this! I am sure that most people going to see these films want to see Wolverine in the Avengers and we know that Spider-Man was one of the big hits of Captain America: Civil War. Too have all these characters together over one roof would be great, but it doesn’t make any sense to boycott the films. Disney probably has enough cash to buy back the rights eventually anyway so I think it will happen someday.

Yanes: Overall, when people finish reading this book, what do you hope they will take away from it?

McEniry: The book really gives you a glimpse into the Marvel universe that wasn’t immediately successful with anything they put their seal on. I hope that the readers are able to see the development of the franchises, the work that was put into making the foundation of what Marvel is today, and how every film, despite their rating or reception, is part of what is making the MCU work today.

Peaslee: How far back the tendrils go. How many times Marvel failed to do what they have now accomplished. And, probably, just how much the industry has changed during that time

Weiner: That readers see a historical portrait of Marvel characters and beyond as translated to films. One doesn’t necessarily have to agree with all the essays or even like all the films, but even the staunchest Marvellite or film scholar will find something of interest in our book (I hope they do anyway).

Yanes: Finally, what are some other projects you are working on that people should keep an eye out for?

Peaslee: We are currently under contract for our next project with University of Mississippi Press. It’s a big one – our most extensive partnership yet. I’ll defer to Rob W. in terms of how much we want to say – he’s our marketing guy!

Weiner: Well Rob P and I are going to be working on a book about supervillains Watch out for that! It won’t be your typical academic superhero book.

You can pick up your own copy of Marvel Comics into Film: Essays on Adaptations Since the 1940s here.

Remember to follow me on twitter @NicholasYanes, and to follow Sequart on twitter @Sequart and on facebook.

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Nicholas Yanes has a Ph.D. in American Studies, and his dissertation examined the business history of EC Comics and MAD Magazine. In addition to being a professional writer, he frequently consults entertainment companies in regards to video games, films, and comic books.

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