Marvel Has Some “Heroes For Hire”

This past weekend Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 took previous box office records and punched them right in the stomach, then spun webbing around their head till they couldn’t breathe anymore, then threw them out a glass window on the 50th floor of a New York office building. In other words, it made a lot of money. According to this studio estimates, $148 million domestic, $375 million worldwide. So what is the magic formula that makes this series of films the unstoppable juggernaut they are?

The appeal of Spider-Man and his fellow Marvel heroes on celluloid could at least partly be explained by some of the people responsible for bringing these characters to life. Three of them, actor Thomas Haden Church who portrays Sandman in the powerhouse threequel, screenwriter Zak Penn who wrote the last two “X-Men” movies, and Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada all gathered at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival for a panel called Heroes For Hire.

Haden Church, who gained fame and an Oscar nod for his role in 2004’s Sideways, talked about making his Sandman not only a proper villain in Spider-Man 3, but a sympathetic one as well.

“That was our mission statement when I first became involved in ‘Spider-Man,'” said Church. “Avi Arad, who’s the former CEO of Marvel, has always maintained that there’s no ‘bad guys’, that they’re just corrupted or conflicted. If you look at the villains in the three ‘Spider-Man’ movies, they’re corrupted by a lust for power, their own ambition, or in my case, ironically, good intentions. That’s that accessibility bridge for the audience, there’s something immediately recognizable about them. It doesn’t matter if they’re magnates or an ex-con.

“The anchoring of the story was in the comic book that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko wrote, but we tried to flesh that out by ripping off the legend of the Golem in Jewish folklore and Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein… I just wanted to bring more of that kind of tragic innocence but at the same time the diametric malevolent part of his personality he can’t control. He’s not a bad guy, he’s not a villain but he’s done villainous acts to save his daughter’s life.”

With no small amount of boyish glee, and accompanied by audience laughter throughout, Church went on to relate his character’s origins in the film.

“As with many comic book villains nuclear energy at its worst is involved. He climbs a chain-link fence and misses the small ‘DANGER RADIATION’ sign, falls into a particle accelerator in a de-ionization experiment… you guys still with me here?… and becomes fused with magnesium silicate, or ‘sand’ to you. He just takes on this kind of shape-shifting amorphous quality at times. You know, honestly, whenever I first met on the movie and Sam Raimi was walking through the storyboards, every time we got to his ‘molecularly fused with sand’ part, he would start snickering like I just did because, you know, it’s that absurdist suspension of disbelief you just gotta roll with. So yeah, he’s a shape-shifting monster.”

Another veteran of Marvel film adaptations is screenwriter Zak Penn, who after launching his writing career with scripts for the megabomb Last Action Hero and the now-cult-classic college comedy PCU, has built his current career with X2 and X-Men: The Last Stand. He will continue his foray into the Marvel universe with The Incredible Hulk, a reboot of the green-skinned franchise after it was nearly terminally grounded by Ang Lee’s 2003 misfire The Hulk. Though Lee’s version attempted a psychologically probing blockbuster starring Eric Bana, “Incredible Hulk” will star Edward Norton as Bruce Banner in a more action-oriented story grounded in the original comics, directed by Louis Leterrier (Unleashed).

Says Penn, “It’s funny, on ‘The Incredible Hulk’ one of the big discussions has been… I hope I don’t get in trouble for this, let me think… the villain is gonna be this character from the comics, The Abomination, who will not be called The Abomination ’cause it’s a silly silly name. It is, it’s such a hard name to work in, like ‘hey, what should we call that guy… he’s an abomination!’ One of the things we had to talk about with the effects people, who had done ‘X3’ as well, when this guy transforms he’s not used to having these properties, like he’s much heavier… like when he walks down the street his weight destroying the sidewalk, and him tripping. Humanization of these superhero characters, showing the effects physics would actually have on them.

“I think Ang Lee is a fantastic director and there’s incredible, incredible stuff in the first movie but I don’t think that they captured the things that are interesting about The Hulk. One of the things that appealed to me about The Hulk as a kid is that in no way is The Hulk a superhero story. Spider-Man is a superhero, he puts on a costume and he fights crime. The Hulk is a Jekyll & Hyde/ Frankenstein horror comic. That’s what it is. Period. A man cursed into turning into his repressed id, that’s it. To me that’s a really powerful idea, Jekyll & Hyde. Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly’ is one of my favorite movies ever made. The first ‘Hulk’ was not that film, it was not about the torment of being a person who cannot afford to feel anxiety in modern culture, which is to me the strength and power of a Hulk movie. It wasn’t made. Other things were done, they did some cool sh*t, whatever, it was great in its own way, but we didn’t make that movie and Marvel wanted to make that movie and they still want to make that movie and now we are! For example, Ed Norton playing that role, ‘Fight Club’ is kind of about a guy who’s like Bruce Banner. So that’s the goal, to go back and make that Hulk movie that didn’t get made.”

Joe Quesada began his career in comics as an artist and writer and in 2000 became the steward of the entire Marvel line of comics as Editor-in-Chief, a role in which he brings in talent and helps shape the major storylines and creative directions of the company. He helps explain the zeitgeist that Marvel continues to tap over 40-years after Stan Lee and Jack Kirby launched the Silver Age of comics with The Fantastic Four.

“Okay, I’m biased ’cause I work at Marvel, but the Marvel heroes to me are, at their core, more honest. Superman has to put on a façade in order for the rest of humanity to relate to him, he has to become this bumbling guy Clark Kent. So at his core, Superman is a liar… he is! Whereas Peter Parker is Peter Parker, and like all of us when we put on masks we become that other person. So at his core Peter Parker is a much more honest character in the way he relates to the real world.

“The other thing Stan did was, and from my conversations with him he did it ’cause he wanted to write what he knew, he put all these characters in New York. There was no Metropolis, there was no Gotham City, it all took place in the REAL real world. So it forced Stan and everyone who came on subsequently to write these books, to look out their window and use the real world as a canvas. I think that’s why the Marvel Universe today resonates so much more so than other superhero universes because of that honesty and touch of reality that threads through all the books.”

So what will the future hold for Marvel and its forays into cinema? More of thi$$$$$ one $uspects, but creatively the seeds for a hit of Spider-Man 3 magnitude might be planted in the pages of the comics today.

According to Quesada, “I’m currently working on a project right now called ‘Spider-Man: One More Day’ which is… I wish I could tell you more but I really want your money. I will be taking donations later on, I’ll whisper it in your ear. The basic premise of the story is a simple one, and you’ll start hearing more about it in the months to come. There’s hyperbole and then there’s the truth, and this is the truth: It is a story that will change the life of Peter Parker in incredible ways and probably redefine Spider-Man for the next 20 or 30 years.”

When you’re arguing with the ticket lady about using your AARP card to get a Senior Discount on the $40 ticket to see Spider-Man 9: One More Day, perhaps Quesada’s words will ring prophetic.

Source: Max Evry