The Marvel Cinematic Universe has had huge successes since the release of Iron Man in 2008. With two exceptions, this success came while using B-list characters. The exceptions are Captain America, mostly known through being a patriotic superhero, and the Incredible Hulk, thanks to the 1978 TV series starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. Thanks to some questionable deals made to keep the company afloat in the past, Marvel Studios didn’t have access to some better known characters like Spider-Man and the X-Men, both of whom had a number of animated series.
How did Marvel start dominating? As mentioned, Iron Man, while a member of the Avengers, wasn’t a well known character outside comic fandom. Tony Stark also has numerous flaws, like many Marvel heroes. He’s a hero despite the flaws. Marvel Studios did the one thing that could get positive attention – casting Robert Downey, Jr. Downey was ideal casting; he and Stark share a problem with addiction. At the time of casting, Downey had gotten through his addiction and recovered, a journey that Stark has troubles with in the comics. Downey took to the role, providing a human side to Stark, despite the flaws.
Casting continued in the same vein for the rest of the films leading up to The Avengers in 2012. The leads and supporting of the movies leading up to the 2012 film all fit the roles cast. Even in the following phases and into the TV series, the casting remained strong. Casting choices might be debatable at times, but the roles have been filled well. Casting, though, isn’t the only part of the success.
Casting is just the surface. Another element helping in Marvel’s success on the silver screen is the types of stories told. The Marvel movies aren’t just superhero films. They’ve been another genre with superheroes added. Iron Man was a techno-thriller with superheroes. Captain America: The First Avenger was a war movie with superheroes. It’s sequel, Captain America and the Winter Soldier was a political thriller with superheroes. Guardians of the Galaxy was a space opera with superheroes. Ant Man was a heist movie with superheroes. The stories are wide ranging. Only the Avengers titled films – The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame – are pure superhero films. They are also the major crossovers, where all the characters appear onscreen together. This isn’t quite a parallel to the comics where crossovers affect every title and Iron Man can appear in his own title, Avengers, and guest star in a Spider-Man title all in the same month. It is close enough, but the crossover is self-contained except for some plot points being set up in the movies leading up to the instalment.
The mix of genres lets each Marvel movie look and feel different, even if the same beats are being used. Captain America had a different tone compared to Ant Man. If someone doesn’t like the genre of film, there’s still the draw of superheroes, or the choice of skipping in favour of a preferred genre. The additional genres gives audiences something else to look forward to, and be able to follow the plot even when the superheroics go off the beaten path.
This mix carries over to the Disney+ series. Wandavision uses classic sitcoms to tell its story. Hawkeye is essentially a Hallmark Christmas special with superheroes. The current series, Moon Knight begins as a horror series. There’s more to the series than superheroic battles; the fights are icing to a multi-layered cake.
The use of B-listers is another facet of Marvel’s success. As mentioned above, with the exception of the Hulk and Captain America, Marvel Studio’s success has come despite the use of lesser known characters. However, since they are lesser known, that gives the cast, crew, writers, and directors a free hand to explore the characters and the setting and put a new twist in without worrying about canon. Moon Knight is the ultimate blank slate here; the character has had a number of different origins that at times conflicted that the TV series can pick and choose details and not worry about getting anything wrong.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been dominating the box office since the release of Iron Man. The secret to Marvel’s success is to have interesting, flawed characters in well written works where the story melds another genre with superheroics. While there are rumblings that the general public is getting tired of superheroics, audiences still go out to watch Marvel’s cinematic works, in part because the films aren’t just about superheroes being superheroes.
Last week, Lost in Translation looked at adaptation that weren’t really adaptations. This week, a look at the flip side of that, an non-adaptation that is an adaptation. With works that are trying not to look like an adaptation, the main reason for the changes boils down to one thing – lawyers.
Sometimes, a license just isn’t available for one reason or another, but a studio has an idea that comes from, in one way or another, the unavailable original. To get the work produced, the studio has to scrub the identifying elements out of the final product. Sometimes enough gets removed. Other times, lawyers get rich arguing over how much of the remains is too much. Let’s take a look at a series that had a dispute over how much got filed off, Mutant X.
Marvel Studios in the late Nineties wasn’t in the prime position it is in now. Marvel Comics had licensed out several of their top selling titles for movie rights, including X-Men and Spider-Man, leaving the company with very few A-listers. Previous attempts at using these A-listers had mixed results – The Incredible Hulk ran for several seasons, but the Captain America TV movies had problems. Meanwhile, the X-Men had a good run as an animated series, leading to improved sales of the X-titles. But Fox had the movie rights for the X-Men and related characters, with a movie due for 2000.
Thus, Mutant X, a non-X-Men series. While Fox had the rights to the X-Men name, Marvel’s mutant line included other titles, including Mutant X and The New Mutants. Characters did drift between the titles and guests from one title appeared in the others, mainly to establish that the new titles were in the same continuity. Fox got wind of the attempted end run around the licensing agreement and sued. The result – the logo for the Mutant X TV series had to be changed and the show could not mention the X-Men or related characters nor use costumes or code names. This, though, triggered a second lawsuit, this time between Marvel and Tribune Entertainment, the distributor, over the allegation that the comic company encouraged the distributor to treat Mutant X as an X-Men spin-off. Even Fireworks, the Canadian production company that worked with Marvel Studios to film Mutant X was sued. The real winners in all this were the lawyers.
The tumbleweed of lawsuits aside, the end result is that the /Mutant X/ TV series could not even have a hint of being an X-Men clone in it. The goal for Marvel Studios, Fireworks, and Tribune Entertainment was to not adapt the comic while still drawing in people who read the comic. The licensing agreement and the settlement meant that the name X-Men could not be used, nor could the characters or likenesses. That still gave Marvel wiggle room. The comic titles The New Mutants and Mutant X weren’t mentioned in the agreement or the settlement, and that is a large loophole to push a TV series through. Never mind that both were spin-offs from the X-Men comic; the names were available, and that was enough to try to lure in an audience familiar with the X-titles.
The core cast of the TV series featured five characters. Leading the Mutant X team and movement is Adam Kane, played by John Shea. Adam, who didn’t get a surname until season 2, was a genetic wunderkind, having graduated from university in his teens. He was hired on at Genomex right after graduation, where he worked on trying to correct problems in the DNA of patients. His research led to the creation of “new mutants” – people with superhuman powers and abilities. However, when Genomex became an arm of the GSA, he left, forming Mutant X. One of Adam’s first recruits is Shalimar Fox, played by Victoria Pratt. Shalimar’s genetic code has been spliced with that of a cat, giving her quick reflexes and enhanced senses. Along with Shalimar is Jesse Kilmartin (Forbes March) who can manipulate his body’s density. During the pilot episodes, Adam recruits the telempathic Emma deLauro (Laurent Lee Smith) and the lightning projector Brenna Mulwray (Victor Webster). Heading the opposition, Mason Eckhart (Tom McCamus) ran the secretive GSA, using Adam’s genetic research to both build his own private army of new mutants and to cure his own condition. Eckhart was briefly replaced as the major villain by Gabriel Ashlocke (Michael Easton), who was Adam’s first patient, the first and the most powerful of the new mutants.
With that cast, how does Mutant X differ from X-Men? Let’s start with Adam, who is in the Professor X role. However, Adam differs from Xavier in three critical ways: Adam is not a mutant himself, instead having high intelligence; he does not need a wheelchair; and he is not bald*. Adam does not run a school; he has Sanctuary, a high-tech hideout from where he organizes an underground railroad for new mutants to escape the clutches of the GSA. The powers of the new mutants express in four different general streams. Ferals, like Shalimar, have animal genetics spliced into their own DNA, giving them enhanced reflexes, strength, and senses. Elementals, like Brennan, are capable of producing and projecting various forms of energy, including lightning, fire, and light. Telempaths, including Emma, are psionic, capable of reading and manipulating minds; the name given to this type of new mutant is to avoid problems with telepaths like Jean Gray and Professor X. Moleculars, like Jesse, can change their body at the atomic level. Every new mutant, save one, falls into one of these categories. The exception, Ashlocke, Patient Zero, had all the abilities.
Thus Shalimar wasn’t Wolverine nor Wolvesbane. She healed faster, but no “healing factor” was ever mentioned. She didn’t grow claws nor change form. Shalimar was good at mixing it up hand-to-hand with her wire-fu. Likewise Brennan wasn’t Storm; he didn’t control the weather, just shot lightning. Jesse wasn’t Shadowcat; he could both phase through objects and become so dense bullets bounced off him. Emma, well, she wasn’t Jean Gray, despite the red hair and telempathic abilities; she didn’t have telekinesis, and her mental contact was more based on emotion than thought, at least in the first season. And the Double Helix, Mutant X’s plane, was definitely not the Blackbird.
So, if Mutant X is not X-Men, what is it? At its core, the show is a syndicated action series featuring superpowers and wire-fu fight scenes. As the seasons progressed, the show explored each character’s past and the nature of being a new mutant. Several episodes showed the Mutant X team working to protect new mutants from the GSA while others showed the team protecting the general populace from new mutants. There were even episodes where the main characters’ own powers threatened to hurt or even kill them. Sure. some of these themes appeared in X-Men, but themes are universal. X-Men used them but didn’t corner the market on them. It’s how Mutant X explored the themes that matters.
Mutant X did deliver on being an action series. Budget and effects limitations restricted how often powers could be used. Flashier powers, including Brennan’s lightning and Jesse’s body manipulation, required more work and money than the more physical wire work that Shalimar needed. Part of the problem is that Fireworks, the production company, is based in Toronto. As mentioned last week, Toronto is better known for being a double for American cities for police procedurals and mysteries, not for science fiction. Things had improved since Captain Power, though, in part because the city was in competition with Vancouver for film and television projects. Mutant X had the advantage of being set in the near future, so no major effects were needed.
Despite being a syndicated series filmed in Canada, the show did pick up a following. In Canada, Mutant X aired on Global, owned by CanWest, the same company that owned Fireworks’. In the US, the show was syndicated in an era predating the cable and Internet streaming onslaught. People tuned in, at first because of the potential of being related to the recently released X-Men movie, then because of the characters and situations of the show itself. The following may not have been able to sustain a traditional network show, but fans were shocked when the show did not continue after the third season. Fireworks and its library of TV series was sold to new owners who weren’t as interested as making shows as they were in getting the series already made. Marvel, though, hasn’t disowned the series; Mutant X is now an alternate universe from the main continuity.
Mutant X was not X-Men. Similar themes appeared, but shadowy government departments hunting underdog protagonists and protagonists rail against bigotry against minorities are universal. The shows writers worked to give Mutant X its own mythology, one that wasn’t based on anything seen in Marvel’s main continuity. The result is a TV series that can stand on its own and compete with other shows. Mutant X reached beyond its limitations, both budgetary and legal.
* For added fun here, John Shea played Lex Luthor on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, starting with a head of hair and becoming bald during the series run.
Marvel Comics had several big announcements since the last news round up. Let’s get to what’s being adapted and by whom.
Marvel and Sony come to a deal over Spider-Man.
Spider-Man is moving into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, joining the likes of the Avengers. Sony Pictures still has the rights to create movies with the character, but the deal should allow Marvel to use elements from the Spider-Man comics such as the Daily Bugle in its own releases. Marvel has shuffled its release schedule to bring the next Spider-Man movie out without competing with the Marvel Studios releases.
X-Men TV series in the works.
Fox has confirmed an X-Men TV series is in development, pending Marvel’s approval. Little of what the series would entail has been revealed.
Casting for AKA Jessica Jones announced.
David Tennant joins the cast as the villainous Zebediah Killgrave, also known as the Purple Man. Tennant joins Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones and Mike Colter as Luke Cage.
Who you gonna call?
Meet the new Ghostbusters for the gender-flipped remake. Melissa McCarthy has signed on while negotiations with Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, and Kate McKinnon are ongoing.
Fushigi Yuugi gets stage treatment.
The manga and anime, Fushigi Yuugi is making the transition over to the stage. Fushigi Yuugi, which translates as Mysterious Play, follows the adventures of Miaka as she falls into another world filled with magic and danger.
Indiana Jones reboot may be in works.
Disney bought the rights to the Indiana Jones franchise and are looking at Chris Pratt as the eponymous hero. Pratt is going to be busy…
Chris Pratt in talks for The Magnificent Seven remake.
The remake of The Seven Samurai is being remade. Denzel Washington has already signed on for the remake.
Harper Lee releasing a follow up to To Kill a Mockingbird.
The sequel, Go Set a Watchman, features Scout Finch as an adult. The novel had been written during the 1950s, but was set aside on the advise of Lee’s editor at the time. The new novel will hit bookstores mid-July.
LEGO announces next licensed set, featuring Doctor Who.
Everything is more awesome in LEGOland as the Doctor and his companions join the massive LEGO line up. The project just left the judging phase, so it may take some time before the LEGO TARDIS hits the shelves. Also announced, a LEGO Wall-E set, with the submission made by one of the movie’s crew members.
Stargate reboot movie signs writers.
Roland Emmerich’s reboot/remake of the original Stargate movie has signed Nicholas Wright and James A. Woods as screenwriters. Emmerich will direct and co-produce, along with original co-writer Dean Devlin.
The Man from UNCLE trailer now out.
The first look at Guy Ritchie’s take on the TV series, The Man from UNCLE, is now out. The movie stars Henry Cavill as Napoleon Solo, originally played by Robert Vaughn and should be out in August. Armie Hammer is on board as Illya Kuryakin, previously played by David McCallum.