Mount Olympus never had such a potent gang as Marvel Comics, whose vast pantheon ranges from Hollywood A-lister Spider-Man to the murky shape-shifting process server Ditto.
Now producing its own film adaptations for all but a few previously licensed superheroes, Marvel Studios unveils “The Incredible Hulk” on the heels of blockbuster “Iron Man,” whose 2010 sequel will be followed by an ambitious Marvel lineup.
Headlining their own upcoming movies are Norse thunder god Thor, super soldier Captain America and bug impersonator Ant-Man, those adventures culminating in 2011’s Marvel all-star tale “The Avengers.”
With an estimated 5,000 characters and a wealth of stories dating back nearly 70 years, Marvel could spin an endless web of big-screen yarns.
“It’s inexhaustible,” said Gale Anne Hurd, a producer on “The Incredible Hulk” and Ang Lee’s critically drubbed 2003 take on the character, “Hulk.” “What I love is, Marvel is now controlling Marvel’s destiny. They are the greatest caretakers of the characters and the stories.”
Until “Iron Man,” the company watched big movie studios count their millions on superpowered comic adaptations of Spidey, X-Men, Fantastic Four and other Marvel properties. Marvel made some cash by licensing the characters for films, but it was a pittance compared to what studios hauled in on such billion-dollar franchises.
Following George Lucas’ “Star Wars” formula, Marvel now finances movies itself and hires studios to release them for a fee, Paramount distributing “Iron Man,” Universal releasing “The Incredible Hulk.”
Marvel keeps all of the profits and retains lucrative rights for toys and other merchandise based on the films.
“The financial upside on a movie like ‘Iron Man’ or ‘Incredible Hulk’ is multiples of multiples of what we had in the old arrangement,” said David Maisel, chairman of Marvel Studios, a division of Marvel Entertainment Inc. “We have the power to greenlight our movies. We set our schedule. We’re not reliant on a third party.”
A few elite franchises — among them Sony’s “Spider-Man” and 20th Century Fox’s “Fantastic Four” and “X-Men” with its upcoming “Wolverine” spinoff — remain under those studios’ control.
That still leaves legions of superheroes for Marvel to put on screen.
Iron Man was a beloved character among fans but far from a household name to general audiences. The comic-book gods smiled on his movie adaptation, though, as all the ingredients came together to create an instant Hollywood franchise.
The manic charm of Robert Downey Jr. made billionaire weapons designer Tony Stark as interesting in a business suit as he was inside the metal contraption he builds to fight bad guys. Downey’s own stints in rehab added a nice nuance to the movie’s boozy Stark.
Director Jon Favreau struck an ideal balance between action and character development, resulting in one of the best-reviewed entries in the onslaught of comic adaptations.
After a nearly $100 million opening weekend in May, “Iron Man” is closing in on $300 million, a mark previously reached only by the “Spider-Man” flicks among comic-book movies.
Though the Hulk was more widely known than Iron Man from the comic books and the TV series starring Bill Bixby, no one in Hollywood expects his new movie to put up those kinds of numbers.
“Previews of this film have been mediocre. The buzz seems to be lacking,” said Mike Hickey, an analyst who follows Marvel for Janco Partners.
The Hulk has been a problem child on the big-screen. The 2003 version, which starred Eric Bana as scientist Bruce Banner and featured a cartoonish Hulk hopping around in the desert, opened with a whopping $62.1 million weekend, then a record for June debuts.
But word of mouth was bad, and the audience quickly dried up, leaving one of Marvel’s standard-bearers in Hollywood limbo.
“It was a noble experiment, I think, that first film, but I, like much of the audience, left wanting a lot more than what we got,” said Kevin Feige, Marvel Studios’ president of production.
The new movie is more action-oriented, clocking in at well under two hours, nearly 30 minutes shorter than Lee’s dark, ponderous version.
As with “Iron Man,” Marvel cast an acclaimed actor, Edward Norton, as Banner, the guy who turns into a not-so-jolly green giant when angry. The story emulates the TV show, with Banner a fugitive, and it gives him real villains to battle, including Tim Roth as Emil Blonsky, a soldier transformed into the Hulk’s huge nemesis, the Abomination.
Roth did not see Lee’s “Hulk” but said he expects the new movie will satisfy fans looking for spectacle.
“Our thing opens with a big action sequence. That’s probably going to set the tone with the audience,” Roth said.
While Norton took an active role in reshaping the story and rewriting the screenplay, the notoriously finicky actor almost became a liability after word leaked out that he, director Louis Leterrier and Marvel executives disagreed over the final cut of the movie.
Norton, who typically does little press, declined an interview for this story. The filmmakers downplayed any differences, saying the usual discussions that take place as movies near the finish line were blown out of proportion.
“It was just somebody, somewhere, somehow heard we were arguing, but we were not arguing,” Leterrier said. “We were having a meeting, and maybe somebody walked in and heard Edward saying, ‘I really want this scene back in.’ But there was no argument.”
There is no argument that Marvel’s move to finance its own movies has paid off, at least so far. A month after “Iron Man” opened, Marvel Entertainment’s stock was trading at an all-time high of about $36 a share.
Analysts take a wait-and-see attitude about whether the strategy will work over the long haul. While Marvel plans to make two movies a year, there is a two-year lag before its next releases, “Iron Man 2” and “Thor.”
“That’s a big hiccup, to have no movies next year,” analyst Hickey said. “They did a phenomenal job with ‘Iron Man.’ I think the jury’s still out, but the initial read is positive.”
The Marvel logo will be in front of audiences with next year’s “Wolverine” from Fox and this fall’s vigilante thriller “Punisher: War Zone” from Lionsgate, which retains the rights to that Marvel franchise.
A clear benefit Marvel has gained by making its own movies is creative control. Comic-book fans are perpetually wary that Hollywood will mess up their favorite characters. With Marvel calling the shots, fans can rest a little easier that the movies will remain true to their origins.