Ahhh, the Marvel Cinematic Universe…. You’ve changed something in your intros, haven’t you? But is the change a good or bad one?
My friends and I first noticed it while watching Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. We saw it again at the beginning of Spider-Man: Homecoming. Prior to this, the marvelous movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe had used actual comic book art during the “Marvel Studios” opening logo splash. To kick off these two new films though, we got slightly painted-over photograph stills of the various actors in-character in various action poses, probably nicked straight from the frames of the films themselves. Both styles performed the same visual job: a slew of comic book characters from the Marvel universe duking it out against villains, and the sound and “look” of pages being flipped through… all to indicate that we are about to enter into that larger-than-life realm.
“I’m just not sure I like that,” said a friend of mine as we left the theater from the screening of Guardians. “No, I’m sure I don’t like that as well as the actual comic book art,” said the same friend after Homecoming. I knew what he was getting at. He was lamenting the iconic imagery he had grown up with. To an extent, I agree with him. To a larger degree, however, I think I get Marvel’s point.
I grew up in an era when comic books were 75 cents, and could be purchased at any gas station, drug store, grocery store or corner convenience store. I’m sure comic book stores existed back then, perhaps in larger towns, but not in SmallTown U.S.A. My father scoffed at the 75 cent, 32-page format. He often recounted to me the comic books of his youth: a nickel for an issue as thick as a magazine and a dime for something along the lines of the thickness of a composition notebook. Despite the astronomical price of 75 cents, though, I remember stopping at a gas station during an 8-hour drive to a vacation destination, my parents realizing I was bored with the one or two toys I had kept loose for the drive, and loading me up with half a dozen comics for less than five bucks. The things were just everywhere. You couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a store that sold a revolving display rack’s worth of comic books.
Fast-forward 30 years, to present-day Earth. If you want a comic book today, you either have to sign up for a digital subscription, go into a Books-a-Million or Barnes & Nobles, or venture into a specialty “Comics” or “Comics & Cards” store. Not only that, but you had also better be prepared to spend $3.95 to $4.95 for a single, slim-as-they-ever-were issue, if not moreso for a special edition with an exclusive gatefold cover.
And every place I go which might feature a comics conversation, the conversations are always about the older stuff, from years ago, either on its own or as it relates to the modern movies and their storylines (or conflict with). Rarely, if ever (and now that I think of it, honestly possibly never) do I hear a conversation about the new issues or new storylines, whatever they may be… I’m not even able to tell ya what they are! For me, personally, the true notion of the comic book as well as the true notion of buying a current issue… that all ended in the 90s, well before RDJ donned the Iron Man armor or Chris Evans lit up as the Human Torch (checking for old-school MCU fans here). And from the aforementioned evidence stemming from conversations, I’m willing to bet that the same holds true for countless others around the world.
I think Marvel knows this, too. In fact, I think that’s what’s happening with the opening “Marvel Studios” splash at the beginning of the newer MCU movies. You see, to me, comic book superheroes (which are largely an American invention) represent a sort of American mythology, if there ever was such a thing. We needed these heroes back in the day, perhaps to help us mentally deal with the scares of WWII, perhaps to steer us more sanely through the Great Depression… and we need them more than ever now (I’m not about to throw up a list of political or world problems facing us today, that’s for a different type of blogger). But no one wants to go out and spend 5+ bucks on a single 32-or-less page issue. If we want the older stuff, we can still grab a graphic novel compilation for $10-20… it’s there if we need it. But if we want the newer stuff, WE GO TO THE MOVIES.
Seriously, that’s what we do now. Is that a bad thing? A ding for the industry? I say no. And then I say “which industry?” See, I think Marvel is doing just fine, and they’re doing this level of “fine” with their movies… the illustrious MCU. Maybe comic books are in trouble… maybe they’re not (I really can’t say, other than the aforementioned conversations), but the American mythological icon which is The Comic Book Character… well, that’s alive and kicking much ass on silver screens the world over! They’re in the toy aisles of every major department store. They turn up in Happy Meals and Halloween costume stores. They dominate notebook covers and computer wallpapers and sell out RedBox copies and cereal boxes everywhere. The modern day comic book superhero is doing just fine.
But that’s the thing. Putting everything together… the overwhelming slant of the conversations, the way books have shot sky-high in cost and aren’t on every corner store and may never be again, the dominant strength of the movie-machine juggernauts and the merchandising based largely on the movie images rather than a drawing…. do the math, because I assure you, Marvel has.
Here’s the gist of what I’m getting at: The cinematic universe IS the new face of the comic book… the books had their chance, and they had a damn good run for maaaany a decade, but the torch has been passed now. It simply has. Like it or not (and I personally do like it, and think it would take an overly-sentimental curmudgeon to not [for reasons as simple and un-weighty as “I just don’t like it and I’m gonna fold my arms and huff about it just because, so there”]). I think Marvel knows this… I think they are well aware of this passing of the torch, and I think they’re silently even acknowledging it… and I firmly believe this is why the new opening logo splash for the MCU depicts lightly painted-over live-action stills rather than comic-artist renditions. They’re not going to come right out and scream “We successfully killed the old-school comic book!!!”… first of all because someone would get all bent out of shape and “boo-hoo” about a statement like that, but secondly because it’s simply not true. The movies haven’t killed the comic book… greed and pricing within the industry took care of that all on its own. The movies simply gave the American Mythological Superhero his new home… “comic books” as a notion and ideology got with the times… and our once-beloved ink-and-print fantasy universe is alive and well on the big screen. The new opening splash says, very subtly, “this is what the stories are now… movies, not overpriced specialty books.”
I, for one, embrace it. To hell with paying five bucks for a jumped-up flyer with all the content of a grocery store ad.