"Iron Man," this year's spectacular summer opener, was the first film that Marvel Studios, the film branch of Marvel comics, produced independent of a larger studio. In the past Marvel has co-produced films based off of its characters. The "Blade" films were with New Line. The "Spider-Man" series was Columbia. "X-Men" was 20th Century Fox. "Hulk" was Universal and "Punisher" was Lions Gate.
This has generally yielded a pretty wide range in quality from film to film. Personally I've found that the second in many of the trilogies has often been the most satisfying with "Spider-Man 2," "Blade 2," and "X2" generally being the standouts. Then there have been serious misfires like "Elektra," the "Fantastic Four" films, "The Hulk," "Ghost Rider," and "Daredevil."
With having the films spread out across so many studios it also makes one of the most cherished elements of Marvel storytelling - a single universe with crossovers of characters and events - not necessarily impossible but certainly much more difficult. Spider-Man can't just drop into an X-Men picture as he's able to do in the comics.
That's all changed. Now Marvel is making the films themselves with Paramount acting as distributor. This is a good thing for two primary reasons. The first, and less important one, is that it means that characters from different movies can interact and more of the Marvel Universe as a whole is available.
The second reason is the one that really matters: the films will be better. How do we know that? Exhibit A was "Iron Man," Jon Favreau's adaptation starring Robert Downey Jr. as billionaire weapons manufacturer Tony Stark. It was almost a perfect superhero film, joining "Spider-Man 2" and "Batman Begins" as an example of the genre at its best. Now we have Exhibit B, "The Incredible Hulk," a picture every bit as entertaining and successful.
"The Incredible Hulk" sidesteps the tedious necessity of the origin story by covering our hero's creation in the opening credits. A science experiment gone mad transforms brilliant scientist Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) into a giant creature of limitless strength and rage. When he's emotionally set off the gentle Banner turns into a green giant capable of enduring bullets as though they were raindrops.
The potential for this newfound power as a weapon is what draws General Ross (William Hurt) to pursue Banner across continents. Hiding in South America at the beginning of the film, Banner now uses his intelligence to seek a cure for his affliction and to hide from the military.
A seemingly innocent accident at the Brazilian soda pop factory in which Banner works gives Ross the tip for locating the runaway scientist. For the mission to capture Banner, Ross taps Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth,) a career soldier who becomes fascinated by the Hulk. Banner soon realizes that he can only run so long and he must return home and seek the assistance of colleague Betty Ross (Liv Tyler.)
While certainly being a very different kind of superhero film than "Iron Man," this one certainly shares many of its strengths. Each film has an A-list, Oscar-nominated actor as the hero. The villains and love interests are played by equally capable supporting actors. The special effects and action sequences are thrilling, escapist treats. And the stories even manage to weave in some engaging themes without being too heavy handed, simplistic, or moralizing. The film is a great return for Norton, who delivers some of his best work since "Fight Club."
This situation with "Iron Man," "The Incredible Hulk," and Marvel Studios puts the film critic in an odd position. One of the dominant perspectives that most critics and film buffs share is a fondness for the auteur theory - the general perspective, bias one could say, toward celebrating the director as the principle author of a film. Generally critics trumpet the director and tend to ignore the role of the studio or even demonize it as a force that hinders the creative process in favor of creating a commercial product.
In this case the studio is the good guy and the arguable crucial factor in the crafting of a series of films. It may be a counterintuitive way to think about how to make great movies but if it works then who are we to complain? I say bring on "Captain America," "Thor," "Iron Man 2," and finally "The Avengers" because Marvel really seems to know what it's doing.