Monday, January 2, 2017

More Mighty Marvel

It's no secret that a big part of profiting from comic book characters is licensing. To supplement sales of comics, profit for comic creators comes through licensing toys, art prints, reprint books and other merchandise. And what can help drive the sales of both comics and merchandise? If there's a big movie or television series going on. Marvel was definitely not saying no to licensing ever since they began, though only a small number of their big 60s characters came to television.

The 60s saw a number of cartoons featuring the Marvel characters: The Marvel Superheroes (featuring Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor and Namor), Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four. The late 70s finally saw some of these characters come to live action with CBS' The Amazing Spider-Man TV series in 1977 and The Incredible Hulk in 1978. The Amazing Spider-Man didn't last long, while Captain America and Dr. Strange TV movie pilots were not followed by a series. (The Fantastic Four's Human Torch had been optioned for a TV movie, but it never happened, which famously resulted in the character being replaced by H.E.R.B.I.E. the Robot in the second Fantastic Four cartoon series.) But The Incredible Hulk lasted for five seasons and a total of 82 episodes, with three reunion movies.

I managed to watch the first season and the first few episodes of the second on Netflix before it got removed.

The CBS Marvel stuff never sticks to the comics origin. In the original Incredible Hulk comics, Bruce Banner was working on a gamma bomb and was caught in its blast when he rescued a young man named Rick Jones from the testing field. He turned into the Hulk at night, and over time, it was changed to him turning into the Hulk when he got very upset. The TV show has widower David Banner looking into why people can suddenly have bursts of strength. He attempts an ill-advised experiment with gamma radiation on himself, which turns him into the Hulk when he gets very worked up.

Setting up the series is an investigative reporter Jack McGee, who's interested in finding out the story of the strange green creature seen around. He causes a spill in David's lab, which starts a fire which proves fatal to David's assistant who the Hulk attempts to rescue. As the Hulk is seen by McGee leaving the lab with the dying assistant and David Banner is nowhere to be seen, it's assumed the Hulk killed them both, and David decides it's better to anonymously be on the run until he can find a way to control or be rid of his alter-ego.

So, the series as I've seen it so far follows a general regular concept: David runs into a situation where he winds up helping people, and sometimes the Hulk helps out with his strength besides being a creature of rage. In one episode, David is taking a plane that is carrying valuable museum pieces that a stewardess and some passengers are conspiring to smuggle out, and the pilots are drugged. The Hulk and David's intellect manage to work together to stop the smugglers and safely land the plane. That particular episode is likely one of my favorites as it has high stakes. The others of the first season usually have David (and the Hulk) assist an innocent person being persecuted by other people who intend them harm.

Note that this was in the late 70s, and on television, so this wasn't flashy visuals or over the top action. The change between David Banner (Bill Bixby) and the Hulk (bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno) was done by having David wear special contact lenses that made his eyes turn pale, then shots of clothing bursting to suggest David growing bigger. Reversals would be depicted with fade effects, wigs and makeup. The Hulk appeared to sometimes have footage featuring only him to be slightly slowed down to make him appear heavier.

While such a show could hardly work today, I suppose it was like a superhero comfort food show when it originally aired. You ultimately knew how each episode would end, but the point of watching was to see what would happen. I'm not sure how I'd recommend the show. Fans with no idea what they're in for might be confused or bored. Those with a little more patience, love for classic TV, or even nostalgia may actually enjoy it.

In the other corner, we have Marvel's first box office hit. Marvel hadn't done well inspiring movies based on their comics. Howard the Duck was a flop, movies based on The Punisher and Captain America weren't even released to theaters in the US. The Fantastic Four was actually pulled from release. Then 1998 came around with New Line Cinema adapting Marvel's own vampire-hunter Blade to the big screen, and coming after 1997's disappointing Batman and Robin, the movie showed that maybe comic book movies weren't doomed.

Blade follows Eric "Blade" Brooks (Wesley Snipes), a human/vampire hybrid who hunts down vampires in his corrupt city. His big threat is a vampire leader who wants to become a vampire god and wipe out humanity. Blade has to get to his lowest and most daring to defeat the vampires' evil scheme.

The success of Blade is cited as inspiring other Marvel properties that had been licensed to to film companies to finally be brought to film: 2000's X-Men, 2002's Spider-Man, 2003's Hulk and Daredevil, 2004's The Punisher and so on.

Blade would get its own sequels: 2002's Blade II saw Blade and his buddies team up with some rogue vampires to combat the creation of a super vampire virus. This one features more action, more plot twists, and is considered the best of the series.

Blade: Trinity (2004) as a comic book film is enjoyable, with some of the action going into high gear and a little campy, and Ryan Reynolds as Hannibal King offering humor (the role would get people talking about him as a possible Deadpool) but has a fairly cut and dry story with vampires reviving Dracula as Blade's new allies develop a virus that once mixed with the blood of Dracula, will wipe out vampires everywhere.

These are definitely worth watching for vampire fans and Marvel fans, but are also not for young viewers.

The strangest thing about the Blade series is that at the time, New Line Cinema was owned by Time Warner, who also own DC Comics. Now, New Line has been merged into Warner Brothers, so the studio who releases movies based on their own line of famous heroes (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, etc.) also owns a small number of movies based on their rival company's comics.

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