Marveling at Marvel Mania

Ever since the first major Marvel studios picture “Iron Man,” hit theaters in 2008, Marvel has dominated both the national and international box offices. Currently, we are in Phase 2 of their “Avengers” saga, with each phase containing four or five films apiece. If that is not enough to keep one occupied until said saga wraps up in 2017-18, there is also a spin-off television show, “Agents of SHIELD.” And, for those who still lie awake each night aching for more Marvel, there will soon be a brand new, tied-in mini-franchise of TV series set in the same universe, co-produced by the folks at Netflix.

There is an obvious and important question here: “When will it end?”

Truthfully, I have no idea. None of us mere mortals do. Probably in the very distant future, after the tepid response to the 50th “Spider-Man” reboot.

That said, as Marvel’s unimpeachable rule turns five, there is another question worth asking: “How is this project going?”

My answer? Impressively well, but with some pretty major flaws.

On the “impressive” side of the equation, we have the deep bench of dazzlingly talented cast and crew members. Time and again, the company has exhibited just the right blend of the experimental and the expected, and that combo has paid dividends. A 45-year-year old former “Ally McBeal” star as Tony Stark? It sounded crazy, but Robert Downey, Jr.’s screwy charisma was (and is) perfect for the part. As box office receipts and critical reception proved, that was a risky decision worth making.

That said, the folks at Marvel are also good enough businesspeople to spot an obvious, lucrative opportunity when they see one. They knew that “The Avengers” would be the nerdiest  film of all time, and correctly intuited that they could only win over the nerds by recruiting the greatest nerd of all time, Joss Whedon, to direct it. This was not a time to get creative”” was a moment to go for the “duh!” choice. Like many decisions Marvel has made, this was a smart one. This cinematic universe has successfully met some very high expectations.

And yet, I must confess: I do not feel that I can completely trust it. For all their creative ingenuity, Marvel is constantly reminding us that it is all about the money. There is no death they will not reverse to bring back a popular character (see: Colson, Phil), no plot point they will not toss in to set up an inevitable sequel. How am I supposed to feel for a loss that I do not know is a loss, or gasp at a twist that may be untwisted later on? It is hard to get emotionally involved in a narrative that is constantly correcting itself.

All in all, Marvel has given us a real gift”” a series of motion pictures with humor, heart and the courage to take superhero mythology seriously. But even as I am immersed in the billion-dollar beauty and awe of the Marvel-verse, I cannot help but feel the ever-present burden of the bottom line.