About those billion-dollar movies

Poster for Skyfall, the first $1 billion Bond

Over the past decade, claiming the title of being a “billion-dollar” movie has become a thing.

The Box Office Mojo website, currently lists 48 movies with a global box office of $1 billion or more. The list isn’t adjusted for inflation. But the $1 billion mark has become a sign of box office success.

The list includes 2012’s Skyfall at No. 28 ($1.11 billion), the first billion-dollar Bond film. Regardless what was once rare (The Dark Knight in 2008, Avatar in 2009) has become almost common place.

Until COVID-19, that is. But more on that in a moment.

The New Standard

The thing about achieving billion dollar status is that suddenly becomes the floor. If you fail to match it, that almost becomes failure.

Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) got a lot of attention. It scored an opening weekend in the U.S. of more than $200 million and $1.5 billion globally. Marvel films, after four years of build up, had arrived.

Yet, when 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron came out with a $1.4 billion box office, it was almost seen as a disappointment. Marvel followed up with a two-part Avengers adventure (Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame) which generated more than $2 billion for each installment.

Keeping this to the cinema world of James Bond, 2015’s SPECTRE generated $880.6 million. By any reasonable standard, that would be seen as popular. But it’s not a billion dollars!

At the same time, this isn’t just hype. So-called “tentpole” movies are getting so expensive a billion-dollar box office is almost a necessity. No Time to Die, the 25th Bond film, had generated production costs of almost $290 million as of mid-2020, according to a U.K. regulatory filing. Making a “tentpole” movie is not cheap.

Life Changes

All of that was before COVID-19 hit in the first months of 2020.

With the pandemic, movie theater attendance plunged. Theaters were closed or had severe limitation on attendance. Some movies got released on streaming.

The industry is changing. Theaters had enjoyed a 90-day window to show films before home video kicked in. After COVID, that window is tightening even when films come out “exclusively in theaters” (now an advertising tagline)

Industrywide, the financials are shifting. There’s a legitimate question whether an expensive No Time to Time can even make a profit on its theatrical release.

This post isn’t a matter of being doom and gloom. It’s more a description of an industry in change.

Want to hear doom and gloom? Veteran entertainment executive Barry Diller told The Hollywood Reporter this month that he expects only 10 percent of movie theaters to survive.

Again, keeping this to Bond, No Time to Die was made while one world existed. It will debut after a new world has taken hold.

Bond, Steranko bits show up in Black Widow

Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine’s debut in Strange Tales 159 in 1967

Spoilers, although so much is available on social media, the horse is out of the barn.

Marvel Studios has resumed movie releases with Black Widow that was released last weekend. A lot of James Bond fans were pleased with 007 references. Also, a character created by writer-artist Jim Steranko’s run on Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD made an encore appearance in the MCU.

By this time, it’s pretty common knowledge that Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) is seen watching Moonraker, a scene that includes a clip from the 1979 Bond film. Also, John Barry gets a credit in the end titles crawl for a composition titled Bond Fights Snake. Those who’ve seen Moonraker will instantly remember the composition involved.

Beyond that, there has been a lot of Bond fan discussion via social media about other Black Widow sequences that borrow from Bond.

Meanwhile, in a scene during the end titles, a character created by Jim Steranko during his 1960s run on Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD, made her second MCU appearance.

Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine, aka Val, first appeared in 1967. Originally, Black Widow was intended to be Val’s MCU debut. However, the movie was delayed from its original May 2020 release date because of COVID-19.

As a result, Val (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) first showed up in the Marvel streaming series The Falcon and The Winter Soldier in April. Originally, Val was a SHIELD recruit. She’s now a villainous character.

UPDATE: Fellow Bond fan Jeffrey Westhoff and I exchanged messages on Facebook. He makes the case (and I agree) there’s a Black Widow sequence inspired by On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. You’ll have to see it for yourself.

Happy Independence Day 2021

Our annual post.

Jim Steranko’s cover to Strange Tales 167

Today, July 4, is Independence Day in the United States.

For this blog, there’s no better image to celebrate the holiday than this Jim Steranko cover from Strange Tales No. 167, published in January 1968. The issue was the climax to a months-long saga that Steranko wrote and drew featuring the intrepid Nick Fury and the forces of SHIELD.

For more background, CLICK HERE for a 2000 article that originally appeared on the Her Majesty’s Secret Servant website. Happy July Fourth to everyone.

Marvel pitches support of movie theater experience

Marvel Studios, the Walt Disney Co. unit, put out a video today in support of the movie theater experience.

Marvel did so while promoting its upcoming releases, some of which have been pushed back because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s the video Marvel put out:

Marvel has its own issues. Black Widow was pushed back from May to July. The movie will be available on both the Disney + streaming service as well as theaters.

Marvel also has movies based on characters that aren’t that well-known to the general public. One example is The Eternals, a Jack Kirby title originally published in the 1970s after Kirby returned to Marvel Comics. Overall, Kirby’s Marve return wasn’t a happy one for the artist-writer.

On the other hand, Eternals is directed by Chloe Zhao, who won two Oscars last month, including one as best director. The general public may soon learn a lot about The Eternals.

In any case, the Marvel video does seek to rally support of seeing films in theaters. Over the past year, there has been a repeated trope that No Time to Die will be important to “saving cinema.” After repeated delays, No Time to Die is scheduled for release in Sept. 30 in the U.K. and Oct. 8 in the U.S.

We’ll see. Studios still need traditional theater releases to generate enough revenue to make super-expensive “tentpole” movies worth it.

Broccoli decries superhero films while using their tropes

Barbara Broccoli, boss of Eon Productions

Barbara Broccoli, the boss of Eon Productions, which makes James Bond movies, says the 007 film series is better than superhero films despite using some of the same tropes.

An April 26 story by The Express had this passage:

Ms Broccoli believed moviegoers connected with Bond because he remains an “ordinary” and “regular person” unlike “superheroes”.

She claimed this was reemphasised in (Daniel) Craig’s portrayal where “he bleeds” and “he cries” like any other person. 

Almost a decade ago, Sam Mendes, the director of Skyfall, acknowledged how he adapted ideas from Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies that ran from 2005 to 2012.

With SPECTRE (2015), Eon adopted the notion of multi-film continuity made popular by Walt Disney Co.’s Marvel Studios unit.

With No Time to Die, director Cary Fukunaga in 2019 talked up “the joy of continuity.” He commented about how No Time to Die embraced the continuity of Daniel Craig’s first four James Bond films.

So it goes.

Jim Steranko still having an impact on spy-fi

Jim Steranko’s 1968 cover to Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD No. 4, which influenced the cover of a James Bond comic book from Dynamite Comics.

Decades after Jim Steranko made his spy-fi flash with Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD, the writer-artist still is having an impact on spy entertainment.

Dynamite Comics, as part of its continuing series of James Bond stories, opted to have one cover modeled after a Steranko Nick Fury cover from 1968 (see above; the same cover was also used on a 2000 trade paperback book collecting many of Steranko’s SHIELD stories).

However, there has been a bit of a fuss. Artist Aaron Lopresti disclosed he had been told to alter the image of a woman in underwear holding a gun but then was instructed to put more clothes on her. Nevertheless, the Amazon.com entry for the issue includes Lopresti’s original image.

The artist complained about having to make the change. See a March 31 story at the Bounding Into Comics site and an April 15 story at the MI6 James Bond site for more details.

A short while later, another Steranko SHIELD creation, Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine, showed up in the Falcon and the Winter Soldier MCU series on Disney +. As created by Steranko, she was a SHIELD recruit. Over the years, Marvel Comics turned her into a villain and that’s what showed up on the streaming series.

The contessa, more informally known as Val, was played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and is expected to show up more in Marvel movies. Louis-Dreyfus took to Twitter on April 19 to make note of her new role.

Nostalgia can be powerful. Where Jim Steranko is concerned, nostalgia can be like a boomerang, coming back at you.

Countessa Val causes an MCU fan reaction

Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine at left in this cover for Strange Tales 167 (published January 1968)

Yes, there be spoilers for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

A character originally created by writer-artist Jim Steranko for Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. this week appeared in the Marvel Cinematic Universe via the streaming series The Falcon and The Winder Soldier.

Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine, depicted as a S.H.I.E.L.D. recruit in Strange Tales No. 159 in 1967, appeared in the latest episode of the show. Except she’s now Madame Hydra, leader of the villainous organization that’s caused trouble throughout the films produced by Marvel Studios.

On the streaming series, Val (as she was often called in the comic books) is played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. For a time on Friday morning, “Madame Hydra” and “Julia Louis-Dreyfus” topics on Twitter.

The development spurred various outlets to do stories, including VANITY FAIR (“Marvel, reportedly, has even bigger ambitions for Louis-Dreyfus’s villainous figure”), NEWSWEEK, (“…fans are treated to a cameo that no one saw coming), and CBR.COM all did stories about it.

UPDATE (April 18): I asked Jim Steranko about this on Twitter. He hasn’t seen Louis-Dreyfus’s performance yet. Here’s his response.

Brosnan joins DC film universe as Dr. Fate

The Justice Society of America, including Dr. Fate (gold helmet and blue costume) in 1940

One-time film James Bond Pierce Brosnan is joining Warner Bros.’s DC film universe as Dr. Fate, The Hollywood Reporter said.

Brosnan is joining the cast of Black Adam, a Warners/DC film starring Dwayne Johnson. Chances are a lot of the general public or Bond fans) may not be familiar with Dr. Fate.

The good doctor made his debut in 1940 in More Fun Comics No. 55. The sorcerer would soon be part of the new Justice Society of America.

The character was co-created by DC writer Gardner F. Fox, who would also write racy spy novels under a pen name. Besides Dr. Fate, Fox also had a had in creating the Justice Society (and the later Justice League), the original Flash and the original Hawkman.

It makes sense that Warner Bros. is bringing Dr. Fate into the movies. Marvel Studios has featured Dr. Strange, a sorcerer character created by Steve Ditko, into its movies.

UPDATE: Dwayne Johnson confirmed the Brosnan casting in a tweet:

Black Widow to debut on streaming and in theaters

Poster for Black Widow

Oh me, oh my. Black Widow, the Marvel Studios film that was delayed by a year by the COVID-19 pandemic, will debut on Disney Plus as well as in theaters in July, according to the Deadline entertainment news website.

Here’s an excerpt:

Just when it looked like studios were going back to a theatrical window release pattern with today’s news of Regal and Warner Bros’ deal, Disney has smashes that to bits.

Disney said Tuesday that it is opening both of its key summer events pics Cruella and Marvel’s Black Widow simultaneously in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access (which is usually $30 a purchase extra for subscribers) in most Disney+ markets on Friday, May 28 and Friday, July 9, respectively.

To recap: 2020 was the first year since 2009 without a Marvel Studios film. That was because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The latest news indicates that COVID still is having an impact on movie releases. In recent weeks, here in the U.S., there had been optimism that vaccinations are putting a serious dent into COVID. This latest news is a sign things aren’t back to normal yet.

To be sure, No Time to Die currently isn’t due out until late September in many countries (including the U.K. and Brazil) with other countries (such as the U.S.) until a week later.

There’s no reason for James Bond film fans to get upset yet. But No Time to Die making it’s current release date isn’t necessarily a sure thing.

Stay tuned.

UPDATE: It turns out The King’s Man, prequel to Matthew Vaughn’s two Kingsman films, has been delayed yet again to December from August. OK. It has been delayed quite a bit already already, so what’s a few more months?

S.H.I.E.L.D. writer-artist compliments Craig 007 films

Jim Steranko caused a sensation in the comic book world in the 1960s as the writer and artist of Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. It was Marvel’s entry in spy craze and Steranko came up with story telling techniques that seemed experimental at the time.

Nick Fury originally was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. But Steranko came in later and made the strip his own.

Steranko also was a James Bond fan. And it would seem, he still is.

In one 1960s issue (which Steranko drew but only plotted), there’s a supplier of gadgets named Boothroyd. Later, in a 1967 story (by which time he did the full scripting as well as drawing), Steranko provided the Sean Connery version of Bond a cameo. See below.

Anyway, Steranko, now 82, likes to hang out on Twitter. This Sunday night, he indicated he still likes Bond films, specifically the Daniel Craig movies. Take a look for yourself.