Happy birthday to one of Marvel’s unsung heroes

A Jack Kirby cover featuring Ant Man, one of the characters scripted by Larry Lieber

A Jack Kirby cover featuring Ant Man, one of the characters scripted by Larry Lieber

Oct. 26 is the 85th birthday of Larry Lieber, one of the unsung heroes of the Marvel Comics universe.

Lieber scripted the earliest Marvel stories involving Ant Man (the Henry Pym version), Thor and Iron Man.

Those characters (especially Iron Man) helped build up the Marvel Studios juggernaut. Yet, Lieber’s name doesn’t resonate with the general public.

That’s ironic because Lieber is the younger brother of Stan Lee, 93, the one person from the old days at Marvel that practically everybody knows. (If case you haven’t guessed, Lieber is the surname the two men shared.)

Stan did the plotting for those early adventures. But it’s generally conceded that Stan’s plots weren’t very detailed and the artists (especially Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko)  did a lot of the heavy lifting in devising the stories.

Still, that left Lieber, actually scripting the stories plenty of leeway. The Bleeding Cool website, in a 2011 post, quoted from a Lieber deposition in a since-settled lawsuit by the Kirby family against Marvel. In the deposition, Lieber says he came up with the name “Uru” for the magical material Thor’s hammer was made of.

Despite all that, Lieber’s name receded. In Thor 158, the bulk of the story is a reprint from the character’s first story. Yet, it was presented as being “Pandemoniously Produced by Stan (The Man) Lee and Jack (King) Kirby,” with no mention of Lieber.

Lieber departed Marvel in the 1970s to edit a short-lived line of new comics. He would later rejoin Marvel and drew the Spider-Man comic strip.

In the 21st century, Marvel is big business (mostly a movie operation that still publishes comic books). A lot of the Marvel stalwarts — Jack Kirby, John Buscema and Gene Colan among them — aren’t with us anymore.

Larry Lieber is, and he is one of those who helped make Marvel big business.

Dr. Strange a test whether Marvel’s juggernaut continues

Cover to Strange Tales No. 146, featuring Steve Ditko's final Dr. Strange story.

Cover to Strange Tales No. 146, featuring Steve Ditko’s final Dr. Strange story.

For the past eight years, Marvel Studios has been a juggernaut. The natural question is how long can this last? Next month may provide an answer.

The Walt Disney Co.-owned brand’s next movie up is Dr. Strange, Marvel’s master of the mystic arts.

The good doctor has been more of a cult hit than a mass-market one. He began as a backup feature in Strange Tales, the creation of artist Steve Ditko, who turns 89 on Nov. 2, two days before the movie’s U.S. release date.

Dr. Strange operated in alternate dimensions. As portrayed by Ditko, they were visual striking but looked nothing like our own. Strange had once been a talented, but arrogant, surgeon. He could no longer be a surgeon following an accident, but those events would lead him to his true vocation.

Some college age fans in the 1960s were convinced Ditko was on drugs. He wasn’t. His politics were considerably different than the ardent followers of Dr. Strange.

Dr. Strange wasn’t the commercial success of other Marvel characters. Ditko departed Marvel in 1966, with his final Dr. Strange story appearing in Strange Tales No. 146. While Ditko would later return, he refused to illustrate stories featuring Spider-Man or Dr. Strange, where he made his mark.

Various talented artists and writers took up the Dr. Strange mantle over the decades, including Gene Colan, Frank Brunner, Roy Thomas and Steve Englehart among others. For some, though, it would never be the same without Ditko.

The character was the subject of a 1978 TV movie, but not much came of it.

Now, 53 years after his debut, Dr. Strange hits the big screen in the person of actor Benedict Cumberbatch.

Marvel has had some unlikely hits, including 2015’s Ant-Man, based on one of its lesser known characters. But Ant-Man was still a super hero, Marvel’s bread and butter. Dr. Strange….well, he’s something different.

At this point, it’d be foolish to bet against Marvel. Still, it’s going to be interesting to see how one of the company’s quirkiest characters, devised by one of its quirkiest creators in Steve Ditko, translates to the screen.

Comparing U.S. reaction to Skyfall, SPECTRE

SPECTRE promotional art

SPECTRE promotional art

Taking a deeper dive into box office statistics reveals more details about how the United States isn’t embracing SPECTRE as much as it did Skyfall.

The Box Office Mojo site provides yearly statistics both by U.S.-Canada and by worldwide. Obviously, SPECTRE still is in theaters so it’ll be a while before there are final figures. But you can see the basic trends.

In 2012, Skyfall was the No. 2 movie worldwide at $1.11 billion, behind only Marvel’s The Avengers at $1.5 billion. In the U.S. and Canada, Skyfall was No. 4 at $304.4 million behind The Avengers ($623.4 million), The Dark Knight Rises ($448.1 million) and The Hunger Games ($408 million).

Put another way, the U.S., in terms of 007 box office support, on a relative basis, was tracking pretty closely to the global figure. The U.S. and Canada provided 27.5 percent of the global box office.

Global box office figures can lag on Box Office Mojo. But looking up the 2015 global figures on the morning of Dec. 5, SPECTRE is No. 6 worldwide at $752.6 million. It’s also the top spy movie globally, ahead of Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation’s $682.3 million, which is No. 7 globally.

On the U.S.-Canada chart, SPECTRE was No. 12 through Dec. 3 at $179.1 million. It was about to pass No. 11 Ant-Man at $180.1 million. Meanwhile, Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation is the top spy movie in the region at $195 million, ranked No. 9 overall. Also, the U.S. and Canada is providing 23.8 percent of SPECTRE’s global box office.

Put another way, SPECTRE is noticeably more popular globally on a relatively basis than it is in the U.S. and Canada.

The 2015 rankings, of course, are about to get shuffled again with this month’s release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

None of this means SPECTRE isn’t popular. Studios would love to have the problem of a movie “only” having $750 million-plus in global box office or $175 million-plus in the U.S. and Canada. Just ask the executives at Warner Bros., who’ve had a series of movies (including The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) with a fraction of that box office.

UPDATE: It looks like SPECTRE passed Ant-Man on Friday for No. 11.

SPECTRE: the glass half-full, half-empty edition

SPECTRE teaser image

SPECTRE teaser image

SPECTRE has been in U.S. theaters for a week and other markets before that. On social media, there are diverging views among fans, with some taking a glass half-full approach while others see a glass half empty.

What follows summarizes both views concerning SPECTRE-related topics.

SPECTRE’s U.S.-Canada box office opening weekend: The 24th James Bond generated U.S.-Canada box office of $70.4 million.

Glass half-full: It’s one of the biggest openings in the region in 2015, ahead of such popular films as Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation ($55.5 million) and Marvel’s Ant-Man ($57.2 million). Warner Bros., whose movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had a total U.S.-Canada box office of $45.4 million, would have killed for half of SPECTRE’s opening.

Glass half-empty: SPECTRE’s U.S.-Canada opening was 20 percent lower than Skyfall’s $88.4 million despite higher ticket prices over the past three years. On Internet message boards and other outlets, some Bond fans were looking for $90 million or $100 million.

SPECTRE’s opening trailed Fifty Shades of Grey ($85.2 million) and wasn’t even close to the likes of Jurassic World ($208.8 million) and Avengers: Age of Ultron ($191.3 million).

SPECTRE reviews: After many positive reviews in the United Kingdom, U.S. reviews were more mixed, bringing SPECTRE’s “fresh” rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website to 64 percent as of Nov. 12.

Glass half-full: A majority of the reviews are still positive, including reviews from the likes of The Atlantic, The Detroit News, Leonard Maltin, NPR (one of two reviews), Time magazine, USA Today and Rolling Stone.

Glass half-empty: Skyfall’s “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes was 93 percent. That’s a long way down. Some fans on social media say the negative SPECTRE reviews may have hurt the movie’s box office.

On the latter point, early James Bond movies — now considered classic — didn’t always get positive reviews either. Time magazine, in reviewing Dr. No., referred to Bond as a “Hairy Marshmallow.”

The New York Times IN ITS REVIEW of Dr. No, liked 007’s screen debut while looking down upon it at the same time.

 This lively, amusing picture…is not to be taken seriously as realistic fiction or even art, any more than the works of Mr. (Ian) Fleming are to be taken as long-hair literature. It is strictly a tinseled action-thriller, spiked with a mystery of a sort. And, if you are clever, you will see it as a spoof of science-fiction and sex. (emphasis added)

(snip)

For the crime-detecting adventure that Mr. Bond is engaged in here is so wildly exaggerated, so patently contrived, that it is obviously silly and not to be believed.

Ant-Man’s move away from 007 pays off

A Jack Kirby cover featuring Ant Man

A Jack Kirby cover featuring Ant Man

Ant-Man, the newest Marvel movie, came in at No. 1 in the U.S. movie box office this weekend, according to BOX OFFICE MOJO.

The film had estimated ticket sales of $58 million. (UPDATE, July 20: final, actual figure was $57.2 million.) Ant-Man was originally scheduled for Nov. 6, but was moved up to July when SPECTRE (then just titled Bond 24), also got scheduled for Nov. 6 in the United States.

Ant-Man features one of Marvel’s oldest — but most obscure to the general public — characters.

The lead character, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), was actually the second version of Ant-Man, introduced in comic books in the late 1970s. Michael Douglas plays Hank Pym, the original version, who made his debut in 1962.

The new movie has been in development since 2006, before Marvel began making its own films with 2008’s Iron Man. The project’s original director-writer, Edgar Wright, departed the project. The new movie establishes connections with previous Marvel films.

In any case, Ant-Man had been seen as a relatively risky project for Marvel. It’s not a blockbuster on the scale of other Marvel films, but it has gotten off to a good start at the box office. Avoiding 007 as competition appears to be a wise move.

The comic book movie ‘glut’ of 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron poster

Avengers: Age of Ultron poster

Over the past few months, we’ve been reading various comments on social media such as, “I’m tired of all of the comic book movies!” Or “Comic book movies are ruining the cinema.”

We’re not quite five-and-a-half months into the year. How many have there actually been?

Well, most prominently, there’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, the sequel to 2012’s Marvel’s The Avengers. As of June 8, it had worldwide box office of $1.35 billion, ACCORDING TO BOX OFFICE MOJO.

That’s less than the $1.5 billion for the 2012 original and the $1.51 billion for this year’s Furious 7. Still, most studio executives would kill for box office exceeding $1 billion. Also, Avengers: Age of Ultron’s budget still came in $50 million cheaper (with location shooting in South Africa, South Korea and Italy) than SPECTRE and its $300 million (or more) budget.

Other comic book-based films released so far? Well, there’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, which based on a limited series of comics and revamped significantly from the original. After that, not so many.

What’s coming in the second half of 2015? There’s Marvel’s Ant-Man in July and Fox’s new attempt at a Fantastic Four movie in early August. After that….not so many.

Granted, movie goers have been seeing a teaser trailer for Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice. But that won’t be out until March 2016. Granted, Marvel/Disney and Warner Bros./DC have announced slates of comic book-based films going out to 2020. But they’re not out this year.

A half-century ago, James Bond films were dismissed by some critics as little more than comic books. Older Bond fans seethe at the memory. At the same time, some of those same fans look at comic book-based films the same way those 1960s critics looked at Bond. The more things change, they more they stay the same.

Ant Man changes release date to avoid Bond 24

A Jack Kirby cover featuring Ant Man

A Jack Kirby cover featuring Ant Man

Marvel/Disney blinked.

Ant Man, one of Marvel’s oldest characters (but most obscure to the general public) will now make his movie debut on July 31, 2015, instead of Nov. 6 of that year, the same date Bond 24 is to be released in the U.S., according to a STORY in the Hollywood Reporter.

An excerpt:

With the November release date, the superhero pic would have gone up against the next Bond film, which will see the return of director Sam Mendes and star Daniel Craig. Mendes’ previous Bond film, Skyfall, was a box office behemoth, bringing in more than $1 billion worldwide. Fox’s untitled Peanuts movie also opens on that date.

The new July 2015 date only has one other film slated for release — Peregrine’s Home for Peculiars.

Marvel first published a story about scientist Henry Pym in Tales to Astonish No. 27 in 1961, when comic books still had a 10-cent cover price. At that point, the only Marvel super hero title was the Fantastic Four. Marvel brought back Pym as in Tales to Astonish No. 35 (now with a 12-cent cover price) when he became the super hero Ant Man.

The first Pym story and its sequel were illustrated by Jack Kirby, plotted by Stan Lee and scripted by Larry Lieber, Stan’s brother. Pym could shrink to the size of an ant but still retain the strength of a full-sized human. Pym later took on a number of super hero identities, including Giant Man, Goliath and Yellowjacket.

Marvel/Disney’s big super hero movie in 2015 will be The Avengers: Age of Ultron, the sequel to 2012’s Marvel’s The Avengers. Ant Man will be the first Marvel film after that project. Ant Man also will be out just two weeks after a Superman-Batman movie with Henry Cavill (currently filming The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie) and Ben Affleck.

UPDATE (Sept. 10): The MI6 JAMES BOND FAN WEB SITE, quoting a press release, says the new Ant Man release date is July 10, 2015 (or just before the Superman-Batman movie). VARIETY says July 31 is for Ant Man while Disney has a fifth Pirates of the Carribean film slated for July 10. THE WRAP says July 15.

Earlier posts:

007’s Marvel superhero competitor in 2015

The family model (Eon) vs. the corporate model (Marvel)