Russo brothers look to create a spy franchise

Promotional image for The Gray Man

We’re in the midst of another attempt to establish a spy franchise, this one by Anthony and Joe Russo.

The Gray Man had a limited release in U.S. theaters this weekend before being shown on Netflix on July 22.

The Russos directed some of the biggest hits for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War plus two Avengers movies).

The brothers’ new effort has a cast that includes Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans (retired from playing Cap for Marvel) and Ana de Armas. Streaming service Netflix provided the Russos an estimated $200 million to play with.

The New York Times published a story today about the project. According to the Times, the Russos spent $40 million and one month on a single extensive action sequence.

The Gray Man comes as the James Bond film series has entered a hiatus as it tries to decide where to go following the end of Daniel Craig’s five-film run as Bond. The Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible series is looking to conclude following movies in 2023 and 2024.

So a vacuum does exist in spy entertainment. According to the Times:

Should (The Gray Man) work, the Russos have plans for expanding the “Gray Man” universe with additional films and television series, as Disney has done with its Marvel and Star Wars franchises.

On top of all this, the once-invincible Netflix is having problems. Subscriptions for the streaming service are down. Its stock price also is down. Netflix has cut jobs.

As a result, the stakes are large all around.

Dr. Strange 2 has a big opening weekend

Poster for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness had an opening U.S. weekend of $185 million, according to Exhibitor Relations Co., which tracks box-office data.

The outcome reflects something of a comeback for Walt Disney Co.’s Marvel Studios. Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame, released in 2019, was a huge hit but also saw the death or retirement of important Marvel characters.

Since then, Marvel has released movies with lesser-known characters such as Shang-Chi and the Eternals. The one big exception was Spider-Man No Way Home, but that was a co-production with Sony, which holds the Spider-Man film rights. Marvel can’t do Spider-Man movies without Sony.

The new Dr. Strange movie stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the sorcerer. Cumberbatch was in the first Dr. Strange film in 2016 as well as Avengers movies in 2018 and 2019 and Spider-Man No Way Home.

Can Dr. Strange restore Marvel’s momentum?

Poster for Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Until 2019, Walt Disney Co.’s Marvel Studios was a juggernaut. The Marvel brand seemingly could do no wrong beginning with 2008’s Iron Man and running through 2019’s Avengers: Endgame.

Since then? Marvel has had more than a few bumps in the road.

Some of that can be attributed to a pandemic. Marvel had to delay some movie releases.

At the same time, Marvel saw some of its best-known characters fall by the wayside. Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron was killed off in Avengers: Endgame. Chris Evans’ Captain America retired in the same movie.

Since then, Marvel has, mostly, relied on lesser-known characters in its catalog. Shang Chi. The Eternals. The one major hit was Spider-Man No Way Home, which Marvel made for Sony (which holds the film rights to the character). That 2021 film was a huge success, generating almost $1.9 billion at the global box office.

On May 6, Marvel gets another shot with Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

Dr. Strange is an unlikely choice to hang the future of a big franchise. The character was created by artist Steve Ditko in the early 1960s. Even in those days, the sorcerer was never the most popular Marvel character.

Still, Dr. Strange was a significant character in Spider-Man No Way Home as well as two Avengers films plus his own 2016 movie.

The leaders of Marvel Studios may or may not have chosen Dr. Strange to spearhead a comeback for the studio. But it has worked out that way.

As ever, we’ll see how it plays out.

About genre movies fighting for Oscars love

No Time to Die poster

Studios are in the midst of their blitz to get some love from the Oscars. And that includes lobbying efforts for genre movies to gain some recognition.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, James Bond’s home studio, has been lobbying for No Time to Die to get awards while the ultimate goal is the Oscars. Sony Pictures and Marvel Studios are moving to get Spider-Man No Way Home some Oscar love.

Once upon a time, popular movies did pretty well at the Oscars. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), a Cecil B. DeMille schlockfest *won* the Best Picture Oscar. I like Greatest Show but there’s no denying the schlock factor.

Star Wars (1977) was nominated for Best Picture. The movie won Oscars for art direction and score among other awards but fell short of actually winning Best Picture.

In more recent decades, it’s been hard for genre movies to get a lot of Oscar recognition outside of technical awards. There were some exceptions such as Best Actor awards for The Dark Knight (2008) and The Joker (2019). Ironically, both actors involved (Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix) played different versions of the same character.

It’s kind of tough to get Oscar love for playing a hero in a genre movie.

One big exception was Black Panther (2018), a Marvel film that was a big hit while highlighting a Black cast. It got a Best Picture nomination and won a few Oscars, including best score.

All of which brings us to the current situation. MGM is pushing a bit of everything, including star Daniel Craig, director Cary Fukunaga, the writing team and, of course, Best Picture.

Meanwhile, Variety film critic Owen Gleiberman (who said he hates Spider-Man No Way Home) presented a somewhat cynical reason why the academy should nominate the comic book movie anyway.

 If you want an Academy Awards telecast that wins more eyeballs than it loses, you’re going to have to nominate some of the movies that win eyeballs. I don’t disagree with that argument, and in a sense it’s the one I’m making. But this isn’t simply about numbers. It’s about a perception that drives the numbers. Sure, if “No Way Home” gets nominated, a swath of its vast fan base might tune into the Oscars that wouldn’t have otherwise. But what I’m really talking about is the essential idea that movies are, and always have been, a populist art form. If that dimension of cinema isn’t respected, something has gone wrong.

We’ll see how this turns out. The Bond films went almost 50 years between Oscars wins (special effects for Thunderball and two awards for Skyfall). Skyfall got five nominations and won two. But the Bond series has never been nominated for acting or directing.

As for Spider-Man No Way Home? Who knows? Actors and directors love to dump on comic book-based movies but a number of stars have signed on comic book-based movies.

Spider-Man passes NTTD for No. 1 non-Chinese movie

Spider-Man No Way Home has passed No Time to Die for the title of No. 1 box office among non-Chinese movies, according to Deadline: Hollywood.

Spider-Man’s most recent global box office figure is $813.9 million, Deadline said.

Until now, No Time to Die held the mantle of No. 1 non-Chinese movie at $774 million. The 25th James Bond film has mostly ended its theatrical run. No Time to Die this week became available for sale for home video release.

Spider-Man No Way Home, essentially, is a live-action version of Spider-Man Into the Spider Verse, a 2018 animated film that featured different versions of Spider-Man in different dimensions. The new live-action Spider-Man movie features multiple Marvel Comics characters. The film was made by Sony Pictures (which has the rights to Spider-Man) and Marvel Studios.

The new Spider-Man movie was expected to do well at the box office. But since its release last week, it has performed better than expected.

Spider-Man No Way Home Becomes No. 1 2021 U.S. release

UPDATE (Dec. 20): The final U.S. weekend figures released Monday came in higher ($260 million) than the estimate released Sunday, Exhibitor Relations Co. said. The revised global box office is now $600.8 million.

ORIGINAL POST (Dec. 19): Spider-Man No Way Home seized the title of No. 1 box office movie in 2021 on its first weekend.

The Sony release made by Marvel Studios will generate a U.S. box office of $253 million for the Dec. 17-19 weekend, according to Exhibitor Relations Co., which tracks box office data.

Spider-Man also scored an international box office of $334.2 million for a worldwide take of $587.2 million, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The top global movie not made in China is No Time to Die at $771.3 million.

Until now, the No. 1 U.S. release was Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings at $224.5 million. The No. 1 U.S. weekend had belonged to Sony’s Venom: Let There Be Carnage at $90 million.

Spider-Man No Way Home’s opening weekend beckoned to the pre-pandemic era where blockbuster movies could generate enormous box office quickly.

The movie is the third to star Tom Holland as Spider-Man. Sony has the film rights to Spider-Man and has made Spidey films since 2002. The Holland films are, more or less, a joint Sony-Marvel effort. Holland also appeared as the character in three Marvel movies, including two Avengers films.

Spider-Man No Way Home also includes Marvel’s Dr. Strange character played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

Spider-Man No Way Home gets off to hot start

Spider-Man No Way Home poster

Spider-Man No Way Home, the third movie starring Tom Holland as the web-slinger, this week got off to a blistering start in both the U.K. and U.S.

The film had an opening day box office of 7.6 million pounds ($10.1 million) in the U.K., The Hollywood Reporter said, citing the U.K. Cinema Association. That beat out No Time to Die on its opening day and was “the biggest opening day of all time for a Wednesday,” according to THR.

On Thursday, the movie generated $50 million in preview showings, according to Exhibitor Relations Co., which tracks box office data.

That was No. 3 all-time for U.S. preview showings, although an asterisk was involved — the preview showings began earlier than normal for Spider-Man No Way Home.

Still, the results are welcome news for both Sony, which has the rights to the character, and Marvel Studios, which since 2017 had made Spider-Man films with Sony.

Spider-Man No Way Home adopts a “multi-verse” approach featuring villains (and the actors who played them) from Sony-made Spider-Man films of the past. Also present is Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), the Marvel sorcerer who appeared in one solo Marvel movie and two Marvel Avengers films.

Dr. Strange was created by artist Steve Ditko and his earliest stories were by Ditko and Stan Lee. The Lee-Ditko team also created Spider-Man.

Since Avengers: Endgame in 2019, Marvel has come out with movies featuring lesser-known characters, Shang Chi and the Eternals. Spider-Man is the most popular Marvel character but one Marvel Studios has to share with Sony.

The release of Spider-Man No Way Home also comes amid a surge in COVID-19 cases, including a new COVID variant. COVID had forced the delay of various movies, including No Time to Die.

About that No. 1 spoiler for No Time to Die

No Time to Die poster

YES, there be spoilers. So if you’re spoiler sensitive, stop reading now. This is your last warning. To make what seems like an obvious point to me, spoilers are necessary for this post. I gave this post the most bland title to avoiding giving things away.

No Time to Die wraps up a five-movie arc featuring Daniel Craig as James Bond. It’s a self-contained Bond universe that (mostly) doesn’t concern the previous 20 Eon Productions movies.

Eon Productions got the idea in the middle of the arc (in between Skyfall and SPECTRE). Still, it’s now official these films are their own thing. That’s much the way that Christopher Nolan’s three Batman movies are their own thing, not related to any other Batman films.

Whether Eon wants to admit it or not, the makers of the Bond film series are following the same path set by Fox and Marvel movies featuring Marvel comic book characters

With 2015’s SPECTRE, Eon specifically adapted interconnected storytelling featured in movies made by Walt Disney Co.’s Marvel Studios. With No Time to Die, Eon has doubled down on that concept.

2017’s Logan (made by Fox before it was absorbed by Disney), we had the final Hugh Jackman adventure as Logan/Wolverine. In 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, we had the concluding tale of Tony Stark/Iron man (Robert Downey Jr.), ending an arc of more than a decade.

The concept, of course, is The Hero’s Last Stand. The hero falls, but falls heroically. The audience weeps.

When executed well, it works.

To be clear, The Hero’s Last Stand goes back a long time. It was included in genres as diverse as Biblical epics (Samson and Deliah) and Westerns (Ride the High Country and The Shootist). But Bibical movies and Westerns aren’t popular anymore.

But comic book films are.

For example, Tony Stark makes the ultimate sacrifice to save those who matter the most to him. Sound familiar?

Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron about to make the ultimate sacrifice in Avengers: Endgame (2019)

You may respond that’s a coincidence. No, it’s not.

The tabloids ran stories in 2018 and 2019 speculating about whether Bond 25 would kill off Craig’s Bond. They also had stories asking whether Eon or Danny Boyle, No Time to Die’s original director wanted to kill Bond off.

The Sun said in August 2018 that Boyle quit because he did not want to kill off Bond. The Daily Star said in April 2019 that it was Boyle who wanted Bond “to die in the arms of returning Bond girl Lea Seydoux in the 25th spy movie Shatterhand.” (Oops.)

Regardless, we now know that somebody did. The notion of Bond dying has been in plain sight for more than three years.

To be sure, movies can have similar themes and still be good. High Noon and Rio Bravo featured western lawmen who were outnumbered by the bad guys. But the two movies had considerably different takes on the same notion.

Many Bond fans despise Marvel films. Many fans are in denial that Bond has been adapting Marvel film concepts (including Eon boss Barbara Broccoli).

Of course, it also works the way around. Both Nolan’s Batman movies and Marvel’s film output have been influenced by Bond. Example: Look at casino scenes in 2012’s Skyfall and 2018’s Black Panther, for example.

Regardless, all still comes down to execution. So how does No Time to Die’s version of The Hero’s Last Stand compare?

When I finally saw it, I’d have to say very well. The ending had been spoiled for me. Not in a, “I stumbled it while surfing the internet” way but hearing it presented to me full on. Nevertheless, watching it for the first time, it felt genuinely emotional.

You may disagree. And that’s fine. The thing is, Bond’s exit in No Time to Die is not brand-new territory.

Fantastic Four — and the Marvel age of comics — turns 60

The Fantastic Four debuted in 1961. By 1963, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had created an integrated comics universe

This week marks the 60th anniversary of the first issue of the Fantastic Four.

The modest Marvel Comics, which relied on much-larger rival DC Comics for distribution, decided it needed to get back into superheroes after years of publishing monster and science fiction stories.

The FF were created by Stan Lee (1922-2018), handling scripting and editing, and Jack Kirby (1917-1994), performing penciling and at least half (if not more) of the plotting. The FF at least partially resembled Challengers of the Unknown, a title Kirby worked on for DC.

The title generated sales to encourage more super hero attempts. In 1962, Marvel came out with the Hulk, Thor and Spider-Man. The following year saw the debuts of Iron Man, X-Men and the Avengers.

During the 102-run Lee-Kirby run, the FF proclaimed itself to be “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” For much of that time, at least to impressionable young readers, that wasn’t hyperbole.

By 2008, Marvel decided to make its own movies after years of licensing its characters to others. Iron Man with Robert Downey Jr. was the first attempt and it was a hit. Walt Disney Co. later bought Marvel to take over the characters.

The FF itself has had mixed results in the films. 20th Century Fox (now a Disney property itself) had licensed the FF for films in the 2000s and 2015. The Fantastic Four, once the flagship of Marvel Comics, was almost an afterthought.

But in its prime, the FF was used to introduce characters such as the Black Panther and the Inhumans. The title also became a way to do crossover stories with the Hulk, the Avengers, Nick Fury, Spider-Man and others.

Marvel, the Disney-owned studio, is at a crossroads. It is now about to bring out lesser-known characters. It now controls the fate of any future Fantastic Four movies. How that turns out remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, none of that would even be an issue without the efforts of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, whose collaboration saw the light of day 60 years ago.

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.