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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Comic-book geeks' ambitious strategy a Marvel of an idea

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As it turns out, Fox's Cosmos isn't the only U.S.-network TV program exploring the vast possibilities of space and time.

Over at ABC, there's another prime-time offering that considers the big questions of how it all started and what the seemingly unlimited future might hold. Except this time, it's all focused on circumstances and beings that exist only in the fevered imaginations of some very creative people.

Marvel Studios: Assembling a Universe is an hour-long event that offers fans of the comic-book-adaptation genre a crash-bang-boom course in how the deep thinkers inside the Marvel empire made an elaborate game plan to turn its popular hand-drawn heroes into huge (and hugely profitable) stars in the realm of special-effects-driven feature films and live-action TV series.

While it could fairly be argued that this special amounts to not much more than a 60-minute promotional clip for the various Marvel properties, it's equally safe to say that those who've followed the onscreen antics of Iron Man, Captain America, the Incredible Hulk and the Avengers will find it an entertaining and enlightening hour.

Equal parts promo reel and business story, Assembling a Universe looks at how executives at Marvel recognized an opportunity and formulated a strategy for capitalizing on it. Their ambitions for creating a film-franchise mega-machine were hampered, however, by the fact the screen rights to some of Marvel's most popular characters -- Spider-Man, X-Men and the Fantastic Four -- had already been sold to other studios.

As Marvel exec Kevin Feige explains it, however, the company's brain trust quickly realized that the remaining characters in the stable presented a unique opportunity because many of them had already been part of multi-layered crossovers in the comic-book world. Perhaps, they mused, a similar kind of success might be possible in the film and TV realm. And so began a plan to produce, under Marvel's own production auspices, a series of feature-film projects that could exist both as stand-alone stories and as connected chapters in a larger and much more ambitious narrative.

A key component in the strategy -- perhaps the key element -- was the hiring of Robert Downey Jr. as the star of Iron Man. Signing him, along with co-star Gwyneth Paltrow, sent a signal to the comic-fan community and to Hollywood that Marvel was taking this film-franchise endeavour very, very seriously.

Quietly but consistently, each Marvel adventure was seeded with storyline snippets that connected the movies to each other and opened up an ever-growing universe of possibilities. When Marvel's The Avengers finally hit the screen, bringing Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk and others all into the same big-screen spectacle, the Marvel master plan -- or its first phase, anyway -- was complete.

Pretty smart, these comic-book geeks.

Assembling a Universe features interviews with several prominent players, including Downey, Paltrow, director Jon Favreau, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson and others. There are also clips from Marvel's appearances at fan-frenzied Comic-Con in San Diego, which don't really advance the argument other than to show that fans are really, really excited about this stuff.

Of course, the hour includes clips from ABC's Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., as well as the obligatory sneak peeks at upcoming Marvel Studios projects, including The Avengers: Age of Ultron. But if there's one thing that Assembling a Universe makes abundantly clear, it's that the strategy to date has been so overwhelmingly effective that the next instalments in the expanding series will draw huge crowds regardless of what kind of promotional plan is employed.

Simply put, it's a super-smart cinematic strategy.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 18, 2014 C3

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