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Comic books have always held a mirror to the times
No one has been responsible for steering as many superheroes to the big screen over the last decade and a half as Avi Arad. The Israeli-American Hollywood producer, a former chief creative officer of Marvel Entertainment, has brought characters like Spider-Man, The X-Men and Iron Man to life on the big screen. Arad, who chuckles when asked if he really is the godfather of the superhero movie, tells TOI-Crest just how superheroes got to be so big at the movies
How much of a challenge was it back in the 1990s to set up movie projects for superheroes? Was Hollywood a bit sceptical ?
Yeah, it was a challenge. Many Hollywood studios just did not get the idea that comic books could be literature. But our library at Marvel, from a character standpoint, was wonderfully rich;and richer than DC Comics, which had made movies with two heroes. Our characters were complicated, interesting and, in several ways, were metaphors for many aspects of life. Luckily for us a new generation of writers, filmmakers and artists grew up on comics, so we ended up with a hardcore community who wanted to bring these characters to life. Studios are in the business of recruiting talent and when they saw the velocity of our first film, they got interested.
That was Blade. Just how vital was it?
It was the key. It came out in 1998 when the DVD revolution was in full swing, and more than box office performance, which was good, the continued success of a very minor comic book character who happened to be black and a vampire, impressed many. It could have just been a horror movie, but Wesley (Snipes) did it so well. Besides, the emotional appeal of Blade's quest for his mother, his discovery that his father was evil - it was almost Hamlet-like. All of a sudden, filmmakers realised, 'hey, this kind of thing is cool. Let's do this. '
Considering how long a Spider-Man movie had been in the works - with rights problems and many scripts going around (including one by James Cameron) - was it again a bit of challenge ?
Yeah, it took me many years. We had to do a long legal dance. Studios really didn't understand that whoever finally gets it (the rights), is going to be king of the hill. But luckily, Sony Pictures did. And they fell in love with it to the tune of billions of dollars. It showed many what the future may be. It stabilised Marvel, and our model become a mainstay of the business.
Your expectations for the current reboot of Spider-Man, The Amazing Spider-Man ? How different is this new take on the character?
It's not easy to reboot, even if it's Spider-Man. We felt it was important to look at the emotional side of the character now. We needed an actor's director, so we picked Marc Webb. We felt he had a mature understanding of love, and was not afraid of showing the real world. And the 'real world' in the comics is a very scary place. That's why this romance (in the film) is appealing to viewers everywhere. This is how life goes too, the frog becomes the prince in fairy tales, but that's not life as we know it. Peter Parker is also on a quest to find out what happened to his parents. That makes the story totally herodriven - very effective. We (producers) are ecstatic at the film's initial success. There are so many more stories to tell in the Spider-Man universe, so many great characters we would like to bring.
How did you go about zooming in on the right talent for acting and helming duties? Is casting actors to play iconic characters difficult?
Well, in the second case, with directors, it was the easiest. There were new filmmakers who knew comic books, had the passion and the talent. Sam Raimi was absolutely passionate about bringing Spider-Man to the screen, unlike many luminaries we'd contacted. Bryan Singer (X-Men ) was a mutant himself: brilliant, Jewish and gay. It was personal for him. Jon Favreau (Iron Man) had a deep interest in politics, and the whole idea of guns and butter was very appealing to him. He was perfect for Iron Man. Actors are far, far more difficult to cast. We look at many people for many parts. But some just stand out, like Andrew Garfield, we knew instantly that he was Spider-Man. He looked the part and was an absolute Spider-Man fanatic. Hugh Jackman was not our first choice to be Wolverine, he was too tall. But we knew audiences would be sensitive to Wolverine's plight, his antiheroic nature. Robert Downey Jr just had to be Tony Stark (Iron Man), look how brilliant he was. People said he was too old for the role. But it's about being cool, not too young or too old.
So why do comic book superheroes appeal so much to audiences around the world?
Comic books have always been created as a mirror image of the times. When many characters were created, there was the Cold War, radioactive fears and so on. They influenced a lot of Stan Lee's writing. When the civil rights movement took place, probably the best series yet, the X-Men, was born. It caught fire immediately, because there is no one in the world who cannot relate to themes of loneliness, discrimination, isolation and so on. And then you look at Marvel's crown jewel, Spider-Man. He's just an everyday kid with problems. Everybody can imagine they're him;the fact that he is probably the least likely guy to be a hero in one identity, but the most likely in the other. Because he is like so many of us, an ordinary guy who becomes a hero. Once you're able to show that these books and movies are essentially of the heart, there is no problem. They become universal.
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