Heat Check: The top four oddball properties Marvel Studios should try next

Written by Russ Dobler

In a recent interview with the website Comic Book Resources, Marvel Comics senior vice president of publishing, Tom Brevoort, reminisced that when Marvel Studios decided in 2004 to start financing its own films, rather than licensing its properties to other companies, most pundits predicted failure. The agreements that brought the X-Men to life via 20th Century Fox and saw Spider-Man swing across the silver screen thanks to Sony—put into place in a diversification bid to prevent a repeat of the comic company’s 1996 bankruptcy—prevented the nascent studio from itself using the most iconic of all of Marvel’s characters. What could they do with the dregs that were left?

Of course that was before a stuck-up billionaire in a tin suit revitalized Robert Downey Jr.’s career and showed proof positive that the right people could spin B-list straw into critical and commercial gold. In 2008, Iron Man made nearly $100 million on its opening weekend alone and ultimately grossed almost $1 billion worldwide. As the first film in what would become the integrated “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” it paved the way for Thor, Captain America and the eventual superhero jam session The Avengers, which became the third highest-grossing movie of all time.

“When the announcement came that the studio’s next would-be franchise was comprised of a motley assortment of cosmic-themed characters not brought together into their current form until 2008, similar critical voices wondered if this would be Marvel Studios’ first major misstep.”

Then again, contrary to what some outsiders might have thought, the Avengers weren’t exactly the dimmest of prospects. “Earth’s mightiest heroes” were one of Marvel’s first super teams in the 60s and endured through the decades to eventually take their place at the top of the publishing charts shortly before their movie counterparts captured the hearts of filmgoers. When the announcement came that the studio’s next would-be franchise was comprised of a motley assortment of cosmic-themed characters not brought together into their current form until 2008, similar critical voices wondered if this would be Marvel Studios’ first major misstep.

Guardians of the Galaxy would go on to make more money in its opening night than the acclaimed Captain America: The Winter Soldier, before completing the biggest August weekend ever. Possibly emboldened by its apparent Hulk-like invincibility, rumors now swirl that the studio will next test audiences’ credulity with the genetically-altered Inhumans. Although, really, if we bought a pirate raccoon and a talking tree, are a king whose voice levels mountains and a queen with prehensile hair that much of a leap?

At this point, I think Marvel should just dunk its hot hand in a bucket of ice water to find out if they even can screw up. In that spirit, here are four whacked-out ideas from comic history that, if brought to the masses, could once and for all show if the brand is merely mortal or truly bulletproof.

1.  The Great Lakes Avengers

The Marvel Studios juggernaut has done a good job of making the word “Avenger” synonymous with “superhero,” creating a genre trademark that almost sells itself. Why not stretch that concept to its limit and see if it snaps?

The Great Lakes Avengers first appeared in 1989 in a series that was already a spin-off, “West Coast Avengers.” And you know what they say about making a copy of a copy. Or a copyright, as the Wisconsin-based wannabes were once issued a cease-and-desist order by the Stark Foundation, telling them to change their name or else.

But in this time of corporate synergy, couldn’t the Avengers use a little local publicity? Or would guys like Mr. Immortal—a regenerating reject who was shot in the head during his very first mission – tarnish their public image? What about Big Bertha, with the power of being really large, or Flatman, who can terrify evil by resembling a piece of paper? Surely there’s marketing potential in Dinah Soar, the high-flying, pink pterodactyl-woman. That name’s a triple pun, goddamnit; can’t you see the dollar signs?!

2.  Beta Ray Bill

Comic fans take ownership of their characters seriously, and historically don’t like to see them deviate much from their status quo. The July announcement that the current Thor would become unworthy, leaving a more virtuous woman as wielder of the mystical hammer Mjolnir, was met with less skepticism than it might have been in times past, but it still had its detractors.  Imagine what Walt Simonson must have put up with when he jobbed the mighty Asgardian out to a buck-toothed, horse-headed monster back in 1983.

Beta Ray Bill, of the Korbinite alien race, set off into space after the fire demon Surtur nearly annihilated his people, and stalemated Thor upon encountering him near Earth. After the battle, Bill became the first other individual judged worthy of Mjolnir’s might, as he traveled to Asgard and fooled Odin himself into thinking he was Thor. Odin later pit his son against the impostor in a death match to decide who would carry the legacy going forward. Thanks, Dad.

Beta Ray Bill won, but let Thor live and thus gained the Asgardian’s respect. Together they brought the hammer down on Surtur and the two have been big time bros ever since.

Some say Bill’s appearance in the MCU is pre-ordained, as the strangely horsey skeleton of a humanoid can be seen in the opening moments of Guardians. If it happens, I’d replace Surtur as a foil with another nemesis, Ego the Living Planet. Because his name is Ego. And he’s a LIVING. #@!%ING. PLANET.

3.  The Fabulous Frog-Man

He is the terror that leaps in the night! He is Eugene Patillo, son of minor Daredevil villain Leap-Frog, who dons his father’s costume and attempts to fight crime to clear his dad’s name. “Attempts” being the key word there, as Patillo clumsily crashes his padded, cybernetic suit into equally farcical antagonists like the Alice in Wonderland-inspired White Rabbit and the super-strong Walrus, who I’ll guess owes his origins to some Beatles records and a couple tabs of acid.

His accompanying nonsense notwithstanding, couldn’t the MCU use a crusading, guilt-ridden vigilante like Frog-Man? Spider-Man is still lost behind enemy lines, after all; although the film rights to Punisher have reverted back from Lionsgate. Come to think of it, how about a classic Marvel team-up movie? Punisher could use a new partner since Archie’s been gunned down.

4.  MODOK’s 11

When it became known that the villains in Iron Man 3 would be operating at the behest of Advanced Idea Mechanics, the nefarious science terrorists more often referred to simply as A.I.M., many thought the organization’s most well-known member, MODOK, would be the one pulling the strings. Sadly, as Captain America sequel screenwriter Christopher Markus recently pointed out, you can’t really include a giant, floating head with near-vestigial arms and legs without building the entire tone of the movie around him.

So do it! Fred Van Lente wrote a 2007 mini-series focusing on the Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing and his vendetta against a one-time hook-up, the woman mild-mannered George Tarleton tried to impress by volunteering for the evolution-accelerating procedure that turned him into a highly intelligent, physically grotesque, living computer.

The story—which in NO WAY borrows from a film with a stunningly similar name—sees MODOK assemble a team of sympathetic ne’er-do-wells to perform a complicated heist that will net him a weapon instrumental for his revenge. Selling a supervillain team movie might sound far-fetched, until you remember that’s exactly what Sony is doing with 2016’s Sinister Six, in response to flagging Spider-Man receipts.

Unfortunately, precedent isn’t the only way Sony could scuttle a potential MODOK’s 11 movie, as several of the cads Tarleton assembles are presumably tied up in the Spider-Man licensing. The film would likely have to proceed without the Spot, the double-crossing teleporter whose only power is to create holes in space through which he travels, and Rocket Racer, a brilliant young engineer who supports his family by robbing banks with his souped-up skateboard.

Might I suggest some possible substitutions from Marvel’s deep bench of bizarre bad guys? How about the Orb, a motorcycling Ghost Rider villain with a giant eyeball for a head? Or Ruby Thursday, a scientist whose head is a malleable plastic sphere that can form tentacles and fire force blasts?

Wait, that’s too many weird-headed villains. Better add Thursday’s occasional partner, Arthur Nagan, who has a normal human head…but the body of a gorilla. You know, for balance.

CC photo credit: Marvel Comics

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