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Inside Marvel's Billion-Dollar Web

"Jared Leto doesn't want to shake your hand."

 
 
GQ Australia, July 2017

GQ Australia, July 2017

In Fayetteville, just south of Atlanta, September weather feels like July weather.

We pass what feels like a half-dozen Chick-fil-A franchises and home developments advertised in the mid-$100,000s. We take a left, entering a panoramic thicket of pine trees. Old Georgian homes are dotted about – the kind with front porches and love seats. And a few hundred meters down the drive, Marvel is crafting its next nine-figure blockbuster.

Pinewood Studios has swallowed up 700 acres of land in this part of Georgia. It’s soon to be the largest American production studio outside of California, and aspires to be the largest in the world. Here, Marvel’s already shot the likes of Ant Man and Captain America: Civil War. But today’s visit pertains to reasons more arachnid.

We’re sat on a futuristic tour bus - replete with USB chargers and seats that look more suited to Premium Economy – and which is carrying a cabal of international press caricatures. There’s the slovenly American film buff in his untucked gingham shirt. Perched, steadfastly, at the front of the bus is the ‘Hollywood insider’ type, who, at any possible turn, will insert a surreptitious reference to one of many C-grade producers and actors in his digital Rolodex. Elsewhere, a gaggle of sweet, silent beauty editors from Asia, each clutching a meticulous – wholly un-creased – assemblage of notes and questions.

As much as those involved loathe hearing this – and they truly do – the pressing, persistent question when it comes to Marvel and films is: “How much is too much?” They’ve taken scalability to unforeseen heights, and programmatic filmmaking to meticulous levels. (Marvel has superhero films scheduled for release as far as 2020.) It’s all a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe - a dizzying array of multi-platform media, released in the form of episodic television, short films, comic books, digital series, and feature films. Whichever way you slice it, the MCU is a goddamn big deal.

Murmurs of audience fatigue have swelled for years. Just how many heroes, villains, dazzling green-screen sequences and hackneyed, trope-laden soliloquys can filmgoers bear? For their part, Marvel will simply point your eyeballs to box office figures, and there, they’ll proceed to pop. Iron Man: US$535 million; Guardians of the Galaxy: US$773 million; Iron Man 3: US$1.2 billion; The Avengers: US$1.5 billion. The final figures make a fine case for the factory-line production of superhero films: US $11 billion – a lazy $14 billion in plastic Aussie notes - from 14 films in nine years.

Pinewood Studios neatly slots into this 11-figure puzzle: the canvas on which millions of children’s childhood memories will be rendered. It’s the place of conception of Happy Meal toys, of theme park rides and lunchboxes and branded macaroni. Thanks in large part to Marvel (and its parent company, Disney), the humble state of Georgia is now tied as the third most prominent filming location in the US – behind only New York and California.

As a consumer, a casual filmgoer, the most pending query is more mundane -who the hell wants to see the story of Spider-Man grappling with being Spider-Man for the sixth time in fifteen years, played by yet another self-effacing, mousy-haired actor?

We enter an anonymous parking lot at Pinewood, which begins to feel like the kind of yawning, non-descript expanse that even the likes of Bear Grylls might struggle to overcome. Curiously, our phone signal vanished the moment we crossed the studio threshold - the official border between the regular world and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This doesn't feel like a coincidence.

Happily, the heat did follow us into the eerily quiet Pinewood lot. It’s sweat-through-your-untucked-gingham-shirt hot as we step off the bus. We receive a visitors’ pass, which bears the codename of the film, ‘Summer of George’. We make a mental note to unmask the hidden Seinfeld fan in the production team.

Inside the building, a smattering of propaganda-like comic posters follows you through each corridor, accosting you at every turn with public service announcements.

“LOOSE LIPS SINK SHIPS!”

“SEE SOMETHING? SAY SOMETHING!”

“KEEP OUR SECRETS SAFE.”

“I WANT YOU!” points Captain America, “…TO PUT AWAY YOUR CELL PHONE!”

It’s here that you learn that Marvel takes the production of the second Spider-Man reboot in five years very, very seriously. They’re not fucking around, and, they warn, neither should you.

We’re guided into a small production room, and ceremoniously handed a series of Non-Disclosure Agreements to be signed, initialled and dated thoughtfully.

It becomes clear why these are necessary. Mood boards take up nearly every inch of every wall. Underneath headers like ‘School Battle’ and ‘Crime Fighting’ are detailed CGI mock-ups of each scene, costume, setting and moment. From the corner of an eye, you catch the film buff staring to breathe a little quicker.

The unit publicist, our anointed parent/guardian for the day – and who’s presumably charged with ensuring our safe, no-leak passage through the MCU – assures us that Tom will be here shortly, and that we ought to be rather excited. On cue, the Chosen One enters.

Tom Holland is miniature and instantly affable. The British kid from The Impossible and Billy Elliott (the musical) is now slightly less of a little kid. He’s also totally proficient in charming the press.

Journalists begin speaking over one another other. Holland, 20, reverses his baseball cap and nurses each query with that patient methodical rhythm that only the English can pull off. He draws a laugh from the room in a little under 20 seconds. He’s done his reading on Spider-Man’s well-nuanced backstory. He’s, clearly, also done work on his own backstory – like how he actually struggles to touch his middle fingers to his palm to execute Spidey’s iconic move.

“He’s perfect,” whispers a women’s magazine editor from Japan. “He’s really suited to the role.”

That he seems so MCU-ready and polished shouldn’t come as a surprise. Holland made his show-stealing debut as Spider-Man in last year’s Captain America: Civil War. Much like a commercial radio station teasing a song that will play in five minutes’ time, Marvel used Holland’s cameo as a sort of meta-teaser trailer. Consider it an exercise in priming a highly distractible, billion-dollar audience for a summer blockbuster to come.

Holland regales the group with tales of an arduous auditioning process – which included penning a late-night email to Chris Hemsworth, asking him to put in a good word with the key MCU players – and speaks of the “fun” relationship, “on-and-off-camera” he shares with with Marissa Tomei (who plays Aunt May, which many neckbearded movie forum commenters took umbrage to, owing to the fact that she’s “only 50” and “too hot”).

The Japanese editor was right - Holland was made for this role and the abundance of publicity it requires.

Bidding him a temporary farewell – Holland’s preparing for a night shoot – we head back outside. The unit publicist feeds us back aboard the futuristic bus, and we curl around too many corners to count before we’re led to a giant outdoor stage. Here, amidst the pine trees and dirt and lack of phone coverage, is an exact replica of the Staten Island Ferry.

“Holy shit, it’s surreal! I ride that thing all the time in NYC,” chimes the film “insider.”

Rather than filming in expensive New York, Marvel’s built a facsimile of the city’s orange icon, here in the forests of Georgia.

“It’s exactly to scale,” adds the publicist. “It’s all real. It’s all metal.”

The ferry has been constructed in preparation for thousands of litres of water to be dumped on it. It will, we’re told, split in half for an action sequence. In a few weeks’ time, the crew will also film on the real Staten Island Ferry.

“Obviously, we can’t split that in half,” grins the publicist. At this point, the possibility seems less than farfetched.

We learn that this entire production is being filmed in 78 days, a miniscule timeline that’s beyond staggering for a film of this scale. The publicist’s assured herding of our bloated group of journalists becomes more understandable.

Back on the bus, we drive for the better part of an hour before pulling into the Hindu Temple of Atlanta.

It’s nearing golden hour. The dusty ground is so hot you can feel it beneath your shoes. We turn a corner, and see a small army of MCU soldiers at work. Muscle Tee’d crew members are rushing around looking busy, smug and in control. There are director’s chairs, and Director of Photography chairs, affixed with ‘The Summer of George”’ wording. There are about a hundred extras, all barefoot and dolled-up in saris and traditional Hindu garb.

We’re hushed what feels like a half-dozen times. A British woman talks into a loudspeaker.

“Stand by to shoot, please. First positions! Lock it down!”

The scene appears to be the aftermath of a wedding. A bride is carried aboard an embroidered platform – a doli. For a moment, you imagine that sometime, someone on Twitter will wail about cultural appropriation. But at least the Summer of George pays deference to detail. The lookers-on look authentically joyous and festive, each with meticulous henna art on their hands.

And then, through the crowd, there's Robert Downey Jr. Dressed all in white, and draped by the late afternoon sun, he’s wearing a flower garland and sipping a drink in typically nonchalant bro fashion. We peer through as the scene develops. RDJ looks a million bucks. Though we can't actually hear, he appears to be doing his puffy-chested, Captain Jack-lite schtick well.

“Cut!”

The whole thing lasts about 90 seconds.

As the crew sets-up for the next take, extras lunge for bottles of water. A young woman in a sari, a few metres in front of us, slips on some Converse All-Stars, removing her feet from the scorching dirt.

“We're going to lose the light! First positions!” bellows the British woman.

A few takes later and the sun dips. It’s a wrap.

We file into the belly of the Hindu temple – now wholly a part of the MCU – taking in the carpets and idiosyncratically Hindu installations. And there, RDJ emerges in a mutation of his costume from the previous scene. Business on top – Hindu kurta shirt; party on the bottom Adidas tear-away tracksuit pants, replete with three stripes. His hair is impeccable. He’s wearing sunglasses. Inside.

As impressive as Holland was, RDJ flexes his interview muscles like the wily veteran he is. His answers are practised and inoffensive  – with any and every response essentially circling back to: ‘this is a wonderful project, and I’m glad to be a part of it.’

He filibusters masterfully. His cadence is, we kid you not, no different to Tony Stark’s. Minutes bleed into each other. Everyone in the room is starry-eyed. We’d print his thoughts here, but, honestly, they boiled down to flawlessly stylish variations of nothing at all. Though to be fair, many of the journalists’ questions were hardly front-page stuff. “Do you enjoy the level that you’re at as Iron Man?” someone asks. What?

Eight minutes in, Downey Jr is so relaxed that he literally applies moisturiser while answering a question. We take our moment to strike.

“Do you empathise with audience members who might be getting a little fatigued by the number of comic book franchises, films and spinoffs?”

RDJ takes this moment to remove his sunglasses.

“I empathise with everybody,’ he purrs. “It’s obviously having this huge, y’know, extended moment. If Toby [Macguire] hadn’t nailed it, all those years back… You know, it’s this cyclical thing.”

“And how do you handle playing Iron Man over and over?” we ask.

“I have to start over every time. But I’m starting over with a pretty solid base. I just never want to blow it, for the last six or seven [Iron Man films] I’ve done, by dropping the ball. There’s been how many Batmans now? Four? I’m lucky, so far, in that there’s only one Tony. I just want to hang up my jersey before it’s embarrassing.”

For RDJ, hanging up the jersey is a tricky proposition. He made US$50 million for his role in the first Avengers film and is rumoured to be pocketing some US$200 million for the next two.

“This project, it has an element of innovation to it,” he adds. “It doesn’t feel quite as pre-fabricated. It’s funny - walls come down for opportunity. There’s a lot of goodwill between Sony and Marvel.”

RDJ has touched on perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Spider-Man: Homecoming’s production – it’s a collaboration between Sony (who made the previous Toby Macguire and Andrew Garfield films) and Marvel (who desperately wanted to add the web-slinging jewel to its MCU crown). Indeed, Homecoming is being co-produced by Marvel President Kevin Feige, and Amy Pascal, ex-chairwoman at Sony. Marvel is essentially lending Spidey to the MCU.

“Kevin was, like, delivering coffee, on the first Spider-Man movie,” explains Pascal. “He kept his mouth totally shut the whole time. Who even knew he was the genius he turned out to be?”

But things weren’t always so rosy. Twenty years ago, Marvel sold the rights to some of the most beloved, iconic characters they owned - Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four, and on and on. Even then, their characters, all too often, flopped. As loveable as Jennifer Garner may be, 2005’s Electra was a hot mess.

Feige was brought on as an associate producer for X-Men in 2000, purely for his encyclopaedic knowledge of the Marvel universe. But by 2007 he was President of Marvel. The following year, Iron Man was released and the company’s fortunes changed. Then, in 2009, Disney CEO Bob Iger acquired Marvel for US$4 billion – a figure that now seems like a bargain.

“This is a Marvel studios production,” says Feige. “We’re treating it like that in all regards. In the 16 years since [Maguire’s Spider-Man], we’ve built this MCU. There are so many other characters and movies.

“And now we have the opportunity,” Feige continues, eagerly, “to introduce Peter Parker into that universe.”

Can you talk about the difficulty of re-inventing Spider-Man for the third time in, like, 10 years?”

“It never felt like a challenge of re-inventing him – we’re freeing him to be the character that he was in the comics,” Feige responds, happily.

We try again.

Don’t you worry about superhero fatigue?

“People have been asking me that since 2003,” he grins. 

***

A few hours later, we’re on a golf course. Night has set in, as has a gentle breeze. Mosquitos weave in and out of our group – so do the ever-rushed crew. Crickets are singing loudly. Perched by the clubhouse, sporting some box-fresh Adidas slides, is Tom Holland. He gets into a harness that hangs over the driving range. He flips and spins and lands gracefully, as a crewmember supports him. It’s a stunt rehearsal. But in fact, it’s not Tom Holland at all – it’s his terrifyingly indistinguishable stunt double. The real Holland appears around the corner, equally lean and momentarily bro-ing out with his doppelganger.

The two workshop various ways to take and land a jump. A roll. A pivot. A Spidey web right out of it, perhaps. "No – no way could you land that," says the supervisor.

Fake Tom loses an energy gel sachet out of his pocket on one walkthrough. It's 10:42pm and the shoot is running late. Nobody is in costume.

We kill a solid 90 minutes working though the impressive on-site catering. There are endless mounds of endless varieties of candy, chocolate, gum, crisps, jerky, soda and juice. Like Willy Wonka’s factory, but with a savoury aisle.

Finally, a cute runner bolts by with a trey full of Starbucks. It’s our cue to watch the final scene.

We stand behind a monitor, the action just in front of us. A man adjusts some bushes in the foreground. The golf course’s car park is standing in for a suburban backyard - a basketball ring arranged in place, a child's pushbike resting just so. An assistant tweaks a knob to ensure a razor-sharp image is perfectly married to the choreography. We’re rolling. The camera pans up. And for the first time, Spider-Man appears right in front of us.

He scuttles around the backyard, eventually finding the item of his pursuit - a glowing crystal-like object that is undoubtedly of great MCU significance. Spidey’s mobile starts ringing – it’s his friend calling. Crewmembers provide the dialogue for the person on the other end of the line. They really commit.

“When I say ‘penis’, you say ‘Parker’! ‘Penis’!”

“Parker!”'

“Penis!”

“Parker!”

Holland takes the eyes out of his Spidey suit between takes. The suit, honestly, looks like a kid’s toy – and maybe not even the most expensive one in the shop. It’s coated with strong primary reds and blues, rather than the cool, metallic colours of Maguire-era Spidey. Though Holland doesn’t really have to flex any acting muscles in the scene, it’s clear he’s already inhabited the character. He’s effortless, affable, charming and cheeky – much like he’s been all day. He is, quite simply, Spider-Man.

The director asks him to deliver his solitary line with a sigh – “more frustration”. Holland does. He nails it. Scene.

Another hour passes as we attempt to get time with the film’s director, Jon Watts. He allegedly has Spider-Man tattooed on his chest – a mark of his reverence for the character, and, perhaps sacrificial offering to the MCU powers that be. But Watts and his tattoo never appear. We’re offered a consolation prize - a souvenir photo with Holland.

He’s de-suited and back in his slides. Finally, with each of the journalists appeased and every variation of web-slinging selfie captured, Holland sees his opening. He recruits two nearby friends from the crew, and they make their move. Holland picks up a bucket full of golf balls and an iron. One of the crewmembers looks at his phone.

"Oh, man, you've gotta get changed," he says. A scene is about to film.

Holland pauses. He looks around. Thinks about it.

Yes, this is one of this summer’s biggest blockbusters. There are hundreds of millions – likely a billion – riding on it. But Tom Holland is also 20 years old. Spider-Man can wait. The Marvel Cinematic Universe can wait. The three friends dash into the shadows of the golf course, pick their spot and start belting balls.