A modern Marvel

The Marvel universe, which has kept expanding through more than five decades and across hundreds of titles, seems to go on forever. This alone creates a sense of awe. I was a pre-adolescent during Marvel Comics's greatest period of market dominance over the rival DC in the early 1990s and as a Marvel partisan, I cherished the different catalogues offering an encyclopaedic taxonomy of various superheroes and villains. Marvel knew how to build loyalty among its young readership. Until 2001, every issue of every Marvel publication contained a single-page newsletter-style "Bullpen Bulletin". This included "Stan's Soapbox", a chummy forum for company president and original genius Stan Lee to hold court, invariably signing off with the salutation, "Make mine Marvel!"

For years, the "Bulletin" contained rumours of forthcoming Marvel film projects that were either indefinitely delayed (Spider-Man), permanently shelved (1994's The Fantastic Four), or released to tepid response from both fans and the general public (1990's Captain America). While DC had big-screen successes with Superman and Batman, Marvel never followed suit, nor did it seem likely to after filing for bankruptcy in 1996, once the comic book boom went bust. Then one day, something funny happened. Beginning with 1998's Blade, 2000's X-Men and 2002's Spider-Man, Marvel emerged as a force in the multiplex.

There were missteps along the way — Ben Affleck in Daredevil, two less-than incredible Hulks — but the Marvel track record only improved with the implementation of standardisation and a kind of formulaic quality control. A crucial development came in 2009 when, shortly after the success of Robert Downey Jr.'s first outing as Iron Man, Marvel Entertainment was purchased by The Walt Disney Company, which promptly put its resources into snapping up the licensing rights on characters that had been scattered among various studios.

The latest product is Thor: The Dark World, which reunites Chris Hemsworth as the Asgardian god of thunder and Tom Hiddleston as his black sheep brother Loki, both seen in 2011's Thor and 2012's Marvel's The Avengers. The Dark World shows no sign of breaking Marvel's recent run of success. Marvel can certainly do spectacle: the art direction is a lavish tour through two centuries of fantasy illustration, while the main event showdown is undeniably resourceful, tumbling through the multi-dimensional settings of the nine realms. Stan Lee stops by for a gloating cameo, as does Hemsworth's Avengers co-star Chris Evans, in what amounts to an in-film ad to hype his own sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, coming in spring 2014.

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