As I noted in an earlier post, I enjoyed the new Iron Man movie, and I’m pleased to read a few reports online that it’s driven moviegoers to comics shops in search of comics featuring Shellhead. There were a couple of moments in the film that took me right out of it, such as the over-the-top notion of stripper/stewardesses on the protagonist’s private aircraft. But also frustrating but rather interesting is a key line uttered by the villain of the story, portrayed adeptly by Jeff Bridges.
In a climactic scene, Bridges’s Obadiah Stane berates Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark for having the gall to believe that just because Stark conceived of and created a particular invention that it belongs to him. The line, to the best of my recollection, is something to the effect of, “Just because you have an idea, Tony, it doesn’t mean it belongs to you.” Stane is more than just the villain of the movie. He represents corporate greed, the counterpart to Stark’s newfound sense of corporate responsibility. That’s one of the morals of a story from Marvel Entertainment’s film division? Really?
Obviously, media companies have been mining the minds of creative people for decades in work-for-hire agreements, and such a warm, fuzzy liberal message in a pop-culture product is hardly a new plot concept. But in the world of super-hero comics publishing, from which this new big-screen blockbuster was hatched, the notion of creator rights and transgressions against them are far more prominent in the collective consciousness of the industry and its audience than one finds in other media.
To be fair, the movie does acknowledge the creative efforts of comic-book talent. Stan Lee has his customary cameo in the flick, and the end credits acknowledge that the property was originally develop by Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck and Jack Kirby. But what about Denny O’Neil, Luke McDonnell and Mark Bright, the writer and artists who developed the Obadiah Stane/Iron-Monger concepts in the early to mid 1980s? What about David Michelinie and Bob Layton for introducing James Rhodes (Terrence Howard’s character in the movie) into the Iron Man cast in 1979? What about Ultimates creators Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch, who were the first ones to suggest a certain actor in the role of a certain director of a super-spy organization?
In recent years, Marvel’s competition, DC Comics, is the comics publisher that comes to mind when one considers creators’ rights. It recently lost a court bid to block the family of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel from taking back part ownership of the most iconic super-hero of them all. Mind you, DC also has a better track record than Marvel when it comes to offering creator-ownership deals (mainly through its Vertigo imprint).
Of course, Marvel Comics isn’t without sin in the creative-rights department either. I can’t help but wonder, though, what Marv Wolfman, for example, would think when/if he sees that scene with Downey and Bridges, when that key piece of dialogue exploring the conflict between creative and corporate thinking. Wolfman, of course, unsuccessfully sued Marvel over the copyright of the vampire-hunting hero Blade, which he created for a 1973 Tomb of Dracula comic. Blade spawned a successful film franchise as well. The late Steve Gerber also clashed with Marvel over Howard the Duck (which spawned an unsuccessful film).
Most viewers won’t flinch when Bridges utters that noteworthy line, but it gave me a tinge of cringe, if only for a moment.