On Monday night I was invited, along with a handful of other journalists, to an "open house" at Marvel Studios' offices on the Disney lot in Burbank. Honestly I didn't know what to expect. Open house could have meant anything. They could have been showing off their new couches and conference rooms for all we knew. (And seriously, nobody knew a thing.) We got into groups and went on the tour of the offices, which is strikingly cool from the moment you get off the elevator. There were giant murals on the wall; in the waiting room were several Iron Man suits, lit up and looking impressive. Towards the reception desk were costumes from "Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2" (more on that in a minute).
It can't be stressed just what a transformation this space has undergone. When the offices moved from Manhattan Beach to Burbank, they were a cluster of nondescript workspaces with little flare and barely any cohesion. If you got off at the Marvel floor in the Frank G. Wells building (named after the beloved Eisner-era executive who died tragically in a helicopter crash), chances are you wouldn't even know it's the Marvel floor. Not anymore.
We made our way into a massive room. On one side was a ping-pong table. On the other side was a model of Disneyland's Main Street. It's unclear what era it was from, because of the placement of the Astro-Orbiters (remember, it used to be on top of the PeopleMover platform); maybe it was a hodgepodge. It was very detailed; there were lit-up Electrical Main Street Parade floats in a backstage area and on the far side of the model fiber-optic fireworks glittered. (The model is President of Marvel Studios Kevin Feige's.) Elsewhere, there was a life-size Baby Groot under a bell jar and a replica of Thor's hammer. We sat down on modern couches and watched a sizzle reel from "Black Panther," which finishes shooting tomorrow.
The reel was a combination of interviews, footage from the set, and conceptual artwork. Several people talk about how advanced the nation of Wakanda, first glimpsed at the end of "Captain America: Civil War," is, with vehicles that look like space ships flying around and advanced armor (including what looked like some kind of robotic rhinoceros -- yes please). Michael B. Jordan, who plays the villain, says that the movie will be "honest and gritty." Later in the tour we walked into the screening room on the first floor of the building and watched dailies from the film. There was a scene where Lupita Nyong'o seriously beat up some soldiers, another featured traditional warriors on a large boat, and most tellingly was a sequence where Chadwick Boseman walks into a water-filled arena overseen by Forest Whitaker shamanistic Zuri. (It has been debated whether or not the more magical elements of the Black Panther character would be present in the film; judging by this the answer is probably.) The footage, while raw, seemed to have that lived-in, slightly off-center, still-elegant long take feel that brilliant filmmaker Ryan Coogler brought to the unexpectedly great "Rocky" spin-off "Creed."
Another, longer sequence featured Klaue (Andy Serkis), last seen getting his arm severed in "Avengers: Age of Ultron," walking into a casino or nightclub. Klaue is soon greeted by Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), a member of the Joint Counter Terrorism Center (also last seen in "Captain America: Civil War"), and the two have some surprisingly comedic back-and-forth. Everett makes a great joke about Klaue dropping a mixtape. It turns out Klaue really is dropping a mixtape and asks Ross for his email address. It's very funny. Of course, soon after Klaue shows up a giant action sequence breaks out and T'Challa (aka the Black Panther) leaps into action. I've heard the movie described as Marvel's 007 movie and this sequence certainly reinforced that. It also reinforced the fact that "Black Panther," despite its more serious subject matter and cultural sensitivity, will still have all the fun, excitement, and humor of the very best Marvel movies. February 2018 can't come soon enough.
After watching the "Black Panther" sizzle we walked up to the art department.
Hanging on the walls was artwork from "Black Panther" (including a teasing glimpse of Jordan's character), "Thor: Ragnarok," and "Spider-Man: Homecoming." On a large, vertically turned monitor was a pre-production sketch of Thanos, the Marvel Cinematic Universe-wide big bad that was teased way back at the end of the first "Avengers" back in 2012. Looking at the image, it struck me that this was the first time we've really seen the character standing up. Most of the time he's been in that regal floating throne. Taking him all in he looks big and burly and truly imposing. On one hand is the Infinity Gauntlet, the glove that will (at some point) hold the Infinity Stones, those mystical doodads that everybody from Thor to the Guardians of the Galaxy have been clamoring over for the last five years of Marvel movies. If this is the guy every hero has to face, well, be worried for the heroes.
In the next art room there was even more art and, oh yeah, "Ant-Man and The Wasp" director Peyton Reed. This was a huge surprise. I didn't think we'd actually be meeting any of the filmmakers on our tour; I probably would have tucked my shirttail in if I had known this. Reed, who also directed the sorely underrated first "Ant-Man," showed off some preliminary artwork from the new film, including both old and new versions of the Ant-Man suit (with the "Captain America: Civil War" being the in-between iteration). Reed teased Pym's new lab ("Where is he working?"), further far-out adventures in the quantum realm (the Marvel Cinematic Universe equivalent of the comics' micro-verse), and new technology that allows Ant-Man and the Wasp to shrink not only themselves but also those around them. One of the most striking pieces of artwork was Luis' van from the first film in the jaws of a dog. It looks terrific; really beautiful and weird like the best parts of the first movie with a larger emphasis on playful psychedelic. Reed was as charming and accommodating as always and nimbly avoided answering certain questions.
Elsewhere on the wall was artwork of Brie Larson in her "Captain Marvel" costume. But everyone was pretty tight-lipped on that.
Our next stop was the visual effects review review room. Standing in the corner, tall and grey and dressed like he was waiting outside of a Los Feliz coffee shop, was Taika Waititi, the super-genius director of "Thor: Ragnarok." "Today we're going to introduce you to a character that nobody knows is in the movie," he said. That character is Korg, a giant rock man who featured prominently in the "Planet Hulk" comic book arc that "Thor: Ragnarok" borrows from. Fighting alongside Korg is his sidekick Miek, who is a larva inside of a robotic exo-skeleton suit. It's honestly one of the weirdest things you've ever seen and a huge departure from the character, who is way more insect-like in the comics. (As if anyone thought Waititi was going to follow anything verbatim.)
We got to watch a sequence where Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is talking to Korg before entering the gladiatorial arena that you see at the end of the teaser trailer. Korg is tall and craggy but speaks in a lilting New Zealand accent. He tells Thor that he was banished because, "I tried to start a revolution but didn't print enough pamphlets." The two characters walk for a while before Korg admits that the hallway is just a circle. Afterwards Taika, who also voices the character and provided the motion capture, says that he based the character on "Polynesian nightclub bouncers," people that had the most genial-sounding voice but you really don't want to mess with. (He didn't use the word mess.) His goal was to turn this hulking brute into "the most lovable character in the film." Based on the footage I saw, that seems like a pretty achievable goal.
Finally we went into the main theater on the ground level and watched visual effects dailies from "Spider-Man: Homecoming" and the aforementioned "Black Panther" stuff. Visual effects dailies are when they review shots from various effects houses (there were at least a half dozen effects houses credited with the Spider-Man work, including Sony Pictures ImageWorks). Most of these shots were just a few seconds long and many took place in sequences already teased in the trailer -- Spider-Man foiling bank robbers dressed as the Avengers, him climbing to the top of the Washington Monument. We did see a really impressive long shot of him putting on his suit in an alleyway, presumably coming home from school. It's unbroken, tracking through the alley, as he puts on the suit that is, at first, pretty baggy and then snugly fitted to his body. A producer noted that the size of a rat that scampers away will be bigger and there's still discussion as to how disgusting to make a bag of trash that opens once he web-shoots his bag to the side of the bin. "If we add in some sound effects we can make it really gross," the producer says cheerfully.
Other shots that we saw included a shot with Shocker (Bokeem Woodbine), a moment where Vulture (Michael Keaton) sits crouched on a building looking like a looming gargoyle (mirroring a piece of artwork we saw earlier), and, maybe most tantalizingly, Donald Glover playing a heretofore-undisclosed character being handed a glove made from a piece of a discarded Ultron robot by one of Vulture's gang. It still doesn't answer who he's playing, exactly, but at least we can definitively say he's not Miles Morales. So there's that.
After our tour we walked across the lot to the main theater and watched a little film called "Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2." I can't say much more (embargoed!) but just know that the smile that was plastered across my face during the open house didn't leave for the rest of the night.
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