Image by Natalie Moreno
On Wu-Tang's debut, the clan let it be known that they form like Voltron. It might be more accurate, though, to say they assemble like Avengers. Or at least they used to.
Once upon a time in Shaolin, the name Tony Stark meant something radically different than it does now. In the back half of the 90s, Wu-Tang chief headbanger Ghostface cribbed his alter ego from the civilian identity of Iron Man. He may have added an extra 's' to 'Tony Starks,' protecting himself legally, but then he also named his first solo jawn, Iron Man, so he obviously wasn't too worried about a lawsuit. As a platinum recording artist prior to Marvel's gold rush, Ghostface possibly held more sway as Tony Starks than the Van Dyke'd industrialist from the comics. Cut to 2015 and the smarmy RDJ Tony Stark is now a linchpin in the most lucrative film series of all time, while Tony Starks as inhabited by Ghostface is… well, he's still around. The two actually have a lot they could learn from each other.
As Ant-Man marches into theaters, marking the second major Marvel release of 2015, the monolithic comic book conglomerate stands stronger than ever. The tide only started turning this way, however, 15 years ago when Bryan Singer's X-Men reignited the public's love affair with seeing shit blow up in whiz-bang carnage via spandex-clad superfreaks. Although Marvel's meteoric rise in movies began around the same time as Wu-Tang's precipitous decline, the two share similar origin stories.
Prior to X-Men, DC was the only game in town. Marvel movies like 1990's The Punisher proved to be non-starters while the antics of Tim Burton and Michael Keaton in 1989 had the cultural clout to propel Prince's goofy "Batdance" to the top of the charts. Similarly, before RZA rallied a squad together under a mythology informed by kung-fu movies and, naturally, comic books, he and the GZA each had regrettable solo releases. Ooh I Love You Rakeem and Words From The Genius, by RZA and GZA respectively, both exist as artifacts of a purgatorial time between rap golden ages, and they're as non-canonical as Howard The Duck. From these meager beginnings, both Marvel and Wu-Tang rose to prosperity in dovetailing timelines.
Wu-Tang was first. RZA became both the Nick Fury and Kevin Feige of the Wu-Tang Clan, a creative leader and big-picture businessman. He put the crew together, named it after the film Shaolin vs Wu Tang, established its signature use of martial arts sound effects, and forged a legendary deal with Loud Records that allowed all nine members to cut their own separate solo deals with other labels. Unlike the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Wu-Tang's "Phase One" actually began with the group coming together as a unit to make Enter The 36 Chambers, rather than ramping up to it. Thus began five years of still-peerless posse rap.
Like the Avengers team, Wu-Tang was careful about who got solo shine and when. Batting first were the franchise players: Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface, GZA, and to a lesser extent Ol' Dirty Bastard. (While ODB could rap his ass off, he also sometimes sounded like Rick James in a blackout.) Everybody else basically had to share status as the Hawkeye of the clique. Also like the Avengers, each Wu-Tang solo album featured appearances from other members. Ghostface's Iron Man album art, for instance, prominently features Raekwon and Cappadonna, who guest on damn near every track, the same way posters for next year's Captain America: Civil War will likely feature the co-headlining Iron Man and another Avenger or two. All the Wu solo albums from this period felt like parts of a greater universe, one with bonus tracks instead of post-credits sequences.
There has scarcely been anything more exhilarating as a hip-hop fan than processing that insane run of classic Wu-Tang albums in real-time. These kinds of calls are subjective, obviously, and I may be out of touch for being old enough to have been there. For all I know, somebody else's long wait for Fetty Wap's debut full-length could be as exquisitely bittersweet as knowing Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx was right around the corner. Nobody back then could appreciate just how historically great that album was right away. It bumped. It banged. But fans didn't have the distance yet to know how crisp and tight it would still sound 14 years later when Raekwon's next great album, Cuban Linx 2, came out. For all we knew, the group would keep up this streak forever. Probably because the second full company album was called Wu-Tang Forever. But in a twist worthy of Mr. Fantastic, Wu-Tang Forever proved to be the beginning of the end.
It feels distinctly backpacker-ish to pinpoint Wu-Tang's commercial peak as its death knell, especially when Forever does contain a bunch of straight-up jams. The bloated double-album, which went quadruple-platinum, presents a clear line of demarcation, though, any way you slice it with your ninja sword.
Before then, Wu-Tang dropped product once or twice a year, the anticipation-stoking schedule technique of present-day Marvel. Suddenly all the Hawkeyes—your U-Gods and Inspectah Decks, etc—began rushing out their solo debuts with interchangeable RZA apprentices like 4th Disciple and True Master. At the same time, the Clan's marquee names launched their next wave of attack, and experimented with several high-profile producers in New York. Meanwhile, down south, Master P's upstart No Limit Records began to present DC-like competition with its own sprawling, interconnected universe, earning platinum plaques at a breakneck pace. Possibly in response, Wu affiliates like Killarmy and GP Wu started putting out albums of instantly forgettable weed carrier rap, further diluting the brand. Fans started turning into completists—striving, like the parallel phenomenon of Pokemon, to catch 'em all. Gone was the cohesive sound that made each release part of a unified movement, and also the reliability. Nobody in 1995 may have been sure Raekwon's Cuban Linx was the classic it appeared to be, but they sure as hell knew that his Immobilarity was bunk on arrival four years later.
Things got even worse afterward, on the fractious path to 2014's probably final Wu album, the incorrectly titled A Better Tomorrow. ODB died. Meth was in a Zach Braff movie and a deodorant commercial. Infighting between RZA and Raekwon became far more noteworthy than any music that came from the Clan camp in some time—save for Ghostface, and even his unpredictable output has become a gamble.
The road to these dire straits began with Wu-Tang Forever, the sophomore group effort. Earlier this year, Marvel released The Avengers: Age of Ultron, a cinematic analogue to Forever, and it now stands at the precipice of a similar crossroads.
The same problems that plagued Wu-Tang may end up haunting Marvel going forward. While Age of Ultron was nearly as big a hit as its predecessor, it left an enthusiasm gap. Marvel's long-tail strategy of flooding the market through to the year 2019 may have some fans feeling like they're in the Pokemon stage already. The interconnectedness and unrelenting rollout of next chapters may make for appointment viewing each time out, but by 2019—How old will you be in 2019? Too old for this shit?—it might be as appealing as a dental appointment. At the same time, DC has mimicked Marvel's strategy, creating a No Limit-like barrage of competition. Even the infighting that helped doom Wu-Tang is starting to occur at Marvel, with director Edgar Wright's high profile exit from Ant-Man over creative differences, and contentious battles with Fox over character rights.
All may not be lost just yet, though, clearly. No figure is as essential to the creative development of each Marvel project as RZA was to Wu-Tang's God-tier period, so no one person could shift overall quality control. With the amount of money at stake and abundance of nerd-eyeballs watching every move, Kevin Feige is being heart-surgeon careful about the talent his company gets into bed with. As a result, the first project only tangentially related to the Avengers, 2014's delightfully freewheeling Guardians of the Galaxy, ended up a commercial and critical megahit, rather than turning into, say, Marvel's version of a Sunz of Man album. Ant-Man follows a similar trajectory, embracing the silliness of its miniscule hero, while still stocking up on the fireball-bearing setpieces that are comic book bread and butter.
Cash rules everything around movies, so however Ant-Man does at the box office this weekend will be a huge signifier of what's to come. If it hits hard, get ready to see more intentionally funny Marvel movies and more calculated risks in general. If not, it will be a chink in the studio's iron armor, possibly heralding market panic, safer decisions, and an intergalactically boring back-to-basics approach. Who knows if they, or we, can survive that? We've just now entered Phase III, which is about when Wu-Tang lost the plot. One thing's for sure: Marvel better protect its neck.
Joe Berkowitz is a writer and nerd based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.