Marvel has found its real-life Peter Parker in Michael Muller.
Like the fictional comicbook character who exclusively captures images of Spider-Man, Muller has become Marvel’s go-to photographer to shoot the best angles of its superheroes.
Muller isn’t a household name, but his work is recognized around the globe, appearing on posters, billboards, inside movie theaters and even on soda cans and toy packaging.
He has shot all of the “Iron Man” films, “The Avengers,” “X-Men First Class,” “Captain America: The First Avenger,” as well as older Marvel-based titles like “Spider-Man 3,” “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” and “X-Men Origins Wolverine.”
Muller is one of a select group of photographers to whom studios turn when they need photos of stars for their marketing materials. Not only is it a competitive business, but “very few people can deal with managers, agents, publicists, and studios,” Muller says.
Like many jobs in Hollywood, psychology is a key factor in Muller’s work, but so are relationships. When it comes to Marvel, it goes back to Muller’s years-long friendship with Iron Man himself, Robert Downey Jr.
“We’ve just enjoyed working together,” Muller says. “Robert’s a genius artist to work with. He turns on with the camera. He gives you the expressions. He’s so improvisational.”
That kind of trust has also paid off with Peter Berg, who involved Muller on his campaigns for “Hancock,” the short-lived NBC’s actioner “Trauma” and more recently Universal’s “Battleship.”
Muller’s first foray into movie posters began with another Marvel-related campaign, Fox’s “X-Men: The Last Stand,” after studio marketing chief Tony Sella saw one of the photographer’s prints of Batman smoking crack.
Muller says that he knew nothing about any studio’s idea of marketing formula. “I wanted to do what I do and collaborate with actors,” he says.
Muller prefers to shoot posters in camera, directing scenes on set, where actors tend to feel more comfortable and are already in costume.
“In between takes, the actors will run in and create our own moments,” Muller says. “It’s much easier if you’re shooting a poster and they’re in character. Actors love it. They hate it when four weeks after the movie’s wrapped they have to come into the studio and do a photo shoot for the poster. They’re not comfortable taking pictures. For some reason, a still camera is a completely different thing than a film camera.”
Muller’s pics can also be seen in the campaigns for “Spring Breakers,” the final season of “Spartacus,” Relativity’s “Out of the Furnace” and “Olympus Has Fallen.”
Aside from his Hollywood work, Muller donates his time to nonprofits — his photos for the U.N. Foundation ran in Variety last year — and to other photo passions, such as diving the depths of the world’s oceans to capture one of his favorite subjects, sharks.
He spends his free time funding trips that take him and his small staff to South Africa where he can chase sharp-toothed great whites.
The images he gets offer an extreme spine-chilling closeup of these underwater beasts.
It’s hard to ignore the irony that one of Hollywood’s top photographers is obsessed with sharks. But the trips have proved more than just a hobby. Discovery Channel has licensed his images for “Shark Week’s” 25th anniversary.
“They all affect each other,” Muller says. “The superhero stuff has affected the way I shoot sharks. The way I shoot the shark stuff effects the superhero stuff. The big commercial superhero stuff is what fuels and allows me to go do these trips to South Africa.”