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The Incredible Avengers…

The Avengers has gone form being the movie project I was most skeptical about to one of my most anticipated movies of the comic years. Indeed, the summer of 2011 is looking to be one for the books with a whole rake of massive cult and comic book films coming out – Thor, Captain America, Green Lantern and, should Gary Oldman be believed, Batman 3. However, the culmination of Marvel’s planning within the cinematic world will be the release of The Avengers in 2012. I’ve never been much of a Marvel fan, but I will concede that they have pulled off an amazing movie-making feat. They have created a fully-integrated film universe from a variety of disparate sources building to to a clear target.

Avengers Assemble...

Avengers Assemble...

In fairness, the Marvel universe isn’t entirely integrated on film. Mostly due to the conflicting studios bankrolling the movies and the fact that Marvel Studios wasn’t fully established until relatively recently, the X-Men and Spiderman trilogies exist independently at their separate production houses. Indeed, Sony guards their Spidey so well that they would not allow Louis Leterrier to set a scene in The Incredible Hulk at the same fictional university that Peter Parker attends, let alone allow Tobey Maguire to have a brief cameo. Fox’s determination to pursue an exclusive X-Men franchise (with sequels, spin-offs and prequels) would obviously seem to cut Hugh Jackman’s beloved Wolverine out of The Avengers as well – at least for the moment. That doesn’t mean that each of the Marvel films has existed entirely separately until now.

The Fantastic Four movies and the X-Men franchise (both developed by Fox) have included several cross-references, notably sharing the same (fictious) President of the United States and a subtle suggestion that the mutant-watchers in the X-Men Universe are watching the Fantastic Four as well. There’s also the obviously shared continuity between the (so-so) Daredevil and the (terrible) Elektra. These are relatively small touches, but are more than DC has managed – the closest thing to an internal continuity reference was the mention of Gotham in a newscast during Superman Returns.

Marvel’s current ambitions are somewhat larger. They plan to create a superhero team involving at least four – and maybe more – big hitters. And Marvel have dedicated themselves to building the universe from the ground-up. By the time that The Avengers arrives on-screen, it will have been under construction for four years. Iron Man demonstrated the concept could work and that non-supernova superheroes could (under the right conditions) grab the public’s attention – despite what it would seem Daredevil or Elektra had taught us. There was a huge reaction to the cameo by Samuel L. Jackson as another Marvel hero in a post-credit sequence. A similar (through pre-credit) cameo by Robert Downey Jnr. (as well as the visibly product placement of Stark Industries weapons throughout the film) confirmed that The Incredible Hulk was part of this new continuity as well. There was also an aborted (well, simply deleted) Captain America cameo in that movie as well.

What is quite surprising is that after a fairly solid foundation in 2008, audiences may have to wait to see the rest of the brickwork fall into place. Wolverine was the only major Marvel release of 2008 and that takes place within the X-Men continuity. The next glimpse of this Marvel shared universe will be with Iron Man 2 in 2010. The film will feature Samuel L. Jackson as a supporting player and will introduce Scarlett Johanssen as the Black Widow (who may turn up in The Avengers). There are also rumours of an Edward Norton cameo as Bruce Banner. That will have to tide fans over until 2011 when quite a lot is crammed in.

Kenneth Branagh’s Thor will arrive in May. There’s an understandable bit of unease and speculation about how the magical mysticism of Asgard will fit into the science-based spectacle of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. The movie is also somewhat limited in what it could contribute to the lore of this shared universe as it is rumoured that Branagh will be focusing on the Norse aspect of things (Brian Blessed is playing Odin). Still, it looks to be developing as a stunning film in its own right – which is the ideal scenario. I’d rather have five good films than five mediocre universe-builders.

Thor will be followed fairly shortly by Captain America: The First Avenger. This is one of my more anticipated of the Marvel pictures. It will apparently be a “period-piece” superhero picture, featuring the American superman taking on those dastardly Nazis. The Raiders of the Lost Ark has been cited as a reference point and – if the movie can pull it off – that sounds like one of the more fun summer movie-going experiences around. Of course, it looks to be set in as much a different “world” from Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk as Thor, so I’m not sure how it will tie in – beyond the essential “Captain America is frozen in the past and thawed in the present” – but Captain America is supposedly a direct lead-in to The Avengers which will open the following month. I’m not quite sure if that entails anything more than the Cap waking up in the present, but it implies a more solid link than any of the other movies.

It’s a fairly ambitious project. It’s also a fairly clever imitation of the crossover format that comic books are particularly fond of – port your characters over from one title to another and hope the readers follow them. It has relatively recently emerged as a popular hobby on television (for example a black-out on Mad About You also affected Friends) with characters and plotlines overlapping on shows that share continuity (for example the CSI franchise has shared the screen with the Cold Case cast and Without a Trace). The undisputed king of the television crossover is Richard Belzer’s John Munch. The hardboiled detective ties together Homicide, St. Elsewhere, The X-Files, Law & Order and Arrested Development among others. Still, while television has wholly embraced the concept of the ‘shared universe’ – culminating in the Tommy Westphall hypothesis which suggests that this shared universe is inside the mind of an autistic child – movies have been somewhat slower to.

There have been a few low key attempts – the attempt to place the not-so-great Soldier in the same continuity as Blade Runner – but nothing substantial. I have to admit a fondness for the patient approach adopted by the company. Giving individual heroes their own movies and (in the case of Iron Man) their own franchsies avoids the biggest risk of ensemble blockbuster spectacle – too many characters. The fact that the characters are established also means that they are generally played by solid actors. It’s hard to imagine Edward Norton signing up for a supporting role as a big green monster in the Avengers, but he will sign up to headline his own film and play that supporting role. We know that Robert Downey Jnr. was amazing as Tony Stark. Hopefully Johanssen may be good as Black Widow and Samuel l. Jackson will light up the screen as Nick Fury. If a solid Captain America can be found, that’s a fairly solid ensemble for a summer blockbuster.

Giving each character two hours of screentime before the main event also minimises the prep time the film has to devote to find its feet. It can hit the ground running. We know Tony Stark can fly; we know the Hulk gets angry; we know Thor is a God. We can just get on with the main attraction.

Not-so-lean, but still green and mean fighting machine...

Not-so-lean, but still green and mean fighting machine...

From a business stand point it also makes sense – now that we know it can work. I can assume that each hero film will have its own admirers and detractors (The Incredible Hulk is less popular than Iron Man, for example, and I imagine Thor might draw a slightly skewed audience with its director and themes), but I reckon anyone who liked any of the lead-in pictures would be inclined to give it a whirl. In a world where sequels are a lucrative business model, this film represents four sequels in one. Even if Thor and Captain America aren’t my thing, I’ll likely still check it out.

Of course, there’s no telling how things will actually go on opening day. Audiences are fickle beasts – the movie could bomb. Still, I imagine most of the heavy-lifting is done. The main risk of the approach adopted by Marvel – and it’s a big one – would seem to be that the initial foundations would not catch on. Though The Incredible Hulk didn’t do as well as it deserved to, Iron Man clearly found its footing. It’s fun to contrast this approach with the attempts by DC to bring their own equivalent ‘super team’ – the Justice League -to the big screen. Their approach was the exact opposite. They aimed for a single movie featuring all the characters to be followed by a string of individual spin-offs. Kind of like what has happened with X-Men, where the ensemble did three films together before Hugh Jackman got his own film. This worked because the origins and powers of all the ensemble could be explained by a single factor (they are mutants). Imagine attempting that with a team composed of a intergalactic cop, an Amazon princess, two aliens with different powers, the king of Atlantis, the fastest man alive and a billionaire playboy who dresses like a bat.

It seems that Marvel has the right approach, amping up to a massive summer blockbuster that will tie all the threads together. I don’t know why the appeal of a gigantic shared universe occupied by all these characters together excited me more that whole host of universes where they exist independently, but it does. I admit that I should wait to see how it plays out, but – for the moment at least – I’m excited. It is interesting to speculate that five or so years down the line we might see a sequel with the characters currently out-of-scope. Early rumours for the movie suggested the hero Ant-Man might get his own solo picture and then join the ensemble, but things appear to have changed. At the time I scoffed at the concept, but if Kenneth Branagh can make Thor work then there’s no reason a concept like a shrinking, super-strong hero who can telepathically command ants can’t work, right? There’s also the somewhat fainter possibility that Wolverine’s rights will have reverted to Marvel and will allow him to feature.

Still, if the Avengers does work, it sets the precedent for other Marvel comic book characters. In the past C-listers such as Daredevil or Punisher have struggled to support solo features. The Punisher, in particular, would seem suited to a crossover format, having first appeared in Spiderman and later having frequent run-ins with Daredevil. Pairing up (or overlapping) minor properties like that might offer the way forward. Perhaps even subtly tying them to the large pictures.

The creation of a large and expansive world on celluloid is a rare accomplishment. Star Wars and Star trek are two of the truly large examples that spring to mind. Accomplishing the construction of a shared world across a series of individual movies featuring unique central characters is practically unheard of (Kevin Smith’s View Askew universe is the only other example that comes to mind). Never mind the Hulk, that Marvel have managed to construct this universe through a subtle and non-intrusive narrative web without distracting from the individual characters is nothing less than incredible.

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One Response

  1. “The undisputed king of the television crossover is Richard Belzer’s John Munch. ” And now he’s crossed species lines. Meet Little John Munch, a nine week old kitten!!! (Seriously – check out his photo on my website and pass the word. Little Munch needs a home)

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