How 'The Avengers' Did Right by this Geek

by talkbackty on May 4, 2012

Never before has a project like The Avengers been attempted. It is hands down one of the riskiest ideas ever kicked around Hollywood. Immensely successfully franchises are derailed all the time by a terrible sequel (Spiderman 3, X-Men 3). Yet Marvel's new plan was to produce multiple movies introducing individual super heroes with the end goal of bringing them together in one movie depicting one of comic book's most beloved teams. Make no mistakes about it, The Avengers is really Marvel Comics 6.

The story of The Avengers begins in a meeting between Marvel studios and Merrill Lynch in the pre-recession golden years of 2005. Merrill Lynch gave Marvel a big ol' pile of money in hopes that this superhero craze, that I refer to as Wave One, would continue and make everyone involved more piles of money. It was a huge risk, especially since at the time Marvel was witnessing DC Comic's release of Batman Begins capture far more critical and box office attention than their own movies had received of late. Marvel got the loan from Merrill Lynch, probably financed by selling some poor family a house they couldn't afford, but who cares because movie history for the rest of us!

Wave One/Wave Two

Speaking of history, here's some that I've been storing in my head for years in case a random facts moment was needed at cocktail parties. The comic book resurgence began in 2000 with director Bryan Singer's take on the X-Men. It would continue for years dominated by Marvel movies that redefined what comic book adaptations could do.
The superhero genre was previously viewed as niche films that people like Kevin Smith would see, but would never garner mass-appeal. DC Comics also was clearly ahead of Marvel in the cinema department. The 80's were dominated with Superman and its many sequels while the 90's (beginning in 1989) were dominated by Batman. In that same time Marvel released Howard the Duck, The Punisher, a direct-to-video Captain America and Blade. Not exactly cinematic powerhouses.

Bryan Singer would change all of that with X-Men. A far more serious look at comic book heroes, Singer was able to launch the first Wave of the superhero resurgence with his gutsy film. Marvel would ride Wave One for seven years with two more X-Men sequels, three Spiderman movies, two Fantastic Four films, Ang Lee's Hulk, Daredevil, Elektra, Ghost Rider and a Punisher remake. In seven years Marvel released three times as many superhero movies as it did in the previous 70 years.

While Wave Two technically began in that fat cat meeting back in '05, the real wave began with the release of Iron Man in 2008. Robert Downey Jr. charmed both audiences and Ms. Potts to new heights and Iron Man launched a trend. It was the first time a movie truly had two roles- to be a coherent film while also being a prelude to a project down the road. Each of the Wave Two films would have to deal with this balancing act. Some faltered (Iron Man 2, Thor) while others shined (Captain America). It's tough to iterate how unprecedented this plan was so let's try an SAT association test to prove my point. If The Avengers is the Lord of the Rings trilogy then Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America are The Hobbit. $780 million on a prequel. Unlike The Hobbit, those in charge didn't know how successful The Avengers would be. They were guessing, like every studio guesses that it's next film will be a hit when the truth is they know about as much as audiences do about the next film's success. But that's what The Avengers is, the main event. Everything before this has just been a prequel so we know what is happening in The Avengers. It's been a five year study in mass-psychology and the results are in: we can be taught.

Each of the Waves represents a change in how comic book movies are presented. Before Wave One they were popular and had dedicated fan bases, but lacked mainstream appeal. Wave One changed that. It made comics cool again, made fandom a desirable trait and captivated the world in a way that had not been seen before. Wave One made it okay to tell a story through a superhero lens.
Wave Two changed how comic book movies were presented again. No longer would it be okay for characters to exist in their own individual universes. The same phenomenon that happened in the comics industry had jumped into the film industry. Once these characters are presented and we, the audience, know their stories we want to see them together. The Avengers is the culmination of years of work and dedication by the whole Marvel enterprise.

DC Comics

Titans of the previous generation's youth, DC has become second tier in the movie business during the 21st century. Since X-Men, DC Comics has released seven films compared to Marvel's twenty-four. While two (and the upcoming conclusion) can be quickly named, outside of Christopher Nolan's Batman franchise it is difficult for the average person to name any of DC Comics other films. Catwoman, Superman Returns, Watchmen, Jonah Hex and Green Lantern. Two were unmitigated disasters that did not recoup their costs (Catwoman, Jonah Hex), two made up their budgets at the box office but after accounting for marketing and licensing costs still are considered failures (Watchmen, Green Lantern), only Bryan Singer's Superman Returns can claim anything close to success, yet it was so routinely dismissed by fans and critics that no sequel was ever made. Audiences basically said, look we went to see this flick because it's about Superman, whom we love, but your movie sucked.

A brief aside for fans of Watchmen 

Look guys (and statistically speaking, yeah it's guys), Watchmen was awesome. It was the greatest interpretation we could ever hope for and I love Zack Snyder for making it happen. Compared to the rest of DC's non-Batman fodder, it's the only one that's any good. The problem is that Watchmen is not really a superhero movie as people came to know them during Wave One and Wave Two. It tried to be something else. Something more align with it's source material, something challenging and interesting and unique. To be blunt, Watchmen tried to be Batman Begins. In my opinion and most fans' opinions, it worked. The problem is that the Watchmen are not Batman. When you do something challenging and interesting and unique with characters that the general population is not familiar with it is easy to dismiss. Even when Chris Nolan did a very similar thing with Batman. I know, it's not fair. Watchmen was awesome, and I feel really bad about lumping it together with garbage like Jonah Hex, but the truth is that there aren't enough people like you and me. There's a bunch of normies out there who are reading this thinking, "this is a strange and weird aside, can we get back to The Avengers." No, normies, we can not. You should have seen Watchmen in the theaters. And Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Now back to The Avengers.


Before we get back to The Avengers, I need to talk about the $1.3 billion elephant in the room. That's how much money Christopher Nolan's two Batman films have made. $1.3 billion. But the most important part isn't the money it's the man. It's not DC Comic's Batman films, it's Christopher Nolan's Batman films. There is absolutely no one else like him. His take on Batman is worthy of it's own wave- Wave Nolan. Exactly as Wave One/Two marked changes in comic book movies, so to did Wave Nolan.

Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are so perfectly crafted that they transcend any singular superhero. In fact, Nolan's Batman is so far beyond any single superhero that it is strange to even put them in the same category. While Iron Man was getting drunk, The Dark Knight showed audiences insanity, depravity, pure evil, and sacrifice on an unparalleled stage. Other filmmakers appear to be telling stories about superheros while Nolan was telling stories of super-heroic proportions. Before the release of The Avengers it was impossible to think another film could challenge Nolan's The Dark Knight.

The reason for this is two fold. Firstly, Christopher Nolan tells complete stories. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight do not have to be seen together. While it's difficult to follow anything going on in The Avengers if you're unfamiliar with the numerous prequels, The Dark Knight stands on it's own just fine. There is no question that the films complement one another, but they are not supplements of each other.

Secondly, Christopher Nolan knows how to be Christopher Nolan. There is a tone and feeling when someone enters a Nolan film. It's not that we know what the movie is about (Inception) but rather we understand we are watching the work of a master. One of my biggest pet peeves is movies not understanding what they are supposed to be. Often this is a side effect of a multimillion dollar production with hundreds or even thousands of viewpoints all jockeying for a chance in the spotlight. John Carter is a perfect example of a film made by people who didn't know what the film was supposed to be. Maybe it started out with a clear vision, but over time and a thousand screaming voices that vision was lost. Christopher Nolan knows how to deliver the concept behind 'Christopher Nolan'. His films are perfectly constructed despite the fact that there are just as many people screaming for attention on Nolan's sets as there are on everybody else's.

Saying that a movie knows “what it is supposed to be” means it has one solid artistic vision and that vision is noticeable in every detail from casting to editing. Fast Five is a film that knows what it is supposed to be- awesome popcorn flick and a hell of a lot of fun. Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides is an example of a movie that didn't know what it was supposed to be- continuation of old characters? introduction of new ones? exploration of grand mythology? random treasure hunting flick? Johnny Depp being Jack Sparrow? A clear artistic vision is needed for a film to feel complete and whole. Christopher Nolan has been able to do that with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.

The Avengers...finally.

The crazy thing about The Avengers is that it's better than the sum of it's parts. While nothing on this scale had ever been attempted before, the small-scale tests were not inspiring. The closest thing to The Avengers experiment were a few episodes of CW's Smallville that attempted to show the beginnings of the Justice League of America. Just like The Avengers, characters were introduced in their own episodes and some got multi-episode arcs exactly like Iron Man got multiple movies. The results were near disastrous. None of the JLA episodes of Smallville were critically well received, often citing the rushed pace, a confusing storyline or even complete cop outs like putting characters on the phone instead of in the fight. Die-hard fans, myself included, loved seeing everyone together but the nostalgic effect soon wore off and we were left with a few mediocre episodes. While TV and movies aren't directly correlated, many in the industry and fans across the world feared The Avengers would fall into the same traps that plagued Smallville.

Whedon to the Rescue

Joss Whedon has had a big 2012. All he had to do was direct The Avengers and it would have been the biggest moment of his career, but a much smaller flick called Cabin in the Woods- a genre mash up masquerading as a horror movie- managed to sneak it's way into theaters a couple of months before The Avengers. Cabin should have been a preview for what was in store when The Avengers finally graced the screen. The tight pacing, writing and editing apparent in Cabin all can be seen in The Avengers.

Already a cult hero for fan favorites like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and Dollhouse, Whedon's name will now be at the top of every studio's list. If Christopher Nolan tells complete, realistic, gritty versions of his cape-wearing hero then Joss Whedon operates like the yin to Nolan's yang. It's not that The Avengers is the opposite of The Dark Knight, it's that they are two masterful films playing with different sides of the same coin. Each film knows what it is supposed to be, each has a clear artistic vision and each is a masterpiece.

The Avengers is whimsical. It is fun. It honestly feels like an adult came along and put together the scraps some toddlers were playing with and turned them into a skyscraper. That is not meant to be a slight to the other filmmakers, merely a way to convey how fantastic Whedon's The Avengers is.
The Avengers takes four superheros (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk), four non-super-but-still-awesome secret agents (Nick Fury, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Maria Hill), and one sidekick (Agent Phil Coulson) and throws them together to fight Thor's adopted brother/demigod Loki who is acting as the point man for a race of powerful aliens called the Chitauri who are led by an even more powerful thing known only as "The Other" who, we discover in the first of two post credit scenes, is working for Thanos. Did that one sentence just blow your mind? Well then you should enjoy the hell out of the movie. It's incredibly complex, which is why so many were worried that this film would crash and burn like a Kryptonian escape pod.

Yet Whedon delivers all the goods. Each character is given their share of screen time, their stories both concluding the arcs begun in their individual movies and catapulting them to the next level of herohood (that should be a word). Whedon presents us with a sort of nostalgic whimsy. A time portal to our youth when things were fun and funny, where time passes unnoticed, where enjoyment is had at each and every moment. The Avengers transports viewers in a way that every film should but only the great ones do. That's the similarity between Nolan and Whedon, each of their films transports you, and we recognize that as a rare thing. The difference is in where they choose to take you.
In The Avengers, Joss Whedon favors the whimsical, the fantastic and the awe inspiring. The pure joy of watching our childhood icons bicker and fight and eventually come together to save the world is exactly what we've always wanted. Not just we, the diehard fans, but we, the human race. We crave that nostalgic whimsy and it is rarely seen in our world of 24 hour news cycles. In our world, there's a lack of giant green monsters punching demigods, not out of malice but out of playfulness- the way brothers punch each other. And that sucks because monsters punching demigods playfully is one of the most enjoyable things to watch. The Avengers fills that void. And it fills about every requirement one could burden a movie to fill. The Avengers is fantastic, and Joss Whedon made it so.
Last Panel

The Avengers made movie history. Yes, it looks like the box office is going to be astronomically high and for all those that needed it to be so- congratulations. More importantly, The Avengers is the culmination of an idea that should have never worked. No film franchise in history has banked so much on a single idea, and because of that, no film has ever lived up to such high expectations before. In the future we will show our kids The Avengers and its prequels the way our parents showed us Star Wars. It is a historic moment, so here's what I really wanted to say...

Thank you.