Six game changing movies of the last 15 years – Number 1: The Avengers by Phil Bowers
It was a huge gamble. It meant years of work, laying storylines, establishing backstories, working out a chronology, and creating credible, likeable characters. Then all you had to do, was put them all together in the same movie and hope it came off.
Such was the task handed to Joss Whedon when he was handed the reins of directing probably the most complicated, continuity laden and eagerly anticipated comic book movie ever made. Thing is, despite Whedon’s stellar TV work, here was a man who’s most critically acclaimed, if not the most popular, venture was a TV series that was cancelled after one season. Let’s all just forget Alien: Resurrection, shall we?
Yet here he was, in charge of Marvel’s tent pole picture, what all their previous movies had been leading up to, the most important piece of theatre the studio had churned out to date: The Avengers.
It was always heading this way, right from when an eye patched Samuel L. Jackson made a fan boy pant wettingly awesome appearance at the end of Iron Man in 2008. Many had assumed throughout that movie that this was an excellent piece of storytelling, but it was only when the appearance of a soon to be ubiquitous SHIELD Agent Phil Coulson that first hinted at the possibility of a wider Marvel Universe. Then to throw in a cameo by Nick Fury himself? Well, that sent the internet into overdrive.
Let’s not forget at this point Iron Man had been a huge gamble itself, and no one was really sure if it would get off the ground, but to drop in such a huge hint that there might be a bigger film in the offing? That took, some big cahones. More cameos followed, with Tony Stark popping up at the end of The Incredible Hulk, which also featured a deleted scene featuring the frozen Captain America. Thor’s Hammer made an appearance at the end of Iron Man 2. The Captain America movie meanwhile gave a larger role to Tony Stark’s father Howard, and saw the introduction of the Cosmic Cube, which also appeared at the end of Thor. The biggest thing that whetted the appetite though, was Jolly Ol’ Nick Fury chasing down a rather tragic and disorientated Steve Rogers in Times Square after 75 years in a deep freeze.
In truth, The Avengers was a nailed on certainty years before barefoot Chris Evans was engulfed in the neon lighting of New York’s most famous open urban space. Marvel always wanted to make the Avengers, and with comic book movies reaching a nadir in their popularity thanks not only to Marvel’s own efforts, but the revamped Batman franchise, it was now nearer reality. As we’ve already discussed Batman got Marvel to pull their socks up and up their game when it came to their movies, which so far had been in the hands of other studios. Now the Christopher Nolan juggernaut had rumbled into view over the horizon, Marvel suddenly had to hit the accelerator.
And hit it they did, as when Joss Whedon’s magnum opus debuted, it eclipsed Nolan’s third Batman movie and the resurrected Spider-Man franchise. That was no mean feat considering it had to include, and do justice to, all the characters already introduced in their own movies, two more members who had so far been restricted to brief cameos, SHIELD as a fully fledged agency, and a credible threat to their combined might.
Thankfully, Whedon handles it masterfully, and while the film is a little Tony Stark-centric at times, all of the characters get their moment in the sun, and handing the mantle of chief villain to Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, while giving him an endless army of arse-kickable foot soldiers, served up a nemesis worthy of the Avengers combined talents.
Each member of the ensemble ticks a box that draws people in, and they compliment one another brilliantly. The heart and soul of the movie is provided by Steve Rogers, who in the final sequence is the one you actually see saving people, rather than blowing up aliens. Both Black Widow and Hawkeye come across as they do in the Ultimate Marvel Universe, as badass spies and assassins. Tony Stark is the big head who gets brought down to Earth both literally and figuratively, and learns a lesson along the way, while Hulk and Thor provide plenty of heavy duty violence and comic relief.
Whedon also had to walk the fanboy line, very, very carefully, as there were a queue of people around the world, including myself, ready to spout vitriol if he put so much as a big green foot wrong. On one hand, he had to make the movie profitable, mainstream, funny, and appealing enough to the causal moviegoer, while at the same time bringing through the themes and continuity that every comic book fan who had waited years for this wanted to see.
To do that, Whedon, as I’ve mentioned briefly above, drew heavily on Mark Millar’s Ultimates series, where Nick Fury first popped up as Jules Winfield rather than David Hasslehoff, years before Big Sam would play him, and Tony Stark bears more than a passing resemblance to RDJ. It was an attempt by Marvel to take the best parts of their mainstream universe and adapt it for the modern day.
The Ultimate Tony Stark is an alcoholic, and also a brilliant millionaire scientist, but he’s also haunted by a brain tumour that makes him more and more reckless, who misreads a woman’s interest in him as genuine affection (rather than espionage), because he thinks it may be his last chance at happiness. The Ultimate Captain America is a symbol of the past, but when brought back from the dead is a propaganda tool for the US Government, a flag waving banner of US supremacy, which at one point in Millar’s tale comes back to bite America, and Cap, in a huge way. Black Widow and Hawkeye are not the elegant, gawdy garbed power rangers of the mainstream books, but a pair of sleek assassins who, respectively, are more evil and good than they first appear. Ultimate Hulk is a man driven by the need to succeed and also by the rejection of the woman he loves so much. He experiments on himself to prove his theories (and his usefulness) to his superiors, but also because he becomes so depressed that Betty Ross (who in this world is a PR consultant), won’t love him, he feels the need to test on himself because he believes there is nothing else left to live for. Ultimate Thor has perhaps the best backstory, where he is an asylum worker who spends so long with mentally disturbed people, he eventually believes he is the God of Thunder, and steals a suit and version of Mjolnir from the Norwegian Government to fulfil his destiny. The ending of Thor’s tale has a very poetic conclusion, and I won’t spoil it for you, suffice to say it’s very similar to his own movie but on a bigger scale.
Against that backdrop are the alien invaders the Chitauri, a far bigger, longer term threat in the comics than they would be in the movie. Their more common name used in Marvel’s mainstream universe is the Skrulls, shape shifting aliens who at one point nearly took over the entire world by positioning their agents in positions of power and impersonating some of the best known superheroes in the Marvel catalogue. For at least twelve months prior to the opening of the Avengers, Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige insisted that the enemies in the big screen version of the Avengers would not be the Skrulls. You cheeky beggar Kevin. They were Skrulls in everything but name – and there ability to shape shift, if were going to be picky. They were though, called the Chitauri, so that makes me right!
Tom Hiddleston’s Loki ends up leading them, combining the plot threads of Millar’s last two books in the first volume of the Ultimates. Here, Loki has the joy of talking in that “I’m better than you” way to ordinary people, rather than fellow Asgardians. If anything, Hiddleston steals the show, and some of his lines, particularly one (and we all know which one, don’t we boys and girls?), hint at a mischievous teenager talking to a bunch of naïve children. Loki is after all, a god, in charge of a vast extraterrestrial army. Hiddleston comes across like this, even when he’s beaten, he retains a dry humour that makes you think even if he’s lost this battle, he thinks he’s got a fair old chance of winning the war.
Critically, the film was met with virtually unanimous positive reviews, something that 15 years ago, you would not have thought possible for a comic book movie. When Blade emerged in 1997, it was popular, but niche. Respectable, but not mainstream. Profitable, but not lucrative. The Avengers represented how everything had come full circle. This movie appealed to millions, of not billions, it featured headline acts in major roles, it made a colossal amount of money. It showed how far we had come. Blade made $131m worldwide. The Avengers took $1.5bn. It holds records for being the highest-grossing comic-book adaptation, the highest grossing superhero film and the highest-grossing film released by Walt Disney Studios. It is in short, the most successful and influential superhero movie of all time.
It’s legacy is one of success, but also of innovation. Marvel, thanks to The Avengers’ success, now have the critical clout to go to their Disney paymasters and demand cash for projects that would never have got off the ground ten years ago. Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man and Doctor Strange would have been gambles for Marvel before, but now, they have the confidence and the cash to attract the best scriptwriters and directors they want, to make their movies, however difficult it maybe to transcend from paper to film.
It also gives their characters room to develop, with a third installment of Iron Man on the way, and sequels for Thor and Captain America. All those movies now have the benefit of the Avengers’ success behind them. Not to mention the possibility of a Hulk movie that may finally do justice to the character, and spin offs for Black Widow and Hawkeye. The biggest test all of them face is living up to the Avengers as a movie, and as an experience.
Marvel’s Phase Two has a lot riding on it, but Phase One finished strongly, and gives all the forthcoming movies a great base to build on. All the new episodes of the team, along with the three newer franchises mentioned above will allow the studio to dominate the superhero market for years, if not decades to come. It will also mean that DC’s much anticipated Justice League movie, along with a rebooted Batman and Superman, have a lot to live up to, as do Wolverine, the X-Men, and the Amazing Spider-Man.
The Avengers changed things – for the better. Whether you’re a comic reader, a fan fiction writer, a prolific social media commentator, a cosplayer or just someone who loves superheroes and what they stand for – you finally had a movie that not only could you call your own, but you could hold up to the critics and say “this is why I love superheroes.” And you know something? Nobody could argue with you.