Marvel Studios and The Road to The Avengers

This guy is a massive tool.

Does anyone remember The Fantastic Four? Or it’s sequel Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer? This pair of films from 2005 and 2007 are probably best forgotten. They represent a real low point in Marvel Studios patchy history. After punching high in the early 2000’s with coproductions like Spider-Man, X-Men and Blade the studio seemed to be flailing wildly by the middle of the decade with films like Ang Lee’s confused Hulk and underwhelming turkeys like Ghost Rider and The Punisher. For me though, the Fantastic Four movies really were the worst. The original Kirby/Lee run (which the movies follow in the loosest possible sense) represents one of the greatest collaborations of the golden age of Marvel Comics. The films sucked ass. I mean seriously, the script was hollow, the effects were shoddy and the acting was 100% wooden.

It was also released in Korea.

Fast forward to 2012. The biggest US opening weekend in cinema history. The perfect Marvel superhero film. Starring, among others, Chris Evans. The same Chris Evans who had made me cringe all the way through two Fantastic Four movies. That, to me, is the whole thing in a nutshell. The success of Avengers Assemble, of Marvel Studios, rests on its ability to reinvent itself. So many aspects of this film are incongruous with earlier Marvel films but all the elements sing harmoniously with each other. The cinematic Marvel Universe has reshuffled before: the changing face of the Hulk, the changes to supporting actors in Jon Faverou’s Iron Man films, not to mention the constant upgrading of costumes, effects and locations as the production values of these films have soared. And why have the production values soared? Because these films, good or bad, make a shit-ton of money.

Meanwhile back at Marvel HQ…

The Fantastic Four movies grossed over six hundred million dollars between them. Hulk smashed through two hundred and fourty million, even Ghost Rider grossed over two hundred million dollars. And these are the ones that are considered flops. It seems like Marvel Studios had gained a license to print money. All of this stepped up a notch in 2008 with the release of Iron Man, directed by Jon Faverou and staring Robert Downey Junior (an actor who himself is a master of reinvention). The movie was big, bombastic and cheerful. As well as filling Marvel’s coffers though, it managed to gain respect from critics and fanboys alike. Those who stayed in the cinema until the end of the movie were treated to something else though. Samuel L Jackson with an eye patch on talking about a new initiative he is putting together. The Avengers.

Planning for this had actually started as long ago as 2005 when Marvel Studios first declared their independence and set about making a slate of interconnected superhero films to be distributed by Paramount. Iron Man was soon followed by The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America: First Avenger (which is where Chris Evens re-enters our story) the films range from awesome (Iron Man) to terrible (Captain America) but what Marvel Studios were doing here was more ambitious than any other project in the history of cinema: creating a cohesive cinematic universe based on the much loved world of Marvel comics. Not only that but creating this world through the medium of blockbuster cinema: usually high risk, usually subject to massive changes from hot headed studio bosses. And yeah, there was a lot of that. It might have been nice to see Ed Norton’s Hulk again, it would have been cool to see Terrence Howard back in Iron Man 2 but for the most part everyone was excited to see things moving towards the Avengers. Fanboys across the world punched the air in unison when it was announced that uber-geek Joss Whedon (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse) would write and direct The Avengers. Cast appearances at Comic Cons in 2011 and 2012 only helped to push things into a fever pitch.

Underwhelming
When there is this much anticipation for a movie, it does not always bode well. I was unbelievably excited about the release of TRON: Legacy back in 2010 and while the film itself is not terrible I think it was a disappointment to most of us who had fallen into the trap of hype. This is true for many a blockbuster, they blow their own trumpets too loudly and for too long until the noise simply bores us. Was it to be so with The Avengers? A last minute title change to Avengers Assemble got me pretty worried, it reeked of lack of confidence behind the scenes. But, come opening weekend I bought my ticket, tucked into my popcorn and had one of the most satisfying cinema experiences of my life.
Omnomnom
The elegant story unfolds with bombastic action, Joss Whedon’s typical humor bubbling below the surface and some pretty eye popping visual effects. Really strong performances from (I hate to say it) Chris Evans, Downey Jnr and Chris Hemmingsworth underpin the whole thing with Whedon’s direction making the ensemble feel more like a dysfunctional family. The two standout performances for me though were Tom Hiddleston as Loki and Mark Ruffallo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk.
He just found out that Fantastic Four is the inflight movie.
Ruffallo brings more weight and threat to the Banner side than I thought possible and when the big green guy finally appears (it’s worth the wait) we see a Hulk that is more fully formed and three dimentional than anything we have seen before. And then he smashes loads of shit up! For me, The Hulk stole the whole show and his one line of dialogue says all you need to know about him.
Evil is fun.
Tom Hiddleston, reprising his role as the deranged Asgardian, is one of the most memorable movie baddies for a long time. A charming megalomaniac, always playing a situation to his own advantage. One scene in particular, an exchange between Loki and Scarlett Johansen’s Black Widdow still sends shivers down my spine (and has given me my new favorite insult: “Mewling quim”).
The guy in the centre is a massive tool.
Almost all of the elements of this film seem to fit together wonderfully. Alan Silvestri’s score is bombastic where necessary and somber where appropriate, Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography makes the on screen destruction as beautiful as possible. Framing the action in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 ensures that we can see the dizzying heights of the Manhattan skyscrapers and the massive, fantastical characters that populate this film. Editors Jeffry Ford and Lisa Lassek do a great job on paring down these huge, complicated action sequences into something that is easy to follow and understand. Nothing of the fast cut, motion blur confusion that proliferates modern action films from Transformers to The Expendables.
Sure, there’s bad bits as well, the film is definitely too long, it relies to much on the viewer having seen all the pre-Avengers movies and it has too many endings (stay for some exciting post title scenes though!). At the end of the day though I’ve not seen a superhero film that gets closer to the heart of the source material than this with possible exception of Richard Donner’s Superman. I just wonder what the future holds. With more films on the way for Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and an Avengers sequel announced are we going to see more great movies or is this going to descend into the madness of diminishing returns?
Tom K McCarthy
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