When I was a kid I used to really enjoy the Spider-man and his Amazing Friends (Iceman and Firestar) cartoon that used to be on during Saturday Superstore and I was a huge fan of the 1960s Batman. I also have vague memories of sitting down as a family and watching the Wonder Woman and Hulk TV shows as part of a regular weekend ritual that over the years also included The Six Million Dollar Man, The Fall Guy and The A-Team. I think the only actual Superhero movie I remember from my early years though was Superman. That was it, that that was the totality of my preteen education in capes and Lycra.
My proper introduction to superheroes didn’t come until I was around 16 when an older friend kindly passed on to me a huge pile of his Marvel and DC comics. It is at this point that I became reacquainted with the aforementioned characters only this time I was meeting them as they should be met, here they all were in their true form along with The X-Men, The Fantastic Four, Captain America, Daredevil, Nick Fury & S.H.I.E.L.D, The Green Lantern, The Martian Manhunter, Antman, The Flash and Iron Man. I had taken my first step into a wider world.
What was really great about the comics, other than the work of the artists (Todd McFarlane was a favourite) was the fact that the characters would often wander in and out of one another’s stories. It wasn’t always a big deal, Peter Parker would pop over to Mr Fantastic’s place with some science conundrum or Superman would fly over to give Batman a warning about some nefarious villain he’d heard is heading for Gotham, but sometimes these link ups were epic.
The peak of this multi-hero action was the team ups that each comic publishing house put together. DC were first with The Justice League and then there was The Avengers at Marvel, which threw together Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Antman and Wasp, initially the only (token?) female, and many other team members came and went. As a film fan dabbling in the world of comic books I really found myself wishing that they could do the same thing in the movies. I wanted them to take a group of already established superhero characters and put them together in one big blockbuster. That would be too tricky though, think of the logistics! Then in 2008, in the post credit sequence of Iron Man – the fledgling Marvel Film Studios’ first self produced movie, Samuel L. Jackson introduced himself as Nick Fury and mentioned something called The Avenger Initiative. My nerd heart missed a beat.
This doesn’t mean that the subsequent string of five more films was a certainty at this early stage. If Iron Man hadn’t been a success then that would have been the end of it right there. Marvel had already sold the rights to their big guns. Spider-Man is owned by Sony Pictures and 20th Century Fox have X-Men and The Fantastic Four, all if which are active properties with a new Spider-Man franchise underway, two more X-Men films currently in production and an imminent reboot for Mr Fantastic, The Invisible Girl, The Human Torch and The Thing. Deciding to leave Captain America, their next best known property, to one side for the time being, Marvel went with their version of Batman, a man who was another millionaire playboy with a fantastic tool kit.
Fortunately Iron Man was a superb slice of popcorn, which was largely due a great script and Robert Downey Jnr being there to read it. The super suit is very cool (there is one shot during the suit testing stage, where the camera pans up past all the whirring cogs and sliding panels, that is simply a thing of beauty) but it would not have been as effective had it not been worn by the right man. It is hard to remember this now but at the time Robert Downey Jnr was more famous for his drug habits than his acting. This was despite his starring role in Chaplin and three recent superb performances in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Good Night & Good Luck and Zodiac. Iron Man was a hit though and was the film that seemed to finally let him put his past behind him.
There is a lot to admire in Iron Man. For a start they cleverly tackled the problem often found in comic book movies of having your leading actor hidden behind a mask. In Toby Maquire’s final Spider-Man film he didn’t seem to be able to keep the thing on, which is not best when you are trying to maintain a secret identity. Iron Man gets round this with us those neat close ups of Tony Stark’s face inside the helmet. Mind you, he isn’t trying to maintain a secret identity for long which is another nice touch. It was also nice to see Gwyneth Paltrow being sexy again.
By the time they made The Incredible Hulk, they clearly still didn’t know for sure that they were going to be able to turn these films into a clear series but they were optimistic. We got references to the WW2 super soldier project that created Captain America and a cameo from Tony Stark that is hard to place chronologically unless you’ve seen the nice little Marvel One Shot film, The Consultant (http://youtu.be/cgUjlH4vywM). The film itself was okay but largely forgettable, so much so that Marvel themselves seem to have forgotten much of it by the time they brought The Hulk back in The Avengers.
Iron Man 2 was different, this was so drenched in its role as set up for The Avengers that it felt like little more than an extended trailer for what was to come. The film suffered as a result. It had some nice moments again (the suit-case) but, ironically, in trying to give us something new in S.H.I.E.L.D and a whole new story arc that wouldn’t come to fruition for another two years, it actually failed to give us much that was new at all. Ultimately it was people in metal suits smacking each other around again and this was not the part of the first Iron Man film that needed emulating. Downey Jnr was still excellent but Tony Stark himself was a lot less likeable in what I assume was a rushed attempt to deal with the comics’ great nine issue Demon in a Bottle story that depicted Stark’s struggle with alcoholism. Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow was introduced but wasn’t as well developed a character as when we saw her again. I guess she needed someone who could really write good female characters. Nonetheless, the franchise was well established and we still hadn’t met two of the main players.
Thor was an odd film. It was either cliched and over blown or it was a parody of films that are cliched and over blown. I fear it wasn’t the latter. I can see that there needed to be a contrast between the otherworldly Asgardian’s and the grounded humans but the extra terrestrial gods were pretty ridiculous in their pomposity.
There was plenty of spectacle and we did get a rounded story with some nice character development for the brothers Thor and Loki but it’s main purpose was to put in place a few more elements of the big ensemble piece. Following on from Iron Man 2 and Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger finally arrived in 2011 and this one was a really good film.
In the same year much was made of J.J Abrams film Super 8 due to the way it so effectively captured the spirit of early Spielberg but I feel that Captain America also did this, nicely invoking the spirit of Indiana Jones. It was a fun romp centred around some mad Jerrys who’d got their hands on a powerful otherworldly relic. Like Iron Man, this latest film also had a trump card in its leading man. Chris Evans (already a Marvel alumni with Fantastic Four on his CV) brought a great innocent charm to the role of Steve Rogers and it was a wise choice to establish him as a hero well before the contents of a test tube made him into a Yankee He-man. The moment when he is going down in the plane at the end while speaking to his lady over the radio is genuinely moving and highly reminiscent of David Niven about to bail out over the sea in A Matter of Life and Death.
Unlike David Niven he didn’t come round face down on a beach though. Captain America wakes up almost 70 years later one block down from Times Square. (How likely is it that a secret S.H.I.E.L.D base would be in the middle of Manhattan? Never mind though, it created a nice image with the bewildered Steve surrounded by the famous billboards.) So with all of the pieces on the board we come to Marvel’s Avengers (Assemble).
Up until this point Marvel had made some bold choices in their directors, with mixed results (John Favreau for Iron Man and Kenneth Branagh for Thor). There had also been some fairly safe choices, again with mixed results (Louis Letterier on The Incredible Hulk and Joe Johnstone on Captain America). If they didn’t get this one right though it all would have led to the greatest filmic anticlimax since the release of The Phantom Menace. Fortunately with the selection of the brilliant Joss Whedon they got it spot on.
Joss Whedon had only directed one film before and that, Serenity, was a continuation of one of his TV shows but through his work on the box he had shown himself to be the master of writing and directing for ensemble casts. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and the genius Firefly, a show inspired by the imaginings of what Han Solo might have got up to before he joined the rebellion and a lesson in what a Star Wars prequel should look like, all featured humour, adventure, high emotion, epic battles and big casts. Joss Whedon could handle all of these elements brilliantly and saving the world was also something he did, a lot. All of this he first brought to the Marvel Universe when he wrote for the X-Men comic series in 2004 and then he repeated the trick with The Avengers.
Getting the iconic figures from a number of different films together in one adventure was both a logistical and a creative challenge. There is a reason why it’s never been done before. The closest thing I can think of is Alien Vs Predator but with all of its disparate elements Avengers is more like Alien Vs Predator Vs Gremlins Vs Jaws and anyway, Aliens Vs Predator wasn’t any good. Joss Whedon took multiple characters from a group of films with quite different tones and sensibilities, put them all together and made it look easy. Too many superhero films have collapsed under the weight of multiple characters (Super-Man 3, Batman & Robin) but here it was the best thing about the movie. In fact as well as Iron Man, Cap, Hulk, Thor, Black Widow, Loki and Nick Fury we also had Maria Hill, Hawkeye and the back bone of the whole series – Agent Coulson. Marvel’s Avengers went on to become the third highest grossing film of all time. (Mind you, that is no indication of quality, look at what’s number one.) The whole series is the fifth highest grossing franchise of all time behind Harry Potter (8 movies), James Bond (24 movies), Star Wars (10 movies if you count the special editions separately) and Tolkien’s Middle Earth (only 4 so far but they are amazing).
Of course The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a long way from being done. Phase two kicks off with Iron Man 3 next week then Thor: The Dark World in October, Captain America: The Winter Soldier next year, Antman and Guardians of the Galaxy soon after that and Joss Whedon’s Avengers 2 in May 2015.
The 16 year old me wouldn’t have dared to dream.