May 20 2011

The Avengers: Will They Do [Us] Justice?

With the succession of Marvel films throughout the last three years, The Avengers has become the most anticipated film of the film season, more so even than The Dark Knight Rises.  With the film’s principle photography having begun in late April, the upcoming comic book epic is no longer an upcoming project discussed on the internet and Comic-Con, but can now be seen upon the horizon.

It almost goes without saying that Avengers will be a massive project; not only does the film feature a bevy of Marvel’s most beloved superheroes, but it has also created an overlapping franchise, starting with 2008’s Iron Man, and ending- pre-Avengers release- with Captain America: The First Avenger this summer, all with even more guaranteed sequels thereafter.

However, “with great power comes great responsibility” the old adage goes, and a project this massive needs to be handled with an equal amount of responsibility and care, which is why one cannot help but be at least a little skeptical on whether or not The Avengers will live up to the hype and do filmgoers justice.

The Avengers is going to feature an ensemble cast, consisting of Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston and Cobie Smulders, to name a few.  All of these characters-barring- Smulders and, technically, Ruffalo- are coming from other solo Marvel hero films, whether they were the lead, a supporting character, of featured in a cameo role.  Quite an ambitious move on Marvel’s part: orchestrating each film so that it stands alone, yet simultaneously works in tandem with the others to create an epic for the ages.

However, with a film as ambitious, multi-layered and eagerly awaited as The Avengers, the outcome can only go one of two ways: it will either be a massive achievement-and not just financially-, or it will be a massive failure, and if the film turns out to be “ok” or “not bad,” it will still fail.  The hype is simply too big to allow for mediocrity.  That being the case, one must give a great deal of thought towards the possible pitfalls that those behind the camera and curtain face in taking on such a task as assembling the Avengers on the big screen.

The greatest threat to The Avengers is a common one amongst films with an ensemble cast: a clustercuss of face time and character-based sub plots.  Ensemble films like The Great Escape and Inception require a restraint- something uncommon, if not looked down upon, in blockbusters- in the use of its actors.  The cast of The Avengers will have to function as a unit of supporting characters rather than a battle royale for the spotlight, which could happen.  Most of these Avengers are coming from their own films as the central heroes, and some of the actors may not appreciate being relegated to the second tier of the film’s players, but if they want to look their best and make a great movie, they’re going to have to work as a team, and not compete over who gets to be the biggest star.

Of course, as far as character dynamics go, there will most likely be antagonism between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers over who will lead the Avengers, and if there are going to be two stars of the show, it is going to be Downey Jr. and Evans.  Given the status of Rogers and Stark within the Marvel universe, it is acceptable that they will be at the center of attention, yet this presents another problem entirely: if these two characters are to rival one another, shouldn’t they be equals?  Yes, they should, but how could anyone think that Chris Evans has a chance against Robert Downey Jr.?  Although Evans’ portrayal of Cap has yet to be seen, Downey Jr. is the better actor between the two and exudes a far stronger presence that makes for a more compelling leader.

Honestly, would you not follow this guy?

No one knows how the relationship between Captain America and Iron Man will play out.  Will there be a playful, professional rivalry, or will Stark be fine with being the Avengers’ second-in-command?  After all, when it comes to most crime fighting groups, it is the lieutenant who is always the most engaging one of the group.  Take Han Solo in Star Wars, Raphael in TMNT, or Sir Lancelot in the tales of King Arthur for example; each of these characters are favored by fans more than their respective superiors.  Even in DC’s Justice League of America, most people favor Batman over the group’s de facto leader, Superman.

Unlike Superman though, Captain America is the actual official leader of the Avengers, as far as this incarnation goes anyway (I can hear comic book geeks citing the post-Civil War line up in the comment section already), and any leader of any group needs to possess the bravado, the confidence, that ever-engaging presence that make those around him-or her, easy ladies- follow in suit.  So here is the dilemma: who in their right mind would choose Evans/Cap over Downey Jr./Stark as their leader?  Not very many, so Evans really has to step it up as Captain America if he wants to earn his stripes and mantle.

Of course, again, this is all speculative anyway; we have no idea how Joss Whedon has handled any of this through the script, or how he plans to direct it.  However, Whedon himself is an interesting choice as a writer and director.  Regular readers will already know that I have my reservations about Whedon (for a refresher, click here), which is not to say I am particularly against him either; I’m just not drinking the Kool-Aid.

Whedon is a smart writer, and is one of the leading cult figures in the entertainment industry.  Many of his programs, from Buffy to Firefly, to the web mini-series Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog have become touchstones for this generation’s pop culture consciousness.  Furthermore, Whedon has written a number of comic runs in the Marvel and DC Universe that has been praised by critics and common comic fans alike.

Sharp writing, wit, a handle on character development and a comic aficionado?  Sounds like Joss Whedon is the perfect man to helm The Avengers, and in many ways he is.  However, Whedon’s forays into the motion picture industry has been mixed; several of the films he has written, repaired and co-written turned out to be pretty bad, and were subsequently disowned by the writer himself, who has blamed any and everyone else for ruining his written vision.  It would be ignorant to say that Whedon is just making excuses for his less-than-stellar work; anyone who knows anything about the film industry knows that making a film is a collaboration between a variety of forces (many of which have conflicting motives), but to give Whedon a pass for every one of his failures is just hero worship.

Lest we forget....

Much of this, quite possibly, is due to the fact that Whedon’s work is too singular, too… Whedony, which only means that he should stick to his own projects that he alone can control; after all, Serenity, the cinematic continuation of the ill-fated, yet brilliant “Firefly,” was a fantastic film.  The characters in The Avengers do not come from the mind of Whedon, which means if Whedon is going to do this right, he is going to have to serve the characters -and sometimes the actors’ version of them- and not retrofit them into his own creations.  Basically, he needs to keep the film rooted in the Marvel universe, not the Whedonverse.

The biggest threat to the quality and integrity of The Avengers is the same entity that can jeopardize any film, especially something this big: the studio, which, in this case, is Marvel Studios.  The recent influx of Marvel films-save for The Fantastic Four films- have been designed for the purpose of making The AvengersIron Man was the test, and with its great success lead to the go-ahead for the rest of the pieces to the cinematic puzzle.  The inherent problem with franchises, however, is that companies, or in this case, the studio, are more concerned with the overall franchise, and not the individual pieces that act as its structure, which is counterintuitive to the story and its success.

In this we have something of a paradox: if Marvel is solely concerned with The Avengers, rendering the solo-Marvel here films as a means to an end, those films will be of a lesser quality.  If these films are not any good, their joint efforts concerning The Avengers will not carry the necessary impact to make The Avengers enticing, anticipated or good.  Essentially, if Marvel wants The Avengers to be the big success they want it to be, they should really focus on its respective solo features.

Which doesn’t sound like a big deal; after all, the more great superhero blockbusters you make, the more money you make, so there is the financial motivation.  But in creating the buzz for The Avengers– and promoting continuity within the storylines- Marvel is cramming a lot of Avengers references into their solo films, which could, in turn, suggest that these solo films are more advertisements for the big Marvel moneymaker, and less quality films.

Marvel has been hit and miss on this, and its best seen in their last two movies: Iron Man 2 and Thor.  The presence of S.H.I.E.L.D. fit in perfectly in Thor, as did Jeremy Renner’s cameo as Clint Barton (Hawkeye), and the Avengers’ post-credit tie-in was exactly what it should have been: relatively self-contained and apart from the film at hand, while offering us a tantalizing taste of what is to come.

Iron Man 2, on the other hand, shot itself in the foot by being too preoccupied with The Avengers.  For one, the palladium-poisoning subplot was hijacked by Nick Fury, making one wonder if Stark’s illness was just an excuse to shoehorn S.H.I.E.L.D into the film.  Secondly, there was a tug-of-war within the narrative between the key villains and pre-Avengers material.  As a result, the much-awaited sequel of Marvel’s crown jewel became a 2-plus hour reminder that The Avengers was on its way, with some Downey Jr., Rourke and Rockwell thrown in for good measure.

The film even led to the exit of director Jon Favreau, who said, “In theory, Iron Man 3 is going to be a sequel or continuation of Thor, Hulk, Captain America and [the] Avengers.  This whole world…I have no idea what it is.  I don’t think they do either from conversations I’ve had with those guys.”  Did Favreau see the writing on the wall?  If Iron Man 2 is of any indication, probably.  Each of these films must stand on their own two feet, and their respective sequels must be sequels in the strictest sense: a continuation of a single story; any overlap between storylines and characters should be minimal and unobtrusive.  If for some reason Captain America must make an appearance in the next Iron Man movie, make sure it is just for a scene, and not a substantial chunk of the film.

Criticisms and cynicism aside, Marvel is enjoying a much-deserved success with its new canon of superhero films.  The floodgates of new films on new, lesser known heroes has burst open, which also allows a number of different filmmakers to give this genre a (possible) new look.  So far Marvel’s choices for directors has been unconventional, and that is a breath of fresh-and welcomed- air for the blockbusters; Jon Favreau, Louis Leterrier and Kenneth Branagh are hardly people you would expect to be involved in projects like this, and now with the equally unconventional Shane Black helming Iron Man 3, we can hopefully continue to experience more genre gentrification within Marvel Studios.

Captain America: The First Avenger is due out in July, and the film will spark what it will amongst the fans, but all eyes are on The Avengers.  Nothing that massive has ever been done before within the genre or sub-culture, and it will stand as a testament for Marvel’s power as a studio, and will serve as a major watershed moment for this generation’s cinematic landscape.  So in regards to those behind The Avengers, let us hope they are up to the challenge: the eyes of geeks, cinephiles and movie house laymen are on them.

Don't mess this up guys.

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