A Recollection & Understanding of "The Avengers"

There has always been one thing that has bothered me when it comes to movie sequels. The fact that in too many of them there is a lack of continuity between films. It is one thing to have a different actor play the same character in a sequel but another thing entirely to write them off with a line of dialogue or act as if they never existed at all. There are hundreds of other reasons people could find to complain about sequels; whether they be that they exemplify a lack of creativity in Hollywood or that they are overproduced because of a need to feel bigger but end up being bloated. This is certainly true of some sequels, but the difference with comic book heroes and their stories is that they not only have a built in audience but they in fact lend themselves to more stories. Why do you think their stories and adventures in comic book series have run for so long? A few weeks ago we were also given a glimpse into the mind of an actor that is at the core of one of this years biggest super hero films. Tom Hiddleston, an acclaimed British actor who plays the villain Loki in The Avengers discussed how super hero films were more than brainless popcorn entertainment. "In our increasingly secular society, with so many disparate gods and different faiths, superhero films present a unique canvas upon which our shared hopes, dreams and apocalyptic nightmares can be projected and played out." These are complex thoughts for a silly superhero film, but you must step back and wonder, beyond the spectacle, why are there so many fans of these characters and their stories? There is an inherent connection to aspiration that can only be fulfilled by the imagination and in most ways, these films represent the closest we will ever come to seeing our imaginations become reality.

What has been so amazing to watch about the films that have been produced the past few years in order to create The Avengers is the fact that a studio has cared more (or at least as much) about creating one coherent story over a span of six films (so far) than about turning a profit. That pet peeve about sequels has not been applied to this set of films, although I'm still pretty upset that Ed Norton dropped out after appearing as Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk. Although the first Iron Man opened a few months before the June 13, 2008 release of the big green guy's reboot it now feels like the oldest in the series. Tony Stark has had another outing since and from the beginning there was a subdued kind of hype surrounding a new Hulk film. The first attempt to tell the Marvel giants tale on screen ended in a huge disappointment with director Ang Lee's 2003 adaptation. It had a great cast and some inspired visuals but no personality whatsoever. What the 2008 Edward Norton flick offered was a more invested interest in the character of Dr. Banner and a basis of it essentially being a man hunt/fugitive style film. It also featured a stellar supporting cast in Liv Tyler, William Hurt, and Tim Roth. I was pleased with the film. It mixed well the intelligence and credibility the actors carried while fast-paced director Louis Leterrier gave it a nice tone. It certainly was't life changing, but it was entertaining and it provided not an origin story, but a look at how the human who was dealing with this complex carried on with his life. It took an insight into why he would be led to join in a team effort and why he wouldn't. 

From everything being said about the film so far it seems Norton's replacement Mark Ruffalo has done a superb job of bringing a Hulk to the big screen that everyone can agree on. I don't dislike Ruffalo, in fact it is to his and Marvel's credit that he is a very likeable guy and makes this easier than it could have been. This is the only major rift in their elaborate plan, and while there is no current plan for an Incredible Hulk sequel with Ruffalo they might consider it if his performance is widely accepted and praised. What really set things into motion for this super hero collaboration were the scenes tacked on to the end The Incredible Hulk and the first Iron Man film. While we heard the first whispers of the Avengers initiative in the post-credit Iron Man scene, it was when Tony Stark walked into a bar and approached General Ross in a different film that we knew Marvel was planning something big.

Wheels were obviously spinning though when director Jon Favreau tacked on the post credit scene where Nick fury approached Tony Stark about the Avengers initiative. This was the cherry topping on an already great super hero film. As the first out of the gate Iron Man was going to be make or break on the whole deal. With Robert Downey Jr. at the wheel it not only proved to be an entertaining super hero film, but it gave a wider audience a taste of what the hugely charismatic yet somehow humble presence Downey is. He has embraced this role as the kind of ringleader with vigor and loves every minute of what he is doing here and the fans love it. I honestly believe that if it weren't for Downey I wouldn't be writing this article. In the first Iron Man we were introduced to a hero that was not one of the more popular characters in main stream comics, but had a twist of an attitude that didn't comply with the standards of those who care enough to suit up and help others. Tony Stark is a rich, playboy who just happens to have the brilliance of his father, Howard, to continue the weapons design and dynasty that he took over. While the first film is a pure origin story it certainly had the details going for it with Agent Phil Coulson pulling the strings from the beginning. Clark Gregg has played the very straight-forward character since the beginning and has even shown up in a few one shots to connect the stories (and in one instance tie up some loose ends). The intricacy of the story did not begin fully develop though until two years later when Marvel seemed to get its plan on track and send out the golden boy again to really get the ball rolling.

In Iron Man 2 we saw more of Shield, more of Fury, and a little glimpse of Captain America's shield. This time the post credit scene would hint at Thor, the God of thunder who would be arriving on screen in a years time. The interesting thing that Iron Man 2 proved was that the audience was just as invested in Tony Stark, the man as they were when he was in the suit. What the film did really well was manage everything it had going on. There were so many characters and plot lines being set up and carried out, but it never felt like the movie was about to explode from having too much in it. To writer Justin Therouex's credit, the film flowed nicely and if anything it felt a little short-changed in the final battle scene. Mickey Rourke didn't have as much to do as I was hoping for, although when he was on screen he was great as his Whiplash was perfectly intimidating. The scene on the race track is one of the best scenes in either film and it is able to capture the drama, action and heart of what Tony Stark is doing and who he is. With repeat viewings, the flaws of the film become more relevant, but so does the detail. That is what was so exciting about watching it the first time. This wasn't just a sequel to a great super hero film, but it was another step closer to something much bigger. With Don Cheadle becoming War Machine and the great Sam Rockwell as a Stark nemesis combined with Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow making a sly entrance it was simply exciting to see it all start to come together. While Iron Man 3 (which opens next May) will likely connect more with The Avengers than it will to this sequel, it will no doubt still keep the consistency as Marvel has seemed to acknowledge that Iron Man is the heart of the group and they would not have been granted this opportunity without him. In the Japanese trailer of The Avengers there is a clip that features Gwenyth Paltrow. Paltrow, who plays Pepper Potts in the Iron Man movies, is one of the few to make the cut in The Avengers as Natalie Portman and Don Cheadle have both said they will not appear.

Marvel carefully plotted its next two releases though and was intelligent enough to know that Thor was likely going to be their toughest challenge yet. Not only to appeal to a wider audience than the fanboys but also working in his more mythological back story with that of the high tech science fiction of the Iron Man series. They certainly got it right when they hired Kenneth Branagh to helm the film and cast the unknown Chris Hemsworth as the Norse God. Hemsworth made the role real and relatable; where it was more a film about father and son relationships rather than relying on the backdrop of Gods in another galaxy. Thor didn't hit me with that kind of "wow" factor that the first Iron Man did, but it captured the same tone rather well and also gave us a first glimpse of Hawkeye. It never took off with the expectation-filling quest that most films with such bombastic heroes do, but remained in fact a quiet simple movie, stripped down to its basic conflicts. Branagh, a veteran of Shakespeare, directed what is probably the only comic book to ever have incorporated an old English vernacular. Thor also has the distinct honor of providing the villain for The Avengers in his brother Loki. At the end of Thor he has the chip on his shoulder of not being a true son of Oden, but is also cast out of Asgard to an unknown fate. Clearly he has rebounded well as the plot of The Avengers clearly focuses around the army that Loki has brought to earth and threatened mankind with. 

This works to the film's advantage I think as The Avengers has enough on its plate already in trying to give each hero their time to shine. To waste screen time on establishing a new villain would only take away from the point of getting all these guys together. Loki is a legitimate threat and as a God can pretty much do anything he wants and could probably defeat The Avengers pretty easily if they didn't have his headstrong brother on their team. The way Hiddleston portrays him as well aids in the fact that not only could he take them on single-handedly, but he is also smart enough to be one step ahead of them. Sure, Banner is a physicist, but Loki knows the secrets of the universe. He seems universally liked by the fan base also and though I am not an expert on the comic series, it seems the best choice that could have been made to pay homage to the source material.        

Director Joss Whedon has said that he tells much of the story from Captain America's perspective. That the Cap has always been the leader of the Avengers and that this role will be kept in place in the movie. Captain America, in his solo effort, was probably the one I was most concerned with. These were big shoes to fill and the most iconic of Marvel's heroes has never really been done right before. I remember early on in the process of figuring out who would play the reliable Captain there were whisperings of Leo DiCaprio. I thought it would have been an interesting if not prestigious choice. The last person I would have probably chosen would have been Chris Evans. I like the guy and enjoyed his work in the underrated Danny Boyle picture Sunshine and his comedic chops in Scott Pilgrim, but he was the Human Torch. It just didn't make sense and despite the mediocre Fantastic Four films not being in any way related to The Avengers franchise it still felt wrong. By the time The First Avenger hit theaters last July though, nerves had settled somewhat and it actually turned out to be a rather stout picture with plenty to love and a nobility to the tone that mirrored the Captain's personality perfectly. What was really impressive about the film though was the fact director Joe Johnston and crew were able to accomplish all that needed to be done in a brief two hours. In having to both tie in the good ole captain to the present world, explaining his origin story during World War II, and giving a glimpse at the root of all this evil that will unite the team. These guys had a lot on their plates and they accomplished it all in a manner that didn't feel rushed and still provided firm ground before the main event takes off. 

As for Evans, he proved me wrong. He may not possess the razzmatazz of Downey Jr. or the overwhelming physique of Hemsworth but he stayed true to the spirit of the character that was created for this comic book. In every other role he has played, Evans has essentially done various versions of his own witty and slightly quirky self, but he contained that here and instead became a 98-pound weakling that is given the opportunity to accomplish his unreachable dream and does so with true integrity. There is something to be applauded about his performance and in his casting. I was anything but hopeful for Captain America: The First Avenger when the details began to emerge yet I was proven wrong on almost every level. When the post credit first glimpse of The Avengers showed up it was evident how close we were to finally seeing years of waiting pay off. It looked like it was shaping up to be everything we wanted it to be, seeing these guys side by side, fighting for the survival of the planet.

As the opening date is now days away you can clearly feel the anticipation. There has been much speculation about a last minute scene that was shot. Marvel president Kevin Feige naturally downplayed the relevance of it and actually said it didn't even happen, but later Mark Ruffalo confirmed the shoot and that it would be included in the theatrical release. No doubt a post credit scene that will likely tie-in to Iron Man 3 which begins production in a few weeks or Thor 2 which begins in a few months. Dare I even hope that this extra scene includes other fellow heroes? I mean, it does seem a little suspicious that a new Spider-Man reboot opens this year and that characters home town is where the majority of the action in The Avengers takes place. Getting past the fact that the new Spidey film is not distributed by Marvel or Paramount, a fanboy can dream right? If you really want to get the crowd going though you have Hugh Jackman show up as the lone mutant Wolverine and add some real spice to the Avengers dynamic. I'm just saying, it wouldn't be hard to tie his story into the sequel. I won't hold my breath, but that's not to say that wouldn't be awesome. I am simply happy to see the early reviews are extremely positive. To finally see this film where continuity is everything, where films have been made previously for the purpose of setting up something greater than themselves is not only extremely appealing to myself, but to countless others who have not only imagined to see their favorite comic book heroes come alive but to also see them interact as if you were actually reading one of the comics. It will be fascinating to watch as this all comes together and how these icons of their own worlds interact with one another and put egos aside for the common cause of quality summer entertainment. 

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