Just as we've done for many new comic book adaptations in the past, we've put together a Protecting the Avengers feature. It may seem premature to tackle the team-up adventure when Thor and Captain America's respective movies have yet to hit theaters, but there's plenty of ground to cover. A film as potentially epic and crammed with characters as The Avengers faces many challenges throughout the production process. If the folks at Marvel Studios end up following these guidelines, however, they should be able to emerge on the other side and deliver the superhero epic fans have been waiting for.
One of the most common problems superhero movies face is overcrowding. There are simply too many characters vying for limited screen space. Films like Spider-Man 3 and Batman & Robin suffered from an overabundance of villains. In these cases, the script became crowded and the conflict blurred under the weight of excess characters.
This problem is only going to become magnified with The Avengers. Not only do the filmmakers have dozens of potential villains to choose from, they now have a cast of at least half a dozen leading heroes to battle them. This is an ensemble movie, not a solo adventure, and the crucial balancing act must be performed on both sides of the fight. Great care needs to be paid in ensuring that each of the Avengers are given adequate screen time and that a select few don't overshadow the rest. We've all seen how easily Robert Downey Jr. dominates the screen in the Iron Man films. It would be a shame if the rest of the Avengers played second fiddle to Iron Man.
Having numerous characters isn't inherently a bad thing. It simply falls on the screenwriters to concoct a scenario that makes full use of each character and combines the conflicts in a seamless fashion. Many Batman fans feared The Dark Knight would suffer from having both Joker and Two-Face as lead villains, but most were pleased with how Christopher Nolan executed the concept. Filmmakers need to determine what the story justifies and is capable of supporting and work from that foundation.
To date, there haven't been many ensemble superhero films in Hollywood, but the X-Men films offer plenty of lessons to learn from. The three core X-Men movies offered a slowly burgeoning cast of mutants on screen. Unfortunately, these movies made the exact mistake we don't want Avengers to fall prey to. The X-Men movies were too closely centered on Wolverine, often to the detriment of other major characters. They frequently presented themselves as Wolverine stories first and team adventures a distant second. Again, we don't want an Avengers film that focuses on Iron Man or Captain America to the exclusion of everyone else. This is a team effort, and every Avenger deserves their moment in the spotlight.
By the time The Avengers hits theaters, each of the individual members will have an established rogues gallery. Iron Man has already fought Iron Monger and Whiplash. Thor will have battled Loki and The Destroyer. Cap will have punched Red Skull and countless Nazi and Hydra agents. Hulk has clobbered The Abomination. What the Avengers movie needs is a villain grander and more unique than any of these aforementioned foes.
Avengers fan will remember this classic opening line: "And there came a day, a day unlike any other, when Earth's mightiest heroes and heroines found themselves united against a common threat. On that day, the Avengers were born — to fight the foes no single super hero could withstand!"
The message is clear. The Avengers can't be called upon to battle the same old foes they've already defeated individually. A team-up between Whiplash and The Abomination is not going to make for a rousing two hours of cinematic entertainment. The Avengers needs a villain or group of villains who can pose a true threat and that only the combined might of this new super-team can overcome.
Luckily, the Marvel Universe is a big place, and there are countless villains who might fit the bill. We published an article earlier this year that explores some of the best candidates. The only criteria is that the villains chosen offer the team and viewers something previous Marvel Studios projects couldn't. That doesn't mean the previously established villains shouldn't be allowed some role in the Avengers franchise. In deference to Avengers tradition, it may suit the filmmakers to include Loki in this first film as the villain pulling strings from behind the scenes. But even so, Loki's plot would have to be far more epic and all-encompassing than merely playing tricks on his brother again.
When looking at online debates and the general discourse among Avengers fans, one common complaint that seems to arise is that some villains simply aren't suited to the relatively grounded and realistic Marvel movie universe. Just as Batman fans find it difficult to imagine Clayface or Man-Bat appearing in Christopher Nolan's Gotham City, many Avengers lovers can't quite picture villains on the scale of Thanos or Ego the Living Planet appearing in Hollywood's Marvel U.
But just because these villains seem outlandish doesn't mean they shouldn't be considered. A good writer and director can make even silly concepts work in a more grounded setting if proper thought and energy is devoted to the adaptation process. Moreover, perhaps the time has come to stop viewing these Marvel films as being confined to the laws of the real world. As much as we'd like to believe otherwise, the Iron Man armor is not a plausible piece of weapons technology. No mythical metal is is going to crash to our planet from space and provide the makings for an indestructible shield that violates the laws of physics. As of next year, Marvel Studios' movie universe is going to include Frost Giants, Norse gods, and Nazi super-science. How much of a leap is it really to start including alien empires and universal abstracts? Yes, these movies should attempt to keep one foot in the realm of reality, but there's more than enough room to get a little wacky at the same time.
When it comes to the Big Two comic book publishers, each has their own signature superhero team. DC has the Justice League, and Marvel has its Avengers. And while both teams bring together the greatest heroes of their respective universe, they are significantly different in at least one way. The Avengers are as much a family as a superhero team, and they're a highly dysfunctional family at that.
Marvel heroes tend to be inherently flawed on some level. Tony Stark is a respected industrialist and celebrity, but he's also struggling to escape the shadow of his former life. He has an extremely addictive personality and a possible death wish. Based on the progression of the Marvel films, his alcoholism and recklessness are likely to become increasingly significant problems.
Meanwhile, Steve Rogers is a man out of his own time. He has little understanding of or respect for the modern world and constantly struggles to fit in. Depending on the writer's portrayal, he also has a mean streak that stems from the unexpected freedom of finally being the toughest guy in the room. Thor is a god, which immediately sets him apart from those of Midgard, even if he finds them more noble and worth fighting for than his own people. Bruce Banner is man whose childhood of abuse and neglect now externalizes in the form of an unstoppable green monster. Even Nick Fury has his psychological hang-ups. He's a soldier for whom the war never ended, and he hardly understands the people he defends any better than Cap does.
The Avengers as a team is necessary because it molds each of these heroes into better men than they would be otherwise. Tony Stark finds the family he was never able to build for himself. Steve Rogers has a group of friends who understand him. Thor finds allies as worthy as any among his fellow warriors in Asgard. And Bruce Banner finds a place where the Hulk can be directed for good rather than sheer chaos.
The theme of family should be a prevalent one in the movie. The Avengers don't just confront threats greater than any of them alone could face. They make each other stronger through their bond as a team. We expect to see plenty of dysfunction and strife as the heroes first gather. After all, it's difficult to picture men as different as Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America hitting it off right away. But by the end of the fight, viewers shouldn't understand why the Avengers are Earth's Mightiest Heroes.
Marvel Studios' previous efforts have numbered among the most visually impressive movies of the year when they hit. It goes without saying that a movie featuring the gathering off all Marvel's big heroes should aim even higher. The Avengers should feature conflict and spectacle that puts all earlier efforts to shame.
This goes hand in hand with the need to include a villain bigger and gander than any of the individual heroes have faced. It's not enough merely to pit the Avengers against wave after wave of AIM agents or against a super-strong, Hulk-level foe. The Avengers needs a conflict that makes full use of what the Marvel Universe has to offer. Why battle minor henchmen when the team could repel alien invasions or venture into alternate realities? So many memorable Avengers comics have Earth's Mightiest Heroes traveling across time and space and fighting for the survival of the planet or event the universe itself. The film should offer nothing less.
Naturally, this is an expensive proposition. Comics have the advantage of being able to showcase nearly any kind of story. Budget isn't a factor; only the imagination of the writer and the technical ability of the artist. Hollywood doesn't have it that easy. But as the first ensemble superhero adventure from Marvel Studios, The Avengers should be given all the care and resources it needs to thrive.
That's why we're concerned about recent reports that the project may be hitting financial setbacks. According to this story, Marvel Studios are concerned about rising costs and are seeking ways to conserve money. Not every superhero movie needs to be spectacle-driven and feature thousands of special effects shots. Avengers does, however. We'd hate to see Marvel Studios deliver an underwhelming first team-up simply because it didn't have the resources to capture all the action and excitement of the comics. With Disney now in charge, money shouldn't be allowed to become an obstacle. Give the Avengers the debut adventure they deserve.
Too many comic book adaptations have made it apparent that the filmmakers neither understood nor cared much about what made the source material appealing. One of the strengths of Marvel Studios' efforts so far is that the filmmakers do respect that source material and work to bring it to the big screen in a format that is both faithful and original. We hope that trend can continue with The Avengers.
In this case, we're more interested in a respectful treatment of characterization and relationships rather than a strict adherence to classic comic book storylines. What matters is that the same character dynamics that have evolved over the years also begin to blossom in The Avengers. The filmmakers have a certain amount of leeway here. Do they stick to the classic Avengers comics for inspiration, or do they draw from the slightly harder-edged Ultimates books? Do the Avengers serve as agents of SHIELD or do they work and exist independently? How will the roster evolve, and how much room is there for team growth over time? These are the sorts of questions that are no doubt being answered as the script solidifies.
What we don't necessarily want to see is a direct adaptation of any one Avengers story. Various rumors suggest that the first volume of The Ultimates is having a significant influence on the story. This is a wise move, but the last thing we want to see from a director as unique as Joss Whedon is a strict live-action adaptation of that specific story. None of Marvel Studios' films so far are adapted from any one comic book storyline. Instead, they pull bits and piece from many stories and many different incarnations of the characters. Ideally, that leads to the best possible cinematic interpretation. It's one thing to closely adapt a specific comic, as in the case of 300 or Watchmen, but another entirely when the source material consists of decades' worth of stories and thousands of single issues.
Naturally, the comic book creators should be called upon to lend assistance and provide advice. Marvel Studios have been very good about this in the past. Writers like Matt Fraction and Brian Michael Bendis are deeply involved in steering the major pieces of the Avengers franchise at Marvel. They understand the characters, and they can provide valuable input when it comes to bringing the team to life on screen.
Assuming Avengers isn't such a massive financial disaster that it pulls Marvel Studios and Disney as a whole into a black hole from which they never return, it's reasonable to assume there will eventually be a sequel. In any case, it's best for any potential franchise to begin laying the groundwork for future installments, lest it paint itself into a corner like the first Highlander movie did for that franchise.
As mentioned, there are dozens of worthy villains and storylines for the filmmakers to pull from for these movies, so the process of working towards a sequel shouldn't be difficult. This seems to be an area Marvel Studios enjoy focusing on to begin with. Both Iron Man and Incredible Hulk included numerous small references to other Marvel characters and settings. Iron Man 2 included even more hidden references and cameos. We imagine the same will also hold true for Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger next year.
By the standards of the comics, the Avengers lineup in the first movie will be relatively small. Cap, Iron Man, Thor, and Hulk look to be the main heroes, with Nick Fury, Black Widow, and Hawkeye providing backup. We hope to see teases made regarding other potential recruits. The references to Wakanda and vibranium in Iron Man 2 suggest that Black Panther will be appearing. We hope to see more cameos along these lines for characters such as Giant-Man, Wasp, and Ms. Marvel.
But more important than character cameos are the building blocks to upcoming storylines. If the Skrulls emerge as villains in this movie, as some rumors suggest, the script can lay the groundwork for a Kree/Skrull War-style conflict or an adaptation of Secret Invasion. We know that the Infinity Gauntlet will be inserted into Thor, probably as a trophy in Asgard armory. If a conflict with Thanos is coming, it's best to prepare now and get viewers excited at the prospect of a battle with Death's right-hand man.
At the same time, the filmmakers should take care not to let these cameos and references overpower the story. Iron Man 2 proved that you can have too much of a good thing in this regard. We want to see the Avengers franchise grow and expand, but that process will be cut tragically short if the first film can't bedazzle audiences on its own merits.
Source: Jesse Schedeen, Protecting the Avengers Franchise, IGN Comics, 15 November 2010.