Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Road to The Avengers: A Look Back

It's been four years now since Marvel Studios' debut offering, Iron Man, hit theaters and birthed not just a new film franchise, but an entire universe of interconnected sub-franchises. With this "stinger" scene placed after the closing credits, the filmmakers dangled in front of expectant auds the faintest of possibilities that the comic company's premier heroes might -- just might -- one day fight alongside each other on movie screens.

The journey that began there with Samuel L. Jackson's shadow-enshrouded appearance will culminate with this Friday's The Avengers, and while I'll have a review of that opus posted soon enough, I also thought it might be worthwhile to take a look back at the five Marvel Studios productions that paved the way for the team-up pic, taking stock of how they raised the bar for the entire superhero genre.

Here was my take on the Robert Downey Jr. starrer shortly after its release in summer of '08:
Iron Man is of such caliber that it makes the other films from the Marvel canon seem lesser by comparison...In hindsight it all seems so obvious: match up the right talent with the right characters, make sure they stay true to the source, cast according to “who’s right” instead of “who’s available,” and stand back while the magic works.
That's a sentiment I still hold to, and the fact that Sony and Fox have both rushed to reboot the various Marvel properties still in their sway (Sony with this year's Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and The Amazing Spider-Man, Fox with last summer's X-Men: First Class and planned Fantastic Four and Daredevil redos), shows that the Marvel Studios effect has rippled outward. Indeed, even Warner/DC tried their hand at following the Iron Man template with last year's Green Lantern -- to less-than-auspicious results.

Of '08's The Incredible Hulk, which rebooted that brand a short five years after it was first given the celluloid treatment via Ang Lee's Hulk, I was equally complimentary:
...Like Batman Begins, another sequel-cum-reboot, completely obliterated any memory of Joel Schumacher’s disastrous Batman & Robin, director Louis Leterrier (he of the Transporter movies) and star Edward Norton manage the similar feat of wiping the slate clean and giving us not only a worthy follow-up to Iron Man, but also a worthy film in its own right.
While Hulk 2.0 didn't quite match up to Iron Man's box office climb, it did do respectably enough to validate the decision to reboot. More importantly, thanks to a clever bit of cross-pollination in the closing moments that saw Robert Downey Jr. appear in character as Iron Man alter ego Tony Stark, the notion of a Marvel Cinematic Universe -- the first such approximation of a shared comic book universe ever attempted on the big screen -- was now firmly and finally established.

That dangling thread was then picked up two summers hence with Iron Man 2, which made the goal line of an eventual Avengers movie that much more explicit -- though that may have come at the expense of the film itself, which was agreeable enough, but seemed somewhat insubstantial when weighed against what it was promising to lead up to. As I said of the Jon Favreau-directed sequel:
Iron Man 2 is happy to play out its role as one cog in a far more expansive machine. Sure, like the best of sequels it builds on prior success and further fleshes out its protagonist, but what it's really about is laying the pipe for the expanded Marvel movie-verse only hinted at last time...
Iron Man 2 also paid forward that expanded movie-verse with a post-credits scene that led directly into Thor, the first of two final keystones Marvel laid into place in summer of 2011 on the road to The Avengers. In addition to establishing the Thunder God as a franchise in its own right, the Kenneth Branagh-directed film was just as much about pushing the boundaries of the audience's suspension of disbelief by introducing concepts of magic, sorcery, and alien realms to the shared universe. Here were my impressions in my review:
There's a very delicate tightrope at work here requiring us to buy into the fantasy elements that ground the first act enough that we'll accept it when it intermingles with our own world in the second and third. That's no easy feat, and by the time we see a clutch of Thor's fellows walking down a New Mexico street in full Asgardian regalia, it has the very real potential to be as laughable as a Roger Corman flick...
And finally, there was July 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger, which lent further context to The Avengers via the star-spangled hero's World War II-era origins, showing just how far back Marvel's fictional history stretches. Arguably even more important than that, however, was the need to establish that Captain America, one of the comic publisher's oldest and most important assets, could be accepted by mainstream audiences who might otherwise have been frightened off by the character's (per director Joe Johnston) "flag pajamas." As I said in my review...
...because Steve [Rogers] is such an earnest, straight-ahead character (the publisher's closest equivalent personality-wise to DC Comics' Superman) any film version had to straddle the line between making him hard-edged enough to work for modern auds while preserving enough of his personality to keep him recognizable as uniquely Cap.
While the post-credits scenes in the other pre-Avengers movies had been content to tantalize audiences with hints and teases that parceled out important plot points of the shared universe's next entry, the Captain America stinger dispensed with the carrot and instead went straight for the stick: A full-on trailer that said, in no uncertain terms, the road was paved, and the destination was very nearly in sight. The Avengers were almost ready to assemble.

(Look out for my review of you-know-what by the weekend.)

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