Those of you of a less geeky disposition may be unaware of a project that has been unfolding in cinemas since 2008, a project which reaches its culmination next year with a superhero film that has the potential to change a great deal indeed: The Avengers. Quite simply, come early 2012, we will witness whether it is possible to join together several very different and reasonably successful films to make a larger and even more successful one. Needless to say, nothing like this has ever managed to make it to screen before.
The Avengers is the conclusion of the Marvel comic company’s massive gambit to bring their main superhero team to film: link together all of their movies (excluding existent franchises), then bring all the established heroes together in a single film. While the format is standard within the comics industry, where you can simply draw everyone on the same page, it is more or less unprecedented in cinema. A Superman vs Batman film never did happen, and Alien vs Predator hardly gives the practice a great reputation. Besides, if you thought just two headliners were risky, imagine four of them, all of whom have to be balanced, given their due and development and written just right, while also telling a decent story and somehow blending together Norse mythology, a modern Jekyll and Hyde, high-tech corporate machinations, and World War II.
You will notice that this could all go horribly wrong. Given such a long-term scheme, Marvel has been fantastically lucky in that its output in reaching this decision has been generally well-received. For those of you not alienating friends by obsessing over superhero films (or writing articles analysing said superhero films), said output has consisted of five relevant films: Iron Man (2008), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011) and Captain America (2011). These films have had to not only function as good-quality superhero adaptations – rather difficult in itself with any slip-up not just damaging that brand but also the much larger project – but have also needed to both create and fit into the broader continuity. In fact, that continuity has very much dominated the project, defined as it has been with each film’s post-credits sequence – the idea is that each links onto its successor – and cameos a-plenty, not least Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury, head of SHIELD and `The Avengers Initiative` (who supposedly signed a nine-film contract after only one cameo in Iron Man).
However there have certainly been some mishaps: the Hulk in The Avengers will be the third actor to play the character on film. Furthermore, while in Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk these references and cameos were limited to tiny ending scenes, The Avengers has dominated the last three movies as the project became the official endgame. Iron Man 2 came under fire for essentially being more of a launching pad for The Avengers than a movie about, well, Iron Man. Thor featured SHIELD – one of those extra-government organisations you get in these things – as a major presence; and Captain America’s full title added `The First Avenger` to make the connection quite clear. Two of the final team’s line-up – Black Widow and Hawkeye – have had to be established in the background of these films, in Hawkeye’s case with a mere two minutes in Thor. The subsequent attention these cameos garnered made it hard for them not to jar.
In short, if the movie now fails, not only will it lose a lot of money, it will make its predecessors – and Marvel – look rather silly, to say the least.
Marvel has played its cards well, though. Knowing that fan support will be a crucial deciding factor, it has filled its films with references and cameos for the eagle-eyed. It’s important to do fans service, since if anybody knows how easily they can turn against you, it’s a comic company. The in-universe continuity has also become increasingly important, from the continuing adventures of SHIELD agent Coulson to Tony Stark/Iron Man’s father becoming a main character in Captain America. The care taken has been impressive, even inspirational – just see the pairing of director to film, from Shakespearian Kenneth Branagh with Thor to cult god Joss Whedon with The Avengers – and the same could be said of the risks: each instalment has, for the most part, been allowed to pursue its own feel, which may lead to problems in The Avengers but has at least meant that each instalment has felt like it can cope alone.
Furthermore, there is no denying its ambition. As I said before, this is brand new territory, and there is no way it will have no impact whatsoever. Win or lose, it will decide a great deal: whether Marvel’s rival DC tries to imitate it, certainly, but also how far the superhero movie genre – one which has grown to incredible proportions in the last decade – can go. Think of it as being potentially either Batman Begins or Batman and Robin. A successful team-up movie and long-term business plan couldalso have an impact outside the niche, such as by making films like The Expendables more common. And, of course, there is the small matter of the large amount of money at stake, which always makes things interesting.
So there you have it: The Avengers, a four-year gambit and a potential make-or-break for an entire sub-genre of film. I can’t wait.