So okay, dig it cool cats.
For at least thirty years, the superhero comic book industry has been a smelly morass of CROSSOVERS! Every year, Marvel or DC does a big thing that involves all the titles where they have to team up to fight a huge baddie or there’s some international crisis that all the heroes have to sit around a table for. It cheapens the writing of the individual books, by having the writers conform to guidelines set up for them by editorial. Stop punching that bank robber, Spidey! Tony Stark would like you to make some political statements and reveal your identity to the masses!
Now, movies don’t have that problem. There’s no continuity to deal with and screenwriters can generally just do what they like to tell the best possible story involving the characters they’ve been given. Now, this generally lead to maybe not a fault, but certainly a personal niggle in many superhero movies of the past decade. The stories were very contained. Very few cinematic superheroes ever saved the world. It was usually just them and a supervillain duking it out over some real or perceived slight the hero had inflicted upon the villain. And honestly? It was getting kinda stale.
This changed when in 2008 Jon Favreau and Kevin Feige decided the first IRON MAN movie could use a little post-credits sting where Samuel L. Jackson showed up as Nick Fury, asking Tony Stark if he knew about the Avengers Initiative. With a $200mil US opening weekend, it’s safe to say most people know who the Avengers are nowadays. In 2008? Not so much. Who were the Avengers? Why has Shaft lost an eye? Why did you make me sit through the credits? It didn’t even have Nickelback over them!
Nerd Alerts went off all over the world. Suddenly, you could identify the real dorks in movie theaters by the guys who would tell their friends/dates about WHAT THAT REFERENCE REALLY MEANT.
Cross-pollination continued with Robert Downey, Jr. appearing in THE INCREDIBLE HULK. Marvel was now steaming full course ahead with making the first ever SUPERHERO TEAM-UP MOVIE. But it was very important that people knew every hero, and knew beforehand that they were all in the same universe. They weren’t entirely sure how to do that, though.
In THOR, this resulted in a complete derail from the main plot when Thor got apprehended by SHIELD agents for a while. Do you remember that acronym and that unremarkable bureaucrat looking guy from IRON MAN?
Well here they are in THOR as we… what? You don’t. God, uh… what are we gonna? Let’s put Hawkeye in there! But we already shot the movie and Chris Hemsworth is doing other shit! God what do we doooo??? We can have him… almost take a shot at Thor? And people will be like… who is that mysterious archer? Why does the government employ an archer? He must be very good indeed if he is hired in an agency where everyone else has guns. This is a plot strand I will certainly remember.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER wasn’t weighed down as badly by needing to remind the audience that HEY HEY HEY this is taking place in a larger universe!!!, but it did end on a less beautiful note than it could have, just to fit Nick Fury’s by-then requisite cameo in.
Cut to: THE AVENGERS (or, AVENGERS ASSEMBLE as it is delightfully called in the UK. Directed by a guy who had mostly done television and one less-than-successful movie, produced by Marvel Studios, an outfit by now renowned for its penny-pinching, and the very first superhero crossover movie in blockbuster history, things were looking unsure.
But they pulled it off! AVENGERS is the best comic book movie since SPIDER-MAN 2 in terms of sheer Silver Age joyfulness. It feels BIG (despite the “localized” final battle) because you have the idea that momentous events are really happening that forces all these disparate players onto the same stage. Everyone has had their own movie(s), so they all come with a certain weight to them, aided by actors who’ve gotten to know their characters over several years. I must add that Mark Ruffalo, first-time Bruce Banner/Hulk, is the best cinematic iteration of the character so far, and it’s also his first outing. Good show! The Hulk is basically a big, angry puppy in this movie; complete with people he likes (Iron Man) and hates (Thor).
(No, seriously, Hulk’s dislike and subsequent treatment of Asgardians in this movie is THE BEST.)
Even the why-are-they-even-there ones (Hawkeye, Black Widow) get great little moments. At one point during the final battle, Iron Man shoots a repulsor ray at Cap’s shield, who deflects it into a Chitauri’s face. In any other superhero movie this would have been the big money shot of the fight. Here, it just happened in a panning shot with a bunch of other cool stuff happening in other places.
Now, I’m not naive enough to think that the very concept of team-up movies is going to refresh the genre. Big part of the reason AVENGERS works is cuz of Joss Whedon, a dyed-in-the-wool comic book guy. But what are the best parts of the movie? The big stars and heroes bouncing off of each other, shooting the shit, making jokes, squabbling. One of the things Marvel Studios really has done consistently well over all its movies is casting. Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, and now Mark Ruffalo all perfectly embody their characters. By getting the best guys from each movie into one movie and putting them in a team dynamic, you’re getting a whole bunch of fun on screen for free, even if the script wasn’t as good as the AVENGERS’ luckily was.
Movies aren’t comic books. There’s a new one every two years, not every month. And the most Marvel Studios movies we’ve had in a year was two, so they won’t be tripping all over each other like with their printed brethren. Now that the public is VERY MUCH AWARE that all these heroes exist in a shared universe thanks to the Avengers’ amazing success, you can focus on telling the story you wanna tell without advertising movies that are coming down the line.
And you know what you can do now?
Well, not with Spider-Man, cuz the movie rights to Spider-Man are with Sony and not Marvel/Disney, but Team-Ups man! You really think people will come to see a Black Widow/Hawkeye movie? It’ll just be a Bourne rip-off! But put in the Hulk and you’ve got people’s attentions AND a hell of a co-star.
Marvel Studios now has that power. They basically have a stable of celebrities. It’s up to them to realize that they can make superhero Rat Pack movies or just continue to have heroes cleaning up their own messes in climactic fights in nocturnal warehouses.