"We have a Hulk."
THE AVENGERS is excellent. Let's just get that out of the way. By now you know it, I know it, and judging by the box office ice, so does my dead grandmother. The real story here isn't about the great elements of this film, but how in the hell this thing came to pass and what it means for the summer blockbuster film genre itself.
In 2006, Marvel Entertainment stepped up to the roulette table and put it all on red. New Line Cinema and Universal Studios had just relinqished the rights to Ironman and Hulk films and property. They still owned Captain America, Thor and the majority of their 'B' squad. Spidey, Punisher, Daredevil and the uncanny Wolverine weren't firmly out of reach and owned by individual companies where they were free to tell stories that they saw fit. This left Marvel with two choices: go the safe route and sell Iron Man or do something completely unprecedented and rewrite the rulebook.
So producer Kevin Feige went to a private trust and brought what I can only assume was a couple graphic novels, a bottle of tequila, and a prayer and walked out with half a billion dollar loan to make THEIR OWN MOVIES!!! Thats right, a comic book movie built from the ground up by actual creators. The brain trust of Brian bendis, Mark Millar, Brian Hitch, Feige and company (all Marvel Comic mega-creators) got in a room and riffed on what they thought would be cool to see on film.
What were their favorite stories? What was classic character dogma and what could be reinterpreted today? Could these characters inhabit the world we live in? The actual print creators of these properties got to make those decisions. Then came the second big leap--finding talented, affordable filmmakers who would appease the fans, be able to handle films of these scale and work within the confines of their worlds. How about the guys who made ELF (Jon Favreau) and THE TRANSPORTER (Louis Leterrier)? Seriously?
After IRON MAN (directed by Favreau) hit as big as it did, the brain trust got back together. They had the money and freedom to let their imaginations run wild. Could they create a world where an Iron Man, Captain America and Asgardian God Thor co-existed? Keep in mind that if a single film failed, the whole party was over.
Again, relying upon nerd faith in choosing directors, they hooked the period piece CAPTAIN AMERICA with the director of THE ROCKETEER (nerd fan favorite--Joe Johnston) and THOR with the serious and distinguished Shakespearian director of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (Kenneth Branagh). The two characters--who were, without a doubt the toughest sell to the public--were out of the way; a collective sigh of relief was heard around Hollywood.
And, now here's the big one: THE AVENGERS. The one they have promised since Mace Windu showed up at the end of IRON MAN. But who could put this whole thing together?
What was needed:
1) A writer who could handle an ensemble respectfully. No character could be the star, and they all needed equal treatment. They needed a storyteller who could have the characters actually interact and not just take turns reading a line. A group dynamic needed to drive this story and for that an intimate understanding of how a superhero team full of super egos would function in a relatable way. For that they got the guy who made TV's FIREFLY.
2) A comic writer. They needed an actual creator who had handled a positively received comic book run to convince the fans. For that they got the guy who wrote Astonishing X-Men (often called the best X-men run of all-time).
3) A guy who could handle a budget. Even at a reported 200-million dollars, this movie had to be five times as big as the five Marvel movies that preceded it. They needed a director who could make a sci-fi war movie bigger than any other filmmaker. For that they got the got the guy who made SERENITY for 35-million.
On the surface this was amazing! You mean one guy did all this?! What's the risk here?! He had made only one movie before, and it FLOPPED. Marvel put their make-or-break mega budget film in the hands of a Hollywood script doctor. Their love letter the fans was hoping for was going to be handled by the guy who had failed to make back a 35-million dollar budget. And that very same think tank who sat in a small office and brainstormed this whole thing were risking it all on one Joss Whedon because they knew it was the right move. Risky.