Dissecting The MCU
I’ve spoken many times before about how filmmaking as we knew it changed the moment in 2008 when Samuel L. Jackson emerged from the shadows in front of Robert Downey Jr, inviting his character, Tony Stark, into The Avengers Initiative. For better or for worse, the old era filmmaking ended and a new era began, whether we realize it or not, that’s exactly what happened. From that moment forward, Marvel Studios, and very soon after Disney Pictures had been working towards an “Avengers” movie. A movie that would bring together a group of characters who had been established in separate film franchises. They would then go back to their original franchises then eventually team up again later on down the road. At the time, it was hard to fathom. Seeing a movie like that. It was completely unheard of. Could Disney and Paramount and Marvel pull it off? What were they pulling off? Would each character only get a total of five minutes of screen time, or would the film be four hours long? Would any director and any screenwriter on the face of the planet be able to juggle that many personalities at once?
The answer to that all of those questions were a rousing yes. “The Avengers” was everything fans of this crazy experiment were hoping for and more. Trust me, there were many people who were skeptical. Even after the Iron Man movies were great, even after “The Incredible Hulk” turned out to be fun, even after “Thor” and “Captain America” clicked with audiences, there was still skepticism within the fan community. When the finished product came out, there were many people who said that “The Avengers” was a miracle that a movie could feature as many characters as it did and still be able to balance them ably. Honestly, that was never a miracle, this is what an issue of “The Avengers” looks like. This is what the very best of the “X-Men” movies looked like. Juggling each personality, given them room to breathe and develop, have each of them bounce off of each other, this is classic comic book storytelling. This is exactly what this was supposed to look like. Writer and director Joss Whedon was a relative no-name when he was hired to make “The Avengers,” I certainly wasn’t familiar with him. After some careful research I found out that he was responsible for “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” “Dollhouse” and “Serenity” on television. He was mainly a television maker. Talk about a big risk from Marvel studios. But hey, as we go along further in this series, that’s something you’ll see a lot with Marvel. They took risks, they took chances, they didn’t just go after the famous, well-known, popular director. It was clear that they found the right people to make these movies. Telling from “The Avengers,” Whedon understood these characters, understood what made them tick, and clearly loved playing with action figures as a child.
The year 2012 was kind of a bumpy one for me personally. You see, I was all ready to graduate from college in May, only to find out as I was signing up for my second semester that I took some crucial classes out of order and I needed to finish them in the right order before I could student teach. That meant sticking another whole semester plus a summer class to get it all done. I was pissed. I couldn’t believe my advisor didn’t help me catch that before this time. Finding out mere months before my last semester was over to learn that I wasn’t going to graduate at my attempted time was hard. As the year grew closer to a close, it was even harder. All my friends were getting excited to graduate and move onto the next phase of their lives, and while it was only for one semester, I felt like I had been held back. I needed some good, old-fashioned escapism. And if there was any year that was ripe for cinematic escapism, it was 2012. This was the year that was going to give us the conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy. The year where we would get a brand new “Spider-Man” franchise. The year we got a new Daniel Craig James Bond film. The year where Ridley Scott returned to the “Alien” franchise. The year Peter Jackson was returning to Middle-Earth to shoot “The Hobbit.” Plus, there wasn’t a single Michael Bay movie in sight. This was going to be a definitive year for film geeks. And it all began with “The Avengers.” This was a divisive year at the theater too, each of the movies I listed above weren’t even close to having universal acclaim. But in May, when I couldn’t stop beating myself up for my mistakes of that school year, I needed “The Avengers” more than most.
I re-watched the movie this weekend, and one thing I always found interesting about the movie is how gleefully it borrowed from both the mainstream Marvel universe as well as the Ultimate Marvel universe. Now, I’ve talked about the Ultimate Marvel universe in this series before. But for those who aren’t avid comic book readers, let me give you a quick definition of Ultimate Marvel. Back in 2000, Marvel was losing readers fast, and they struggled to get new readers. Why? The audience didn’t like having to have so much knowledge of past events, they didn’t like the outdated costumes, they thought the stories were too silly. Marvel was getting close to shutting their doors permanently. It’s a problem even DC has from time to time. How do you keep telling this long, complicated continuity while keeping the readers interested and without needing years and years of prior knowledge? It gets hard. Marvel had an idea, start from scratch, but this time in a different universe within its own multiverse. Thus, The Ultimate Marvel universe was born. It featured the same heroes we know and love, but younger, more modern, updated, and featuring more believable, grounded origins. (Instead of Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider, he’s bitten by a genetically modified spider.) The brand was a hit, and quickly brought Marvel out of its Dark Age.
Pretty much every character trait you see in “The Avengers” as well as the Marvel Cinematic Universe at large can be traced back to the Ultimate Marvel Universe. From Samuel L. Jackson playing Nick Fury, to the government backing and funding The Avengers, to Tony Stark being a drunken womanizer to Hawkeye’s cooler-looking, more tactical, modern outfit. It all owes its roots back to the Ultimate Marvel universe, which just proves how well received the universe was. In the Ultimate Marvel universe, the Avengers, dubbed the Ultimates, fought off an alien invasion. In the mainstream universe, they stop a plot by Loki. I found it very interesting and clever how Whedon blended both Loki and an alien invasion into this introductory movie. And I hope all true Marvel lovers caught it too.
What kind of kills me about the movie, and its something I kind of alluded to last night, is how I think Marvel missed out on a big opportunity using music. Each superhero leading up to “The Avengers” had a specific score, and I wish they utilized those scores when introducing these heroes in “The Avengers.” There is a moment in “The Avengers” when Loki and Cap are fighting, and Iron Man flies into the fight to Cap’s aide. He intercepts the signal from Black Widow’s quinjet, playing Black Sabbath from the quinjet. I would have loved if every character had the same sort of introduction with the scores from their respected movies. The use of music is a profoundly powerful tool in the making of any movie. Look at the iconic evil representing good and evil in “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings.” Each movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has a new score with each new movie, aside from “The Avengers” movies, and I kind of think it sucks that they never used the original scores. With that said, “The Avengers” theme has become an iconic score in its own right, so there’s a win there.
Through five movies, we’d already grown to love Iron Man, Thor, Hulk and Captain America as characters. We grew to love Black Widow from “Iron Man 2,” Hawkeye had a nice cameo in “Thor,” and heck we grew to love Phil Coulson, agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. That’s important too, since he’s the whole lynchpin of the Avengers assembling to save the world. I think why Marvel has been so successful is that they took their time to set up these characters, and slowly began to have them interact with each other. DC proved that you can’t just pull the trigger right away. It takes time for the audience to assimilate with these characters, to get to know them. Understand them as people. You rely on prior knowledge with many of these superhero movies, especially heroes that aren’t as well known compared to Superman or Batman. The average audience member needs to understand the tropes of the genre, and how they are alike and different. That takes time, and Marvel certainly benefited from taking their time.
I was shell-shocked walking out of the theater, so taken aback by a high the movie gave me. My girlfriend and some of our friends caught a midnight premiere, and at the time I was selling electronics at Wal-Mart. I didn’t care that I had to work at 7am the next morning, I was going to see the movie. Even after existing the auditorium, I didn’t care how early I had to get up for work, that I’d only get mere hours of sleep. It didn’t matter, it felt like a lot of time and patience had paid off in a big way. Then when the mid-credit scene played out, I was once again pulled into the excitement and anticipation of the future, just as I was when Nick Fury appeared at the end of “Iron Man.” This is the great power cinema can offer when it’s at its best.
Next week, we’ll kick off Phase Two with “Iron Man 3.”