Some thoughts on The Avengers

Comic-Con saw confirmation that Joss Whedon is to be the director of Marvel’s upcoming The Avengers, an attempt at pulling off what is commonplace in the comic world; bringing headline stars from various comics into one single whole.

From the Iron Man series we’ll see Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark and Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow. Chris Hemsworth will play the role of Thor after appearing in his own film, directed by Kenneth Branagh. Chris Evans, formerly of The Fantastic Four, will star in his own Captain America film as well as here. Ed Norton sadly won’t be reprising his role as Bruce Banner; instead we’re getting Mark Ruffalo, a dependable character actor. Jeremy Renner, most recently of The Hurt Locker, will be turning up as bow-and-arrow wielding Hawkeye. Samuel L. Jackson, already cameoing in several of these films, will appear as Nick Fury.

As casts go, that’s pretty huge, and pretty talented. It isn’t surprising that Norton dropped out — he’s a talented man but he does like to control the films he’s in; he refused to do any publicity for Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk after disagreeing over the removal of several scenes, so he’d be unlikely to play nice with such an ensemble, and an auterist director like Whedon is likely to want to put his own stamp on proceedings more than that of any one of the stars. This is a cast that will need some wrangling.

Truthfully, I’m more interested in the concept of The Avengers than I am the actual film, because something of this scale just hasn’t been tried before, and I like it, and am more forgiving, when people try new things. For years now any comic adaptation has existed more or less in its own universe, apart from the occasional knowing wink to the audience: a reference to Gotham City in Bryan Singer’s Superman, and a reference to Superman in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. These are nice little gifts to the fans, but nothing more.

Marvel, though, are playing a longer game. Beginning in Iron Man with Captain America’s shield and Samuel L. Jackson appearing at the end, then packing The Incredible Hulk with references from start to finish. Iron Man 2 contains references to Thor. I expect Thor will contain references to something else. As noted above, referencing other comics isn’t a new thing but here Marvel are trying to get filmgoers used to the concept of a coherent, contained Marvel universe. To comic fans, it’s nothing new, but to the cinema-attending public it’s a new idea.

“When someone asks you if you’re a god, you say yes!”

I expect that the hardest part is how they’re going to convincingly mix the supernatural with the technological. Magic and science co-exist happily in comics, but on film it’s going to be a much tougher sell. Every other character in the film is scientific in nature or origin: Iron Man is a product of engineering and financing; Hulk of genetics and radiation; Captain America of biology and chemistry. While the physics of these characters may be questionable, each has been, or will be, very clearly presented as being part of our world. There’s never been any suggestion that there are actual gods in this universe.

I’m hard-pressed to think of a recent successful comic adaptation where the source of the lead’s power was supernatural. What has there been? Catwoman, with Halle Berry resurrected by cat breath? Ghost Rider? Spawn? The Hellboy series successfully mixes folklore and fairytales with scientific realism but even then, the first film was pretty medicore (the second was much better though). Blade, maybe?

I’m not saying that having a supernatural element in a superhero film ipso facto makes it a bad film, but I am saying that there’s yet to be a proven success. Maybe that will be Thor. Branagh’s attachment is intriguing but even then his biggest film so far has been his middling adaptation of Frankenstein back in the ’90s, so I’ll be approaching this one with caution.

Regardless of how Thor works out though — and, seriously, this is a hard sell — how they’re going to get him in the same film as Robery Downey Jr. will be an even bigger challenge. Any smirking, sneering or incredulity on the part of the other stars and the film will be undermined. We, the audience, are going to have to believe that Thor, Loki and Odin are as much a part of this universe as Tony Stark is, so for us to believe, everyone in the film has to believe as well.

I look forward to seeing how they pull this off and I hope that they do, if for no other reason that it might encourage D.C. to do the same, and we might get to see something like this on screen.