I didn’t grow up as a comic book geek. I grew up as a fan of comic book movies, worshiping at the feet of Richard Donner and Tim Burton, but I never really read the comic books themselves. I was, and still am, barely conscious of the Justice League of America comics, and was even less cognizant of the Avengers.
And yet, at the end of the first Iron Man movie, when Samuel L. Jackson appeared with those immortal words, “I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative,” I was every bit as giddy as all the fanboys who’ve been reading the comics for years. Why? Because I knew, as did everyone else, that it was the start of something huge.
Many years ago at Comic-Con I had heard screenwriter Zak Penn hint at creating a horizontal world in the comic book universe. At the time, I had no clue what was coming. But he sure did. According to this ScreenwritingU interview with him, he was hired years ago as the one to manage creating a single narrative thread through all the comics; to make sure that each movie adequately set up what would culminate in The Avengers.
It was a job very, very well done. One of the biggest challenges, I think, of a movie like this is figuring out how to stuff ten characters, each a leading man in his own right, into a single story. As Joss Whedon put it, “Too much is going to throw people, and at the same time, you don’t want to leave anybody in the cold.” So you start with the villain, bring in the heroes one by one, create a bunch of interpersonal conflict among the heroes themselves, and have the ultimate battle turn into a war. Throw in a whole lot of humor thanks to a rewrite by Joss himself and the presence of king of the one-liners Robert Downey, Jr., and you’ve got the makings of a hit.
MAJOR SPOILER ALERT
As a writer, I think my favorite part of the whole movie was the decision to kill off Agent Coulson. I was commenting to someone the other day that I stopped watching Fringe the third time Olivia went into the hallucinogenic tank of doom, because they kept trying to convince us that it was so dangerous, but she ended up being fine each time, and we knew she was going to die anyway because she was the lead character and you don’t kill off your lead character in the first season. Meanwhile, I watch Grey’s Anatomy religiously, because they create characters that I care about, and then (sometimes) kill them off. When an artist actually proves that he’s willing to kill someone you care about it, the stakes become that much more real. Agent Coulson, having assembled the Avengers over four years’ worth of movies, was not someone we expected to die. So when he did, we totally bought into the emotional stakes — i.e., that he was important enough to all the other characters to have them avenge his death.
END SPOILER ALERT
I’m positively ecstatic that this gamble on the part of Marvel and Disney has paid off. A few years ago I heard a screenwriter for some comic book movie (don’t remember which one) say that when he was writing the screenplay, he begged the studio, “Let me put a blind lawyer named Murdoch just in this one scene.” In the comics they do that stuff all the time, but in the movie world they were seen, for the longest time, as completely different properties and didn’t want to cross them over. The studio refused. And now creating this horizontal world as they have, we’re seeing how powerful it can be.
Given the tag during the credits, and this summer’s auspiciously-timed reboot of Spiderman (only five years after the last Spiderman movie, the same time difference as between 2003’s Hulk and its 2008 reboot The Incredible Hulk), I’ve heard some people speculate that Spiderman will be joining the Avengers for the sequel. That sequel has been confirmed, so now our job is to look for other clues — like, for example, a reboot of The Fantastic Four.