In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, as we return from a brief hiatus, we look at how Marvel Studios’ crowning achievement, THE AVENGERS.
It must have been 1979 or 1980. I would have been seven or eight years old. Baseball cards were my passion, followed quickly by Star Wars action figures. But like many kids of that era, comic books were also a common source of entertainment for me. It was a casual buyer of them, primarily sticking to those featuring characters I knew from Saturday Morning Cartoons–Batman, Superman, Spider-Man–or kiddie books like Richie Rich and Little Archie.
However, it was around this time that I began expanding my comic book buying. Unfortunately, my parents didn’t have a lot of money, so I developed a certain philosophy in my new discoveries–team books. You see, team books offered more characters for your buck (well, actually, at that time $.35), therefore you became exposed to more superheroes at one time.
Most of my forays into team books were in the direction of the Justice League of America title, because that team featured Batman AND Superman. However, I was open to exploring other team books, if the price was right.
One day, my mom and I were having something to eat at the luncheonette in the K-Mart in the Pittston Plaza. As we walked in, I noticed a display of polybagged comics in the front of the store. This was a time when older comics were repackaged and sold two, three, or four a piece in plastic bags, typically for a couple pennies less than what you’d pay for all three at cover price. I immediately pestered my mom for money to buy a bag or two of comics for the ride home. She relented.
When I was done eating, I ran to the display. My eyes were drawn to one bag of comics in particular, featuring three issues of a title I was up til then unfamiliar with. The comic on the outside, facing towards the customers as the bag hung from its hook in the display, featured what looked like a statute walking over the prone bodies of a number of gaudily costumed heroes. Flipping the bag over, you’d find a comic with a number of the same heroes fighting a large stone creature on a tropic locale. The comic in the middle, which only part of the cover could be seen by sliding the comic on top of it either to the left or right, feature a man in a green costume punching another man in a green costume in the chest–only his fist had disappeared into the other man’s body!
Needless to say, this was all I needed to see to invest my $.89. And that $.89 led to a lifetime of being a fan, because the comic inside that bag gave me my first exposure to the Avengers (issues #157, 158 & 180 to be specific). And I was so blown away by what I read in those comic, I became hooked.
It was nothing I had ever seen before. The teammates were as combative with each other as they were with their opponents (the two guys fighting on that cover above? They were teammates). And the team was defeated in each of the three books. That was something I never came across in my limited experience in reading comics. Granted, total defeat was avoided in two of the books by a timely intervention of a til then missing teammate, but the one ended in a cliffhanger, a cliffhanger it took me about twenty years to resolve.
So, I was hooked. Whenever I bought comics, it would be Avengers first, everything else second. It was after reading Avengers #227, the first issue of Roger Stern’s legendary run on the title, that I decided to become a comic book collector. I signed up for a mail subscription to the Avengers a few issues later. The Avengers was the first comic book series I actually completed, thanks to several stock options and a gifts from a totally awesome girlfriend/wife. I stayed with the title through multiple volumes and numerous spin-offs (from West Coast to New to Mighty to Secret and so on). It is safe to say, that the Avengers in all its forms and incarnations is my favorite comic book series.
And if you told this Avengers fanboy at any point before 2012, even after the “Avengers Initiative” was mentioned at the end of Iron Man,that I would see my favorite comic book team represented on the big screen, I would have laughed. Even after the film’s release date was set in stone and one of my favorite writer/directors was given the helm of the project, I still believed that nothing on screen would hold a candle to the comic I grew up reading.
Thankfully, I was wrong.
The Avengers was the culmination of Marvel’s foray into movies, the one thing everything had been leading to until then. And while it seems foolish in hindsight, the film was deemed a risk at the time. It was the first film released after Disney’s buying of Marvel, and its success or failure was seen as an indication of how wise a decision that purchase was. In addition, skeptics had a hard time believing the film could balance the characters who all starred in their own films without becoming a disjointed mess.
To help avoid that, Marvel hired Joss Whedon to direct the film. Whedon, who has some experience getting the most out of an ensemble cast from his days on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, trashed Zak Penn’s script and wrote one where just about every character had a moment to shine. The only one who got the slighted was Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, who spent most of the movie as Loki’s mind-controlled slave. It’s hard to develop a sense of characterization when for most of the film you are essentially a zombie. The other only other major problem I had with the continuity of the film was the Thor issue. At the end of Thor, a major plot point was that the hero was trapped in Asgard with no way to get back to Earth. A big deal was made about this fact. Here, Thor just pops up out of the blue, with only a throwaway line from Loki hinting that Odin used black magic to send Thor to Earth as an explanation. The matter was never addressed again.
Zak Penn’s script was not the only thing that Whedon got rid of. Also ceremoniously dumped was Edward Norton out of the role Bruce Banner. Norton was extremely hands on with the script for The Incredible Hulk, and the powers that be apparently didn’t want him to employ the same heavy hand with this film. He was replaced by Mark Ruffalo, who went on to give a better performance than Norton would have, in my opinion.
Whedon, it would turn out, was the perfect choice for the film. He was a consummate filmmaker and a comic book geek, so he was uniquely skilled to deliver a film that was a great movie but with notes that would please the comic book faithful.
The comic book Cap is a natural leader. Whedon show this in a number of scenes in the film where Cap took charge, and not in a pushy way, but because he was the best one suited for the job. Thor and Hulk fought numerous times in the comics, Whedon gave us a dust up between the two in the helicarrier. The comic book Nick Fury is a shrewd manipulator. He’s even more of one in the film.
But the film was expertly made. There is a lot of humor, but in the right places. The climatic battle took up a half-hour of screen time, befitting the epic scale of the film. And even though the film was well over two hours, it was paced so well that you never noticed. And Whedon brought out the best in the actors too, especially Tom Hiddelston, Scarlet Johansson, and Clark Gregg.
Audiences came out in droves to see the film. The film broke all kinds of box office records, making over $1.5 billion worldwide, enough to become the third highest grossing film of all time. It changed the paradigm of American cinema for ever. For studios that did not have a comic book property it licensed, it looked for one to pick up. If a studio had a comic book franchise, it looked to expand it into a shared universe.
It also guaranteed that Marvel would go on to make a Phase II, which we will begin to cover next time out.