The first three years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe gave us three films with two starring characters, Iron Man and the Hulk. We got briefly introduced to Nick Fury, the Black Widow and Phil Coulson. And we got the announcement of the next two films, the final two pieces of the Avengers puzzle: Thor and Captain America.
As anyone who’s ever put a puzzle together can tell you, even if you have all the pieces, sometimes you need a little help putting them together. Otherwise you wind up with a lot of crammed together nonsense.
In 2010 the House of Mouse purchased Marvel for an outstanding $4 billion. Sure, Kevin Feige and company had already dumped the pieces onto the table, but it was going to take a lot of manpower to make them fit. Given the somewhat creative freedom Pixar had up to that point, it was nothing but a win for Marvel. For Disney it mean acquiring a company that owned part of a market they just couldn’t break into, males age 6-14 (maybe not that exact demographic, but you get the point). Interestingly enough, in the eight years since that “line” that so many used to separate “girls” toys from “boys” toys has blurred, and thankfully so. Not to say that this turn of events had anything to do with that, but the massive success of the MCU couldn’t have hurt.
Unfortunately for Disney, Marvel’s distributions deals were mostly already in place. So, while they could put their name on Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, they had to share with Paramount.
Interesting side note, the sharing of films with Paramount would come back into play three years later when Disney acquired Lucasfilm, but this time with the Indiana Jones franchise.
Disney also had the fortune of pretty much stepping in when the troops were already in place.
First up was Thor. Bowing on May 8, 2011, it’s easily (in my opinion) the most well cast of the MCU solo efforts, possibly of all the films. Sir Anthony Hopkins as Odin, Rene Russo as Frigga, Stellan Skarsgard as Dr. Selvig, Natlaie Portman as Jane Foster, Idris Elba as Heimdall, Ray Stevenson as Volstagg, Com Feore as Laufey…and that’s just the supporting players. Add the up and comers Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston as the warring brothers Thor and Loki, as well as Jamie Alexander as Sif, Tadanobu Asano as Hogun, Josh Dallas as Fandrall and, unfortunately Kat Dennings as Meow Meow lady. A Dash of Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson, and the talents of director Kenneth Branaugh, and it’s all the ingredients you need for superhero Shakespeare.
Thankfully, that’s what we got.
Yes, Thor has its flaws; the sparsely populated town is awfully convenient for a god-off with The Destroyer, Hawkeye’s intro (oh yeah, this movie introduces Hawkeye, because we have to get him in somewhere before The Avengers) is so, so dumb, and the romance is one-note on both sides. But what it has going for it outweighs any of the negatives.
These actors spouting incredibly insane soliloquies at each other is certainly the height of it, but the humour is also a giant win. It proved that Marvel could shake off its problems, or if need be, just push through them. As long as the characters remained true we could deal with the rest. No subject or situation, no matter how ridiculous it seemed on paper, could work on that strength along.
Next up was Captain America, and if Iron Man is the brains of the MCU and Thor is its brawn, Cap is certainly its heart.
The final “big” piece of Marvel’s Phase One puzzle, Cap was a character and film that needed deliberate and delicate crafting. First, it was going to be told almost entirely in the past; second, the character has inherent jingoistic tendencies. It’s hard to deny the cynical world this movie was going to be brought into, and Cap is a lot of things, but cynical isn’t one of them.
Step one is to hire people who know exactly how create that sort of thing. Enter script writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, fresh off the under-appreciated Chronicles of Narnia adaptations, and sign Joe Johnston (of the equally unappreciated The Rocketeer) to direct. Then round it out with another stellar cast: Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Tommy Lee Jones, Dominic Cooper, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones and Neal McDonough.
The next hurdle would be to convincingly portray Steve Rogers, the man who would be Captain America, as the wimpy, in-over-his-head kid that he was. They had two choices, film all of the Cap stuff, then wait for Evans to waste himself away to bones and go back, or just use special effects. For the sake of time and Chris Evans health, they went with the latter.
It’s the one thing in the film that doesn’t completely work, for me at least. It never looks real, you can see the seams, and it often borders on distraction. Fortunately Evans is surrounded by people that sell it so well (and he does a great job himself) that in the end, it works well enough.
But, as I said before, it’s the heart that really makes the movie shine. They use the elements that could be detrimental to the film/character as ways to showcase just how noble he can be. There’s a scene with Evans and Tucci, where the doctor asks puny Steve Rogers why he wants to kill Nazis. His response is akin to “I don’t want to kill anyone, I just don’t like bullies.” It’s a mantra that informs every action this character takes in the MCU. While Steve feels obligated to do what he can for the cause his country is fighting for, once he sees he’s being used as nothing but a propaganda tool he enacts his own change. He’s the person we all wish we were.
Looking at these two films in the rearview, they have become vastly more important than just as character introductions. Thor would open the MCU up to the existence of other worlds and realms, blending magic and science, while Captain America, among so many other things, introduces the Tesseract. Which comic fans know as the cosmic cube, and which in the MCU is also the first of the Infinity Stones. But we wouldn’t know that for quite some time.
Iron Man gave us the MCU, but it was Thor and Captain America that gave us The Avengers.
It was an impossible task. Take all these elements from five different films (don’t forget about The Incredible Hulk!) and somehow fit them togetherinto a cohesive film that built on what came before and opened up a bigger world. So, Zak Penn and Joss Whedon got the call, and maybe rightfully so. Personal thoughts on Whedon aside, he knows the material, and he knows how to translate those sensibilities from comics to script to screen. Penn had just as much cred, having worked on a previous MCU film, The Incredible Hulk, as well as the Fox X-Men films, as well as Elektra, which meant he already had a working relationship with Kevin Feige.
With the exception of Cobie Smulders (and small rolls by Harry Dean Stanton and Powers Boothe), the cast comes pre-assembled, but unfortunately not all of them were well-realized. Specifically Black Widow, Hawkeye and Nick Fury, with Hawkeye coming in with the least amount of screen time. Fortunately for them Sam Jackson IS Nick Fury, and all he needed to do was continue bringing that no-nonsense energy and attitude. Easy enough. Not so easy? Turning Black Widow from the one-note lady-in-tights nonsense character we got in Iron Man 2 to an actual heroine and essential part of the team. And Making Hawkeye more than the guy that shoots arrows.
And the movie almost gets there.
I’d argue Hawkeye doesn’t truly come into his own until the second Avengers film, and that it would take the Russo Bros. to make Natasha Romanov more than just the female member of the team. In fairness to Whedon (and Penn) though, there’s A LOT to do here.
This would be the first time most of these characters have ever met, and so introductions have to be played fast and loose. The plot needed to be simple; something that needed as little exposition and explanation as possible, but big enough to facilitate the uniting of a team.
The finished product is a flawed masterpiece.
I’ve been a comic reader for over thirty years, and at this point I’ve seen more live-action and animated adaptations attempts than I would have ever imagined, three times as many since the premiere of this movie. Things blur together, moments get lost. But I don’t think I’ll ever forget seeing The Avengers for the first time.
Cap standing up to Loki (and jumping out of the plane into definite danger), Iron Man, Thor and Cap fighting it out in classic Marvel style (including the classic team-up move of repulsor rays to Caps shield), the revelation of the Helicarrier, “I’m always angry,” Hulk catching Iron Man, the 360 shot of the team, Cap directing the emergency response team, Hulk vs. Loki, the death of Coulson, the revelation of Thanos…effing Thanos!
There’s so much in this movie that we comic reading geeks never thought we’d see that it’s impossible not to love it. And if this was all we ever got of the MCU, it could have been enough. But that was just the end of Phase One.
To be continued…