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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

I fully acknowledge that The Avengers might suck. Anyone who’s seen Joss Whedon’s two half-seasons of Dollhouse understands that. (Though if you also saw the original pilot, which Fox never aired, you also understand how a network can thwart even the best of visions.)

I’m pretty sure when Alex Pappademas wrote last year in The New York Times Magazine that the superhero industry should be handed over to film auteurs, he didn’t have Joss Whedon in mind. Unless Pappadmas had also watched seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, four seasons of the network-jumping spin-off Angel, and, my favorite, the brilliant half-season of Firefly followed by its equally brilliant if franchise-ending feature film, Serenity. (Again, I hold Fox responsible for grounding Whedon’s original Firefly pilot, not aired until after the show was cancelled.)

I’ve never read Whedon’s Wonder Woman screenplay (as far as I know, no one’s ever leaked it to the internet), but when both he and the project got the axe, I figured my favorite TV writer-director was down for the count. When I heard Marvel was handing him The Avengers, I cringe-laughed. As Whedon put it, his and Silver Pictures’ Wonder Woman visions were “non-sympatico.” That literally goes double for Fox. So it was simply a question of how long he would last before Marvel pulled his plug.

Of course I braced the same way when Marvel cast my favorite actor, rehab-rebounder Robert Downey, Jr., in Iron Man. The guy had compelled me to watch an entire season of Ally BcBeal, only to have him flame-out before the finale. This was also before the Sherlock Holmes franchise reboot, so people forget just how toxic Downey was even five years ago. Marvel actually made him AUDITION for the part.

So Whedon isn’t the first Fox discard Marvel has gambled on. Certainly Kenneth Branagh looked like the safer and more eye-catching choice for last year’s Thor. Sadly, it seems the Shakespearean auteur did most of his directing from the bed in his trailer. The best thing about Thor is the review it trigged from A. O. Scott. The poor guy was thrown into existential crisis by the film’s intentional mediocrity.

Which is also the likeliest outcome for The Avengers. Corporations are not auteurs. Either they broke Whedon, or Whedon broke them. Or, the least likely outcome, the two found a way to combine vision and finance to craft something that’s both intelligent and money-making. (Hey, I can dream.)

But even if The Avengers does suck, I’m still giving Marvel Entertainment some credit. Film series number in the hundreds, if not thousands, and spin-offs, while rarer, are nothing new. But no company’s produced an interlaced web of parallel films before. The Avengers is both the first in a series (The Avengers 2 is already slated for a 2014 release) and the sequel to not one but four simultaneous franchises: Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and Hulk.

You can even count Hulk twice if you include the Ang Lee film, which nobody is. (And allow me a moment now to lament the firing of Edward Norton as Bruce Banner. I’m not sure if Whedon or Marvel is primarily responsible, but Norton is another of my favorite actors. Though largely because his kid sister was a student at my university. Ed even took her as his date to the Oscars. How cool a brother is that! Plus he only plays Jekyll/Hyde parts—Fight Club, Primal Fear, The Incredible Hulk. As far as I’m concerned Norton should star in ALL superhero movies.)

Anyway, the interconnections between the six Marvel titles is what made the original Avengers so much fun in comic book form. Stan Lee, unlike his competitors at DC, wasn’t interested in stand-alone heroes adventuring each in their private universe. The original 1940 Justice Society of America wasn’t a team, it was a marketing gimmick for a reprint omnibus of each character’s individual episodes. Things had changed by the time DC rebooted them as the Justice League in 1960, but it’s Marvel that invented “continuity.” Stan Lee actually included footnotes in his panels. Readers were reminded not only of previous events within a series but events from ongoing parallel titles, complete with issue numbers. The result was an interlocking web and the sense of an entire world in constant, interactive motion.

Pretty much what Marvel is doing now on screen.

One last side note: The Avengers is not the first Avenger film. That credit goes to Zorro. His team of masked caballeros dubbed themselves the Avengers in Johnston McCulley’s 1919 novel. When Douglass Fairbanks stared in The Mark of Zorro the following year, he made what is arguably the most influential superhero film in history. Without Zorro’s Avengers, I doubt Marvel’s would have ever been written.

That’s a high bar for The Avengers to match, but I’m looking forward to the attempt. I hear it opens next Friday.

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