A Character Problem With Assembling The Avengers

It's a great time to be a comic book fan. Readers just enjoyed Free Comic Book Day, May the Fourth Be With You and Toronto Comics Art Festival all on the same weekend. Oh, and The Avengers just hit theaters, racing to $200 million stateside in only three days of release.

Reviews of the film are generally positive, with many lauding Joss Whedon's handling of the universe and the core characters part of the team. And rightfully so. He took what was seemingly an impossible task (just ask George Miller and DC) and actually made it happen.

Does the $200 million success of The Avengers mean that more comic movies be as bombastic and superstar laden as The Avengers from here on out? Or will more movies go the Christopher Nolan route and bring to life grittiness and realism?

As the acceptance of comics widens and they become more mainstream, bigger publishers like Marvel and DC are going to be tempted. They're going to be tempted to sacrifice some facets of their characters for explosions, intergalactic fights and loose storylines.

Anyone that's seen The Avengers will likely agree on many of the same things. There's lots of nods to the fans, such as the Helicarrier, character nuances cultured from years of comic book appearances and an epic battle in New York City that spans probably the last third of the movie. The humor was there at times, which provided moments of brevity in the face of an oncoming intergalactic threat.

It's also likely you might feel the character development is a little weak. Mark Ruffalo is a great Bruce Banner/Hulk and Whedon nailed that character. The invidual heroes themselves are given room to play within their characters, which makes the first time they're all fighting together feel more organic.

The story was a little loose though. Loki's motivations for his actions weren't entirely convincing, nor were the reasons that all of the Avengers decided to join forces. The character development for the Avengers was mostly handled through the standalone films, leaving little to actually play out in The Avengers.

Marvel could have just as easily done the "Christopher Nolan" approach with Avengers and made it dark and gritty; they could have done "Civil War" and had Captain America die. On the other hand, DC could've done with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight what Marvel did with The Avengers and made it more action-oriented.

(Well, DC did do that with both Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. It didn't work out too well. And--in all fairness--The Dark Knight did have its share of action-oriented set pieces.)

Yes, there was a galvanizing moment about halfway through the movie. That moment probably didn't resonate with a lot of the audience though, because they're not as invested in the film as some on that level. Comic fans are seeing it regardless, but it's likely that a lot of the mainstream audience that saw the movie though might not have seen it out of interest for the Avengers. They probably wanted to see the movie out of interest in seeing where the individual movies led to.

Marvel has been planting seeds for this moment for years now. Ever since the credits scene in Iron Man, where Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury approaches Robert Downey, Jr., as Tony Stark, mentioning the possible Avengers Initiative. Every film after that (The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger) maintained that loose thread. It became more than just something for fans to geek out about; it became marketing.

Take all those "fan service" scenes and what do you get? Probably the best advertisement for The Avengers you could ask for. Viewers (both comic and non-comic fans) were invested at that point, having seen all the clips and wanted a payoff. That payoff reached into mainstream audiences in general. For example, people that loved Downey, Jr., but knew nothing about Iron Man, saw the movie and came away enjoying it. Their interest was piqued.

The Dark Knight sold itself primarily on one thing: the off-balanced portrayal of the Joker provided by Heath Ledger. That portrayal, grouped with both Christian Bale's portrayal of Bruce Wayne/Batman and Christopher Nolan's dramatic vision, catapulted that film into another stratosphere. In the summer of 2008, that was the only thing people were talking about all summer.

Most of that portrayal was generated via word of mouth after seeing the film, but the "Why so serious?" and "Vote for Harvey Dent" campaigns leading up to the film's release played a big part too. They created interest in the characters, getting the audience to become invested in them, much like Marvel did with all the individual movies released up to the release of the The Avengers.

It's likely that publishers and studios will start churning out more and more comic book movies with a focus on action. Bryan Singer's Superman Returns was somewhat poorly received because people complained that Superman isn't an introspective character like Batman. The same was said about Ang Lee's Hulk. Even Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-man looks to be playing the smarmy Peter Parker, not the shy version that Tobey Maguire played.

People were enthused to see The Dark Knight because everyone raved about Ledger and Bale. People were enthused to see The Avengers because of the action. Again, that's not to say that The Avengers isn't worthy of the hype. I enjoyed the hell out of it. It's not going to stay with the viewer like The Dark Knight did though. The Dark Knight became a movie, while The Avengers will likely remain a "comic book movie."

Audiences want characters that can handle themselves. Characters that have great powers and can hold their own against any manner of opponent. Characters that have been around as long as the Avengers, Batman, Spider-man and others have do give the directors some leeway into how to present them. Usually all the director has to do though is go the action adventure route, throw in some fan shout-outs and finish with an epic battle. The Avengers has proven that works (to the tune of $200 million dollars) and may prove to be more of the norm as more and more character are brought to the big screen.

As I left the theater after seeing The Avengers, I instantly started ranking it in my mind, both against movies in general and comic book movies. For me, it's a top ten candidate when it comes to comic book movies. (In case you're wondering, my top five are The Dark Knight, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Spider-man 2, X-Men: First Class and V for Vendetta). Obviously, everyone's lists are subjective, but my point is this: The Avengers is a great adaptation, but it's going to be considered a comic book movie at the end of the day.

The point is that both The Dark Knight and The Avengers are great comic book movies. They both pay tribute to the characters and have a great feel to them that fits for those characters. Only The Dark Knight is a movie that feels like a movie first and comic book movie second, whereas The Avengers still feels like a comic book.

The Dark Knight spent more time letting the audience get to know the characters, while The Avengers assumed the audience already knows them.

The Dark Knight transcended the medium. It became something more than just a comic book movie. It became an actual "movie", nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture and Ledger winning one for Best Supporting Actor. That's not something that will likely be said for The Avengers.

The main thing is that here's hoping publishers and studios don't look at the success of The Avengers and assume people just want epic fights with superheroes. Yes, we do want that, but we also want a great story bringing them all together. Personally, I think the movie would've been even better if Whedon made Hulk the villain (instead of Loki). It would've added a new dimension to their interactions, but that'd be a tough sell for Marvel and Disney to the mass audiences.

It's likely that more movies will go The Avengers route in terms of action when it comes to superheroes, unless the hero's character specifically calls for a more reserved and introspective approach. And while it's great to see all those characters on screen at once, fighting the likes of Loki, it'd be nice to remember that some of the chracters are better served with a little bit of that introspection.

Again, I thought The Avengers was a fantastic movie and I have no problem with how Marvel handled it. Hopefully a lot of the mainstream audiences that saw it transfer that piqued interest into checking out other comics. Let's just hope (as comic fans and audiences) that future movies don't eschew spending time with the characters a bit more for action sequences. That's probably the one minor gripe with The Avengers: it wasn't really a film that connected with viewers emotionally.

If Whedon gets together with Ruffalo for a Hulk movie, that could be some great stuff right there. If they went World War Hulk, well, that combines both action-adventure and difficult decisions. And that's something I'm all for.