The headline popped up on Google News on Sunday evening: "Joss Whedon to direct 'The Avengers'?: Existence of God no longer in doubt." The Entertainment Weekly proclamation was par for the course for most reactions to the news that Whedon was reported to be at the top of the shortlist of possible "Avengers" directors. A few scant hours later, more buzz when it was announced he might also rewrite the Zak Penn "Avengers" script, and the new "Captain America" for good measure. Euphoria abounds in Geekland. My reaction was somewhat different. I have nothing but goodwill towards Joss Whedon, genre television guru, comic book scribe, and the guy who birthed "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog." But I am deeply, deeply skeptical about "The Avengers."
For comics naifs, The Avengers was the Marvel superhero team that was comprised of several of their most popular headliners: Captain America, Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, and second stringers Ant-Man and The Wasp. Marvel Studios is planning a film version that would be a massive crossover of four of their major film properties: "Iron Man," "The Incredible Hulk," and the yet to be released "Captain America" and "Thor." They've already planted little hints in the movies released so far, quick cameos of characters from the other franchises to establish a common universe. But as Erik Davis over at Cinematical has already pointed out, a full scale "Avengers" film is a risky, logistically daunting operation that has the potential to massively backfire on Marvel Studios.
The success of "The Avengers" is going to depend on several factors, most crucially the performance of two films that are far from completion. What happens if "Captain America" or "Thor" don't do well? At first glance, both productions look solid, but then so did Ang Lee's notorious "Hulk" with Eric Bana and Jennifer Connelly before its release. "Thor" is being helmed by Kenneth Branagh, who isn't exactly known for big effects films, and made a spectacular bungle of his last directing gig on "Sleuth." "Captain America" will be directed by Joe Johnston, a dependable veteran of genre pictures like "The Rocketeer," but who is also coming off of this year's most unfortunate underperformer, "The Wolfman."
And then there are the existing films to consider. The rebooted "Incredible Hulk" that came out a few months after "Iron Man" did mediocre business, but the numbers were good enough to ensure the big green galoot a spot on the "Avengers" roster, as confirmed by Marvel's president Kevin Feige back in January. A sequel has been nixed, however, so the question will be whether audiences will still remember the Louis Leterrier's and Edward Norton's version of the Hulk in 2012. "Iron Man" has been a runaway success, with a hotly anticipated sequel due in less than a month. On the other hand, there are already mild rumblings of discontent from a few corners that "Iron Man 2" couldn't really tackle any major story arcs that would require multiple films to resolve, as other franchises have done, since they had to keep a clean slate for "The Avengers." In this sense, the project could end up holding back the most successful Marvel film properties.
I haven't even gotten to the challenges of the potential "Avengers" film itself, which is going to have to juggle multiple main characters, who may all come from the Marvel universe, but inhabit very different corners of it. Thor has mythological underpinnings and fantasy concepts, Captain America is historical fiction with deep roots in World War II, and Iron Man is pure tech-driven sci-fi. The sensibilities of these films will be necessarily different, so there is the very real danger of the characters and their separate movie-verses becoming diluted, diminished, or simply clashing once combined. A Superman/Batman crossover film has been discussed for years, but no one has ever come close to putting those two together because of these kinds of concerns. Now Marvel wants four different properties sharing the same screen?
Films about superhero teams have usually been a mixed lot. The "X-Men" and "Fantastic Four" series had their ups and downs, but even in the best of them some characters always suffered at the expense of others. There is no guarantee, even if all the upcoming single-hero Marvel films turn out well, and all the tone and story pitfalls are avoided, that four big superheroes – five with Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury – are going to play well together. I expect that Robert Downey Jr. is going to end up dominating the picture, as Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth, our future Captain America and Thor respectively, are relative newcomers. But then there's Edward Norton, who had the rumor mills going overtime with his own rewrites of the "Incredible Hulk" script – Zak Penn's "Incredible Hulk script, ironically. Oh, this could get ugly very fast.
I'd love it if "Avengers" turned out well, but it really feels like Marvel is pushing their luck with this one.