As I watched the latest installments in my Countdown to “The Avengers,” I had a revelation: Marvel is attempting something virtually unprecedented in modern moviemaking with the Avengers movies, something that is perhaps only possible in today’s franchise-hungry Hollywood. Marvel brings four different characters – Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Thor, and Steve Rogers – each with their own origins and character arcs into a larger story culminating in (and, if successful, re-launching from) “The Avengers.” This means that the five movies leading up to “The Avengers” must each be held in a dual position: First, as a microcosmic story of that individual character, and second as one piece of the larger arc of How The Avengers Were Born.
While this kind of episodic storytelling is common in literature and television, films tend to stand as isolated incidents of narrative. Yes, there are plenty examples of trilogies and sequels both good and bad, but with the exception of those based on previous material, these stories began with a single film and then grew into larger stories, instead of starting as many different stories that converged in one central film. And while “The Avengers” and its surrounding films are based on comic-book characters, they are not bound by the original stories; instead those are used as inspiration. This is not the Star Wars Trilogies. This is something bigger.
Now, “The Avengers” is not the endgame. If and when it is a worldwide smash, there are already plans for “Iron Man 3,” “Captain America 2,” “Thor 2,” “The Incredible Hulk 2,” as well as spin-offs for Black Widow, Nick Fury, and Hawkeye, not to mention “The Avengers 2.” However, fighting past the sequel-ennui that plagues us as audience members, we should look at this as an amazing opportunity. For the first time, an entire world is being created in theaters with characters, themes, and plotlines intersecting across different films. The storytelling possibilities are almost endless. Since “The Avengers” is the center cog around which this universe turns, I would love to see the characters in subsequent films grappling with the consequences of the events in “The Avengers.” However, there is a good chance that the onscreen Marvel Universe will not live up to its storytelling potential. It’s possible that, with the exception of a few crowd-pleasing cameos, each sequel will be standalone and isolated. It would be easier that way. On the other hand, some films may spend so much of their time setting up sequels that they could become frustratingly empty. It’s a delicate balance. In the five films leading up to “The Avengers,” we’re given examples, both good and bad, of the directions these stories can go and the degrees to which they can intersect. Looking at it from this perspective, the Countdown just got a lot more interesting.
Later in the week, I’ll post my reviews of “The Incredible Hulk” and “Thor.” How do they fit into the Avengers Cinema-verse? Stay tuned!