View Comments
Super-sized heroes
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Captain America (Chris Evans) in Marvel’s The Avengers. Picture: Zade Rosenthal © 2011 MVLFFLLC.

At the end of the 2008 blockbuster Iron Man, which brought not just a $600 million box-office haul but a newfound respectability for the comic-book genre, Samuel L. Jackson's gruff, eye-patched Nick Fury turned up and dropped hints of a larger superhero universe and the "Avenger initiative".

Casual viewers probably dismissed all this as so much Hollywood fantasy gobbledygook. Enraptured fanboys, however, hung on every word, knowing exactly what was coming, the Holy Grail of comic-book movies - The Avengers.

Extra fuel was added to the fire when Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark put in a cameo appearance in Louis Letterier's reboot of The Incredible Hulk, affirming Nick Fury's statement that Iron Man is not the only superhero fighting for mankind.

Marvel Studios, which has been operating as a self-financed entity for five years, gave us further insight into the interconnective tissue of The Avengers when they released in quick succession the Kenneth Branagh-directed Thor and Joe Johnston's Captain America.

And, again, Jackson's James Bond-like superspy Nick Fury showed up in both movies as main man in the espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D. (which in this post-9/11 take on crime-fighting stands for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division).

After years of whipping fanboys into a frenzy, the ultimate superhero mash-up is zooming into multiplexes on Anzac Day.

In the line-up are Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man, Chris Evans as Captain America, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Mark Ruffalo as Hulk (replacing Ed Norton) and, of course, Jackson as the superhero CEO Nick Fury.

What little we know of the plot involves Fury putting together his superhero group in order to save the world from Thor's vengeful brother, the Norse trickster god Loki, who is played by the ubiquitous British actor Tom Hiddleston (he was seen leading the ill-fated first cavalry charge in War Horse and as Rachel Weisz's flyboy lover in The Deep Blue Sea).

Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige says that the idea for The Avengers came when they were looking at a list of the Marvel characters whose rights hadn't been sold off to other studios (Spider-Man and Ghost Rider are owned by Sony; Daredevil, Fantastic Four and the X-Men are owned by Fox).

What they discovered was the remaining characters formed the core of The Avengers, the comic book series created by Stan Lee and Jake Kirby in 1963 as a rival to DC Comics' Justice League of America, which brought together Superman, Batman and the Green Lantern.

However, before risking hundreds of millions on arguably the biggest comic-book movie of all time Marvel wanted to introduce the characters to movie audiences before the release of The Avengers.

"A big part of the puzzle was introducing both Thor and Captain America in self-contained origin stories with very distinctive beginnings and endings that segued nicely into the storyline for The Avengers, " Feige explains.

So grand is Marvel's plans for its iconic characters that Evans admits he was initially reluctant to sign on to play Captain America. He was worried by the long-term commitment and the loss of anonymity.

"Initially, I was being asked to sign on for nine movies. It later got pushed down to six but that is still an enormous chunk of your life taken out to play one character, " Evans says.

"Also, doing a part like Captain America can be life-changing. I was worried that I wouldn't be able to go anywhere without being recognised. Thankfully the change hasn't been as drastic as I feared."

The latest Marvel movie has also given the 30-year-old Evans, who grabbed our attention as the livewire Human Torch in Fantastic Four, the chance to work with some of the actors he most admires, g such as Downey Jr. "I grew up on Robert Downey Jr. The guy can do no wrong. He's one of the most talented actors on the planet. He just has this magnetic presence."

Indeed, Evans says that the camaraderie on the set of The Avengers was very real.

"We are all very aware that this is a group of people who could be making movies for the next five to 10 years so it behooves us all to get on together. So, by the end of the shoot, there is an absolute family dynamic that kind of mirrors what is going on amongst The Avengers themselves, " Evans says.

If The Avengers manages to become a cultural, and not just a commercial, phenomenon, it will probably be because of the involvement of Joss Whedon, one of the most acclaimed pop culture auteurs to emerge during the science-fiction and fantasy boom of the past two decades.

After beginning as a writer on Roseanne, the 47-year-old Whedon went on to create Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a groundbreaking series celebrated for its wit, its reinvention of the bloodsucker genre and its zeitgeist-defining amplifying of the girl-power phenomenon.

Whedon has subsequently created other TV series (notably Angel and Firefly), directed movies (Serenity), co-written box-office hits (Toy Story, Speed, X-Men) and expanded his considerable talents across other media, such as internet musicals and comic books.

Marvel also must have known they were not getting a writer/director who would march to the beat of the studio drum, who would not simply wrangle all the variously, wildly mismatched backstories but put his own stamp on the material.

"I've felt that superhero movies were a little too nihilistic or a little too clean. Or both. I felt like I really want to show the idea of being a hero as something more than powers. And really stick the screws in and make it personal and make it tough," Whedon told The Age's in 2010 just before embarking on the film.

"So I said to Marvel 'Let's make a movie that feels old-fashioned in its concept of heroism but modern in its sense of the realities of the cost of battle'."

Whedon is also fully aware of the dangers of putting together a group of superheroes who in their own movies do a pretty efficient job of saving mankind from that week's evil genius.

Whedon's solution was to focus on the weak points of The Avengers, to show the human side of seemingly indestructible figures.

"I do have Earth's mightiest heroes. And if I can't destroy them a little bit from the inside, then, honestly, they're gonna win. In, like, 20 minutes, " he says.

Whedon is also aware of Hollywood's taste for hyperbole.

"Special effects can destroy a movie. An unlimited budget can destroy a movie. So I didn't spend a lot of time going 'I can make this bigger', " Whedon told The Age in a follow-up interview.

However, he does admit there is a lot of zooming around in the movie, which even gives a talk specialist like Whedon a huge rush.

"I had to write a treatment of the final battle before I wrote the script, because people had to start work. Things had to move. And the treatment I wrote had five acts and a prologue, just for the battle.

"We all said we're going to have to trim this down. But by God, we filmed it all."

Yet, he says: "You're not going to feel pummelled. We try to give it texture and rhythm. But these guys, they go out with a bang."

The Avengers is now screening.