by: Matthew J.R. Kohler
Not many film series begin with a FIVE picture plan, like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Avengers, like it or not, was a big success, but it could have been a big failure. Back in 2008, audiences sat through Iron Man, a decades-old character that no one cared about (kind of like the Fantastic Four now). But, swooping in was none other than Robert Downey Jr. to save the character. After that film’s success, Marvel chose to capitalize on its Avengers-teasing post-credits sequence by advertising the proposed film with four more films. Now, four years after the first Avengers film was released, I am looking back at the success of The Avengers, what its popularity means now, and the future it has paved.
Recently, I watched the film for the first time since seeing it in theaters, and I have to say that the film doesn’t hold up. The reason being that, as a superhero fan, I am burnt out on origin stories. For several years, Marvel, DC, and many other comic book companies have been restarting various series over and over, retelling the origins of its characters. With the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we were given three origin stories (Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America) and two other set-up movies (The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2) just to see another origin story in The Avengers. The whole movie is about them getting together to fight a common enemy. It felt like a waste of time, having seen the five “set-up” movies. Hell, the first six films felt like the start of the Marvel animated show, The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (which ran from 2010 to 2012). The first five episodes set up who our characters are. Then, the sixth episode is about the “alien” attack that forces them to team up. Sound familiar? I wish the movie would have started with something like the Avengers (unwillingly) already assembled by Nick Fury. They’re all in a room in the opening scene. Fury walks in and gives them their objective. From there, the personality conflicts would ensue. With five set-up films, this movie was supposed to just give us The Avengers from the get go, like how 90s comic book cartoon shows (Batman, Spider-Man, and X-Men) did with their titular characters. But, Marvel did not see the reintroductions as needless, because they wanted to pull in a more general audience who did not see the previous films. And, it worked.
Marvel’s first Avengers film grossed triple the amounts of Thor, Captain America, and The Incredible Hulk. Normally, sequels either do slightly better or worse. (Look at The Empire Strikes Back, The Harry Potter films, and The Two Towers). In terms of both storytelling and box office success, the first five MCU films meant nothing when viewing The Avengers, because in Marvel’s mind, that movie was the actual franchise starter. In terms of both box office and critical and fan reception, The Avengers defeated the other 2012 superhero tentpole—The Dark Knight Rises, which is part of a series that was considered the king of superhero franchises for four years. The new king, The Avengers franchise, had its eye on a new goal: keeping its fan base while increasing its range. Both Iron Man 3 and Captain America 2 did insane numbers compared to its predecessors. How? It attracted fans who watched The Avengers. It was evident that every MCU film after The Avengers would be instant gold. Sure, there were misfires, such as Thor: The Dark World, Ant-Man, and Iron Man 3 not being that great, but Marvel was still on its way for a repeat.
With Age of Ultron, many people, including myself, were excited to see what Marvel would do with the series. Unfortunately, it was more or less a repeat of The Avengers (this time they take on a NEW villain who also has an army and wants to take over the world!). What the sequel didn’t have going for it that Avengers did was freshness—by 2015, we had already seen the Avengers team up once. As a result, the movie did not do as well. (Look at the numbers: Age of Ultron made over $160 million less than Avengers’ $623 million gross).
Now, does this mean that superhero films are not as popular now? Not necessarily. Look back at the 90s. The 1989 film, Batman, was a phenomenon that made Batman the king of superheroes again. But when Batman Returns came out, the movie flopped compared to the first one because of how unusual it is. That same year, though, Batman: The Animated Series came out and was crushing the animated series market. Batman was still popular. Age of Ultron did not do as well as its predecessor because of quality, not because of audience’s fickleness. What Marvel needs to do to keep its audience is to morph with its consumers’ changing tastes. The Revenge of the Sith is a good example of this. After backlash at the lighthearted and/or dull films, The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, Lucas created a more serious Star Wars film for the fans. The Empire Strikes Back is another example of this. It was a drastically different film from A New Hope, and it slowly transformed into what is considered one of the greatest films of all time. The two Avengers films, by comparison, are more of a flat line.
As for the future, the third and fourth Avengers films are coming in 2018 and 2019, respectively. I am already not impressed. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, for its lifespan, has been retreading ground that we have seen for the last fifty years, by telling the same stories straight from the comics (aside from Infinity Wars, just look at Winter Soldier and Civil War for other examples). After a while, the comic book fans viewing these movies might not care anymore what happens, because they’ll grow tired of the lack of originality. And, casual moviegoers will grow tired of every story not actually ending, but instead setting up for another film or twelve. Perhaps future movies will become more and more identical in terms of rehashing origin stories, following famous comic book story lines nearly beat for beat, and being one giant advertisement for an even bigger movie? Only time will tell.