If one super-powered super-hero can fuel a super-blockbuster, just imagine what a half-dozen of them in the same movie can do.
A few years ago, Marvel Studios did just that. After giving movie-length origin stories to its key players, Marvel now brings all their power-hitters together into the ultimate superhero combo group — The Avengers. Imagine this group fighting not just evil but each other for screen time: Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Iron Man and a couple of second tier-types, the token hottie, Black Widow, and Hawkeye, the guy with the bow and some very fancy arrows.
But they’re not the first powerful and popular Marvel assembly of super-humans to hit the big screen. That distinction belongs to The X-Men, who have managed three mega-films since 2000.
Our Smackdown pits the origin of The Avengers, which opens this weekend, against last year’s blockbuster origin film, X-Men: First Class.
For many comics readers, The Avengers heralds the time when Marvel truly became Marvel. The great Stan Lee and the talented Jack Kirby were like two athletes in their prime — graceful and powerful at the same time, and they moved with precision and finesse.
It’s been quite a thrill for me to have become friends with creator Stan Lee since moving to Hollywood. We met doing an NBC pilot together, Missing Link, more than a decade ago and have stayed friends. He even signed my Avengers #1 issue, which I’ve scanned here.
At the neighborhood comic book club (Stan would prefer it written as “comicbook club”), we used to debate who should be in a film version of The Avengers if ever dreams did come true. Most of the actors we thought of back then are, shall we say, no longer fit for duty on this one. Still, we’re pretty happy with what we’ve ended up with today: Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Mark Ruffalo (Hulk), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Chris Evans (Captain America), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) and Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye).
There isn’t a lot of plot in the latest film. Basically, Loki (from Thor) is back to threaten global safety and security. This causes Nick Fury, the director of the shadowy, high-tech agency known as S.H.I.E.L.D., to recruit a team to save the world. It is no secret that the film structure is: introduce the team members individually, bring them together, let them fight each other, watch them put aside their differences to kick Loki and ET ass, roll credits.
X-Men: First Class earned our Defending Champion title in this Smack, having dispatched the original X-Men film from 2000 in Kevin Wohler’s spot-on head-to-head battle.
This film is an origin story with a twist, being set in the past, specifically the 1960s during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This gave the studio the chance to cast all the lead roles younger than before. Instead of Patrick Stewart as Charles “Professor X” Xavier, we get James McAvoy. And instead of Ian McKellen as Erik “Magneto” Lehnsherr, we get the spellbinding Michael Fassbender. This allows them to go to the well of one of the oldest and most successful story devices — showing us two friends who end up mortal enemies.
You see, before they were enemies, Charles and Erik were newly discovered mutants (from Nazi experiments as well as genetic anomalies), recruited by the CIA to help defend the country. They find themselves contending with a bizarre group called the Hellfire Club (Dick Cheney would have been comfortable there), whose leader Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) is trying to ignite a nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia.
The fact that X-Men: First Class is a period piece gives it a vibe that is perfectly in tune with its origin as a Marvel comic. Given that the early ’60s are the Platinum Age of Stan Lee’s amazing run of creativity and invention, it’s a beautiful homage. It’s a politically thrilling espionage story merged with the high camp of comic book adventure. It’s full of vibrant back-story going back to Nazi-occupied Poland in 1944 and wonderful friendship-building between young people who share the pain and angst of being mutants.
Oh, and we get to see a great origin for the early blue and yellow X-Men uniforms from the first run of comics. Great fan cred there.
While we’re here officiating over the battle of the super-teams on the silver screen, Marvel has their own Avengers -vs- X-Men battle royale going on in the pages of their comic books.
In this year’s company wide crossover event appropriately titled ‘Avengers Vs. X-Men’, Captain America’s squad of superheroes are forced to fight Cyclops and the remaining mutants. This 12-issue crossover just hit the stands (or wherever comics hit these days) as “Avengers Vs. X-Men”, otherwise known on the streets as “AvX.”
Normally, we’d call out those Smackdown imitators and impersonators — wait!, oh, yeah, it is Marvel, these are their characters — well, anyway, we just wanted to say how much we like the concept!
Like Marvel’s ‘Civil War’, both sides are interested in saving the world and the well being of those living on it, but they come to blows because they can’t get on the same page and agree on one singular plan of action.
If you thought that there’s some slobberknockers on the big screen in ‘The Avengers’ or ‘X-Men: First Class’, you’re in for a treat when you see some all out no holds barred action in the pages of ‘Avengers Vs. X-Men’. In fact, there’s so much action that the fighting spills out of the main book and into a separate series called ‘AVX: Versus’, which features individual battles from the war, like Iron Man vs. Magneto and The Thing vs. Namor, the Sub-Mariner.
The most compelling part of all this is that there’s no bad guy in this fight, and these are key moments on the page and on the screen. For example, in ‘The Avengers’, Thor versus Iron Man or Thor versus Hulk. They’re on the same side, but they’re so different that they have difficulty working together. Why they fight kinda doesn’t matter that much, but we love to see it because we see that even Earth’s Mightiest Heroes have their own human-like flaws. We see good guys fighting bad guys all the time, but in the real world, it’s not so cut and dry. Even though we look to these things to escape the real world, why they fight kinda doesn’t matter that much.
Anyway, we digress. Back to the review…
The superhero team film is a tricky affair. In solo efforts, there is always plenty of time to explore secret identities, relationships with the opposite sex, and the motivation of the villains. But in the group pix, the emphasis shifts. Each hero must get his or her due in terms of screen time. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The worst example of all-time is from the first Fantastic Four film where, during the fight with Dr. Doom, Mister Fantastic, Invisible Woman, Human Torch and the Thing each take their time watching the others fight Doom, one after another. Truly awful.
Fortunately, in this Smackdown, both films are in the hands of adept directors. Bryan Singer brought the X-Men to life and Joss Whedon does the same with The Avengers. Each was up to the challenge.
The other thing about a group of superheroes is that the stakes have to be pretty high to justify the gang approach to crime-fighting. Pick your poison between these two films — either extraterrestrial invasion (The Avengers) or nuclear armageddon (X-Men: First Class). Either way the stakes are as sky-high as the fate of the world and life as we know it.
Ask any consultant to any organization what they do and in the first five minutes they will mention “group dynamics.” These two films are full of them. There’s little doubt that the X-Men are the more organic collection — they’re all mutants, brought together by society’s distrust of them. Their difference is what makes them the same. The Avengers, on the other hand, are bigger stars in their own right, but their group is less cohesive because of that. It’s a collection of Alpha males, literally locked up together in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s giant floating battle station.
In X-Men: First Class, the filmmakers take the time to introduce us to the main characters’ back-stories because they have to — because of the period setting, we do not know them yet (at least in this incarnation). But in The Avengers, each character has been meticulously set up in his own world through previous films, and it’s assumed we already know them. Aside from three or four people in parts of North America still waiting to get on the electric power-grid, this is a safe assumption. This latest film then is all about using shorthand to get into the story.
The Avengers is a great kick-ass film and will make a trillion dollars or so at the box office but it is all about fights. They fight each other. They fight Loki. They fight ET. It is a loud film, what with all the super-fist on metal coming from it. If it can be said of a superhero movie that it is “thoughtful,” then that is the advantage of X-Men: First Class. The question really is, however, does that even matter?
You really have to wonder what the execs at DC are thinking right about now. They’ve made the decision not to co-mingle the worlds of their various heroes, keeping their film worlds separate, even though the comic worlds collide all the time. Are they dreaming about the box-office grosses for the Justice League film featuring Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman?
That will be a Smackdown for the ages when it comes: The Justice League -vs- The Avengers. It’s probably inevitable, but it ain’t here yet.
Marvel beat DC to the punch, gambled on weaving the Marvel world into one cohesive comic/film universe, and that bet is paying off big-time. That leaves us where we are today, with the Smack pitting two Marvel teams against each other.
X-Men: First Class is a first-rate origin story. It’s the best in the class of X-Men films. But few of the X-Men characters can carry a film all by themselves (including, apparently, Wolverine).
The Avengers, on the other hand, is chock full of stand-alone heroes like Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America and Thor. These guys stand pretty damn tall on their own. Standing together, well, they’re just unbeatable. Not only are they “Earth’s Mightiest Super-Heroes,” they’ve also taken this Smackdown by a knockout.