Study Guide

The Avengers Behind the Scenes

  • Director

    Joss Whedon

    We've talked a bit about Joss Whedon in the Screenwriting section, but as the director of this little opus, this is the place where we get to talk about who he is and how he made The Avengers a massive slice of Awesome.

    Show biz was in Mr. Whedon's blood, and he knew from a fairly early age that he was going to end up in Hollywood. His dad Tom wrote for popular sitcoms like Alice, and his grandfather John wrote scripts for The Dick Van Dyke Show. Joss started out following in their sitcom footsteps, with work on Roseanne.

    In his copious free time, he worked as a script doctor, fixing problematic scripts and helping them flow more freely. He didn't get a lot of credit for it at the time, but it opened the door for his very first screenwriting credit: the original movie version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

    It wasn't a great experience for him—he's kind of down on the movie (which we admit we like more than he does)—but it opened more doors for him and further script work followed.

    Behold the Power of Buffy

    Despite his growing success as a movie scriptwriter, the whole Buffy thing still ate at him. Strangely enough, he got another shot at the character, pitching and ultimately being put in control of a new TV show featuring the character.

    It was, to say the least, a smash, lighting a fire in the hearts of geeks everywhere and making an instant star out of Sarah Michelle Gellar, whose confident, capable Buffy become a feminist icon of the late 1990s.

    That kept Whedon busy not only writing scripts, but directing episodes too, as well as similar work on the Buffy spin-off Angel and the short-lived-but-much-loved science fiction series Firefly. That, in turn, led to his first feature-directing job: the Firefly spin-off Serenity, which opened in 2005. The film did middling business at best, but with Buffy making history, no one much cared.

    Comic Book Writer

    It raised eyebrows, then, that this guy who seemed to have all of Hollywood at his feet, would step aside to write comic books for a while, but that's just what Whedon did.

    From 2004 to 2008, he wrote X-Men comics for Marvel, as well as titles for Dark Horse comics and IDW Publishing. He cited Kitty Pryde—a famous teenage X-Man who can walk through walls—as one of his inspirations for Buffy. (Source)

    More important, the gig gave him a chance to audition for his second directing gig… The Avengers. And no one knew at the time just what a great fit it turned out to be.

    Why So Right?

    You might think, at first glance, that hiring Whedon to handle a project this big was a roll of the dice. You'd be right.

    Sure, he had plenty of directing experiences from Buffy to make up for his thin big-screen directing resume, and his love of comics was never up for debate. But seriously: this was a super ambitious project, and the monumental task of pulling four separate franchises together into one super-franchise would have left a lot of directors quaking in their puffy pants.

    Not Whedon. He stepped up to the plate and knocked it out of the park, changing the history of movies in the process.

    How exactly? It starts with the remarkable balance of characters onscreen. This is basically a movie with seven protagonists against one antagonist—a lot of balls to keep in the air. And yet you don't feel the strain for a single minute, and as the story unfolds, he moves back and forth naturally between all of his heroes.

    In fact, all seven of the Avengers more or less have their own verbal confrontation with Loki…in a movie that barely has time for such shenanigans. Let's count off each confrontation in chronological order.

    1. Hawkeye faces down Loki when he first arrives on Earth, only to become the Norse god's brainwashed slave.
    2. Nick Fury gets a dig in after Hawkeye has been taken, followed by a second face-down when Loki's in the Hulk-busting cell on the Helicarrier.
    3. Captain America throws down in Stuttgart, while Loki is telling everyone to bow and kneel.
    4. Thor argues with Loki in the woods after Stuttgart. 
    5. The Black Widow interrogates Loki in his cell, rope-a-doping him into revealing his plan for escape.
    6. Iron Man has a drink with him in Stark Tower just before the final confrontation.
    7. The Hulk beats him like a rented mule towards the end of the climactic showdown.

    Not only does he pull it off, but he doesn't draw attention to the feat in any way. (Honestly, did you notice that before we mentioned it?)

    If The Avengers is just popcorn entertainment, it's popcorn entertainment on a grand scale: unbelievably complex, horrendously expensive, involving the attentions of (literally) thousands of artists and technicians over the course of years.

    Yet Whedon makes it feel like it's one guy telling you a story, and with that, The Avengers connected to its audience and went from an ambitious noise machine to something that would genuinely change the way movies were made.

    It's hard to underestimate the impact he's had here, and yet maybe it's not as surprising as it seems. Hollywood's in Whedon's blood after all. Why wouldn't he turn one of that town's biggest gambles into an unqualified (Hulk) smash?

  • Screenwriter

    Joss Whedon and Zak Penn

    Penn Station

    Whedon also served as the director, and there's more on his directing abilities over in the pertinent section, but he also has a reputation as a fantastic screenwriter. (Meanwhile, we're patting ourselves on the back for not burning our microwave popcorn—it takes all types.)

    When they brought him on to helm The Avengers, Marvel knew they were getting him for screenwriting duties. That's good value for the money…especially considering what a huge comic book nerd Whedon is.

    In this case, however, he didn't start from scratch. From the earliest days of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the producers imagined an Avengers movie, and initially signed screenwriter Zak Penn to put it all together. Penn was no stranger to comic book movies, having worked on earlier Marvel joints like X2: X-Men United, X3: The Last Stand, Elektra, and The Incredible Hulk.

    He knew the territory and had a reputation as a team player (sharing writing credits on many of his scripts). Marvel tagged him with writing The Avengers in 2007, before any of their movies had so much as seen the inside of a theater.

    And unfortunately, whatever magic they were looking for just wasn't there. Enter Whedon, who signed on to direct and got handed the script to rewrite as well. He responded…by throwing the whole thing out and starting again. Penn had solved some of the structural issues involved with cramming seven standalone heroes into one movie, but the rest of it was left to Whedon to completely rework.

    Whedon, thankfully, was ready to go. Having earned his reputation with the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show, he had come off of a four-year stint writing the X-Men comics over at Marvel, and the dude definitely had superheroes in his DNA. He kept the basic arc together—good guys squabble and fight before coming together as a team—and infused it with a lot of his own pop culture sensibilities.

    Light and Snark

    You can see signs of that in the dialogue, where the characters make specific in-jokes about other movies, TV shows…things we might have seen and which Whedon can evoke from an angle, making them clever and funny without being obvious about it. Tony Stark makes a good means of doing that, since he has a lot of Whedon-style snark in him.

    Look at how Tony takes a playful swipe at Thor's blonde locks, for example:

    TONY STARK: No hard feelings Point Break.You've got a mean swing.

    (For the uninitiated, Point Break is a ripe slice of cinematic cheese from 1990, starring Patrick Swayze as a bank robbing surfer and Keanu Reeves as the undercover FBI Agent out to bring him down. Yes, really. Swayze's shaggy mane looks quite a bit like Hemsworth's in this movie.)

    He repeats the trick with a reference that most of us can get…even unfrozen super-soldiers from the 40s.

    NICK FURY: I'd like to know how Loki used it to turn two of the sharpest men I know into his personal flying monkeys.

    THOR: Monkeys? I do not understand.

    STEVE ROGERS: I do! I understood that reference.

    What's the point of references like that, besides the way they give the audience a chuckle? They make these heroes more relatable. (And muscle-bound millionaire superheroes need all the relatability points they can get.)

    Beyond that, Whedon's screenplay has a nice sense of balance to it. The characters are sharply defined, the action scenes don't dominate the quieter dialogue sequences, and every hero gets his or her chance to shine without being overshadowed. (More on that in the Directors section.) It progresses organically, it holds together in the right places, and it delivers a lot of crowd-pleasing entertainment with just the right amount of heart.

    Sure, you can complain about how superficial the script can be, how it focuses on the surface details without delving deeper into the Very Important Stuff that we expect from the Great Cinema.

    But at the same time, that may be asking a little too much from a screenplay that already has a huge number of characters to juggle and does so with so much elegance and grace that you're scarcely aware of how hard the trick is. Whedon makes it look easy…and doesn't forget to tell a genuine comic book story in the process. (Source)

  • Production Studio

    Marvel Studios

    Simply Marvelous

    We're not going to cover the big studios releasing this movie, because ye gods that part of its studio history is a mess.

    Paramount owned the rights when the process started, but Walt Disney bought up Marvel Comics in 2011, and with them came the rights to all of the Marvel characters, including some who were over at Universal and…it was a mess.

    Instead, we'll focus on the actual production company that made the film.

    Marvel Studios, as they're currently known, are a branch of Marvel Comics started to make movies based on their characters. Unlike their rivals DC Comics—who were owned lock, stock and barrel by Warner Bros and never had these issues—they got started by selling the rights to individual characters to other production companies to make movies out of them.

    If you'll notice, all of the X-Men movies are released by 20th Century Fox—the X-Men aren't part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as of this writing—while the first five Spider-Man movies were released by Sony/Columbia. That's because they own the rights, and in most cases acquired them back when comic book movies were anything but a sure bet.

    Underdog to Top Dog

    However, Marvel still had number of their own characters under their own roof, simply because nobody thought they had much potential at the box office. They included the likes of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and Nick Fury. Sound familiar? Some of those guys had been farmed out like Spidey and the X-Men, but Hollywood didn't move on them, and without a movie in the can, whichever studio owned the character had to give him or her back and play nice.

    (As a matter of perspective, the Andrew Garfield Spider-Man movies were produced partially to make sure the character stayed with Sony Pictures. If you've seen Civil War, you know how well that worked out.)

    With these characters coming back into their possession, and the big studios clearly not interested in making movies with them, Marvel decided to try their hand at it themselves. The first film out of the gate was 2008's Iron Man, which made all kinds of money and clearly showed that there was a market for these kinds of figures: heroes that mainstream America didn't know too well, but was definitely ready to learn about.

    At the end of the first Iron Man movie, the filmmakers included a post-credits scene where Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) runs into Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in his living room and gets a little sales pitch about something called "The Avengers Initiative." Initially, they just thought it would be a cool way to give the hardcore fans something neat to geek out about on the ride home afterwards. But with Iron Man raking in tons of cash, that throwaway started to look more and more like a promise.

    And Marvel didn't intend to let the opportunity pass. A second Iron Man movie followed two years later, along with a Thor movie and a Captain America movie…all leading up to this one.

    The Avengers hit like nobody's business in May of 2012, raking in $1.5 billion worldwide and giving Marvel Studios the room to play with whatever they wanted. We're pretty sure you're familiar with the results. The first collection of films—Iron Man 1 and 2, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America: The First Avenger—was categorized as "Phase 1." Phase 2 consisted of the next round of Marvel movies: Iron Man 3, Thor: the Dark World, Captain America: the Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, and the second Avengers movie, Age of Ultron.

    Phase 3 gets even more ambitious, with ten movies planned between 2016 and 2019. (That comes on top of another 10 TV shows that have either aired or are in the planning stages.)

    It's safe to say that Tinseltown has a new 600-pound gorilla on the block. And it wouldn't have been possible without The Avengers.

  • Production Design

    Digital

    The Avengers was largely shot on digital cameras, which capture the data as information on a hard drive. That made it easier to transport the data here and there, as well as letting the boys in the special effects department do their jobs a little more easily. In a few cases, they still used 35 mm film for some shots, which is done the old-fashioned way.

    None of that's unusual for films of this age, when digital cameras were becoming the dominant means of shooting movies. But for a film this big to use digital was a sign that digital filmmaking was here to stay.

    Frankly, as long as it makes the film look snazzy, we're all for it.

  • Music (Score)

    Alan Silvestri

    Or, as some wags would say, "the poundy guy!"

    And yes, Alan Silvestre does love his brass section, like a lot of film composers. But in point of fact, he got tagged for the job because he had a long history of scoring cool science fiction films…and Marvel definitely knew what they wanted on that front.

    Silvestri was born in New York, and he started soring films and TV shows at the tender age of twenty-one. (If you've ever watched an episode of CHiPs, you were probably listening to his groovy tunes.) He got a big boost when director Robert Zemeckis asked him to score his 1984 adventure movie Romancing the Stone, and when that film turned into a big success, Silvestri sort of became Zemeckis's go-to guy.

    That included some of that director's heaviest hits, including Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

    In between, he also scored notable 80s sci-fi films like Predator and The Abyss. They were brusque, upbeat, and sometimes even militaristic…in other words, perfect for movies where stuff blows up a lot.

    And if you're doing a superhero movie, stuff is gonna blow up a lot.

    Silvestri first joined the Marvel crew with 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger, and they dug it so much (it is very diggable music) that they asked him to come back for The Avengers. His theme for them is distinctive: upbeat and superhero-y, but very different from, say, John Williams' Superman theme, or Danny Elfman's Batman theme.

    As of this writing, Silvestri continues to score movies in Hollywood, and we'll wager we haven't heard the last of them for a while. But The Avengers ranks among his best, mostly because we suspect you can sing it to us unprompted.

  • Fandoms

    You can probably divide Avengers fans into two basic categories: old-school comic book fans who were into the Avengers when they were just in the funnybooks, and new fans who discovered them (or at least became fans) once the movies hit.

    That's the difference between a niche fanbase and a pop culture tsunami that followed the movies. The old-school fans had to make do with just the comics (which started in 1963), while the bigger fans took advantage of all the toys, models and gizmos that came down the pike after this movie hit theaters. That included things like Halloween costumes, maquette figures, and t-shirts, as well as cosplayers galore, fan fic, and art from young and old fans alike. (Source)

    These goodies simply weren't around before the movie hit…and now even casual fans know who all these characters are.

    And one of the coolest things about The Avengers is that it actually gave a little shout-out to all those fans in the closing minutes of the movie itself. We pan over a number of screens getting the man-on-the-street opinions of the gang that just saved the Earth, showing exuberant admirers sounding off about how cool their heroes are. (Source)

    It's one thing for the fans to love this movie, but how many times have you seen a movie love the fans back like that?