The Avengers and the Evolution of the Multi-Film Franchise

Curator's Note

In the contemporary media landscape, where filmmakers are often more accountable to shareholders than to their muses, studios have become ravenous for franchises. The ability to present audiences with something both new and known is the ticket to profitability, and no ticket has ever been as golden as The Avengers

The Avengers is the infinite franchise. The number of moving parts it has boggles the imagination. It launches a series that is itself the culmination or continuation of at least four other franchises. It is simultaneously the first film in a series and the sequel to five other films. Having already broken every available box office record, it will also undoubtedly be a launching pad for one or more spinoffs featuring ancillary characters and Avengers To Be Named Later, to say nothing of the resurrection of the Incredible Hulk series.

The result is a narrative daisy chain that alters, and to some extent potentially damages, each individual film's ability to legitimately begin, tell its story, and end. Iron ManThor, and Captain America have wildly different tones, settings, and even eras, but all must build on one another and lead into one another so that when Thor and Tony Stark finally do share a world, it is not jarring or ludicrous. One false move not only ruins The Avengers but tarnishes the legacy of the previous films.

To some extent, this type of filmmaking requires the viewer to be in for the long haul. Pepper Potts' and Tony Stark's relationship cannot develop in The Avengers because they need to "save it for their own movie." If you had the gall to leave Iron Man when the credits rolled, everything about Samuel Jackson is a non sequitur. Pity the poor soul who sees movies without reading about them online all year: "Am I crazy, or is this 'Coulson' character showing up in every movie we see?"

As monumental as this undertaking is, it has succeeded, meaning it will quickly go from being anomalous to being copied badly by every other studio in Hollywood. What will the long-term impact be? Will every summer movie come with homework and a reading assignment for the next decade? Is this the dawn of every film ending with ellipses and Easter eggs? Only time will tell, but I wouldn't tell any fans of auteur filmmaking to hold their breath. 

On the plus side, maybe Edgar Wright can finally get Ant-Man made.


Hi Jim!

Very interesting post. My own sense is, no matter how much I really love The Avengers (I haven't seen it yet), it has the very real potential of ruining superhero movies - for precisely the reasons you list. Not everyone is going to be as good creating these films as Jon Favreu or Joss Whedon. In fact, you could argue (I wouldn't) that the Thor and Captain America films weren't as good as they could have been because they were rushed into production for the Avengers film. I can just see this film as the start of a heralded run of comics, like many we've seen in the past few years, that stalls because the artist can't keep up.

On the other hand, it's obviously a very interesting time. I don't feel that movie critics have really given Joss et al. credit for what they've accomplished: and that's basically transforming the very nature of narrative in film. Maybe critics are annoyed that it took a blockbuster film, with its accompanying big money and special effects, to do something that an auteur in the classical sense (thinking Goddard or even Von Trier) really couldn't...or at least didn't. 


What's amazing to me is how Marvel Studios has managed to create such a tight continuity in terms of narrative, style, and tone over six films. It really is an acheivement of corporate restructuring and filmmaking, which is why the presence of a particular director gets down-played to a significant degree. I get the sense that, while Marvel thinks the choice of director is important, any number of filmmakers could have made The Avengers, and it still would have made $200+ million dollars its opening weekend. Of course, the reality is more complicated than that, but when you're dealing with a franchise that has inherited so many different artistic voices over its 50 years of existence, attributing authorship is very difficult. Marvel Studios' current successes remind me of a more classical, studio-style of filmmaking.

What will be even more amazing is if what comes next is just as successful. How will Marvel handle the inevitable sequels to the different character films, the probable addition of other characters, all culminating in Marvel's The Avengers 2? Now, THAT will be a feat of franchise filmmaking. I'm not even going to entertain the possibility of folding the X-Men and Spider-Man into the current continuity of Marvel films (there are all sorts of ownership shenanigans), but maybe - just maybe - we'll see Spider-Man and Wolverine join The Avengers. Or maybe even an Avengers vs. X-Men movie. Hey, they pulled off The Avengers, so why not?

And I'd totally see an Ant-Man movie.

What a great post to start out the week, Jim!

I think you've hit on what could be the greatest strength or potential undoing of the Avengers franchise in your terming of "narrative daisy chain." Thus far I see it as a feat of storycrafting that, whatever flaws there are in this scene or that character or fill-in-the-blank, is impressive in scope and, as both Drew and Roger comment, rather unparalleled at so many levels of production.

What Avengers 2 looks like after whatever comes in between - Iron Man 3, Thor 2, any number of the sequels and prequels for other characters - will be the real barometer of how successful this undertaking is. With The Avengers, I did see the threads of the other films woven in quite well at points, and yet I wanted more of this character or that plot; I can't imagine trying to continue to weave in more. It will definitely be something intriguing to watch unfold (and hopefully not unravel).

Interesting post, and a great theme for the week -- I look forward to reading the rest of the entries. However, I was surprised by the aesthetic assumptions on which this critique of the Avengers project seems to rely: an invocation of the (never defined) "legitimate" ways of telling a story, and a rather snarky dismissal of the idea that auteurism is possible in a franchised, transmedia format. If anything, I'd think that Joss Whedon represents a new form of transmedia auteur, and that the enormously successful daisy-chaining of the Avengers and its predecessors demonstrates that notions of legitimate vs. illegitimate storycraft are increasingly obsolete -- or at least very much in the eye of the beholder.

Henry Jenkins has suggested that transmedia stories may indeed require audiences to do more work to knit together the strands, which for me is less of a lament and more a celebration of the emerging complexities of the franchise artform. 

Thanks for the post, Jim!

What stood out the most to me was the "reading assignment" you pointed out. It called to mind the year of research and gossip-filtering myself and many of my friends took part in during our wait for The Avengers to come out. Coming from a background not as well-versed in the Marvel Universe, I'm sure I was not alone looking through online encyclopedia's trying to connect the dots between the multiple franchises.

What I imagine, and have experienced is a strengthening of the fan-and-franchise bond that has existed ever since sequels and prequels began to show up. The difference is, it has been glorified and enlarged to go past the simple timeline of the first movie, the sequel, the third movie, the prequel, etc. Now this tree of narrative order has sprung roots, where in the specific example of The Avengers, fans might not feel like they know entirely what is happening unless they watch or look into the Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America, and Thor. 

It will be interesting to see just how far we, as the viewers, are willing to stretch for the cinema. I believe there is a point where another spin-off is just dizzying. But, maybe not. Maybe there is a sacred bond shared in the fans who were there for every movie, for every Easter Egg. With The Avengers essentially being just the beginning, there is a lot of time to experiment and define the limits of such a vast cinematic universe such as the Marvel films.

*/ I think that the “reading assignment” and Easter egg hunt is exactly what these films are going for. It is a brilliant marketing ploy if you think about it-leaving viewers with the desire to learn more about these characters, or try to figure out what may lie in store for them in the next film. I know that I was not familiar with the Avengers but when I heard all the buzz about it, and especially after I learned that Joss Whedon (one of my favorite directors) was directing, I researched away.

I agree in the sense that I don’t think this films are ideal for the moviegoers who know nothing about the characters or storylines-whether it is because they are unfamiliar with the comics or just haven’t seen the previous films in the franchise (i.e. Iron Man, Thor)-and aren’t willing to do a bit of their own research. Although they can partake in the visual spectacles, they more likely than not they are going to be a little confused in regards to the storyline.

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