Time…and ‘The Avengers’

It is going to be a full blown logistical nightmare. There is really no doubt about it. For all his talent and tenacity, Buffy genius Josh Whedon may have bit off much more than even he, or anyone sans Steven Spielberg, could conceivably chew. When badass Sam Jackson, ol’ Nick Fury himself, took the stage at Comic-Con 2010 and announced the cast for the upcoming Avengers film, a veritable who’s who of actors including Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans (the new Capt. America), Mark Ruffalo (the third version of Bruce Banner/the Hulk), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), and Jeremy Renner (from The Hurt Locker to…Hawkeye?) the auditorium went ape dip. The uproar was even greater when Dr. Horrible’s Blog buddy walked onstage to solidify his involvement in the Marvel mega-project.

Ever since wrestling away control of its characters from studios it saw as less than enthusiastic about rendering them realistically, the former funny book powerhouse has been plotting and planning this epic convergence of its pen and ink icons. Thanks to the massive success of Jon Favreau’s take of Tony Stark, and the potential the company sees in such upcoming efforts as Kenneth Branagh’s look at the noted Norse man-god and Joe Johnston’s introduction of the first Avenger, Marvel is willing to bet that Whedon can whittle through the multitude of problems facing such a production. With a 2012 release date and the daunting task of trying to find a story solid enough to carry all of these characters, it remains a job so gigantic, so Herculean in proportion and anticipation, that only the bravest (or dumbest) among the entertainment elite would face it head on.

Whedon is a good choice on many levels. He is imbued with comic book smarts, legendary in his geek speak involvement with – and development within – the medium. He knows what the fans want and how to give it to them. While still unable to break out solidly into the mainstream, he’s perhaps the first choice among many less viable to handle something as massive in scope. Among the actors, only Renner and Ruffalo will be doing their first film best/worst to bring their proposed personalities to life (the Hulk, having ramrodded through two other noted names – Eric Bana and Edward Norton – could be the trickier of the two). The rest will have had their on screen origins viewed, reviewed, and skewed long before Whedon delivers a rough cut. Of course, there is potential for disaster here as well. Branagh or Johnston could upend their intended franchises, leaving at least some portion of the possible champions less than choice.

But there are bigger issues here, ones that strike at the very heart of the filmmaking process. Unlike comics, which lend themselves to open ended long form serialization and multiple convergent storylines, films tend to follow a simple rule – give audiences someone they can relate to, a problem/antagonist to rail against, and a dramatic means of resolving the inherent issues – and you’ve got the cinematic staples. In this case, The Avengers will do that times seven. Even worse, a gathering of superheroes like this demands a menace so meaningful it can threaten the very fabric of such fictional firepower. That requires another name…and more imagination…and perhaps the most daunting of all possible pitfalls: time.

Apparently, no one remembers the lessons learned from Watchmen. Dawn of the Dead and 300 whiz Zack Snyder parlayed his commercial cache into an attempt at bringing Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ celebrated graphic novel to the screen, and even with all the plot points and personality beats mapped out decades in advance, the film still struggled. Not because it failed artistically – far from it, it remains one of the genre’s very best – but because Snyder learned the hard way that, visualized, every element had to have its moment. Too much Dr. Manhattan and audiences would balk. Too little Rorschach and obsessives would argue over its loyalty to the source. It was a tightrope walk that the director managed magnificently, thanks in part to more or less following the comic as crafted. Yet even a three hour plus “director’s cut” couldn’t wholly contain the imagination inherent in the original. Even at five hours, someone would probably feel gypped.

The same thing applies to the Avengers. Mathematically, it’s just not possible. Let’s look at things pragmatically for a moment. Again, among the current cast we have Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Nick Fury. For the sake of argument, let’s say that only the first five get major league “hero” moments, and let’s say that each set-piece stands at between five to ten minutes. Right off the bat, without even adding a bit of exposition, you’ve got 25 to 50 minutes of action to contend with – and since no one wants to see Tony Stark tackling the baddies solo, you’re going to require a few group activities. After all, it’s called The Avengers, not An Avenger In His Own Champion Vignette.

Conservatively, let’s say we require three grand gatherings, not including an all encompassing finale (more on that in a moment). Again, let’s go with a standard five to ten, or 15 to 30 minutes of screen time. With stunts and special effects alone, we are looking at a movie that will have to include at least 40 to 80 minutes of bombast – and that’s before narrative, character, villainy, subtext, subplot, and a splashy, all for one conclusion (remember, we haven’t even included Ms. Widow or Mr. Fury in the mix yet). Now the ending has to shine, really shoring up the idea of and reason for bringing all of these noble entities together to battle evil. You can’t rob the fans of their send-off, nor can you rob the backers of their sequels. There must be danger and deliverance, a singular resolution with enough leeway to open up a “series” of possibilities.

Has Whedon shown he can do that? Within a single presold title, that is. Let’s play Satan’s sponsor and argue over running time and rating. The distributing suits will be looking for something that barely scratches two hours, while perhaps letting it lag a little beyond 135 to 140 minutes. Let’s argue for one hour of hero worship and bad guy beatdowns. Credits for something this huge will take at least 10. Whedon now has 65 to 70 minutes to address everyone – on average, about six to seven minutes per star. And what if Iron Man remains the most successful? Will he take the lead, limiting the exposure of someone – or something – like Hulk or Hawkeye? If Thor excels at the box office, will Marvel butt in and demand more of the blond Viking victor? Once extrapolated outward, it looks like Han Solo struggling to navigate an asteroid belt – it’s possible, but not without a Millennium Falcon load of movie magic.

Of course, someone thinks it can be done, has faith in Whedon to do it, and is already pre-packing and preparing Dork Dynasty for the vision to come. If not, The Avengers could be as dead as M. Night Shyamalan’s career. Skeptics have been silenced before, even when their concerns end up causing friction between an Oscar nominated actor and the second go-round role he helped usher through a difficult delivery. In the two years that we have to wait until the film finally makes it to movie theaters, there will be a lot of hemming and hawing. Production delays will argue for an “I told you so” response. Smooth sailing (and huge turnstile returns) will earn slightly less animated conversation. Either way, the propaganda begins now. The process will prove its relevancy – or ridiculousness.