Ever since Samuel L. Jackson turned up at the end of Iron Man, in 2008, talking to Tony Stark about the Avenger initiative, Marvel Studios have been building towards this epic moment. The release of The Avengers (or Avengers Assemble for us "stupid Brits" who might confuse it with the TV series or terrible 1998 movie of the adventures of John Steed and Emma Peel) is a landmark moment in superhero movies as it is the first time that characters from different franchises have appeared in one movie.
To get myself in the mood for the film, I am revisiting the entire Marvel studios canon of films leading up to Avengers in a giant Marvel marathon where I'll pick out the best fanboy moments, Stan Lee cameos and how much Avenger assembling takes place in each film along, etc.
I'll also take a look at the evolution of my own personal favourite character within the series, Agent Coulson played by the fabulous Clark Gregg. Much like how you can view Star Wars through the experiences of a seemingly minor character like R2-D2, like in Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress, it is fun to view the lead up to The Avengers as the continuing adventures of The Son Of Coul.
Marvel Studios knocked it out of the park with their first solo production, mainly thanks to the performance of Robert Downey Jr. For far too long, comic book movies had the problem that the villains were far more interesting and entertaining than the heroes. Tony Stark changed that. This is a man who is, in his own words, "genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist...", and RDJ plays the role to perfection. It is easily a part that could lose the audiences sympathies but you totally buy into his characters journey into the superhero he becomes, and refreshingly one who doesn't care who knows it.
There is also excellent support from Gwyneth Paltrow, someone who I'm not normally a fan of, as Pepper Potts and Jeff Bridges being "very un-Dude" as the villain.
It is a welcome light and fun antidote to the dark and dour world of Nolan's Batman, and excellent start to the long road to The Avengers.
Marvel Canon Fodder - Rhodey gets a nice moment, looking at the Mark II suit and remarking "Next time baby", setting up his War Machine storyline. The terrorist cell is called The Ten Rings, hinting at the involvement of The Mandarin. Last time Nick Fury was on our screens, he was portrayed by David Hasselhoff (no, really!), but having Samuel L. Jackson assume the role places Iron Man and the subsequent films well and truly within the Ultimate Marvel universe as first featured in the comic series The Ultimates written by Mark Millar and illustrated by Bryan Hitch who based Fury's look on Mr Jackson.
Fanboy Geekout Moment- While the first flight in the Iron Man suit is a terrific sequence, it has to be Nick Fury's appearance at the end of the film that seemingly promises fans that we will see an Avengers movie.
Avenger Assembling - Iron Man is very much a stand alone film. Besides the introduction of the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division (which Coulson is repeatedly told requires a new name) there is only Samuel L. Jackson appearing in a post credit sting teasing the Avenger Initiative.
Coulson Factor - Created for the movie, Coulson acts as a liason for S.H.I.E.L.D. and is continually dismissed by Stark until he helps protect Pepper against the Iron Monger but Clark Gregg's straight-faced deadpan delivery provided enough for producers to see the potential in the character.
Loki's Fact of Fiction - The Iron Lady starring Meryl Streep was originally going to feature a scene where Maggie Thatcher borrowed the suit from Tony Stark and fought the Falklands War single handed.
Stan Lee's Hitchcock Cameo - Stan 'The Man' Lee is mistaken for Hugh Heffner by Tony at a gala event thrown by Stark Industries.
Overall rating - 4/5
The Incredible Hulk
Bringing the character of the Hulk back under the full control of Marvel Studios, producers decided to largely ignore the events in Ang Lee's 2003 Hulk movie and instead start up events 5 months after the origin of the Hulk.
The film had a troubled production with director Letterier and Edward Norton delivering a 3 hour version that was a Jekyll & Hyde style meditation on trying to understand the tortured, conflicted nature of the Hulk but Marvel edited it down to a more popcorn friendly summer blockbuster featuring an epic Harlem smack down between Hulk and the Abomination.
The end result is a bit of a mess and the actual Hulk itself is still too CGI, not having the weight or personality that hopefully Ruffalo's performance capture will add in The Avengers, but personally I prefer it to Lee's version. At least there are no mutant poodles or Nick Nolte turning into a radioactive jellyfish cloud!
Marvel Canon Fodder - Going against standard Marvel canon in which Banner turns into the Hulk after exposure to Gamma radiation, in this incarnation Banner was also working on the Super Soldier serum and it was this, combined with the radiation that caused his transformation. The character of Emil Blonksy is Russian in the comics but here he is born in Russia and grew up in England so Tim Roth didn't have to put on a funny accent. It also introduces the character of Dr. Samuel Stern who would go on to become the villain known as The Leader.
Fanboy Geekout Moment - It's a toss up between composer Craig Armstrong's use of the "sad walking away music" from the Bill Bixby TV series and the moment inspired by a scene in The Ultimates comic where they induce a hulk out by dropping Banner out of a plane.
Avenger Assembling - During the opening credits, it establishes General Ross getting assistance from S.H.I.E.L.D. In his hunt for Banner along with the use of Stark weaponry. General Ross talks about the 'Super Soldier' program used in WWII i.e. the program used to create Captain America. In the post credit sting, Tony Stark approaches a drunk General Ross telling him that they are putting a team together that might be able to solve his "little problem", at this point hinting that The Avengers could be assembled to take down and subdue the Hulk.
Coulson Factor - Sadly no appearance from everyone's favourite S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent :-(
Stan Lee's Hitchcock Cameo - Stan plays the man who gets an extra kick from an energy drink contaminated with Banner's Gamma blood.
Loki's Fact of Fiction - The Hulk's fighting style was based on wrestling legend Hulk Hogan and in a deleted scene he delivers the immortal leg drop to Abomination.
Overall rating - 2/5
Iron Man 2
This is the film in the Marvel series that suffers the most from the issue of setting events in motion for The Avengers. So much so that it feels like the film is more concerned with this than providing the audience with an Iron Man sequel.
The main plot line that features rival weapon manufacturers trying to get their hands on Stark's tech and a climatic battle between CGI robot figures is just recycled from the first film. Having said that, Sam Rockwell's weasely Justin Hammer is a nice contrast to Stark and Johannson and Gregg get their moments to shine.
Marvel Canon Fodder - Continues the progress of War Machine and starts Tony down the path laid out in the 'Devil In A Bottle' storyline. Mickey Rourke's Ivan Vanko becomes a combination of villains Crimson Dynamo and Whiplash.
Fanboy Geekout Moment - Possibly the Iron Man suit in the briefcase or Black Widow's athletic takedown of half a dozen guards.
Avenger Assembling - There is a hell of a lot going on here. Nick Fury reveals that he knew Howard Stark and he was one of the founding members of S.H.I.E.L.D. and gives Tony some of Howard's research including a case that contains a Captain America comic and an unfinished prototype of his shield.
Black Widow is sent in undercover to keep an eye on Stark and assess his viability for the program, ultimately recommending that he only be used as a consultant rather than a full team member due to his behaviour.
Post credit sting involves Agent Coulson locating Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor, in the desert of New Mexico.
Coulson Factor - Agent Coulson returns to babysit Stark before heading to New Mexico on a special assignment. The two of them share a couple of great exchanges including Coulson laying the verbal smack down on Tony with "If you try to escape, or play any sort of games with me, I will taze you and watch "Supernanny" while you drool into the carpet."
Loki's Fact or Fiction - The end credit sting originally had Nick Fury approaching John Steed and Emma Peel to join the Avenger Initiative.
Stan Lee's Hitchcock Cameo - Tony Stark really needs to get his eyes tested as this time round he mistakes Stan for Larry King.
Overall Rating - 3/5 (from an Avengers setup standpoint) 2/5 (otherwise)
Marvel One Shot: The Consultant
Coulson and fellow agent Hernandez devise a scheme to sabotage plans to have The Abomination added to the Avenger Initiative. They decide send someone to annoy General Ross to the point where he will refuse to release Blonsky. This leads to the footage seen at the end of The Incredible Hulk with Ross and Stark.
Marvel Canon Fodder - Not canon at all. Instead it is a short film created to help fill in the gaps between the films and tie in all the ongoing story lines.
Fanboy Geekout Moment - Coulson wipes his mouth with a napkin after eating pancakes... OK, I admit, it's not great but it is a short film of mostly dialogue!
Avenger Assembling - No more than what we have already seen but puts a new spin on the existing footage to allow a new interpretation in keeping where the overall storyline is heading.
Coulson Factor - The short helps to establish where Coulson ranks in the grand scheme of things at S.H.I.E.L.D., he has a Level 7 clearance which probably places just under Fury in terms of authority.
Loki's Fact or Fiction - This short was filmed by David Fincher who did 111 takes of the final scene which meant Clark Gregg had to eat 111 pancakes.
Stan Lee's Hitchcock Cameo - No cameo
Overall Rating - 3/5
More than any other film in the arsenal of Marvel studios, this is the one that could have gone horribly wrong. Thor is not your typical superhero, he is a Norse God and between this hero and the direction of Luvvie Branagh, the movie could easily have become a camptastic romp like Flash Gordon (possibly one of the reasons sadly why Brian Blessed was not cast as Odin because it would have immediately drawn comparisons).
Happily the result is the best Marvel since Iron Man. As well as ticking all the boxes in terms of comic book blockbuster, Branagh puts a lot of focus on the central relationship between Odin, Thor and Loki, with the scene where Loki confronts Odin over his true heritage being the finest in the film.
Performances are terrific all round but the real star turn is Tom Hiddleston as Loki. He brings real pain and conflict to the role which makes his villain the best in the Marvel canon so far and I can't wait to see what he will bring to The Avengers.
Marvel Canon Fodder - While many of the other films have taken elements from the Ultimate universe, this incarnation of Thor is more the classic Norse God rather than a possible psychotic with delusions of grandeur and super powers.
Thor's earthbound alias Donald Blake is referred to as Jane Foster's ex boyfriend.
Fanboy Geekout Moment - It's not really a "Geekout moment" per say but I love the scene where Thor goes into the pet shop demanding a horse... or dog, cat or bird large enough to ride. That or Odin's full-on boombastic Shakespearian "you're a vain, greedy cruel boy" speech.
Avenger Assembling - We get our first glimpse at Clint Barton aka Hawkeye who is providing weapons cover for S.H.I.E.L.D. at the Mjolnir crash site. Dr Selvig (Skarsgard) mentions he knew a scientist who worked in gamma radiation who disappeared after involvement with S.H.I.E.L.D. (we can safely assume he means Bruce Banner). The post credit sting sees Fury show Selvig a glowing cosmic cube and Loki appears to influence Selvig's mind and says that it is worth a look.
Coulson Factor - Coulson is running the show down in New Mexico, LIKE A BOSS, as evidenced by Hawkeye taking orders from him. He even gives Thor a dressing down during an interrogation. This also marks the origin of Clark Gregg's nickname 'Son of Coul' which is what Thor calls him when offering his assistance in protecting Earth's realm.
Loki's Fact or Fiction - Branagh actually filmed a scene where Hemsworth rode a chihuahua!
Stan Lee's Hitchcock Cameo - A New Mexico driver who attempts to pull Mjolnir out of the ground with his truck, and fails miserably.
Overall rating - 4/5
A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Thor's Hammer
Marvel Canon Fodder - not set within the existing Marvel canon.
Fanboy Geekout Moment - Coulson smacking a criminal in the face with a shotgun.
Avenger Assembling - No additional assembling takes place.
Coulson Factor - Another chance for Gregg to show a different side to Coulson, this time being a total badass and beating up two criminals who try to rob the gas station he has stopped at. Also has another chance to deliver some killer lines with that deadpan delivery we have come to love.
Loki's Fact or Fiction - Clark Gregg really can't decide between powdered and frosted donuts.
Stan Lee's Hitchcock Cameo - No cameo
Overall Rating - 4/5
Captain America: The First Avenger
The "First Avenger" and final movie in the run up to the Avengers as the final pieces of the puzzle start to slot into place. Director Joe Johnston recovers from The Wolfman disaster to rediscover the magic he worked on The Rocketeer to deliver a great old-fashioned romp but also keeping it Marvel too. Even throwing in a few nods to Raiders Of The Lost Ark along the way. The only real issue with the film is by setting it within a flashback structure, there is a lack of real tension in the film as we all know how it is going to end, even if it does have a scene that rips off Armageddon.
Marvel Canon Fodder - Initially it does appear odd to have the Human Torch playing Steve Rogers but once you get over this the film sticks fairly closely to the traditional Marvel canon and origin story (although one major character is killed off to create a more emotional edge to the story). There is also a fun spin on the original comic cover that featured Cap punching out Hitler.
Fanboy Geekout Moment - The original Captain America outfit and 'Star Spangled Man' (which should have been nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscars).
Avenger Assembling - The blue cosmic cube glimpsed at the end of Thor appears here and is called The Tesseract, one of the relics from Odin's treasure room, found by the Red Skull but ultimately ending up in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s possession. This film seems to contradict information about the Super Soldier program mentioned in The Incredible Hulk. In Hulk, Ross says he's still working on the program and takes a vial of the serum from a tank that claims the creator was Dr. Renstein. However in this film, the creator of the formula is Dr. Erkskine and it appears the last of the formula is destroyed.
Howard Stark plays a major role in the creation of Captain America and the Stark Expo, which features in Iron Man 2, also makes an appearance.
The film ends with Rogers waking up in a S.H.I.E.L.D. Facility to be informed by Nick Fury (in the middle of Times Square) that he's been asleep for 70 years. It is assumed due to the wee teaser trailer at the end of the credits that Rogers remain in their custody until the events of The Avengers.
Coulson Factor - Sadly this film rates a zero on the Coulson scale. Not even an appearance at the end when Steve Rogers wakes up in modern day New York.
Loki's Fact or Fiction - Chris Evans and Ryan Reynolds have a running bet about who can appear as more comic book characters.
Stan Lee's Hitchcock Cameo - Lee appears as a General at a medal presentation for Steve Rogers.
Overall Rating - 4/5