The Popcorn Champs
The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?
In 2008, the year that the Marvel Cinematic Universe began, Batman ate Marvel’s lunch. Iron Man, the movie that kicked off the MCU, was a pleasant surprise, a film that completely understood what it was supposed to do. It was a critical and commercial hit, a zippy and delightful summer entertainment that generated a whole lot of goodwill. And yet for all that, the film was utterly eclipsed by a very different motion picture about a heavily armored billionaire superhero orphan. The Dark Knight, from rival comic-book empire DC, dominated popular culture the same summer, making a good $200 million more than Iron Man. Marvel couldn’t compete.
Four years later, things flipped around. Marvel had been steadily, carefully building toward a big team-up movie, gambling on the idea that an interconnected comic-book universe would be worth more than a bunch of different unrelated superhero franchises. It took five movies, a few recastings, and some messy character introductions, but The Avengers came out in the early summer of 2012… just in time to bury The Dark Knight Rises, the breathlessly anticipated Batman sequel that Christopher Nolan didn’t much want to make. The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises were both hits—the No. 1 and No. 2 hits of 2012, in fact—but the former outgrossed the latter by about the same margin that The Dark Knight had outgrossed Iron Man. It’s not difficult to understand why. The Dark Knight Rises was simply one more Batman movie. The Avengers was the culmination of something.
The success of The Avengers seems obvious in retrospect, but at the time, the obvious thing would’ve been to turn it into another Iron Man movie. The first two entries in the Iron Man franchise had both done huge business, even if the second one wasn’t nearly as well received. The other Marvel movies did well, but they weren’t globe-conquering smashes. At the time, you couldn’t just put the word “Marvel” on a movie poster and expect to pull in a billion dollars.
It’s hard to remember now, but the early Marvel movies really blurred in with the multiplex crowd. The Incredible Hulk came out barely a month after Iron Man, and I paid to see it—at least in part because I’d read that Iron Man showed up in the movie. This amounted to a generally boring, incoherent CGI splooge-fest with a deeply unsatisfying Robert Downey Jr. cameo at the end. Hulk stumbled at the box office, earning double its budget but taking in less worldwide than Slumdog Millionaire or Marley & Me. In 2011, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger both did well, but neither made as much globally as The Hangover Part II or, for that matter, Robert Downey Jr.’s non-Marvel vehicle Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows.
But in structuring The Avengers as a true team-up movie, Marvel essentially set up a whole new moviegoing reality where it was effectively the only game in town. These days, on any given night, you can flip around basic-cable channels and find two or three different Marvel movies playing simultaneously. That’s a direct result of the way the company used The Avengers to build a whole immersive environment.
Here’s where it’s necessary to talk about Joss Whedon. This has become an unpleasant thing to do lately. In the past few months, a number of actors have come forward to accuse Whedon of abusive, vindictive petty-dictator bullshit on film sets—a pattern that, to hear various Buffy The Vampire Slayer stars tell it, goes back decades. Whedon built a brand on snappy and self-aware back-and-forth patter and empathetic portraits of powerful young women—on being someone who, to put things far too simply, should know better. Because he’s also reportedly the guy who wasn’t allowed to be alone in the same room as the teenage actress in his TV show. These are the kinds of personal revelations that can’t help but throw past work into a deeply unflattering light.
Whedon has yet to address any of the accusations against him, which continue to pile up. He’s made a quiet exit from The Nevers, the Victorian-superheroes HBO show that he was making. (HBO replaced Whedon, and the show has since come out and become a hit for the network.) At the same time as all this has been happening, HBO’s recent release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League has made it obvious just how badly Whedon fucked up in his attempt to finish the movie that Snyder had to leave mid-production. Whedon was brought in specifically to inject fun into Justice League, to Avengers-ize it. Instead, he simply transformed it into into tonally jarring sludge with no weight or confidence. The theatrical version of Justice League sucks for a lot of reasons, but it’s clear that Whedon did nothing good for the movie. (The Snyder cut of Justice League is wildly indulgent and melodramatic, but there’s a lot of fun to be had in its grand spectacle.) It’s enough to make you wonder if he was ever any good, or whether he was just competently doing a company’s bidding when he made one of the most successful films of all time.
Well, no. The Avengers is still great. It remains an overwhelmingly enjoyable and influential piece of popcorn filmmaking. In picking a TV showrunner with a distinct personality and a sentimental attachment to the company’s heroes, Marvel found someone who could turn its multiple-franchise crossover event into something deeply satisfying. I probably gave Whedon too much credit the last time I wrote about The Avengers, two years ago. The movie’s faults have Whedon’s fingerprints on them, just as its strengths do. The look is basic and utilitarian, something that’s continued to be a problem for most Marvel movies. The exposition dumps, like the one that opens The Avengers, often really mess up the momentum. From time to time, the script can get a little too impressed by its own cleverness. But Whedon understood the task that Marvel assigned him, and he basically nailed it.
Whedon was set up to succeed. The timing was exactly right for something like The Avengers. In the decade-plus since X-Men and Spider-Man, multiplex audiences had come to accept dorky self-involved superhero stories as summer spectacles, to the point where superhero movies no longer had to apologize for being superhero movies. CGI effects had matured, too; it makes a huge difference that Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk looks like Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, not like a more jacked-up version of the Mucinex snot-monster. Marvel had also made a series of smart casting decisions, coming up with clearly defined versions of the company’s characters and with actors game enough to inhabit those characters.
Going into The Avengers, Downey naturally assumed that he would be the star of the show, that all the action would have to revolve around him. And Downey is certainly a huge presence within the movie. He gets big action-hero poses, he riffs and ad-libs constantly, and he saves the world via a wormhole nuke at the end. (Because he was the only actor in the movie who got a cut of the film’s profits, Downey also made an ungodly amount of money on The Avengers—something on the order of $50 million once everything had been counted up.) But in The Avengers, Iron Man becomes just one part of the team, and the team is the star of the show.
Chris Evans’ Captain America might be Marvel Studios’ real masterpiece—an aw-shucks all-decency good guy who’s so sincere and well-meaning that he never even feels corny. Downey’s Tony Stark is a brilliant, arrogant asshole who treats all the other people in the room like they’re kindergarten students or hired help. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor would come a long way in later movies, but his sheer physical beauty and mass go a long way toward making the god real. Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury is all weary, pissed-off presence. And thanks to the convenient problems that arose between Edward Norton and Kevin Feige, Marvel got to jettison the one star of a previous movie whose performance simply did not work on any level, and plug Mark Ruffalo in there instead. It all works. Everyone pops. Marvel hasn’t had to recast since.
Whedon understood that the real drama in the first Avengers movie wouldn’t hail from putting the team up against a villain of overwhelming power; it would hail from seeing whether the team could come together and function at all. Loki, the villain, is an empty and theatrical fall guy, and the film turns that into a plot point, showing how he’s in over his head and being used by greater forces to be revealed later. Whedon knew that it’s fun to watch superheroes fight each other, so he put a lot of that in there, and he also broke his team off into different component parts to see how different characters would bounce off of each other, a trick that he’d picked up from making TV. He also turns the Black Widow from the sexpot of Iron Man 2 into a distinctly Whedon-y superwoman archetype—a stock character that’s aged terribly, but one that Scarlett Johansson is able to turn into something more layered.
With The Avengers, Whedon and Marvel were working toward the same ends, and that’s why the movie works as well as it does. Marvel wanted to communicate the comic-book idea that these larger-than-life characters lived in the same world, that they would have to reckon with one another’s existence. Whedon wanted the exact same thing. A few years later, with Avengers: Age Of Ultron, Whedon had ideas he wanted to explore, and Marvel had plot mechanics that it needed to move forward. Ultron made a whole lot of money, but the film only barely survived the tension between what Whedon wanted and what Marvel wanted. Then, with Justice League, Whedon’s version of the film was actively at war with what Zack Snyder had already done. That fusion was always doomed to failure. With Avengers, though, Whedon uses the machinery at his disposal, and he makes it run.
When The Avengers came out, the heavy solemnity of The Dark Knight was still all over blockbuster cinema. You can see echoes of it in other big hits from that year, like Skyfall or even The Hunger Games. The Avengers, meanwhile, zagged hard in the opposite direction. It was colorful and clever and at least half a comedy. (Meanwhile, the highest-grossing actual comedy of 2012 was Ted, so maybe the American public was just starved for cleverness.)
Whedon inherited the fast-talking style of The Avengers from Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, and the Russo Brothers’ later Marvel spectacles have inherited that sensibility, at least in part, from The Avengers. That style has continued through every Marvel cinematic product in the past decade-plus; the buddy-comedy zingers in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, for instance, are warmed-over Shane Black through a Whedon-speak filter. Eventually, that style will get tired. Maybe it’s happening already. But with The Avengers, it worked well enough to depose Batman.
The runner-up: The aforementioned Skyfall, the No. 4 movie of 2012, is a Bond film rendered as a brutally efficient machine. The story weaves in ideas about trauma and builds on the whole mythology of Daniel Craig’s version of the character, but it also looks beautiful, and it makes sure to hit all the regular Bond marks hard: the exotic locations, the larger-than-life villain, the spectacular stunt-driven action scenes. At this point, Skyfall remains the most solidly rewatchable of the Daniel Craig Bonds, and maybe the best of the ancient franchise overall. Later this year, we’ll finally find out whether Craig can top it.
Next time: The post-Twilight apocalyptic-teen-lit genre gets its moment in the sun with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.