They’re famous for their battle cry, news team, er, I mean, “Avengers, assemble!” Well, it’s finally happening, Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” is coming out on Friday. The film, which has already grossed over $200 million overseas, is both the beginning of a franchise and the culmination of one. Marvel has been building towards this movie with post-credit scenes, cameos, and hints since 2008. As such, there are a few other movies you’ll want to check out to get the whole story. I’ll offer a quick rundown of them here, and the bold name at the top of each will link to its Bullz-eye review. If you’ve already seen them all and want an in-depth refresher on the hints, I highly recommend this post at Tor.com.
The great thing about about this little homework assignment is that all these movies are worth watching for their own sake. With the exception of “The Incredible Hulk,” each and every one has been “certified fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes. Whether or not that will be the case for the barrage of sequels that is soon to follow remains to be seen, but a man can dream.
Iron Man (2008)
This is where it all started. “Iron Man” is the story of billionaire playboy/industrialist/engineer Tony Stark, whose expert portrayal by Robert Downey Jr makes the film. Stark Industries is a high-tech weapons manufacturer. When the film begins, Tony is on a business trip in Afghanistan, where he’s wounded in a terrorist ambush. As he passes out he sees his company built the missile that did the damage. He’s kidnapped, builds a super suit, escapes, yada yada yada, before he’s back with a mission: preventing Stark Industries from selling any more weapons. “I have more to offer the world,” he says, “than making things blow up.” That’s when the real conflict begins.
Now, my biggest problem with superhero movies is that they always start with the origin story. That’s not how it happens in the comics, it can take years before we hear how so and so got his powers. But any writing teacher will tell you that you can break every rule in the book, as long as you do it right. “Iron Man” doesn’t so much break the rule as make you wonder why it’s a rule to begin with. No other Marvel film has handled an origin story quite so well.
While “The Avengers” will definitely come close, “Iron Man,” with its 94 rating on the Tomatometer, is the best Marvel adaptation so far and one of the best superhero movies of all time. Few films, let alone superhero films, are better than Christopher Nolan’s Batman reboots, but if they didn’t exist “Iron Man” would easily top the list.
Iron Man 2 (2010)
The sequel isn’t as good as the original, for a change. However, “Iron Man 2” is still a damn good movie. We’ve already seen Iron Man’s origin and Stark’s redemption, so it’s replaced by plenty of great action, and if nothing else, the film offers an excuse to give us more of Robert Downey Jr. in a role he was seemingly born to play.
The filmmakers recognized the inherent problems of sequel-making and addressed them head on. That self-awareness helped the finished product. For example, Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard could have been a big issue if they tried to sweep it under the rug. Instead, Cheadle’s first line, “It’s me, I’m here, deal with it and let’s move on,” calls attention to the change. This move gives the viewer no other choice but to do as he says and move on.
Stark has revealed his identity and been thrust into dispute with the U.S. government, which is “not exactly thrilled by the idea that a private citizen has been able to achieve world peace almost single-handedly, and instead want to militarize the technology for their own benefit.” Tony is also forced to battle with an army of Iron Men created by Russian physicist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), who’s teamed up with rival arms manufacturer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell). Two characters central to “The Avengers,” Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) also get their first extended screen time.
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
“Hulk” is the worst film on the list, and the least necessary for understanding “The Avengers.” The 2008 film, which stars Edward Norton as mild-mannered scientist Bruce Banner, was an attempt to reboot the series following the disappointing 2003 version, which starred Eric Bana in the same role. Never fear, Mark Ruffalo has just signed a six-picture deal to play the Hulk.
Anyway, Banner is travelling the world trying to find the antidote to his condition. Of course, neither war profiteers who want to exploit him nor his supervillainous enemy The Abomination (Tim Roth) are quite OK with that. Since the Hulk is in “The Avengers,” it’s a fair guess Banner never finds that antidote. “Hulk” is a good film and well worth seeing, but it should be last on your list of pre-Avengers priorities.
“Thor” was directed by Kenneth Branagh, who I know best as “that Shakespeare guy,” and stars Chris Hemsworth in the title role. At first glance, the movie is a hard sell. Thor is a Norse thunder god from the fictional realm of Asgard. Contrast that with the other “Avengers” characters, who are mostly American, let alone Earthlings.
When he disobeys a command from his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), Thor is stripped of his magical hammer and banished to Earth, where he meets astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Before long, Thor’s brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who’s been causing trouble back in Asgard, starts wreaking havoc on Earth as well. Believe it or not, epic god battles ensue. Loki returns as the main villain in “The Avengers.”
“Thor’s” release marked when the “Avengers” hype really started to take shape. The film finds a nice middle ground for connections between the two. While they’re certainly present, they aren’t given nearly as much screen time as they were in “Iron Man 2,” which is probably a good thing. Too many hints and such can bog down the story and prevent the film from being worthwhile for its own sake. Thor walked the line admirably.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Now things are really heating up, after all it’s right there in the title, Captain America is “the First Avenger.”
“Captain America” opens in the present day, with a S.H.I.E.L.D. team discovering the hero’s frozen body. Back in the 1940s, the U.S. has just entered into World War II. But the man won’t let Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) enlist because he’s too small. Eventually Rogers is offered a position in a secret super soldier program, and even after it’s a success they still won’t send him to battle. Instead, he’s used as a pitchman for war bonds. Rogers takes it upon himself to investigate Nazi scientist Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) and end the war once and for all.
There’s all kinds of “Avengers” stuff floating around “Captain America.” Tony Stark’s father Howard is heavily involved in the super soldier program, and a big part of the plot revolves around the villains attempting to get the cosmic cube, an all powerful something that might just be able to open a portal to Asgard.