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Back in 2012, Marvel and ‘The Avengers’ were no sure thing

Captain America and Iron Man team up with Black Widow, left, Thor, Hawkeye and Hulk to save Earth in a story that builds from previous Marvel films.
(Marvel)

“The Avengers” came out on top in Week 1 of the #UltimateSummerMovie Showdown, which shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Times film critic Justin Chang and Entertainment columnist Glenn Whipp will address the Hulk in the room on Thursday in the first Ultimate Showdown video chat, where they’ll also announce the participants in the next contest.

Though “Avengers” is now a prime contender to win the whole event, it wasn’t always the sure thing that we now know it to be.

Back in 2012, even though the wave of superhero films had begun at least a decade before, it was a long shot to some that the movie could avoid fandom’s fears of Marvel becoming Disneyfied and still weave all of the elements — multiple superheroes, multiple storylines, multiple stars — into a successful film, let alone its own franchise.

But director and writer Joss Whedon helped mold an ensemble’s ensemble of actors that included established stars Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner, new-to-the-universe Mark Ruffalo, along with up-and-comers Tom Hiddleston and “How I Met Your Mother” actress Cobie Smulders into what seemed to be a formidable cadre that, for years after, displayed chemistry on and off the screen.

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Writer-director Joss Whedon and Samuel L. Jackson (as Nick Fury).
Writer-director Joss Whedon and Samuel L. Jackson (as Nick Fury).
(Zade Rosenthal / Marvel)

In an April 29, 2012 article, former Times reporter Geoff Boucher chronicled the film’s beginnings, and even the fears of Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige.

When “The Avengers” arrives in theaters on Friday it will represent an unprecedented Hollywood experiment — can the narrative threads from four film franchises come together to form a unified tapestry in a fifth, all-star franchise? (And by throwing in a couple of newer faces, can it even launch a sixth or seventh?)

The great thrill the movie offers is a sky full of iconic characters, but the danger is that without a story that can handle their combined weight, the movie will never get off the ground.

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“This is something unprecedented, and some days that makes it exciting, and then there have been days along the way where it was nerve-racking or a little scary,” said Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios and the key architect of the latticework approach that connects “The Avengers” with the continuities of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the Hulk in their “home” franchises.

"Avengers" unites several stars who have dominated the big screen in recent years, including Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Chris Evans as Captain America, Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow and Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man.
(Marvel Entertainment)

He needn’t have worried. “The Avengers” became one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, and film critic Kenneth Turan even marveled (pun intended) at the quality of the movie itself:

What really makes the difference in “The Avengers” is the emphasis on character as the film’s storytelling core. Many of the superheroes, including Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), have had features of their own, but both what they say and how they say it is a step up here.

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Because [Joss] Whedon’s dialogue is less glib than the Marvel norm, with lines written as if they meant something, not to mention often being genuinely funny, the total effect brings the film closer to the tone of the original 1960s books, which revolutionized the comic world by presenting superheroes who were deeply involving, troubled individuals.

The rest is history. It’s a history that Chang and awards columnist Whipp will be discussing, among other things, this Thursday, when the new crop of films is … assembled.

The L. A. Times Ultimate Summer Movie Showdown

When: 6 p.m. May 7

Where: Justin Chang and Glenn Whipp’s discussion will be livestreamed free on the on the L.A. Times Classic Hollywood Facebook Page and YouTube, as well as Twitter.


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