Prevailing wisdom seems to lend itself to the idea that, while it seems like a good idea, assembling a large and filthy rich collection of actors into one ensemble film is rarely met with stunning results. While there are notable exceptions (Lord of the Rings, any even numbered Star Trek film), many ensemble films seem to buckle under the weight of their own lofty expectations. If we posit this as truth, or at least more likely than the opposite outcome, then we'd be right to worry that Avengers will suffer the same fate as so many other ensemble films. After all, don't we have a glaring example of how badly this can fail under the banner of Marvel's own studio?
While the majority of Marvel's films have been successes, and indeed have seemed to improve as they go along, there is the undeniable tarnish of a few very poorly received films. Daredevil and Elektra spring to mind, but those aren't really ensemble casts in the since that we're discussing here. No, the example I'm looking at is Fantastic Four. Fantastic Four is a team movie, much like Avengers. It had an ensemble cast of fresh talent (including the man now playing Steve Rogers, Chris Evans), all with a rising star attached firmly to their belts. Despite this fact and despite the conceit that Fantastic Four is still Marvel's flagship book (it's clear that it's Spider-Man these days, beyond that X-Men and even, I'd say, Avengers), it seems like Fantastic Four should have been a no-brainer success. But bad writing, sloppy performances and an unwillingness to seriously promote the film led to a collapse. Even still, Fantastic Four got two films. Call Marvel nothing (in film at least) if not committed.
That brings us to Avengers, a film that on paper seems very similar to the relative failure of Fantastic Four. So why is everyone so excited? What's got everyone believing that this is the geek film to end all geek films? First, it's the sheer scope of it. While DC has hinted at a Justice League movie for years, the reality seems quite distant. And even then, they had talked about casting the JL movie independent of their other film franchises, meaning Christian Bale would not be reprising his role as Batman and Ryan Reynolds would not be tossing around any more constructs as the Green Lantern (not seeing a problem there). Marvel has assembled a host of good actors, writers and directors to craft a large and comprehensive universe in which the Avengers can play. And for the most part, it's worked. Despite the clunky ending of Edward Norton's otherwise good Hulk movie and the relative mailed-in performances of Iron Man II, the Avengers-connected Marvel films have been good, even great (Captain America, Iron Man) at times. The second thing that has people so excited about The Avengers? Joss Whedon.
If you don't know (come on!), Joss Whedon is the architect behind some of the most well-received genre properties of the last fifteen years. The creator of shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly, Whedon is also a huge comics fan and an accomplished writer in the medium itself. Combining that love of comics and his continued success with ensemble casts, Whedon seems the perfect choice to helm The Avengers. And I believe he is. Still, it remains to be seen what Whedon will do with a cast that is largely not of his choosing. While Whedon has always been adept at handling large casts, it's always been casts that he's had a large hand in assembling and he's had years to develop a working relationship with them. This time, he's got to manage a number of actors he had no decision in the casting of at all. How does that affect his ability to direct? We'll know in less than a year.
Despite these issues, I do think Avengers will be a great success. The good will toward the movie among fans I think outweighs even the mass expectations, and thus potential for serious let down, surrounding the movie. I think Whedon is the perfect choice to handle a film like this and, as a fan of the man's work, I think this is the moment most Whedon fans have waited for; the moment Joss truly reveals his talents to the world at large.
I hope I'm right. Marvel can't afford for me to be wrong.