Jeff Gomez is CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment, a New York based production company that consults with Hollywood studios on some of their most popular entertainment franchises. Follow him @Jeff_Gomez.
With some industry observers projecting global box office revenues as high as $2 billion for The Avengers, it’s clear that the film is an unprecedented success. Many have pegged Marvel Studios franchise producer Kevin Feige’s creative and strategic approach in building a shared “story world” out of a series of movies (Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, Iron Man II, Captain America and Thor) that coalesced into a kind of all-star movie in Joss Whedon’s Avengers.
But contrary to popular belief, this is not the first time a mess of heroes (or anti-heroes) have been assembled in the service of a greater purpose‚ or multiple revenue streams.
Our love of team-ups, in fact, dates back to the Stone Age. Early man imbued all things around him with animus, and the coolest things — the sun, the moon, the ocean — were either the incarnations of, or controlled by superior beings, gods. It was just a matter of time before pantheons formed, relationships got complicated, and villains arose to challenge the benevolent.
Crafting For Greatness
So what makes Marvel’s Avengers different from all of these previous mash-ups? A few things, actually. By all accounts, Kevin Feige and his team laid out a vision for how every Marvel movie would dovetail into the others, each introducing characters and elements that come into play in the others, all building toward Avengers.
No writer, director or studio exec had incorporated this level of planning into how his or her franchise would unfold and interlock, not even George Lucas for his Star Wars movies.
In addition to somehow skirting all the reasons why such an endeavor could not be possible under contemporary Hollywood business and creative constraints, Marvel Studios also played the technology and digital distribution cards like no other in history.
Armed with the knowledge that their superheroes are the closest things we have to a godlike pantheon, Marvel worked triple-time over the several years to dust off these characters and reintroduce them to the world. Animated series, chapter books, action figures, video games, Blu-rays loaded with crash courses in Avengers lore, even a million-dollar Facebook game that mixed X-Men and Spider-Man into the four-color stew. We were set up like ten-pins and Avengers, as recounted by the cleverly chosen Joss “Homer” Whedon, could only bowl us over.
Here’s both the takeaway and the challenge studios face in the wake of Avengers: a well-known and coherent story world is a rare and precious thing, and there is great power in a grand unifying narrative.
The threads that tie 20th Century Fox’s X-Men franchise together are loose at best, with various filmmakers fraying even those with different, often contradictory takes on the material. Warner Bros. approach to the DC heroes has been almost entirely auteur-driven, with Batman, Superman and Green Lantern existing in entirely different universes. It will be some years before any of those characters can meet on the big screen, even if the studio wanted them to.
We experience a certain kind of exhilaration when our gods unite toward a common purpose. That’s why we have All-Star baseball games, and why we’ll forever remember how Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, Michael Jackson, Tina Turner and a host of others joined forces to sing “We Are the World” for starving people in Africa. They are our champions, and their adventures together forge national, and now global narratives.
To repeat the success of The Avengers, however, studios will need visionaries up to the cause, new kinds of storytellers as savvy with how narrative unfolds across multiple media platforms (and in their ability to use marketing and licensing campaigns to build equity in lesser known characters), as they are with how to turn a good scene. Super nerds, thy time has come!
In the Beginning
In the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, stalwart and charismatic Jason assembled a crew of some of the hottest celebs of his day in order to retrieve the Golden Fleece. These included Hercules, Medea and Orpheus, all stars of their own myths and legends. In The Iliad, the epic poet Homer (the Joss Whedon of his time) brings together dozens of Greek gods and heroes and crashes them into the Trojan War. The story was such a hit, Homer followed up some years later with a sequel in The Odyssey.
In the late 15th century, Thomas Malory took a mass of tales and legends around the character of King Arthur and wove them into a single story called Le Morte d’Arthur. There we see all of the heroic Knights of the Round Table (Lancelot, Galahad, Perceval, Gawain, etc.) united for the first time. A century later, the Italians were having fun mixing and matching prominent characters‚ often portrayed in masks and capes‚ from literature, theater and opera in their Commedia dell’Arte.
Heroic pantheons became a motif in so-called low art in the 19th and 20th centuries. Pulp anti-heroes or notorious gunslingers met one another in dime store novels, but the comic books of the 1940s kicked things up a notch, uniting some of the most powerful and popular costumed heroes of the time to save the world from certain doom.
All-Star Comics #3, for instance, introduced us to The Justice Society of America, teaming Hawkman, the Flash, the Spectre, Green Lantern and others in adventures that must have certainly blown young minds.
From “Frankenstein” to Manga
But the precedent that most clearly laid the foundation for Avengers can be tracked back to the great horror movies from Universal Pictures in the ’40s. After experiencing huge hits with such films as Dracula andFrankenstein, the studio took a cue from the comic books of the time and started cross-pollinating their franchise.
So Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was followed by House of Frankenstein, where posters screamed, “All Together! Frankenstein’s Monster, Wolf Man, Dracula! Hunchback! Mad Doctor!” The monsters would reunite two more times, until popular comedy duo Abbott and Costello killed them off once and for all by making the whole situation laughable.
You might say the Japanese have had the most fun with pop culture pantheons. With the rise of the post-World War II ethos of keiretsu, concepts and characters tended to flow more easily between formal rival media companies. Heroes and villains could more readily show up in one another’s storylines, and the rest of the world got to enjoy the results with such franchises as Toho’s giant monster movies.
Godzilla Versus Mothra featured the first rubber-suited cross-over, but no child of the ’60s could ever forget Destroy All Monsters, uniting Godzilla, Rodan, Anguiras and a megaton of other goggle-eyed kaiju in defense of the Earth against the triple-headed, lightning-spitting King Ghidorah.
Always game to top themselves, the Japanese have more recently been mixing and mashing their own superhero franchises on television and in theaters. Five, 10 and 30 Kamen Riders, each from their own TV series, have banded together to save the world from escalating menaces. Check out this awesome team-up of every Power Ranger who ever existed in an epic battle against an alien armada from the climactic episode of Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger: