Living in Hollywood does have its perks. Amongst those can be getting to see what’s going on over those tall studio walls and behind their gates on a given afternoon. On this given afternoon, last Thursday at Paramount, Marvel had swung by to show its distributor just what its been up to. In the Paramount theater, footage and teasers were screened for Captain America, Thor and The Avengers.
The footage was the same shown at Comic-Con shortly before, then leaked to the Internet shortly after, then pulled not much longer after that. So let’s keep it as short, sweet, and simple as the presentation (not much longer than ten minutes) and the footage (even briefer) itself.
First, Marvel producer Craig Kyle came out dressed not like a Hollywood producer at all, or exactly like a Hollywood producer, I guess, in a baseball cap, jeans and a t-shirt. He gave a nutshell overview of the Captain America and Thor characters for anyone that wasn’t a “nerd” and, probably for sake of Paramount, described, how in making the films, Marvel sought not just to please the rabid and touchy (my words) fan-base but their “girlfriends, friends, and other people” that might not be the comic book-committed. It can be tough, as Kyle explained, because the audiences seek different things. The comic readers who have kept Marvel afloat have a lot of baggage that Joe or Joetta Moviegoer don’t. To the uninitiated, it wouldn’t have mattered to see War Machine or Black Widow in this summer’s Iron Man 2 or not. But not to the comic folk. So a balance needs striking, and Kyle described Iron Man as being the best example of that balance, saying Downey and director Jon Favreau “knocked it out of the park.”
The trick in telling “Captain America” was to make it a period piece and give it some Indiana Jones flavor. A strong-jawed hero in the midst of adventure against Nazis seeking a MacGuffin. MacGuffin is movie-talk for an object or point of interest that drives the plot; sometimes it doesn’t even matter what it is. In Mission: Impossible III, for example, Tom Cruise and company ran around the world for “the rabbit’s foot.” The movie never said what it was. In Captain America, it will be a cube once possessed by the “gods” of Asgard (we’ll get to that) that opens up dimensional portals. It’s called the tesseract — possibly an allusion — a portal and time-jumping device by the same name in the novel A Wrinkle In Time. Kyle indicated how, in the funny books, it had a different name that I’m forgetting which…well, sounded too funny.
In the Captain footage, we saw an old-timey stone castle that’s bombarded by Nazi scum. Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith of The Matrix series and here Cap’s arch nemesis Red Skull) is seeking the tesseract. He finds it. The watcher of the castle says the object is not for the eyes of “mere men.” Red Skull says he knows, like only villains can. There was also a 30-second or so costume test for Chris Evans in a model of the Cap suit. While not the classic comic draw, the suit looked good enough. The overall lack of enthusiasm here is passable because, after all, this was a test, and if it’s this good the first time out, it’s sure to only get better. Evans threw the shield (Cap’s signature move) damn well, though. The castle footage looked fresh and in need of some polish but promising. The very fact that there was any footage at all, though, was a gift because when Comic-Con rolled around, Cap had only been shooting for a few days. Personally, I’m excited and confident because director Joe Johnston’s last foray into a ’40s period piece as the magnificent and overlooked The Rocketeer rocks me to this day.
Speaking of Asgard and gods and stuff, though, the real treat came with a five-minute sizzle reel of Thor. Kyle is one of the co-producers on the movie and sounded pretty happy with what they’d done. Thor was the hardest trick of them all, as he’s the Norse god of thunder. Not exactly a normal guy in a suit. To bring him to the “real world” and one already inhabited by the likes of Iron Man and Hulk was perhaps Marvel’s biggest challenge. The ultimate solution was to portray Thor and his extended family or uber-beings as cross-dimensional aliens, as they had once been in a run of the Thor comics. This intriguing take has Thor (Chris Hemsworth, the short-lived father of Captain Kirk in 2009′s Star Trek) being banished from Asgard by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) to Earth to make his own fate and earn his right to wield the hammer. Personally, I was shocked by how great Thor looked and how pulled into I was, seeing as to how my interest in the character registered near zero. The one hero the audience was most likely to find least relatable may now be the most, as here Thor is a stranger simply trying to earn and find his destiny. The five minutes were pretty compelling, juxtaposing the expanses of the New Mexican desert with the beauty and regality of Asgard where Loki, god of chaos, aims for the throne. Of course Natalie Portman as the love interest ain’t bad either. Lines of dialogue further sell the audience on the concept, such as when Thor says he comes from a world where what we call science and magic are one and the same. It’s hard to tell how it’ll all play out, but under the direction of the Shakespearean Kenneth Branagh, Thor looks loaded with pathos and thematic oomph. The action was solid too, with an angry and ripped Hemsworth laying sophisticated and artful waste to those in his way. Thor looks epic in a way that no other superhero film has been, maybe, ever.
The key is tying these franchises together for the Avengers movie set for summer 2012 — that’s after both of these are released next year, 2011. At the end of the Thor reel, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are confronted by an Asgard destroyer in a scene that felt homage to The Day The Earth Stood Still. One of the S.H.I.E.L.D.’ers asks if it’s “one of Stark’s,” as in Tony Stark — Iron Man. This kind of cross-pollination, with the tesseract in Cap and Thor’s hammer at the end of Iron Man 2 and Tony Stark at the end of The Incredible Hulk, is what makes what Marvel is trying to do so unique and ambitious. Mish-mashing a bunch of major franchises into one mega all-star movie is, well, kind of unthinkable…but it’s happening. Kyle described S.H.I.E.L.D. as the glue that holds it all together, but we’ll have to wait until 2012 to see if that glue, under Joss Whedon’s direction (Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly series), truly holds. Needless to say, there won’t be much hype involved when The Avengers is described as the biggest movie of all time. How will it even be counted as a success? If an Iron Man movie makes around $600 million on its own worldwide, should an Avengers movie make five times that with enough buck for all its heroes? That question will be further answered next year as Marvel presents Thor and Captain America to what they hope will be an eager, albeit now less-than-familiar movie audience.
Then there was honestly maybe the most worthless teaser I’ve ever seen. For about 30 seconds, we hear Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D., talk about how sometimes we demand all the world’s greatest heroes to band together — honestly, the dialogue here was kind of kitschy and goofy — as a camera pans over metal that we can’t decipher. It pulls out to spell “Avengers” and that’s that. But for audiences, it’s not meant so much for anticipation as confirmation: oh yes, this is actually happening.