The Avengers: the power of planning

So, Marvel’s The Avengers broke all records for a movie’s opening weekend in the U.S. and Canada. There’s a lot of praise for the movie (that tends to happen with a big hit). Are there any any lessons for older movie franchises, say, a 50-year-old one featuring a gentleman agent? Maybe one.

The Avengers: result of a five-year plan


The Hollywood Reporter on its Web site says there are five hidden reasons for the success of The Avengers. One caught our eye:

Avengers benefited from something no movie had before: It has been marketed to audiences since Iron Man first appeared at Comic-Con in 2007. When that movie became a surprise hit in May 2008 with a $98.6 million opening weekend, Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige quickly unveiled his intention to make four more movies — The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America — all of which would lead to a giant team-up. Avengers characters like Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) popped up in those movies, and the original Iron Man featured a coda segment devoted to the Avengers initiative. At the time, only comic-book fanboys understood the reference.

Planning? Well, yes, that’s what happened with The Avengers. Had 2008’s Iron Man bombed, we probably wouldn’t have gotten The Avengers. But Marvel Studios did have a game plan about where to go from there.

Contrast that with the 007 franchise the past decade. You had Die Another Day in 2002, the 40th anniversary Bond film. After that? Eon Productions didn’t exactly know where to go. Those aren’t our words. That’s what Eon co-boss Michael G. Wilson told The New York Times IN OCTOBER 2005:

“We are running out of energy, mental energy,” Mr. Wilson recalled saying. “We need to generate something new, for ourselves.”

That led to 2006’s Casino Royale where Eon decided to start the series all over. The movie wasn’t so much Bond 21 as it was Bond 2.0. It was a big critical and commercial hit. But Eon didn’t exactly know where to proceed from that point. For Eon’s next movie, multiple ideas were considered, including Bond encountering Vesper Lynd’s child before opting for a “direct sequel” that didn’t really match up with the continuity of Casino Royale.

Earlier, in the early 1990s, in the midst of a six-year hiatus, there were reports that Eon commissioned scripts so it could get off to a running start and get Bond movies out at a regular pace. Eon may have commissioned scripts, but there was no running start. After the series resumed with GoldenEye, Eon had scripts from Donald E. Westlake and Bruce Feirstein (and possibly others, but those two were publicly disclosed). The Feirstein script got rewritten by other writers before Feirstein did the final version and was the only scribe to get a writing credit for Tomorrow Never Dies.

To be fair, Eon had a legal fight with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the early ’90s and MGM had financial difficulties in 2009-2010, including a trip to bankruptcy court. That’s something Marvel Studios hasn’t had to deal with. At the same time, Marvel Studios was able to juggle multiple movies as well as different directors and writers as it executed its plan. If Eon has a similar long-term plan, it hasn’t shared it with anyone.

Interestingly, an element of The Avengers is the secret organization SHIELD. Stan Lee, in a 1975 book, wrote that SHIELD was inspired by James Bond movies and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. television series.

UPDATE (May 13): Marvel’s The Avengers had an estimated $103.2 million in U.S. and Canadian ticket sales in its second weekend of release. Meanwhile, Kevin Feige of Marvel Studios said in a Bloomberg Television interview that five more movies based on Marvel characters are in the works.

SHIELD’s helicarrier as seen in the comics

Jack Kirby’s original depiction of the SHIELD helicarrier

The big movie is the U.S. this weekend is Marvel’s The Avengers. One of the film’s settings is a massive flying complex belonging to the mysterious organization SHIELD that has brought together a group of superheroes. That flying headquarters, or helicarrier, made its debut in Strange Tales No. 135, which also introduced Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

In that initial story, Nick Fury is being recruited to lead SHIELD. He doesn’t know where he has been taken until the 11th page of the 12-page tale where Fury foils a plot by a secret organization called Hydra to destroy SHIELD’s command center. (See image at right.)

Later, in Strange Tales No. 154, artist Jim Steranko (who also plotted the SHIELD story in that issue), provided a “blueprint” with a cutaway view of the helicarrier. “Being made of a new silica and steel alloy, it is a simple feat for the colossal craft to hover five miles above the Eastern Seaboard…and to go much higher, if necessary!” scripter Roy Thomas informed readers.

Jim Steranko’s “blueprint” for the helicarrier


Also, in that issue, Fury is outfitted with a new flameproof and fireproof suit from a SHIELD staffer named, eh, Boothroyd. The suit is pretty much trashed by the end of the issue after Fury encounters a Hydra robot called the Dreadnaught.

Lee, in his 1975 book Sons of Origins of Marvel Comics, said he was a fan of James Bond films and the television show The Man From U.N.C.L.E. “We were going to out-Bond Bond and out-UNCLE UNCLE — if you’ve got to set goals for yourself, might as well make ’em big ones!”

UPDATE: Marvel’s The Avengers set a U.S. record for a movie’s opening weekend with $200.3 million in ticket sales. That’s a preliminary figure based on actual ticket sales on Friday and Saturday and estimated results for Sunday. The final figure will be released on May 7.

Ode to the original Nick Fury

Less than two weeks from now, the “summer” film season gets started with The Avengers, a super hero epic that has been building since 2008’s Iron Man. One of the major characters is Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who heads up SHIELD, the organization responsible for assembling the super hero team.

Jim Steranko's cover for Strange Tales No. 167


The movie, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans, will probably be a big hit. We thought we’d pause now to bring up the subject of the original Nick Fury, who won’t be seen in The Avengers.

HMSS did a more extended look at Nick Fury IN THIS ARTICLE IN 2000. Wikipedia has an even more detailed look at the character you can view by CLICKING HERE.

Quick summary: Nick was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1963 as the title character of the World War II comic Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos. Shortly thereafter, Nick showed up in “the present day” in the Fantastic Four as a CIA agent, establishing that he survived his wartime adventures. With the ’60s spy boom, Lee and Kirby started Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. in 1965 as part of the Strange Tales comic book. To use a James Bond reference, Fury was a combination of Bond *and* M — he ran the organization and he was its best operative.

The SHIELD version of Nick hit his stride in the late ’60s in stories written and drawn by Jim Steranko. Steranko more than once made a tip of the cap to 007. In Strange Tales No. 164, for example, the Sean Connery version of Bond has a one-panel cameo trying to enter a SHIELD entrance disguised as a barber shop. “Take it easy, chum!” Connery/Bond says. “You act like I’m an enemy spy!”

The Steranko tales were particularly fantastic, with Steranko’s intricate art being one of the attractions. But the spy boom ran its course and so did Nick Fury (who got his own title in 1968). He’s hung around in the Marvel universe and there were periodic attempts to revive the character.

At one point, Marvel started its “Ultimate” line of titles, featuring, in effect, an alternate universe version of familar Marvel characters. The Nick Fury in this universe was based on, well, Samuel L. Jackson. Wikipedia has a separate entry on this version of Nick Fury, which you can view by CLICKING HERE.

Thus, in 2008, when Iron Man came out, the “Ultimate” version of Nick Fury (played by, well, Samuel L. Jackson) made a surprise appearance in a short epilogue that appeared after the movie’s end titles. Thus it’s the “Ultimate” version of Fury, rather than the Lee-Kirby original (who enjoyed his peak popularity with Steranko) who’s in The Avengers.

It’s understandable how this came about. Samuel L. Jackson is a big star and, truth be told, much of the general population never heard of Nick Fury before the Jackson version of Nick showed up in Iron Man (not to mention Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America). The original Fury’s one moment in the sun was a 1998 TV movie with David Hasselhoff as Nick. Such is life. But we wanted to make note of the original version of Fury ahead of the big blockbuster movie.

Nick Fury Masterworks Vol. 2 to debut

Marvel is scheduled to release Volume 2 of its Nick Fury Masterworks in December.

Masterworks is Marvel’s series of hard-back, glossy paper reprints. In this case, it will reprint the Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. stories from Strange Tales Nos. 154-168 as well as Nos. 1-3 of Fury’s own title, which debuted in 1968.

Masterworks ain’t cheap, in this instance carrying a price of $54.99. But it’s also a chance to view the remarkable work of writer-artist Jim Steranko.

Steranko didn’t create Nick Fury, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did. Steranko, though, caused a sensation when he took over Fury’s super-spy adventures.

For more information about the volume, CLICK HERE.