Why Geeks Had Nothing (and Everything) to Do with the Success of “The Avengers”

With the biggest opening weekend ever (over $200 million in domestic box office) and near-unanimous praise, The Avengers is an instant object-lesson in how to do a super-hero movie right. But there’s not a lot of consensus about what that lesson is.

The Los Angeles Times claims that the success proves that critical acclaim matters, that TV directors can make the leap to movies, and that “art house stars” like Jeremy Renner can “cross over” (apparently Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was an indie film).

Unsurprisingly, Comic Book Resources singles out the more fan-centric elements: faith in Joss Whedon; faith in the Hulk as a character that could work on film; and the movie’s emphasis on making the audience care about lesser-known (to mainstream audiences, anyway) characters like Hawkeye and Black Widow.

Newsarama’s “10 Lessons We Learned from the Avengers Movie” makes the case for bigger villains; a wider, more integrated universe; and the value of having a director like Joss Whedon, who was not only a Marvel Comics fan but a Marvel Comics writer, at the helm.

There’s some stretched logic in all of these: huge advance-ticket orders for Avengers kill the idea that critics were a major factor in the opening weekend (though it’ll certainly help the film have legs in the weeks to come) and interest in Black Widow as a character is undercut by reviewers dismissing Scarlett Johansson’s character as, among others, “Distracting Catsuit” – but the one seemingly incontrovertible theme seems to be this:

If a nerd-friendly director is at the helm of a comics-friendly genre movie, success with the geek audience will follow. And, as go the geeks, so goes the box office.

While we wish this were true – and we’d certainly rather see Joss Whedon direct superhero movies than, say, Brett Ratner (of course, Ratner’s critically panned X-Men: The Last Stand out-grossed both of Bryan Singer’s more nerd-approved X-movies) – the secret to The Avengers’ success has pretty much NOTHING to do with Joss Whedon’s geek appeal.

That’s not to say that Whedon’s affinity for the characters didn’t have a lot to do with the film’s quality, but the focus among the fan community seems to be his place as “one of our own”, and there’s plenty of evidence that geek auteurship and box-office appeal are, at best, distant cousins:

Edgar Wright directed what may be the truest adaptation of an indie comic ever with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but the world wasn’t interested in the outcome.

Andrew Stanton’s John Carter was a labor of love that many nerds raved about, but while it will more or less break even thanks to overseas grosses, domestically the response was a yawn at best, a punchline at worst.

Even Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson couldn’t make “Tintin” a household name in the States.

So while fan authenticity is nice, it clearly isn’t everything. A Joss Whedon-type director (and he may be one of a kind in terms of the blend of talent and devoted fandom) could well be the best director for almost any comics-y, genre-y franchise, but not every one of those franchises is a sure sell for the mainstream audience.

(Exhibit A: Serenity vs. Avengers.)

With Avengers, Disney achieved something that exceeded its wildest dreams (the $4 billion paid for Marvel in 2009 suddenly looking like a bargain), successfully stitching together a bunch of largely unrelated franchises into a shared movie universe. It’s the kind of thing comics do easily – in fact, super-hero comics without a shared universe have a harder time finding traction – but movies had really never previously attempted.

There has to be some connective tissue, to be sure. A movie teaming John Carter, Scott Pilgrim, and Green Lantern would not be greater than the sum of its parts (though it would be hilarious), even if each of those earlier films had ended with Samuel L. Jackson handing out invitations to the “Mismatched Franchise Initiative.” The characters in Avengers took place in the same era, on the same planet, in the same genre (Vancouver stands in for America and familiar landmarks – we’ll miss you, Grand Central – get demolished), so the pieces fit together nicely.

Where geeks did the heavy lifting was selling mainstream audiences on the component pieces – a drunken playboy in high-tech armor, a green monster they knew from 1970s TV, a Shakespearean-sounding muscleman, and an acrobat in an American-flag bodysuit – that made The Avengers possible. Once non-geek audiences had embraced these previously little-known characters (Marvel spent two years before the release of Iron Man ramping up the character’s presence to get his Q score out of the cellar), they were hooked. When it came time for The Avengers, they didn’t need much convincing to see those characters again.

And they won’t need convincing to go see the sequel, which has already been green-lit without any commitment from Whedon that he’ll be involved. Avengers 2 is already pretty much guaranteed to be number one its opening weekend, regardless of how much fan-cred the director has. The geeks may have made the franchise a success, but it doesn’t belong to us anymore.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, really. Remember who Hollywood thinks is the real auteur behind the Avengers. It’s not Joss Whedon. It’s not Stan Lee, or even Jack Kirby. It’s right there in the title, because the number-one movie this week isn’t The Avengers.

It’s Marvel’s The Avengers.

‘Nuff said.