April 29, 2012 -- The Avengers Assemble: Marvel's Master Plan to Bring Iron Man, Captain America, The Hulk, and Thor Together on Screen is Finally Here (nydailynews.com)

Studio first envisioned epic superhero movie five years ago, and got it started with 2008's 'Iron Man'


Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans) join forces, along with other Marvel heroes, in 'The Avengers.'





Jeremy Renner wondered what he had gotten himself into. Weeks before the cameras began rolling on “The Avengers,” the actor found himself in a stunt dojo on the film’s Albuquerque, N.M., set with his co-star Chris Hemsworth swinging on wires high overhead.

Around the same time, he watched an enormous stuntman, clad in a green, bubble-wrap "Hulk" suit, lumber by.

Renner had been around movie shoots for a long time but had never seen anything like this.

“I was in training, watching Hemsworth flying around with his wire, coming smack down on the shield of a stunt guy — which was actually a trash can lid,” says Renner, who plays the titular team’s archer, Hawkeye. “This is happening in this big stunt gym and he’s flying around. I’m doing these stunts with Scarlett [Johansson], rolling around shooting arrows.

“I’m like, ‘This is really weird, this is really happening.’ ”

“The Avengers,” opening Friday, is indeed really happening. All that training was just part of one of the most ambitious summer blockbusters of all time, and the culmination of a plan hatched by Marvel Studios five years ago.

Joss Whedon, who makes up for a lack of big-budget experience with geek cred for creating “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” was tasked with directing the film, which is built on top of four other franchises.

He’d been training for the job for a long while.

“I was playing with the Hulk and Thor action figures when they were still called dolls and I was 14,” says Whedon.

The story of “The Avengers” appropriately seems ripped from the panels of a comic book: It opens with Thor’s brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) threatening the human race with a powerful ancient weapon and an alien armada.

In response, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his government agency, S.H.I.E.L.D., round up a team of superheroes to defend Earth. On hand are Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), the billionaire playboy armed with high-tech battle armor; Captain America (Chris Evans), the World War II “super soldier” coming out of a seven-decade deep freeze; Thor (Hemsworth), wielder of lightning; an uncontrollable rage monster known as the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo); Black Widow (Johansson), a martial arts expert and spy; and Hawkeye, deadly with his bow.

The resulting adventure culminates in one of the largest battle scenes in summer blockbuster history, an epic throw-down in the middle of Manhattan (shot mostly in stunt doubles Cleveland and New Mexico).

Just like the supergroup created by comics legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the early 1960s (with the exception of Captain America, who was created by Kirby and Joe Simon more than 20 years earlier), the superheroes are a band of dysfunctional loners who spend more time battling each other than their enemies.

While the characters weren’t entirely new, the plan to film “The Avengers” was hatched just five years ago inside the offices of Marvel Comics.

The company had pulled itself out of bankruptcy in the late ’90s in part by licensing its A-list superheroes, like Spider-Man and the X-Men, to movie studios. Although a chunk of the profits from those franchises, belonging respectively to Sony and Fox, was nice, Marvel thought it could do better striking out on its own.

So, with funding secured, Marvel Studios was born. And while there were no guarantees of success with a pre-comeback Robert Downey Jr. under the armor in Marvel’s inaugural movie, 2008’s “Iron Man,” studio head Kevin Feige was already dreaming big.

The first hint of something bigger came after the closing credits of “Iron Man,” when Jackson, as Nick Fury, made an unexpected appearance. His purpose, says Feige, was to ask Downey’s Tony Stark, “[Do] you think you’re the only superhero in the world?”

“We didn’t know what we were going to do with that,” says Feige, “but it was important to me that we say, Hey, audience, these movies are going to be a bit different, anything can happen.”

Downey was let in on the hopes of the studio, to build followings for the individual superhero franchises and then combine the characters — and audiences — into one massive team. After “Iron Man’s” $98 million debut weekend, the idea went from wish list to game plan.

“I’ve been around the block a couple of times, and you’ve seen the best laid plans just go critical,” says Downey. “[But] after our opening weekend, I knew that it was possible.”

He wasn’t the only one. Feige consequently signed Jackson to a nine-picture deal to reprise his role as Fury in a number of “Avengers”-related titles, including 2010’s “Iron Man 2,” last year's “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger,” and beyond. With a slew of hits under its belt, all leading up to “The Avengers,” Marvel Studios has only really suffered one public misstep — its split with Edward Norton, who starred as the alter ego to the titular walking anger management issue in 2008’s “The Incredible Hulk.” For “The Avengers,” Whedon cast Ruffalo as a replacement — the third actor in the role in less than a decade, including Eric Bana from Ang Lee’s version of “The Hulk.”

All that planning now pays off with “The Avengers.”

“I don’t think any fan 10 years ago, even when they saw ‘The X-Men,’ expected to see a movie with this many major superheroes played by this big a lineup and also directed by the guy the fans would have chosen,” says Mike Cotton, editor in chief of the iPad magazine Champion!

The stakes weren’t high just for audiences. Once it came time for the Avengers to assemble, Whedon had the tough task of arranging music for an all-star band, where everyone got to play a solo but somehow kept the beat.

It’s a job his cast thinks he accomplished.

“That’s probably the thing that I was most pleased with,” says Downey, “that everybody scores and nobody is left in the fumes.”

Whedon will be the first to admit it almost didn’t work. There was a version of the script, back when Johansson wasn’t involved, that featured a female superhero named the Wasp. Whedon had to scrap that script, and was making changes to his final version even as the effects people were starting work on the 40-minute battle that closes the movie. “Trying to figure out the way you want to introduce all those characters, that was stuff we were still tweaking in the edit,” says Whedon.

Jackson, a guy who grew up reading Avengers comics, says he for one never had any doubts.

“That first day when everyone’s in the room together, you kind of stand there and go, ‘Okay, this can work.’ Because we’re all getting along, we like each other, we’re having a big laugh here, we’re smiling, we’re enjoying the dialogue, we’re enjoying just being around each other.

“You could feel that something special was going to come out of all that.”