I have to assume that, in anticipation of Friday's much hyped release of The Avengers, copies of the five Marvel Studios movies that lead up to it are flying off the shelves of video rental depots (should they still stand wherever you are) as ticket-holders attempt to marathon them in order to get fully briefed before the big shebang. Even AMC theaters is trying to accommodate them by having an all-day Marvel movie bonanza on Thursday that segues into a midnight screening of The Avengers, all for $40, which is a pretty good deal.
There's just one catch: the order of the movies' releases was never the order of the events portrayed in them. This has prompted fans to chart a timeline just to get a sense of what happens when. So what if you want to see these movies in chronological order? Do they still work? Well, I ventured to find out, with the assist of a certain fan edit that resulted in a 9-hour-long movie, and I'm pleased to say that this cut actually improves some of the movies.
Edited together by someone who goes by SnakeCharmer on 4Chan’s /co/ board, this 9-hour epic is referred to as Avengers Assemble (which is also the official UK title for The Avengers, thanks to a conflict with the Patrick Macnee TV show). I don’t need to point out that it’s illegal to procure Assemble, so I shan’t be instructing how to do so. If you do decide to, and I know curiosity will get the best of many of you and I am probably complicit in that, please at least justify it by paying for the five movies separately, as good fans should. What Would Steve Rogers Do?
For what it’s worth, I got rid of my copy as soon as I was done with this article. You wouldn’t want Assemble as your only way of seeing these films, anyway, since the video quality is actually really poor. It seems that SnakeCharmer didn’t intend for his project to be widely seen, so he cut it together from already compressed standard definition sources. I did this, as they say, for science.
First thing’s first. Here’s my quick assessment of the Marvel films as they stand individually, in order of preference:
Thor: The best of the bunch, with an incredible villain in Loki—so good that he gets to be the villain in Avengers—in service of a very well-acted dramatic center in Thor's family issues. My original review here.
Iron Man: Robert Downey Jr is immensely engaging as a performer and his chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow is intoxicating, so much so that it overshadows the somewhat monotonous action scenes. My original review here.
Captain America: It knows just how much to keep the hero’s earnestness without being overwhelmed with cheese, by adopting the same fun serial adventure vibe that did wonders for Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The Incredible Hulk: Never does anything poorly, but nothing particularly interesting or impressive, either, making it the most meaningless and forgettable story of the five. My original review here.
Iron Man 2: An absolute mess in tone and pacing, more tablesetting than its own satisfying adventure—it can’t decide which of its three or four competing stories it wants to tell, resulting in a garbled snoozefest.
When I set out to watch Assemble to see if it has any merit as a cut compared to the above beyond just putting scenes together based on chronology, I knew that the only way to judge it fairly and see a real difference in the presentation is to watch all 9 hours in one continuous sitting. Thanks to the ancient power of the futon couch and my personal superhero Delivery Man, the task was accomplished.
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Due to the strictly chronological approach, Assemble does away with the non-linear prologues. The Afghanistan scene that opens Iron Man and the desert scene from Thor’s pre-title are pushed back to where they’re supposed to take place in their narratives, while the present day discovery of Captain America’s frozen body is placed near the end. It doesn’t hurt the films to do this, because they’re sufficiently replaced by other things.
The cut from Captain America’s ending to Iron Man’s beginning is actually pretty great, since they’re both coincidentally montages. Assemble goes right from the mourning of Cap’s sacrifice to the celebration of Tony Stark’s life at the Apogee Awards, providing a fitting contrast of their two statuses that will be highlighted in their team-up in The Avengers. Even better is how we learn about Asgardian lore from Odin literally right before we see Red Skull raid an Asgardian tomb in Norway, immediately cluing us in on what’s at stake.
All the scenes from the five movies are included, with the exception of credits sequences, which means the only major exclusion is the Hulk origin story that was told in The Incredible Hulk’s opening credits, but that’s not really a major loss. The one time it messes things up is the end of Iron Man. The powerful “I am Iron Man” closing line goes right into the animated closing credits, so in Assemble, Tony Stark’s speech is cut short to jump into the prologue of Iron Man 2 where Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash has the press conference playing on his tiny television. It provides a perfectly seamless cut into the next film, but treating the line as background noise diminishes the game-changing announcement. “I am Iron Man!” might as well be “Call now for our free special offer!”
Here's how it's put together: Assemble starts with Odin's story of the war between Asgard and Jotunheim, then goes to the 1940s portion of Captain America, followed by the entirety of Iron Man. Fairly straight-forward. The rest is more interesting, mixing up the scenes from the remaining three movies. If you’ve been observant while watching the Marvel movies, you know that the events in Thor, Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk, for the most part, happen concurrently. Remember: Agent Coulson leaves in the middle of Iron Man 2 to meet Thor in New Mexico, then at the end of the movie, Tony Stark watches a news report of Hulk’s rampage on TV. Along the way, the two Agent Coulson short films from the DVD extras are also spliced in.
Naturally, it ends on Captain America waking up in present day New York, to lead us right into The Avengers. It would be interesting if this cut could later be updated to an 11-hour one with The Avengers tacked on at the end, completing the Marvel saga’s “first wave.”
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Assemble improves The Incredible Hulk simply by spacing out the events. Originally, the lack of a strong dramatic throughline causes the film to be a fairly repetitive chase flick. The story spans roughly shy of two months, we’re told by a helpful onscreen day counter. We follow Banner’s rough journey from Brazil back to the United States, but the movie itself feels very quick, especially in-between the film’s three fights between Banner and Tim Roth’s Emil Blonsky. By inserting large chunks of Iron Man 2 and Thor between those three scenes—the first Brazil raid is right after Nick Fury’s introduction in Iron Man's post-credits scene and the Abomination/Hulk Harlem fight is the final action scene—the progression of time feels a lot more like it’s supposed to. It has the same effect on Thor, giving the illusion that his stay in New Mexico is longer, thus making his fondness of Midgard and local romance slightly more believable.
Iron Man 2 is where Assemble performs some magic. If the main issue with that film is that it’s disjointed and has tons of scenes involving SHIELD and Black Widow that really shouldn’t have been in it at all, then those scenes feel more natural when there are several other Marvel characters also sharing screen time.
You can even pretend that the introduction and showcasing of Black Widow are taken from her own solo short film, rather than being intrusive in an Iron Man story. Or call it an episode. It’s probably more apt to liken Assemble to marathoning the first season of an extremely high budget TV show rather than one movie with Andy Warhol aspirations. Seen through that prism, Black Widow and Hawkeye randomly popping up work as teases of characters that will be important in later episodes; a device TV shows often use.
SHIELD and Agent Coulson’s appearances also don't take focus away from the heroes of movies named after said heroes, since it’s arguable that this hypothetical TV show would have to be built on the spine of SHIELD, anyway, collecting superbeings throughout the season so they can make it to Regionals.
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Before I sat down and watched it, I figured this would be a fun but artless edit, where the clips from each film are spliced together just based on what comes before what, but to his credit, SnakeCharmer put together scenes from different movies that surprisingly seem planned to mesh together all along, when the truth is that they probably weren't. At least not to this extent.
Some of these are visually driven—like the match-cut from a close-up shot of Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster falling asleep at night to a nearly identically framed shot of Bruce Banner waking up the next morning—while others have more thought behind them: even separated, Marvel heroes share plenty of the same flaws and trials, and when put side by side, the parallels become more pronounced. Assemble cuts back and forth between Banner and Stark both trying to deal with their blood poisoning, complimenting each other's stories as if working in tandem, with Banner's ticking-clock desperation serving as the drive and Stark's reckless abandon as the very human reaction.
Stark and Thor also share common ground in their frustration at shouldering the expectation of their father's legacy. There's a fabulous transition in Assemble where Stark at his lowest point watches a home movie of his father talking about the future of Stark Industries, and it cuts right to coronation day in Asgard, when Thor is supposed to inherit the throne from Odin. Trying to be a worthy son, by the way, is the supervillain motive of both Whiplash and Loki, so even evil dudes can share the same pathos.
The benefit of seeing Captain America first before the others is seeing the generational deterioration, how the swashbuckler tone of the 1940s turns into the more grounded reality of modern day superheroics, which is precisely the path that Marvel Comics took in the 60s when Stan Lee made their heroes more social misfits than champions.
Look no further than the treatment of the US military. It degrades from Tommy Lee Jones’ heroic portrayal of General Chester Phillips to Sam Rockwell’s greedy contractor Justin Hammer, and eventually makes the Army the villain outright under William Hurt’s General Thunderbolt Ross. In Captain America, Stanley Tucci’s Professor Erskine wants a man with a good heart to be the recipient of the original Super Soldier Serum because he finds it to be more important than the typical soldier mentality. We get to see what Erskine was so afraid of in The Incredible Hulk, when a later incarnation of the very same project ignores its founder's ideal and gives the serum to a man like Blonsky, who simply wants the power of a Super Soldier to rejuvenate the aging body that can no longer keep up with his war-hungry mind.
It’s not just the characters that receive a thread from one movie to another; Red Skull’s ability to harness the power of Asgardian magic as science, which Captain America gives only the minimum of explanation for, gets a better clarification later in a scene from Thor, where Thor explains to Jane that in Asgard, magic and science are the same thing.
Chronology is still obviously the priority of the edit, though, even at the expense of clarity sometimes. It may seem strange that the scene of Agent Coulson departing for New Mexico takes place before Thor and Mjolnir even arrive on Earth, but that’s actually correct. Coulson comes to New Mexico presumably because SHIELD detected the Byfrost wormhole over the desert prior to its opening. The same signs that Jane and her team were chasing, which is why SHIELD confiscated their research. SHIELD, we can assume, already knew about Asgard’s existence even prior to meeting Thor, since they’ve had the Cosmic Cube for 70 years, ever since Howard Stark fished it out of the water at the end of Captain America.
It’s one of those things that was slightly unclear when presented in segments in different movies, but is so obvious when put together.
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All the links and parallels accentuated by this edit further confirms the richness of having a single movie populated by multiple characters that are already interesting in their own movies. Marvel not only had the balls to attempt it, they’re also mostly succeeding in this experiment.
Sure, it’s kind of hilarious when you see Jim Rhodes being played by Terrence Howard and only a few scenes later he’s all of a sudden Don Cheadle, or how Stan Lee seems to play a wandering conman who appears several times as a different person each time, but this level of interconnectedness had never been done before with blockbuster films. Minor hiccups are to be expected.
That said, as fun as it is to see five (six if you count The Avengers) movies overlap like this, I do hope that the Marvel movies following Avengers will be a little more standalone. Allusions and mentions are fine, but Iron Man 2 serves as a cautionary tale that blatant shoehorning of "what's next" is a detriment to one's own storytelling.
One of the things that ruins the illusion of Assemble being a singular entity is the fact that Kenneth Branagh’s visuals in Thor, with its shiny colors and wild dutch angles, stick out like a golden thumb among the nit and grit of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk—and that’s a good thing! They are all Marvel superheroes and they share the same playground, but that doesn’t mean they have to have the same look or tone. Captain America can be a little more jaunty and Thor can be grandiose. A world to fit the hero’s personality.
After all, that’s what makes it so appealing when they finally assemble.