Dominic Corry 's Opinion

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things movie.

Dominic Corry: Universe building with Marvel and The Avengers

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The idea of heroes all existing in the same universe is a thrilling concept which will be tested in new movie, The Avengers. Photo / Supplied
The idea of heroes all existing in the same universe is a thrilling concept which will be tested in new movie, The Avengers. Photo / Supplied

When the credits rolled at the end of the media screening for the 2008 triumph Iron Man, 95 per cent of the attendees got up and exited the theatre. Myself and about four other people remained in their seats.

In the months leading up to the film's release, rumours swirled that director Jon Favreau had inserted an extra scene following the end credits, but reports from the early American press screenings and premieres indicated there was no such scene.

Me and my fellow faithfuls were not undeterred however, and endured seemingly six hours of endless special effects credits with the slim hope there would be some more story.

As most people are now aware, there was indeed such a scene - Favreau had removed it from early American preview screenings to maintain the surprise.

Samuel L Jackson as iconic Marvel Comics character Nick Fury turns up and talks to Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) about his new "Avengers Initiative". It was comic book nerd nirvana.

Since then, several further films produced by the fledging Marvel Studios (as opposed to those Marvel properties controlled by other studios, like the Spider-Man and X-Men films) have continued to embrace this notion that all these heroes exist in the same "universe", and it all culminates in The Avengers, which opens next week. (N.B. As I write this, I have not yet seen The Avengers).

Robert Downey Jr. turned up in the same year's The Incredible Hulk; Samuel L. Jackson was back for 2010's Iron Man 2, and brought Scarlet Johansson's Black Widow with him; Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson had a cameo in last year's Thor along with Avenger Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner); and most recently, Tony Stark's dad Howard (played by Dominic Cooper) appeared in Captain America: The First Avenger, the end of which seems to lead directly into The Avengers.

The idea of various big films (that aren't merely sequels to each other) all inhabiting the same universe is a bold story-telling technique that I find particularly exciting. What's even more amusing is that it's exactly the same point of difference that took Marvel Comics to the top of the comic book industry starting in the Silver Age of the medium - the early 1960s.

Upon introducing such instantly iconic characters such as the Fantastic Four, The X-Men and Spider-Man (not to mention various Avengers, although Captain America had been around since the 1940s), Marvel head-writer Stan Lee promptly had them pop up for cameos in each other's comics.

Until this point, comic books had little in the way of a consistent continuity, especially amongst different titles released by the same publisher. But Lee decided have characters in one comic reference incidents in others.

It's par for the course these days, but back then it proved so successful with comic book fans it helped Marvel come to dominate the comics industry over it's main rival DC, which had more recognisable characters such as Batman and Superman.

It's fascinating to me that fifty years later, Marvel Studios are using the exact same technique to build up their filmic universe, and I can't wait to see how it comes together in The Avengers.

I've been wracking my brains trying to think of other instances of this kind of universe building in movies. It's definitely never happened on this scale before, but there are examples.

One of my favourites is how Michael Keaton popped up briefly in Steven Soderbergh's 1998 film Out of Sight as Ray Nicolette, the character he played in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown, released the previous year. Both films were of course based on books by Elmore Leonard. I would pay good money to see a Ray Nicolette film.

Whit Stillman, who I've discussed at length in this blog before, is very fond of having characters from one of his film's cameo in another. The Last Days of Disco (1998) has Stillman stalwart Taylor Nichols appear as both his character from Metropolitan AND his character from Barcelona. Endless repeat viewings of his films have alerted me to how Stillman likes to have various characters across various films casually name check each other aswell.

Clerks and Mallrats director Kevin Smith has done quite a bit of this sort of thing aswell, even going so far as to name his universe - he called it the View Askew Universe aftger his production company. You only need to watch Smith's films to realise how comic book-obsessed he is, so it's not hard to imagine where he got the inspiration for this sort thing.

More recently Get Him To The Greek made humorous reference to some of the characters from the movie it was spun-off from: Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

Some of this sort of stuff only exists on an in-joke level - it's very appealing to imagine that John Travolta's Pulp Fiction character Vincent Vega is the brother of Vic Vega, the character played by Michael Madsen in Tarantino's previous film Reservoir Dogs, but the film never states it, so I don't really count it.

The kind of universe building I've discussed in this blog occurs much more often in books than in movies, but I really hope it manages to flourish in the filmed medium.

Can you think of other examples of movie universe building, or characters jumping between films? Do you get a thrill out of such things?

Dominic Corry

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things movie.

One of New Zealand's most vocal and enthusiastic film critics for over ten years, Dominic's cinematic opinions can also be heard on radio and seen on television. His list of favourite movies is always evolving, but is generally likely to feature The Lady Vanishes (1938); Vertigo (1958); The Parallax View (1972); Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978); Aliens (1986); Midnight Run (1989); Metropolitan (1990) and Primer (2002). He also reviews snack food.

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