First, there was an idea. While press surrounding 2008’s Iron Man brought up the notion of an Avengers movie as a possibility, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige downplayed it a bit, noting that these first few movies had to work in order to get to The Avengers. Well, they worked. And they worked considerably well. Iron Man was a huge success; Iron Man 2 was a huge financial success; and Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger launched franchises for new heroes. Only The Incredible Hulk felt like something of a failure, but even then it was quickly brushed off. So they were really going to do this thing. They were going to make an Avengers movie, combining characters from separate movies into one team-up movie, in a move that had plenty of precedence in comic books, but none in the realm of feature films. This is the story of how they pulled it off.
When Marvel Studios first set out to make its own films independently, they had a room of writers working on scripts for potential films that may or may not ever get made. Something like Nick Fury never saw the light of day, but Nicole Perlman’s script for Guardians of the Galaxy was good enough to move that property to the front of the pile. The first screenplay for Marvel’s The Avengers actually dates back to 2007, before Iron Man had even been released. At that point in time, Marvel hired Elektra and eventual Ready Player One co-writer Zak Penn to write a screenplay for The Avengers.
Penn described his role all these years as something of a guiding force for the Phase One Marvel movies, keeping track of what heroes were being used and how they could figure into The Avengers:
“I was officially attached to The Avengers in 2006, although we had been kicking around the idea since 2003. For me, it was a four-year process. During that time, my job was to keep an eye on all the other movies, write in stuff that could be set up and paid off, and with the help of the Marvel executives, create an overarching story or a bible for the five movies, so we would know where we were going and where The Avengers would be. We didn’t want to be stuck in the end with a bunch of characters we didn’t want to use. Or not having set up certain characters.”
Following the successful release of Iron Man in 2008, Marvel announced a July 2011 release date for Marvel’s The Avengers, to be released under Marvel’s extended distribution deal with Paramount Pictures (which would eventually be reworked—but we’ll get to that).
As for who would direct The Avengers, well that was a tricky subject. Jon Favreau provided the foundation for the Marvel Cinematic Universe when he directed Iron Man, but when it came time to bring Favreau back for Iron Man 2, the filmmaker understandably lobbied for a raise. At this point in time, Marvel Studios was still under the control of notoriously cheap Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter, and had already been through a number of contract disputes with actors. Reportedly, Marvel’s execs were none too happy about what they had to pay to get Favreau back for Iron Man 2, and as a result declined to let him direct The Avengers.
Indeed, Favreau had previously expressed interest in spearheading The Avengers movie and he was an obvious choice to take the helm, but the combination of the pay dispute on Iron Man 2 and serious creative differences while making that film somewhat soured that prospect. Favreau quickly moved to Cowboys & Aliens after Iron Man 2, but at the time made no secret of the challenges that lay ahead for whoever directed The Avengers:
“They’ll have to [find a different director], because I’m not going to be available. It’s something I’m being the executive producer on, so I’ll definitely have input and a say… It’s going to be hard, because I was so involved in creating the world of Iron Man and Iron Man is very much a tech-based hero, and then with Avengers you’re going to be introducing some supernatural aspects because of Thor. How you mix the two of those works very well in the comic books, but it’s going to take a lot of thoughtfulness to make that all work and not blow the reality that we’ve created.”
In April 2010, Marvel Studios finally found their director: Joss Whedon. He was a somewhat unexpected choice, having only directed one unsuccessful feature film at the time (Serenity), but he certainly carried with him an intense amount of “geek cred” having created the TV shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. He also had plenty of experience handling ensemble casts, and indeed in hindsight it makes sense that for the Avengers movies, Marvel looked to directors with lots of experience in television (see: The Russo Brothers).
As part of Whedon’s deal to write and direct The Avengers, he also did a rewrite on Captain America: The First Avenger, which started filming that summer. But when it came to Penn’s existing script for The Avengers, Whedon didn’t hide his displeasure:
“I started at square 1 on the script. I mean, straight up. I don’t wanna rag on it, but I fought that credit. I was very upset about it. I know how the Guild works, first guy on a movie and all that, but I’ve never had good luck with arbitrations… I read it one time, and I’ve never seen it since. I was like, ‘Nope. There’s nothing here.’ There was no character connection. There was a line in the stage directions that said, apropos of nothing, ‘And then they all walk towards the camera in slow motion because you have to have that.’ Yeah, well, no: You have to earn that.”
Penn, meanwhile, wasn’t exactly thrilled, but maintains he respects Whedon’s decision to go at the script solo:
“We could have collaborated more, but that was not his choice. He wanted to do it his way, and I respect that. I mean, it’s not like on the Hulk, where I got replaced by the lead actor.”
Which, well, we’ll get to that later too.
When Whedon set in on the script, it went through a few different iterations—including potentially adding more villains in addition to Tom Hiddleston’s Loki:
“We went through a lot of insane iterations of what might be. At the very beginning, I wrote entire drafts that had no bearing on what I would eventually film. There was a moment where we thought we weren’t gonna have Scarlett [Johansson], and so I wrote a huge bunch of pages starring The Wasp. That was not useful. I also worried that one British character actor was not enough to take on Earth’s mightiest heroes, and that we’d feel like we were rooting for the overdog. So I wrote a huge draft with Ezekiel Stane, Obadiah Stane’s son, in it. Kevin looked at it and said, ‘Yeah, no.’ [Marvel Studios co-president] Louis D’Esposito actually at that point said, ‘Yeah, Kevin, it’s all wrong, but look how good it is. Like this is really good wrong.’ That was a nice boost.”
Once the story was settled, it came time to fill out the cast. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and Chris Hemsworth were all set to reprise their roles as Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor, with Scarlett Johnasson also poised to return after her Black Widow debut in Iron Man 2 and Samuel L. Jackson assembling the team as Nick Fury. The new major character was Hawkeye, which Jeremy Renner had been eyed for since his breakout role in The Hurt Locker, but Supernatural actor Jensen Ackles (who was in the running to play Captain America) was also rumored to be in the running. Ultimately, Renner signed on.
Then came that pesky Hulk. Edward Norton filled the role of Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk, but took over screenwriting duties himself and was locked in many creative battles with Marvel over the film’s direction—all the way up through post-production. So when it came time to make The Avengers, Marvel put out a statement that essentially fired Norton in public back in July 2010—weeks before Comic-Con:
“We have made the decision to not bring Ed Norton back to portray the title role of Bruce Banner in the Avengers. Our decision is definitely not one based on monetary factors, but instead rooted in the need for an actor who embodies the creativity and collaborative spirit of our other talented cast members. The Avengers demands players who thrive working as part of an ensemble, as evidenced by Robert, Chris H, Chris E, Sam, Scarlett, and all of our talented casts. We are looking to announce a name actor who fulfills these requirements, and is passionate about the iconic role in the coming weeks.”