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What Next For Joss Whedon, Marvel & Hollywood After The Mammoth Success Of ‘The Avengers’?

What Next For Joss Whedon, Marvel & Hollywood After The Mammoth Success Of 'The Avengers'?

Most people thought “The Avengers” would make money. The five official Marvel movies to date, from 2008’s “Iron Man” to last year’s “Captain America” had, after all, made over $2.2 billion worldwide. But most figured that, given that the film followed on to four franchises simultaneously, that there would be a cap on it: surely if “Iron Man 2” made $600 million worldwide, that was the ceiling for the film’s grosses? But thanks to sterling reviews, phenomenal word of mouth, and a strong marketing campaign, the film has already made that sum in less than two weeks of international release, topping it off with a record-breaking U.S. opening weekend of $200 million, $50 million ahead of estimates, and $30 million more than the previous record holder, last year’s “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2

We’re looking at a giant, giant blockbuster, and the only question is how high it gets: it’s nearly certain of taking the all-time #3 slot worldwide, beating ‘Potter,’ and has as good a chance as anything at coming close to “Titanic” at #2 (though we imagine it’ll fall short). But how will it change things for those involved, from writer-director Joss Whedon to Marvel Studios to the rival companies in Hollywood left in the dust by the film’s astounding box-office? We’ve dug into the potential consequences below.

Joss Whedon
For a while, Joss Whedon was feeling less and less part of the Hollywood mainstream. He’d faced creative battles with Fox on both “Firefly” and “Dollhouse,” and the network had ended up basically burying both shows on Friday night, and neither lasted more than two seasons. His feature film debut “Serenity,” a continuation of “Firefly,” failed to set the world alight, and he’s had various other feature film projects in development, but never quite moving.

But now, for all the credit that Marvel, Disney and the A-list cast (rightfully) get for the film’s success, it’s Whedon that’s proven to the “x factor.” He pulled off the near-impossible, leading the comic book film to overwhelmingly positive reviews, and an A+ CinemaScore that should ensure that audiences won’t just be recommending it to their friends, they’ll also become coming back for second helpings. Whedon has proven by his impeccable handling of scope and character that he can play with the big boys, and he now gets to sit alongside James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan at the very top of the tree. Which begs the question: what’s next for him?

After his painful TV flops, Whedon had been talking about eschewing studio financing altogether, making an impressive, if low-key, profit with the self-financed web series “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.” And he’s been following along that path since “The Avengers” wrapped too: he’s funded two independent projects himself, a version of “Much Ado About Nothing” which he’s directed, and fantasy romance called “In Your Eyes,” which he’s written and produced. And he’s been talking for years about another web series “Wastelanders,” co-written with comics writer Warren Ellis, as well a a possible follow-up to ‘Dr. Horrible.’ Clearly, he was going to walk this path whether “The Avengers” was a success or not.

Now, though, he’s about to be one of the most sought after filmmakers around — virtually every major franchise with a directorial vacancy will be chasing him, but, honestly we can’t see him tempted by many — even unfinished business like “Wonder Woman” will presumably feel like small potatos in comparison to this. Franchises aside, he’s now got the power and kudos for creative freedom within the system too. Christopher Nolan got to make long-time dream project “Inception,” after “The Dark Knight,” and we suspect that some studio will step in to finance something for Whedon that he never could have gotten made without a mega-hit like this. Long-in-the-offing fantasy “Goners?” A “Serenity” sequel (still unlikely, but we live in a world with three Riddick movies, so you never know…)? Something else, something as yet unannounced? It’ll be a little while before we know, but we’re sure the temptation for unlimited creative freedom on a giant canvas will be enough to see Whedon not shun the studios for too long. And then, of course, there’s the inevitable “The Avengers” sequel…

The ambitious, multi-film strategy has paid off, big time, that much is clear. And however this had turned out, they’d made enough money from the earlier films that sequels “Iron Man 3,” “Thor 2” and “Captain America 2” are already gearing up for production, with release dates already announced for 2013 and 2014. One big question is whether or not they can expect elevated grosses for those films thanks to the success of “The Avengers.” Will audiences newly introduced to Tony Stark’s sarcastic gags or Steve Rogers’ sincere heroism return in droves for their solo outings? Or will seeing The Avengers solo fail to have the same kind of draw as them together? While the second is certainly a risk, we’d expect improved grosses for all three sequels (“Iron Man 3” in particular), but likely not to the same supernova levels of the team-up movie.

The other thing that’s been on everyone’s lips of late after “The Avengers” is  possible Hulk stand-alone movie. There’ve been two attempts so far, both of which underwhelmed, but with Mark Ruffalo and the Hulk both stealing the movie, there seems to be a genuine desire from audiences to see a film, and one Marvel executive has already spilled the beans about a possible Hulk flick in 2015. But would it actually work? If “The Avengers” proves anything about Bruce Banner’s alter ego, it’s that he works best when used sparingly, and arguably as part of an ensemble. Just because we get some good Hulk-smash moments, and an ace performance from Ruffalo, it doesn’t mean that a third Hulk flick wouldn’t fall prey to the same issues as Ang Lee or Louis Leterrier‘s versions did. If they can find someone like Whedon who knows the character, and has a take that makes him work in a solo outing? Great. But they should be careful about squandering the goodwill earned here for the sake of a quick cash-in.

Of course, Marvel are now moving into Phase 2 of their plans, and aside from the sequels, we’ll see at least one brand new property announced for the next few years — there’s already one open slot, on May 16, 2014, six weeks after “Captain America 2.” There’s a few possibilities: a “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie seems to be in the works, “Iron Man 3” writer Drew Pearce penned a script for “Runaways,” which nearly got made with director Peter Sollett before “The Avengers” saw it delayed, and writers were hired some time ago for a “Doctor Strange” film, which is also in development. But the smart money is on “Ant-Man,” to be directed by Edgar Wright: the helmer’s been working on the script with Joe Cornish for years, and the character was a founding member of the Avengers, so is an easier fit for synergy than the moustached magician. Plus, Wright tweeted a picture over the weekend that, on top of other hints, seems to suggest that the film may be the next big announcement from the company. However, that doesn’t necessarily rule out other characters making it to the screen before the next “The Avengers” outing.

Because what “The Avengers”‘ mammoth box-office absolutely ensures is that they’ll be working towards a team-up sequel sooner rather than later. The film’s mid-credits sting, introducing intergalactic tyrant Thanos, seems to be a naked set up for that (we don’t expect him to crop up in any of the in-progress sequels, although we guess “Thor 2” might be a possibility), so they’ve clearly got early plans for it. We suspect, in fact, that they’re working on the assumption that it might be Robert Downey Jr.‘s last outing as “Iron Man” — next summer’s threequel will be his fifth time playing the character in the Marvel movie universe — but they’re sure to want him back for another “The Avengers.”

So far, the studio have mostly avoided directors returning for follow-ups, Jon Favreau‘s “Iron Man 2” the only exception to date. Frankly, though, they’d be crazy not to offer Whedon a mammoth paycheck to come back, and we suspect that’ll be the case. Whether Whedon is interested, or if he, like Gary Ross on “The Hunger Games,” is more keen on moving onto fresh pastures, remains to be seen. Our guess is that he wouldn’t necessarily be against it, but would like to make something else closer to his heart before moving on. If he can do that, and still deliver an ‘Avengers’ sequel in 2015 or even 2016, then we’re sure Marvel would like him on board. But if he holds up their grand plans, then they may be forced to look elsewhere.

There are lessons to be learned from “The Avengers” — principally, giving a talented writer-director like Joss Whedon who loves and knows the characters is probably a good idea. We don’t expect that to be the lesson that Hollywood to take away, unfortunately. Hell, even Marvel don’t seem to be paying attention, with little-known TV helmer Alan Taylor in charge of “Thor 2,” and the Russo Brothers and George Nolfi in the running for “Captain America 2” (maybe they’re big fans, but we suspect they’re principally guns for hire).

What we do expect to become a new trend in Hollywood are team-up movies. The logic goes that clearly audiences will come in droves to see more than one hero together, so expect to see more and more development following Marvel’s long-form plans. Warner Bros in particular are almost certain to start chasing “Justice League” or “World’s Finest” pictures (both nearly became a reality in the last decade, with George Miller and Wolfgang Petersen directing respectively). With Christopher Nolan, who’s been resistent to team-up ideas, soon to wrap up his Bat-trilogy, the next reboot of the character will almost certainly be moving towards an ‘Avengers’-style end-game (though it should be noted, Zack Snyder has already said his Supes will be sepearate from any of WB’s plans for “Justice League”). But as Marvel did with The Hulk, it means that the studio can reboot failed properties like “Green Lantern” with a fresh start, and help as-yet-untouched characters like The Flash and Wonder Woman boot-up.

Could we see the trend expand beyond that? With Fox planning reboots of “Fantastic Four” and “Daredevil,” it’s possible that some of those characters will crop up in “The Wolverine” or others such X-Men movies. Might they even join forces with Sony and create a rival Marvel team-up movie featuring Spider-Man? Studio politics makes it unlikely, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. And comic books aren’t the only limitations here: with “Snow White And The Huntsman” planned as a trilogy, could Universal start greenlighting other revisionist fairy-tale movies, with a kick-ass Rapunzel joining up with Kristen Stewart eventually? Could Disney see “Maleficent” cross paths with “Oz The Great and Powerful“? Might their “Magic Kingdom” movie see Jack Sparrow and Buzz Lightyear side-by-side? We hope not, but we’re sure some development executive is already preparing a pitch…

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