Over the last decade, comic book fans have gotten a deluge of films starring their favorite superheroes. From the first X-Men film in 2000 to next year's Iron Man 2, the decade has been framed by – and filled with – movies that explore the world of superheroes.
But if Marvel Studios has its way, the next decade may be defined early by another new concept in comic book movies – the shared universe. And the franchise that will be leading the way is Marvel's premier superhero team: The Avengers.
Brian Michael Bendis, who has spent the last five years as architect of the comic book Avengers, is part of the creative committee that consults on movies in development at Marvel Studios, including The Avengers.
"The concept of the shared universe movie franchise is almost unheard of. You can't even imagine it, except in terms of comics," Bendis said. "That's the next step for superhero movies. We've now been introduced to almost every flavor of superhero. Like we've seen them in comics, we've now seen them in movies. We've seen the FF, we've seen the X-Men, we've seen Daredevil, we've seen Superman and Batman. Now it's time to get into the group dynamics. I'm very excited to see what can be pulled off."
The Avengers franchise underwent a huge relaunch in comic books five years ago, when almost the entire existing team was wiped out or displaced by a storyline titled "Disassembled," a play on the Avengers catchphrase, "Avengers Assemble!" Since then, the franchise has seen a rebound in comics, with several spin-off titles and events featuring the characters.
Tom Brevoort, the Marvel executive editor who oversees the Avengers comics, said the revival of the Avengers franchise at Marvel over the last five years might have influenced the development of the movie.
"Certainly, Avengers has been successful," Brevoort said. "That can't be lost on the guys doing the various films that we have coming up from Marvel.
"By the same token, once you've done Spider-Man and X-Men and Fantastic Four and all those things that we've done, when you're looking over all the key, core Marvel properties, it's not a great stretch to go, well the next three are Iron Man, Thor and Captain America," he said. "And that sort of naturally leads you to the thought of The Avengers."
Set for release in May 2012, The Avengers film takes existing Marvel movie franchises and combines the characters for a team-up. Marvel Studios has already started the process of uniting its movie universe in existing films like The Hulk and Iron Man, where characters or references from one movie showed up in another. In fact, Marvel has confirmed that Samuel L. Jackson, who appeared as Nick Fury in an after-the-credits scene in Iron Man, will reprise the role for The Avengers.
And with Thor and Captain America both in development for a 2011 release date, those two characters will be an important part of the shared universe as well. There are already indications that there will be some type of Thor-related presence in next year's Iron Man 2.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh, the Thor movie is apparently going to include at least one of Thor's co-Avengers, as Jeremy Renner told Empire Magazine that he's in talks to play Clint Barton, the archer hero known as Hawkeye, in both the Thor movie and The Avengers.
While casting of the Captain America movie hasn't been released, the Thor movie already has Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Tom Hiddleston as Loki, Anthony Hopkins as Odin, Natalie Portman as Jane Foster, Stuart Townsend as Fandral, Tadanobu Asano as Hogun, and Ray Stevenson as Volstagg.
The presence of a "Loki" within the shared universe has comics’ fans talking. Although details of the movie haven't been confirmed, a prevailing rumor is that Loki will be the big bad in the Avengers movie, providing a threat big enough to make the heroes unite, since he was the villain in the original Avengers comic story. According to Bendis, who wouldn't give details of the movie, there is a common villain who motivates the movie team to join together.
"They're making a movie about exactly what we talked about that makes the Avengers unique," Bendis said. "It's a foe that they can't fight themselves. They have to band together to fight it. And that's cool. We haven't really seen that in a movie."
Dan Slott, who writes Mighty Avengers and helped launch a fourth Avengers book in 2002, Avengers: The Initiative, said the reason the movie is happening now is a combination of moviegoers being more comfortable with the concept of superheroes and Marvel being in control of its own movies.
"Marvel Studios is why it's happening," Slott said. "Marvel has more of a say in what's going on. The comics people know this works. Now it's time to make it work in movies. I mean, how could it not work? How could you not want to see that? If it's done well, it's got to work.
"I'm amazed DC didn't get ahead of this. I'm surprised there hasn't been a World's Finest movie. Wouldn't you freak out if they did that?" Slott said. "People just make fan trailers online and you freak out when you see it."
Brevoort said he believes the shared universe concept will attract more than just comic book fans – that it's something even the general public will respond to positively.
"I think it's incredibly cool that they're trying to approach it the way that they are and doing an Iron Man movie and a Thor movie and a Cap movie. And then doing an Avengers movie with all of them in it," he said. "That movie almost sells itself, assuming that the Thor movie is good and the Captain America movie is good. Or even, you know, well-received, because it's three of your favorite movies in one movie. That's the core essence of Avengers or any other comic like Avengers right there."
Bendis said his involvement in the creative committee for The Avengers movie made him even more content to be part of the team who creates the Avengers comics each month, because he sees where comic book movies are going next.
"I don't think we even realize how cool this stuff is that we're getting in comic movies," Bendis said. "It would seem insane years ago. And now it's happening. Marvel's its own studio and they're doing it like they do the comics. That's amazing."