Often, the Internet likes to wonder about alternate paths movies would have taken in other eras. In fact, the fantasy-cast trend dates back to the 90’s, where Wizard magazine would dream on a supernova that comic book movies would get made.
Who would direct these films? What big-name actor or star on the rise would have the role decades earlier?
Welcome to What If This Got Made?, a column that examines the could-have-been and could-be possibilities of films occurring in different eras, now or then, and realistically trying to make the pipe dreams feasible.
The Movie: The Avengers
The Era: 1985—THEN
For the first shot at this, I’d like to address an article over at IGN last month. The Avengers was retooled for 1985 with an all-star cast that felt like—uh, well, you wouldn’t have much allowance for the visual effects.
It got us thinking, however, how would an Avengers film 30 years go down? Take into consideration of where the actors involved were at in their careers, the scope of the film, all that. Pleasuredome contributor Chris Coppedge and I are proud to kick off this column with a look at how we think it would’ve gone down in ’85.
Universal holds the rights to the Incredible Hulk, but they want to cash in on the blockbuster era. Spielberg’s a crown jewel, but they want another guy since he’s busy with other material, and they need boffo bucks. Why not go for comic books? In 1982, plans for a 3D Hulk film start with Joe Dante attached, but negotiations fall through with Dante. After failing to snag the rights to Spider-Man and X-Men, they get a package deal of other famed Marvel heroes—Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and more—and decide to go all in with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.
Mike: IRVIN KERSHNER (The Empire Strikes Back)
One of Hollywood’s most prolific workman directors, Kershner’s profile took a boost with one of the most acclaimed sequels of all time. He’d brought back Sean Connery as James Bond in Never Say Never Again two years earlier. It’s the sort of movie every genre director would be offered and turn down—why not go for a guy who can get the job done and well?
CHRIS: Robert Zemeckis (Romancing the Stone)
CHRIS: Steven E. de Souza (48 Hrs.) and Shane Black (Lethal Weapon)
The plotting of Die Hard with the smart-assery of Lethal Weapon, although this would have the same basic plot.
MIKE: James Cameron (The Terminator) and Steven E. de Souza (Commando)
Jim Cameron’s on the rise. They’re taking notice of this Terminator risk, but they also know he’s delivering some cool action beats for Stallone on his First Blood sequel. He delivers a draft that pits the heroes against the menacing artificial intelligence being Ultron. Deemed too expensive, Universal brings in Steven E. de Souza—who’d dabbled in plenty of genre fare before and would continue to stay in the field of thrills and spills after ’85—to make it funnier and slightly smaller scale than the more brooding, existential danger of Cameron’s draft. That’s where the Nordic god of mischief, Loki, replaces Ultron as the villain…
TONY STARK/IRON MAN
CHRIS: MICHAEL KEATON
The livewire of films like Beetlejuice mixed with the turmoil of Batman? Perfect, says I. Keaton was on his way to being one of America’s favorite smartasses and Stark is one of the greats at that—likely, however, Keaton would be clean-shaven.
MIKE: CHRISTOPHER WALKEN
Walken balances sarcasm and personal demons like few other actors and his eccentric charm is the stuff of legends. Think about the risk of casting Robert Downey Jr. back when Marvel was starting up their film business—it’s the same here. He’d done some noble genre work like The Dead Zone, which is what makes Kershner believe he can humanize the famously tortured, alcoholic Tony Stark in red and gold metal armor. In later interviews, de Souza claimed Stark was the hardest character to write and that Walken improvised roughly 80 percent of his dialogue—a notable example was telling Loki to “quit playing reindeer games.”
STEVE ROGERS/CAPTAIN AMERICA
MIKE: MICHAEL BIEHN
Hot off working with him on The Terminator, Cameron recommends the rising Biehn to take the vibranium shield. Only when the studio’s top three choices for the role—Kurt Russell, Jeff Bridges, and Richard Gere—turn down the part does Biehn get an audition. It’s an arduous process that involved much screen testing, with many up-and-comers failing to get the confidence and valor of Cap right. Universal brass caved in when they saw the surprising opening weekend gross of The Terminator and believed in the freedom-fighting spirit that Biehn showed in his screen test.
CHRIS: KEVIN BACON
Footloose cemented Bacon’s aw-shucks likability and energy, yet could nonetheless summon up great, righteous fury. Those angry solo dancing scenes? I’d say that’s perfect hints at what he could do with for Cap.
CHRIS: JEFF BRIDGES
This was hard. This was really, really hard. I emphatically did not want a lovable meathead like Schwarzenegger, Stallone, or Van Damme in this role. I think with a little bulking up and some kind of crazy accent, 80’s Bridges could bring this guy to life wonderfully.
MIKE: RUTGER HAUER
Both drafts of the script eliminated Thor’s Earth alias, Donald Blake, from continuity. The Dutchman went without argument as the first choice for the part. Interviewed in Starlog about how he’d done two fantasy films the same year—Ladyhawke and Flesh + Blood—Hauer joked, “I didn’t have a hammer in those.”
BRUCE BANNER/THE HULK
MIKE: KEVIN KLINE/DOLPH LUNDGREN
When Bill Bixby decided to focus on more directing jobs, Lou Ferrigno walked with him, leaving a gap for two new actors to play both sides of the coin. Kline plays introverted nerd appeal beyond hilts and his conveyance of that leads to a wounded, existential portrayal of Banner that balances out when he suddenly regrets his transformation. Lundgren’s physique went highly praised in auditions and he got some help from ILM and a little upstart called Pixar to make this Hulk far more than a strongman in green paint. While the Hulk only appears in a few scenes due to budget concerns, the scenes of destruction pay off with audiences.
CHRIS: BILL BIXBY/LOU FERRIGNO
Perhaps this is cheating, but I think Bixby would be wonderful as an older, more deflated take on Banner, yet still dedicated energy amongst the then-younger actors.
NATALIA ROMANOVA/BLACK WIDOW
CHRIS: SIGOURNEY WEAVER
How could I NOT cast her in this role? This would be a year before Aliens, but she could still kick plenty of ass at this point.
MIKE: HELEN MIRREN
This was an extremely hard choice for me. Part of me really wants to put Rachel Ward in the role, but Mirren’s Russian ancestry just resonates here. That’s in addition to the affirmed turns she had early in the 80’s in Excalibur and The Long Good Friday. Mirren has a Valkyrie spirit no matter what she does—she stops everything on screen. Black Widow is one of my favorite Marvel characters because of how deadly she is. Unlike other famously homicidal antiheroes like Wolverine and The Punisher, Natalia will manipulate enemies before she ultimately offs them. Cameron initially wrote her as just that, a hardened S.H.I.E.L.D. operative recruited away from the KGB with a brain wired to shoot anything that moves. The revised draft by de Souza had her as a second-in-command villain, closer to her comic roots, a KGB spy infiltrating S.H.I.E.L.D. who ends up exploiting Earth’s cosmic invasion—only to turn good in the third act. The femme fatale idea was rejected by Mirren and Kershner, the original idea sticks, and she earns a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress—but she gets unfairly shafted from an Oscar nod. Often cited as the MVP of the film, Mirren gets a meaty role but another character gets the “villain” shaft…
MIKE: JAMES REMAR
Cast thanks to his wild-eyed turns in The Warriors and 48 Hrs., Remar’s ability to play incendiary, short-sighted hellraisers is a perfect fit for the often hostile archer. Cameron took full advantage of the character as just that, a guy who the Avengers viewed as the red-headed stepchild of the family, an instigator who ends up lacking self-esteem and gravitas in battle. Studio notes felt that he was too similar to Black Widow and, reading into the comics, felt their bond needed to be stronger, so de Souza’s draft turned Hawkeye into being hexed by Loki’s powers for most of the film, continually trying to thwart and murder the team, as to eventually steer Romanova’s bloodlust towards Loki. Cameron later said in an interview, “I already made my killer robot movie—why make another?” Hawkeye’s original portrayal later had many of his traits retrofitted into the character of Hudson in Cameron’s Aliens.
CHRIS: KURT RUSSELL
Russell was something of a big star at this point and I think he could have done well in a more supporting role, showing a strong range from cold and inert to energetic and affirmative in the final battle. I’d love to hear his delivery of “You and I remember Budapest very differently.”
CHRIS: KENNETH BRANAGH
Not gonna lie, kinda proud of myself for this one. At this point, Branagh was a virtual unknown outside of the British stage, much like Hiddleston was before he broke out in Thor. Combined with his enormous energy and verve as an actor, especially at this part of his career, Branagh would give a Shakespearean gravitas to his scenery chewing, elevating the villain to something of a tragicomic antihero.
MIKE: MICK JAGGER
Perhaps the most bizarre casting choice of the film, Jagger returned to acting for the first time in 15 years to play one of the Avengers’ earliest adversaries. Jagger makes a lot of puns involving Rolling Stones songs, leading to a goofy in-joke where Iron Man blasts “Street Fighting Man” out of his suit in a battle scene at an art museum. Beyond the goofiness and novelty, Jagger is one of the coolest, most charismatic dudes to walk the Earth and critics praised his ability to menace without overtly threatening the audience. The fanboy community has a problem with his performance as years go by, but in our hearts, Mick Jagger nailed that role.
MIKE: JOHN PANKOW
Coulson was an original character that de Souza created as comic relief, a rookie S.H.I.E.L.D. lackey who offered warmth to the team but doesn’t suffer fools. Chicago actor Pankow—who had just filmed To Live and Die in L.A.—takes this role, one that critics noted was a lighter version of who he played for William Friedkin. Coulson surprisingly connected with test audiences, enough that reshoots had to be made so that he survives Loki’s injury to him and he joins in on the climactic New York battle, and that future adventures would feature the dutiful, by-the-book charm.
CHRIS: BILL PAXTON
Business-like, yet with humor and heroism? That’s Paxton. Of course, in your version, he dies at the end. -Mike
This is slightly gag casting, since Cobie Smulders is primarily known for How I Met Your Mother and I thought it would be fun to do another sitcom star in this no-nonsense role. That aside, I think Struthers would be fine here.
MIKE: GEENA DAVIS
Another original character created for the film, Geena Davis snags the role right on the cusp of The Fly and an Oscar win. She’d been hitting the sitcom circuit and had bit parts in stuff like Fletch, but one small role in a $40 million blockbuster led to a flood of offers. While Hill was established into the Marvel fold and Coulson a new addition in the 2012 film, the likely playout of this film had them in a buddy-cop relationship, with Hill being the looser cannon of the two.
COL. NICK FURY
MIKE: JAMES COBURN
McQueen’s dead, Bronson’s busy with his vigilante career, and Eastwood should be Batman in an 80’s Dark Knight Returns. Also, Bruce Lee trained Coburn to kick people’s asses and the man could rock a cigar. Court adjourned.
CHRIS: DANNY GLOVER
This wasn’t that difficult. Weary with authority, but still badass—it’s Glover’s stock in trade.
What About the Sequel?
Mike: Dropped into theaters for the Christmas season of 1985, Universal gets the second highest grossing movie of the year with The Avengers, clearing $166 million domestically and giving them the top two highest grossing films of ’85, Back to the Future being first. Naturally, sequel talk starts and Warner Bros. starts getting thoughts about answering the call with a fresh take on Batman.
What happens? Maybe The Avengers 2 comes roaring in the summer of 1988, or for the Christmas season. Perhaps new creative blood enters in the form of newcomer Frank Darabont, who makes his directorial debut and co-wrote the script with his Blob and Nightmare 3 comrade Chuck Russell. With the studio’s blessing, Ultron is allowed to be the villain? Maybe John Lithgow provides the voice of the monstrous Stan Winston creation. Who knows?
Chris: Some possible sequel castings: John Lithgow as the voice of Ultron, Mark Hamill as Quicksilver, Lea Thompson as Scarlet Witch, Rutger Hauer as JARVIS/The Vision.
Mike: Hey, we finally saw eye to eye on a casting choice!
Avengers: Age of Ultron is in theaters now, but you already knew that.