Written by Sarah

We have a new casting race.

The Avengers is about as high-profile as a project comes. From the moment that Marvel Studios announced their intent to bring all of the early Marvel comic icons to the big screen, the scrutiny and expectations have been almost unbearable. The sheer amount of money, time, and personnel involved is staggering. Marvel has been building this house for YEARS. They’ve built The Avengers to be the ultimate franchise machine piece by painstaking piece. What they are attempting to do—construct a franchise capable of selling an unlimited number of characters—is unprecedented. If this works, Marvel will be in control of one of the most lucrative (arguably THE most lucrative) live-action franchises in movie history. If it doesn’t work, Marvel Studios goes kaput and they’re back to being Fox’s bitch and making crap X-Men movies.

Marvel has learned from their X-Men experience. They allowed Fox to run the show and took a backseat to studio interests. They’ve seen what happens when the creative force (in the X-Men’s case it was Bryan Singer) takes his hand off the reins. They know how quickly all that hard work can be wrecked by one poor entry into the franchise. So with The Avengers they have taken a painstaking approach. They began with The Hulk in 2003, with Ang Lee and Eric Bana and the results were mediocre at best. At this time, though, X-Men was raking in the dough so Marvel backed off, recalibrated, and started spending that X money in a wise way. They hired the then-unlikely Jon Favreau and Robert Downey, Jr. to bring a retro character to modern life and Iron Man was a big win. They rebooted The Hulk with Louis Leterrier and Edward Norton, and while the money wasn’t significantly better than the first Hulk, the second go-round resulted in a much improved critical reception and happier fanboys. Next year brings Thor and Captain America and it’s a gamble. They’re opening just six weeks apart in the summer of 2011, and while Thor has a very good pedigree (Kenneth Branagh directing a cast that features Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard, Idris Elba, and Colm Feore), Captain America rests entirely on Chris Evans’ shoulders and as Lainey will tell you, many people are not sold on him. Still, even if Captain America doesn’t take, The Avengers goes forward since the money is already in place.

So when Joss Whedon was hired earlier this year to run The Avengers, the chess board was set. It wasn’t really a matter of casting, because other than some minor characters no one outside of comic geeks have heard of, Whedon only had to chose which characters he would be using, not who would be playing them. This time Marvel laid the groundwork before hiring the foreman, so if Whedon should falter, there are other directors who could step in. But Whedon won’t drop the ball. He’s the absolutely perfect person to head an undertaking such as this. Frugal, clever, creative, and most importantly, loyal, Joss Whedon is always years ahead of his peers. There’s no use trying to imagine what his Avengers will look like—he will do the last thing you would ever think of. But now he has a challenge in front of him. Edward Norton was dismissed by Marvel over the weekend and the role of Bruce Banner/The Hulk is suddenly open. Whedon gets to cast a major character.

Names are already flying. Whedon loyalist Nathan Fillion has been mentioned, as well as Adrien Brody, Dexter’s Michael C. Hall and House’s Hugh Laurie are popular with the fans, Kevin Spacey is an intriguing outside-the-box choice, and CHUD is reporting Marvel has approached Joaquin Phoenix already.

Marvel wants to announce, in one of the worst-kept secrets of Comic Con 2010, their full roster for The Avengers during the Saturday panel for Thor and Captain America. That just gives them one week to fill the role, and Phoenix seems like a bad fit to me. You can Norton because he’s temperamental and difficult and then you hire Joaquin Phoenix? Might as well have kept Norton. I hope Marvel, who has been so careful to date, would put a little more thought into their choice. Audiences have never quite cottoned on to The Hulk. It’s probably something to do with Bruce Banner’s supreme boringness, but also that you spend all this time getting invested in Banner and then poof, he’s gone, and here’s a green CGI monster you can’t relate to stampeding around. Whoever plays Banner has to make us care so much about Bruce that when The Hulk takes over we remember the sympathy and affection we have for the man inside, in spite of those freaky blank CGI eyes on The Hulk.

Imagine the stage in Hall H next Saturday in San Diego. Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans are on stage, your Thor and Captain America, and RDJ comes out with Samuel L. Jackson, Iron Man and Nick Fury. Enter Jeremy Renner, rumored front-runner for Hawkeye. Quite a collection, yes? The young unprovens matched with the seasoned veterans, the chemistry that supposedly has everyone at Marvel so jazzed they couldn’t bear to dim it with Norton’s sour puss, on full display for the first time in one place. Then, the missing piece. The empty spotlight. Marvel won’t miss the moment—this will be dramatic. Everyone is looking to the announcer, to hear if the rumors are true. And the curtain is swept back, and out he comes. The actor who may carry the character, finally, into a successful solo franchise. The milquetoast scientist with anger management issues, your new Bruce Banner …

Jon Hamm.

(From Lainey: One thousand times agree. And gloating rights to Sarah if it actually happens. We’ll further debate this during our Weekly Movie Live Blog tomorrow.)

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Photos from Wenn.com and Amelie Mucci/LE/Splashnewsonline.com