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Designing The Avengers: The Art of Marvel's Most Ambitious Movie

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The Avengers isn't just the culmination of five big superhero movies over a four-year period — it's also the culmination of years of design work. When Marvel started preparing to bring its marquee heroes together in one giant adventure, some of the industry's most talented designers had to spend years working on everything from their costumes to the army they do battle with.

We spoke to production designer James Chinlund and concept artist Ryan Meinerding about the many challenges of creating The Avengers — and the fascinating solutions they came up with. There are spoilers in this article — but nothing you haven't seen in the trailers or short clips that have already been released for this film.

Top image: Detail of concept art poster by Ryan Meinerding.

When Chinlund first came on board The Avengers, there was no script, and he was developing the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier and other spaces at the same time as Joss Whedon was writing was writing the script. "So many of the locations and set pieces evolved from early round table jam sessions with Joss and the Marvel team," says Chinlund.


Chinlund has worked with Darren Aronofsky a lot, on movies like Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, but this was a much bigger enterprise. Luckily, he "felt right at home" working with Whedon, because the director was "entirely focused on the concepts and the content, and not at all interested in the extraneous things that swirl around the process," says Chinlund. "He is an incredibly disciplined filmmaker."

Combining and Updating the Marvel Heroes

One of the biggest challenges in The Avengers, from a visual standpoint, was just putting all the different larger-than-life characters in the same frame without it looking jarring. Says Chinlund:

When I was first approached by Marvel about the project, the first challenge that jumped out at me was how to make all of these characters from so many disparate worlds and visual vocabularies coexist in our world of today. With the Iron Man films, Marvel had been so successful creating a seamless reality where the world felt plausible and even though IM's tech was other worldly, it still felt grounded. You could tell how much care had been taken to maintain a truth in the visuals.

I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility, to all of the incredibly talented artists who had worked on the films before me, to deliver a world that was balanced and cohesive, and could contain all of these different visual threads. Honestly the first image in my head was the Avengers, gathered in battle, the group shot on the viaduct, and how to make that work.


Each of the characters had such strong color in their wardrobe, how could they be unified as a singular team visually, without betraying the history of each individual? We decided to unify them through the color red, which they all shared (except for Hulk) and to tone down the blues, allowing red to be the singular primary color in the frame, flashing against a more toned background. This was a strategy I carried through all of the sets, trying to pull back the color generally, eliminating primary blue entirely, in order to allow the heroes to spring from the backgrounds.


As for the individual heroes' separate looks, each hero was assigned to a concept designer who had previously worked on that character's solo film. So Charlie Wen worked on Thor, while Phil Saunders and Adi Granov worked on Iron Man. And Meinerding returned to Captain America. " It was special for me to take a character from the 1940's and reimagine him in the modern day," says Meinerding. "That really hasn't happened in too many movies."


The 1940s Captain America costume was "near and dear to my heart," says Meinerding, who'd done some of the earliest passes on the character, and helped fit it to actor Chris Evans. But Whedon wanted some major changes to the costume this time around. Says Meinerding:

Joss had very specific ideas about how he wanted him modernized. He didn't respond to all the gear and straps that were part of Cap's WW2 look, and he really wanted to stay a little truer to the comic version. So that immediately changed his visual significantly, and we tried to make the costume feel like a jacket and pants instead of an elaborate battle suit.


Meanwhile, with the Hulk, there was a different challenge — so much had been done with the character, on television and in two movies, that there was a wealth of reference, all of it valid from a design standpoint. Says Meinerding, " Joss was very interested in bringing a bit of the old Kirby design back into his face, as well as integrating a very specific Mark Ruffalo likeness." In the end, they divvied up the task: Wen worked on the Hulk's body, while Meinerding worked on his head. This was turned into a maquette, which in turn was handed over to ILM, which worked hard to incorporate Ruffalo into the character.


The Alien Army

By now, we've gotten some pretty good views of the alien army who trash New York in this film. The design team was pretty much starting from scratch in bringing these marauders to life, since they were pretty much new creations (despite their name coming from the Ultimate Comics universe.)


Says Meinerding:

Designing the alien army was a new challenge for those of us that have worked at Marvel for awhile. Since most of the characters we design for have a storied history and very strong visual language, the chance to come up with a look for a set of comic villains that were relatively new is a great challenge. Joss told us the basic attack plan for the army, how they would deploy and the tone he was going for with the characters.

We put our whole team on it, and I believe we had 45 different looks in 4 days. It was a wide range of images, and it gave Joss and the producers quite a few options for where to take the designs. They picked 3 or 4 images that inspired them, and from there Justin Sweet worked hard to develop and refine those looks, and Iain McCaig designed the creature's face.

We were initially going for a strong sense of arrogance and regality in the characters, considering their origin. Their skin was meant to be a opalescent snowy white, and they wore golden army—almost as if they arrived assuming they could conquer Earth easily. Over the course of the film production, that concept was altered and they ended up feeling more like a battle hardened, rough and ready army.


Meanwhile, the aliens also bring with them the Leviathans — those weird, serpent-like creatures that you can glimpse trashing the city in some of the trailers. Whedon wanted "a creature that was used by the aliens as a transport but also as a fierce attacking animal," says Meinerding. The concept art team on the movie created a number of versions of these beasts — many of which were rejected for being too mechanical. Meanwhile, ILM came up with some designs of its own, which were closer to what ended up on the screen.

Stark Tower

Once you had the heroes and their foes, a major concern was grounding them in the real world of 2012, says Chinlund. He was always looking for ways to make the world of The Avengers feel more believable. Especially in a movie where you're adding "outrageous" elements like the Helicarrier, keeping everything as grounded and true-to-life as possible was vital.


For example, Tony Stark's new home base in the movie is Stark Tower, which is smack dab in the middle of Manhattan. This was a huge challenge, says Chinlund. "[We] decided to ground it as firmly as we could within the city and it's history, rather than creating a new space, disconnected to our world."


So in Chinlund's alternate history of New York,

Tony Stark bought the iconic MetLife Building (formerly the PanAm Building) and ripped off the top adding his own piece of parasitic architecture to the top. The height of arrogance, and the essence of Stark! As a production designer, this was the most fun set by far for me having grown up in New York and looking at that building everyday for my whole life, to be able to effect it's history, forever, was an amazing opportunity. In choosing the MetLife location we were also recognizing the rich topography of the streets below which is a unique arrangement in New York, with the viaduct over 42nd St and the tunnels behind Grand Central Station, not to mention Grand Central itself, the ultimate conflagration of rich histories and futuristic ideas.


In retrofitting the MetLife Building into Stark Tower, Chinlund worked hard to make it "feel familiar to the Stark esthetic developed in the first two Iron Man films," including the "sweeping curves and glass" from his home in Malibu. Except now, those huge curved windows had a view of the Big Apple. The goal was that New Yorkers could leave the theater looking around at the skyline, "feeling that the Tower might actually be there [and] they just haven't seen it yet," says Chinlund. This is a very Marvel notion — that these stories take place in the real New York, just with little tweaks here and there.


And because Tony's in New York now, his new pad had to be somewhat more efficient in terms of space — even for the flashy billionaire. "We tried to conceive of the whole apartment as a machine," including super-efficient workstations that accomplish everything Tony needs with the minimum effort.

And a big centerpiece of the Stark Tower location was "the landing pad known as the 'car wash,'" says Chinlund — where Tony can land in the Iron Man suit and have it removed seamlessly as he walks into his apartment. This was an idea that Whedon came up with in his first script draft, and Chinlund grabbed onto it "with both hands."


Says Chinlund:

The space was essentially designed around his initial arrival, flying up Park Avenue through the canyons of New York, arriving upon the twisting form of Stark Tower, landing on the pad, gliding along the balcony through the doors and gracefully arriving at his workspace. For a man of action, as efficient as it gets.


The idea behind this is that by now, Tony Stark is designing his world around the Iron Man technology, to the point where he incorporates it into the architecture of his living space.

The Helicarrier

There were two big challenges with the famous S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier, says Chinlund. First, there was the challenge of "bringing together all of the various ideas and iterations of the Helicarrier that have occurred throughout the Marvel history and creating a cohesive" design.


And second was the challenge of making it a "plausible piece of military hardware, that viewers could accept without their suspension of disbelief being pushed off the precipice," says Chinlund "I think everyone involved was focussed on making this 1500ft long monster battlestation look like something that looked like it could be sailing over Manhattan and not crashing to earth in a ball of badly designed flames!" Image: Concept art by Steve Jung.


Meeting both challenges meant tons of research. The designers looked at all sorts of military vehicles, from history as well as the present day, plus new and experimental concepts. They especially looked at naval vessels, like the littoral combat ships, and stealth aircraft. Meanwhile, they also studied all the versions from the comics — especially the version from the Ultimates series, as drawn by Bryan Hitch.


Adds Chinlund:

We tried to distill from these something that the fans would recognize as the iconic craft and people unfamiliar with the history could accept. I went through many forms and form changes with many different designers who all had a hand in the final product, but my primary collaborator on the piece was Nathan Schroeder who was elbow deep for several months helping bring the ship to life. Early on we were excited about the idea of having an upper deck that was slightly higher than the lower deck, which would give us a dynamic space below the upper deck for staging action and also a plausible storage area. In the end the carrier scaled out to approximately 1300 feet long, roughly the size of a Nimitz class aircraft carrier.


Image: Concept art by Nathan Schroeder.

Chinlund was a huge Avengers fan growing up, and the 1970s comics are "a part of my original DNA." But there's no question that Hitch's artwork is the biggest visual influence on this film, from the Helicarrier to the look of some of the street scenes. Also the huge containment cell aboard the Helicarrier, where Loki gets imprisoned, is strongly influenced by Hitch. "His development of the world of the Avengers was so complete," says Chinlund.