Is Marvel nickel-and-diming The Avengers to death?

Could Joss Whedon's Avengers movie already be in trouble? That's what some inside sources are claiming. Marvel is reportedly trying to squeeze costs on the film, leading to delays — and some key behind-the-scenes people have already walked away.

The rumor comes from Bleeding Cool's Rich Johnston, who has a pretty decent track record in these sorts of areas. Plus, as Johnston points out, Marvel has a record of being tight-fisted — they got Robert Downey Jr. for an ultra-low salary in Iron Man, they dumped the expensive Terrence Howard for Iron Man 2 and reportedly offered Mickey Rourke just $250,000 to be in the film. And rumor has it they won't hire Jon Favreau to direct another movie because he's too expensive, and they almost didn't hire him for Iron Man 2. So it does have the ring of truth.

How cheap is Marvel being? According to Johnston, they want The Avengers to cost about as much as the first Spider-Man film, at least in real terms. That's $139 million in 2002 dollars, or around $160 million in today's dollars. So, not cheap, but on the low end for a summer blockbuster — especially given that Downey Jr. is probably charging a higher rate these days, and there are several other stars in the film. Adds Johnston:

Some people say it can't be done. Others say it can be done – even if then, in certain well heeled Los Angeles bars, they assure each other that it can't. And while some people have walked off the project, others are planning a longer game. Basically do the work, then when they run out of budget (which they believe they will) trust that Marvel Studios and their investors will pony up the extra necessary cash rather than leave the movie unfinished.

And he adds that this upheaval has delayed pre-production by "weeks — possibly months," and it could have a negative impact on the film's filming schedule and special effects.

So let's hope that Johnston's sources are wrong — or that Marvel loosens the purse strings. Joss Whedon is the master of getting a lot done for very little money, but even he can't work miracles. [Bleeding Cool]