[This is a re-post of my retrospective series in which I take a look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These articles do not contain spoilers for unreleased Marvel movies. If you know any spoilers about the unreleased Marvel movies, please do not post them in the comments section.]
“The idea was to bring together a group of remarkable people to see if they could become something more,” Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) tells a downtrodden crew after Loki (Tom Hiddleston) escapes and the team is scattered. The same applies to Marvel’s plan for The Avengers. If Iron Man showed a new path for superhero movies, The Avengers showed a new path for blockbuster franchises. It wasn’t enough to just keep making more superhero movies. Marvel Studios showed that there could be superhero films far bigger than anything we’d seen before.
And the studio put it all on the shoulders of a guy who had helmed three cult TV shows and a sci-fi film that flopped at the box office. They put it on a guy who broke from Marvel’s mold by having a distinct, singular voice that would unite characters who came from a collection of different writers and directors. Joss Whedon was the unlikely hero of the superhero film, and I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t think he could do it.
I was overjoyed to be proven wrong, and in retrospect, the film demanded someone who understood the intricacies of storytelling, ensemble casts, superhero mythology, and above all, humor. The Avengers wouldn’t just be a behemoth. It would be a big, smiling, and, at times, lumbering behemoth that managed to flesh out some of the characters while keeping us in tune with others. It was Marvel’s first time using a bona fide writer-director, and his voice managed to make all the others sing in tune.
Not that the movie doesn’t warble at the outset. I’ve seen The Avengers 5 or 6 times now, and I can’t get past the faults of the opening scene. It doesn’t tank the movie, but it’s everything you wouldn’t want this film to be. It looks cheap; the action is haphazard, and Whedon’s dialogue has trouble acclimating. If time is a factor, I don’t believe Fury would tell Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) “Until such time as the world ends, we will act as though it intends to spin on,” when he could say, “Just do what I say.” The opening of The Avengers is the awkward middle ground between all those credits tags preludes and the start of an actual movie.
But after the opening title, The Avengers works wonderfully, and builds on everything from the previous movies. Whedon shows you could remove Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) from Iron Man 2 completely since the character really begins here. He gives us a hint of how she’s going to play Loki by showing that her “power” is letting the subject think he has the power in the interrogation. In The Avengers, her intelligence and wit come through before her physical strength, which is important because all of the Avengers are physically strong. They all know how to fight. It’s their individual tendencies that make them compelling and gives The Avengers a central conflict.
Whedon basically acknowledges that this team, and therefore this premise, shouldn’t work. This isn’t the X-Men where everyone has a genetic mutation that manifested when they were in puberty. This is a billionaire, a demigod, a super soldier from World War II, a spy, an assassin, and a hulk. The advantage of The Avengers isn’t in “more” (although it certainly has more, and we’ll get to that in a bit), but that it’s a completely different dynamic. Every sequel will give you more. Whedon seized on what happens when you throw together people who were able to save the day on their own.
The chief obstacle to The Avengers isn’t the Chitauri or even Loki. It’s The Avengers, and Whedon found a way to give a character arc to a group rather than an individual. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Captain America (Chris Evans) had their individual stories, and those stories had to move forward by seeing them play off each other and off Nick Fury, Hulk (Mark Ruffallo), Black Widow, and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). The third act of The Avengers is overflowing with action, but the climactic confrontation is in the science lab with the characters yelling at each other.
That’s the remarkable balancing act at the center of the movie—good people with equally valid viewpoints who have to be manipulated into being at odds with each other. There’s the less interesting, more direct route of just hijacking Hawkeye’s mind, and then there’s the rich ground of showing people with legitimate differences who get fed up with people who disagree. While it’s entertaining to watch Iron Man and Thor throw down, it can’t just be for our entertainment. There has to be story and character motivations behind it; otherwise, it’s just smashing action figures together.
I’m not sure if The Avengers could have existed solely as an action extravaganza. If Marvel had hired a director who was indifferent to story and character, and had focused only on the action beats, the movie still would have been a financial success based on the Phase One films and novelty alone. But Marvel has always kept their eye on character, and aside from that attention leading to better all-around films that everyone can enjoy, it creates staying power. Set pieces fade from memory, but characters endure.
I can’t remember a single thing about Transformers: Dark of the Moon. I know it had a lot of set pieces and made a lot of money. I couldn’t tell you anything that happened in any of the big action scenes, because I didn’t care, and they weren’t clever. I’m sure they looked good at the time, but it’s cinema at its most disposable. It sold some toys, made some stuff blow up, and we’ll never talk about it again.
The Avengers has almost too much action. From the attack on the Helicarrier until the end of the Battle of New York, there’s almost no breathing room. There are a few short scenes in between Loki’s escape and the portal opening, and that’s it. It’s an onslaught of mayhem that would be exhausting if it weren’t so exhilarating. And we’re exhilarated not because of the size of the effects or the level of the devastation. It’s because behind all of the CGI and booming sound, there are characters we care about, and their behavior dictates the action instead of the other way around.
It’s fitting that Iron Man and Thor, the two most arrogant superheroes in the MCU, would fight each other (although I’m a bit taken aback at the fact that Thor basically tries to seriously wound, if not kill, Cap; Thor has no way of knowing that the shield can absorb the shock of the hammer). I adore the long shot of each of The Avengers fighting in the Battle of New York before ending with Hulk comically punching Thor. And of course Hulk destroying Loki is absolutely amazing, and completely upends Marvel’s Phase One trend of climactic fisticuffs.
Moments like these make The Avengers a great movie to have on in the background or stop what you’re doing when it comes on TV. But what makes the film endure is how it gets all of the little things right that you come to appreciate on repeat viewings. I’ll always cheer when Hulk pummels Loki. But I admire that the movie makes the effort to show us that while there will be a lots of explosions and destruction, our heroes are doing their best to save innocent people.
One could argue that The Avengers is just another blockbuster but in a different set of clothes. But this isn’t a case where bigger is better. It’s a case where the studio laid it all out and made their mission statement. This is a Marvel movie, not an action film trying to grind you down into submission. It’s fun, it’s upbeat, it’s grand, and some of that is from Whedon, some of that is from the studio who hired him, and while it’s not all perfect, it’s a singular achievement that appeased comic fans and appealed to those who hadn’t seen a single Phase One movie.
Doing five movies before The Avengers didn’t just introduce new characters. It had Marvel finding its way on how to tell a story of this scope in a language no one had really done before. If Marvel had tried to make The Avengers as its first movie, it probably wouldn’t have been as good—not only because they hadn’t established major characters, but because the studio hadn’t established its tone and personality. After six movies, we definitively knew what it was to be a “Marvel Studios” film.
Phase One movies had bent over backwards to put The Avengers together. We would have to sit through scenes and shots to remind us “The Avengers are coming!” Now the team had finally come together, saved the day, and gone their separate ways. Phase One had been about bringing the team together; Phase Two would come to four separate conclusions about how to keep the team apart.
The first solution? Ignore the MCU as much as possible.
- Iron Man
- The Incredible Hulk
- Iron Man 2
- Captain America: The First Avenger
- Iron Man 3
- Thor: The Dark World
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- Guardians of the Galaxy