There has long been a debate amongst contemporary film fans over the value of “mass entertainment”, or “popcorn films”. One side sees these types of films as juvenile frivolities, made for undiscerning mainstream audiences and lacking the substance of more serious, mature films. These fans are particularly disturbed by the increasing size and quantity of these mass entertainment films in recent years, as they seem to be leaving little room in the budgets or release schedules of major studios for more mature films. The other side sees the importance and value of mass entertainment in its ability to successfully tap into, and define, the assumed dominant popular culture of a given time, and unite audiences in a way that is increasingly rare in our granular, niche, direct-to-consumer world. If you doubt such a debate exists, just look into the Best Popular Film category proposed last year for the Academy Awards as a way to acknowledge high-quality mass entertainment films while implicitly downgrading them from the more meaningful Best Picture contention.
As I’ve published extensively on comic book films, including here at PopMatters, I think it’s pretty clear which side of the debate I fall on. I grew up loving summer blockbusters such as Jaws (Spielberg, 1975), Star Wars (Lucas, 1977), The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980), Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981), Return of the Jedi (Marquand, 1983), Ghostbusters (Reitman, 1984), Back to the Future (Zemeckis, 1985), Terminator 2: Judgement Day (Cameron, 1991) and Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1993). As I matured as a film fan, I came to realize that these films were mass entertainment, and different in aim and approach from the likes of Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942) or The Godfather (Coppola, 1972) (which I love just as much). But I also came to realize that I had been spoiled by timing. Comparing all the blockbusters I enjoyed in the ’90s, The Avengers is certainly among the best mass entertainment films to date. Besides being entertaining, they are intelligent, well-made, well-written, well-acted, with some of the all-time best cinematic characters, along with enough imaginative visuals to amaze and inspire. I would go, summer after summer, to see every major film hoping to find one that was worthy of the pantheon of great entertainments from my youth. And I did occasionally find films that measured up, like diamonds in a very rough genre. This is all a preamble to say that The Avengers (Whedon, 2012), is one of those blockbusters. Indeed, it’s a film that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with earlier mass entertainment masterpieces, representing the absolute best that blockbuster entertainment has to offer. A film that, despite featuring colourful superheroes fighting aliens, all film fans can appreciate.
The Avengers is the quintessential superhero film. It not only culminates four years of careful planning and world-building from Marvel Studios, but it culminates the entire superhero genre as the purest expression of the form that began with Superman: The Movie (Donner, 1978). It marked a new beginning for blockbuster entertainment by challenging Hollywood with a form of storytelling rarely used in cinema. Marvel Studios had built its shared Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) over five films in four years, but that shared universe concept didn’t fully express itself until The Avengers brought all of the MCU’s characters together. When The Avengers succeeded, it sent every studio scrambling to find properties that could be presented as a shared universe in an attempt to repeat the success. But every other shared universe has struggled or failed, while the MCU has continued to thrive. Marvel Studios and superhero films have defined this decade of cinema, for good or ill, and that all happened in the wake of The Avengers.
Comic book superhero teams were nothing new by the time Stan Lee and Jack Kirby wrote and drew The Avengers #1 (September 1963). DC Comics pioneered the idea with the Justice Society of America, which debuted in All Star Comics #3 (Winter 1940-41) and featured an assortment of their most popular characters. Timely Comics, later Marvel Comics, debuted the All-Winners Squad, led by Captain America, in All Winners Comics #19 (Fall 1946). As superhero comics waned in popularity in the late-’40s, so did these teams. A decade later, however, superheroes returned to the forefront of popularity and the Silver Age of Comics began. DC produced an enormous hit when the Justice League of America debuted in The Brave and the Bold #28 (March 1960). This was before Marvel had even begun its imminent creative explosion. Marvel countered with a superhero team of their own, the Fantastic Four, but that featured all original characters rather than pre-existing ones. It wasn’t until Marvel had generated a large stable of popular solo heroes, including Thor, the Hulk, Iron Man, Ant-Man and the Wasp, that they were able to directly mirror the success of the Justice League.
Those five heroes formed the first roster of the Avengers in Avengers #1. The team forms when Loki, brother of Thor, attempts to trick Thor into fighting the Hulk. Thor instead joins forces with the Hulk, along with Iron Man, Ant-Man and the Wasp, to defeat Loki. By the second issue, the team had been formalized but the Hulk, distrustful of others, leaves. In the classic Avengers #4 (March 1964), Captain America is discovered frozen in Arctic Ice. He is revived and joins the team. Captain America would go on to become the quintessential Avenger, often leading the team. Another early landmark occurred in Avengers #16 (May 1965), when every member of the team except for Captain America decides to go on leave, and they are replaced by Hawkeye, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, all reformed villains. With this issue, the series established roster changes as one of its fundamental features.
Over the years, the roster would change numerous times. Iron Man, Thor and Captain America are considered to be the core members, and one or more of them is typically a actively on the team at any given time. The superhero team concept was popular amongst readers, as it gave them a chance to see many of their favourite superheroes in action for the price of one comic. From the publishers’ perspective, team books were a platform to introduce new, interesting characters who could be spun off into solo books, or to bolster the popularity of solo heroes whose books had been struggling. The Avengers frequently fought against massive threats such as the assemblage of villains known as the Masters of Evil, the killer robot Ultron, the time-travelling despot Kang the Conqueror, intergalactic maniac Thanos, or entire alien races such as the Skrulls or the Kree. The book often emphasized action and relationships between characters, leaving major individual character development to solo books. All of these elements would inform the relationship between Avengers films and solo films as the MCU developed.
The popularity of The Avengers continued strong into the ’80s, when the brand expanded to new titles, most notably The West Coast Avengers in 1984. By the late-’80s and ’90s, however, the popularity of the book began to plummet. The ’90s were largely defined by more extreme heroes and X-Men comics, while The Avengers filled its roster with increasingly forgettable characters. By the early ’00s, The Avengers was so unpopular that even the name was avoided. In 2000, Marvel launched a new imprint, Ultimate Comics, designed to update and retell classic Marvel stories and characters with modern sensibilities. Writer Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch were hired to update the Avengers property for this imprint, but were explicitly told not to use the “Avengers” name. And so, the Ultimates were born in The Ultimates #1 (March 2002). This book became hugely popular, and served as a major influence on the MCU and The Avengers. In the book, the heroes are assembled not by happenstance but by Nick Fury, director of SHIELD, to create a team to battle large-scale threats. Hawkeye and the Black Widow are agents of SHIELD, while Captain America, Thor, Hulk and Iron Man are recruited. Besides these story elements, the design of Thor, Captain America and especially Nick Fury, drawn to resemble Samuel L. Jackson, greatly informed the MCU.
In the wake of this success, the Avengers of the main Marvel Universe were given a popular revamp. Brian Michael Bendis took over the title with The Avengers #500 (September 2004), and immediately blew apart and disbanded the team. He reassembled it with New Avengers #1 (January 2005), eschewing such Avengers standards as a Mansion headquarters off of Central Park, direct ties to governments, and the hundreds of rotating members. He also included Marvel Comics’ two most popular characters, Spider-Man and Wolverine, on the team for the first time. Bendis’ eight-year Avengers run was so popular that the team once-again became central to all Marvel Comics storytelling. By the release of The Avengers film, the property was as popular in comics as it had ever been.
It’s worth noting that shared cinematic universes were not unheard of prior to the MCU. The Universal monsters crossed over into each others’ films in the ’30s and ’40s, and the monsters of Toho Studios did the same from the ’50s onward. Even director Kevin Smith created a shared universe, the View Askewniverse, through his films. But it had never been done at the scale of the MCU, in terms of budget or popularity. Discussions of a shared cinematic universe, mirroring what is found in the comics, began as early as 2003. After Marvel Studios launched in 2005 and consolidated the rights to many Marvel comic book properties under one roof, an Avengers film became possible. In 2006 the studio started developing films based on Iron Man with Jon Favreau, Hulk with Louis Letterier and Ant-Man with Edgar Wright, and they hired Zak Penn to write an Avengers film. Penn described his role at Marvel Studios as overseeing the scripts of all of the lead-up films, ensuring they were consistent and included enough continuity to tie into the team-up. The Avengers was officially announced in early May 2008, immediately after the massive success of Iron Man (Favreau, 2008). But arguably, development on The Avengers did not properly begin until Joss Whedon was hired to write and direct in July 2010.
On paper, Whedon was the perfect choice for the job. He was best known for creating television series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), Angel (1999-2004) and Firefly (2002). Each series featured effects-heavy genre elements, large ensemble casts, and serialized storytelling. Whedon’s experience with these elements would help him tie together the previous MCU films into a satisfying mash-up. His television series also had large fan followings, making Whedon generally well-liked within the genre fan community. He also had a history with Marvel Comics superheroes, collaborating with John Cassaday on the highly-regarded Astonishing X-Men #1-24 (2004-2008), which only added to his qualifications. In fact, the only potential downside of hiring Whedon was his lack of film directing experience. He had directed some fifty episodes of television and one feature film, Serenity (Whedon, 2005), a follow-up to Firefly. But Marvel Studios was beginning a trend of hiring directors with limited big-budget experience, but strong authorship and vision, and surrounding them with talented, experienced crews. Whedon was the first of this trend which would go on to include Alan Taylor, Joe and Anthony Russo, James Gunn, Scott Derrickson, Jon Watts, Taikia Waititi and Ryan Coogler.
Whedon reportedly read Zak Penn’s screenplay once, and then started from scratch. He claimed that Penn’s script lacked the necessary character connections and did not earn its big moments. Later, Whedon fought for sole writing credit in a Writer’s Guild arbitration, but Penn received story credit. Faced with coalescing all of these major, pre-established characters into one film, Whedon’s main focus was that none of them belonged together in any way. The idea of a billionaire superhero, an immortal alien, a super-soldier flung forward in time, and a Jekyll-and-Hyde monster scientist uniting on a team is absurd. But Whedon searched for the moments in which they could rely on each other or make each other better in order to form them into this unlikely community. From a genre perspective, he modelled The Avengers after war films, citing The Dirty Dozen (Aldrich, 1967) among other influences. A group of fighters come together from disparate backgrounds, bicker, but then unite for an enormous final battle. This is a familiar story, but using it as a template helps to ground and focus such an enormous film. Finally, Whedon was inspired by Iron Man to ground the film as much in reality as possible, despite its numerous fantastical elements. He states in the commentary for the film that being a superhero is not a free pass, that these characters can still struggle, be pushed to their limits, or fail.
The casting process was mostly straightforward, as actors such as Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson were already contracted to appear. The one contentious bit of casting was the role of Bruce Banner/the Hulk, which was originated in the MCU by Edward Norton in The Incredible Hulk (Letterier, 2008). Norton had reportedly taken a very hands-on approach during production of that film, and apparently rubbed some producers the wrong way. Marvel Studios released a surprisingly scathing announcement of his recasting for The Avengers stating that they wanted an actor with a more “collaborative spirit.” He was replaced with Mark Ruffalo, an earlier choice for The Incredible Hulk.
What’s often lost when considering the momentum of the four-year build-up, or the massive success that followed, is that The Avengers was an enormous gamble. As I stated, a shared universe at this scale had never been attempted. Production on the film began in late-April 2011, before Thor (Branagh, 2011) or ***Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011) had even been released. If audiences failed to respond favourably to those films, The Avengers could have been a disaster-in-waiting. Marvel Studios creative head Kevin Feige insisted that Whedon make Loki the sole villain of the film, mirroring Avengers #1. But audiences could have failed to respond to Loki in Thor, or felt that he was not enough of a villain for this entire superteam to face. The whole film was built on a house of cards. There were also the implications if The Avengers was a disaster. Most failed blockbusters only harm, or end, one film series. With a single failure, The Avengers would have put into jeopardy future Iron Man, Thor and Captain America films, and Marvel Studios in general. The stakes could not have been higher for Marvel. The film, arguably, could not have been more difficult for Whedon to successfully pull off. But, as in so many mass entertainment films, a ragtag team of underdogs managed to impress everyone and win. Not only did Marvel and Whedon succeed, but they defined this decade of blockbuster entertainment.
The plot of The Avengers is relatively simple and straightforward. It needed to be to have room for so many big characters and action scenes. The film opens with Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), last seen in Thor, studying the powerful, glowing Tesseract, last seen in Captain America: The First Avenger, for SHIELD. The Tesseract opens a hole in space through which Loki (Tom Hiddleston) emerges. Loki has been sent by a mysterious benefactor to retrieve the Tesseract from Earth. He is tasked with stealing it and using it to open another portal through space. This portal will give his benefactor’s army, the Chitauri, access to Earth, and they will help Loki conquer it in exchange for the Tesseract. Loki uses his powerful sceptre to brainwash Selvig into helping him achieve his goal. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of SHIELD, assembles a group of superpowered individuals to find Loki and the Tesseract before the portal is opened. As Selvig works, Loki allows himself to be captured (that old cliche) in order to turn the heroes against each other, hopefully weakening Earth’s defences. His confiscated sceptre causes the already volatile heroes to bicker, while his team attacks SHIELD’s floating base, the helicarrier. But, the heroes, the Avengers, regroup in the end to stop Loki and the Chitauri in a massive battle over Manhattan, saving the Earth.That is the film, in essence. However, the real brilliance of Whedon’s screenplay is the interplay between the characters, which has always been one of Whedon’s greatest strengths.
The plot is simple, and the action is very well-done, but The Avengers is mostly filled with long, talky scenes between the characters. But the characters are so well-written, and the actors portraying them are so good, that the talky scenes become highlights of the film. They crackle with charisma and wit, and Whedon’s character writing is remarkable. First, with a huge assist from the cast, he gives each major character their own unique voice. They are all sharp, funny and dramatic when need be, while not all sounding like Joss Whedon speaking in different voices. Second, he manages to take each character’s previous appearance as a starting point and meaningfully develop them throughout this film. The Avengers is interesting because it can be viewed as the third Iron Man film, second Captain America film, second Thor film, or second Hulk film. It’s a sequel to four previous films while remaining its own singular entity, which is difficult to pull off. But, and this is the point, the characters no longer existed in the vacuum of their own series. Their growth and development would now occur through interacting with each other.
Take Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) for example. The Avengers finds him in a very different position than in The Incredible Hulk. He explains that he became hopeless and tried to kill himself, but the Hulk prevented it. And so, when he is recruited by the Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to find the Tesseract, Banner is hiding and helping people as best he can, seemingly in control. Ruffalo is a standout in the large cast, brilliantly playing Banner as nervous and edgy, avoiding stressors wherever he can. Loki counts on him to accidentally lose control and lash out at his allies in the helicarrier attack. On a side note, the effects team perfects the look of the Hulk in this film. He has the classic comic book look and shade while incorporating Ruffalo’s face. Every Hulk scene in the film is a stand out, largely because the cost of animating the character was so prohibitive that his few appearances needed to count. Banner’s arc in The Avengers is about accepting his powers as a gift, and thus gaining control over them. After encouragement from Captain America (Chris Evans) and, most notably, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Banner becomes willing to embrace the Hulk. In the second Hulk sequence, during the final battle, he is clearly more in control because he becomes the Hulk willingly. The Avengers make Banner/Hulk a true hero.
Steve Rogers/Captain America, meanwhile, has just recently awoken in the present after nearly 70 years frozen in Arctic ice. In his introductory scene, Steve relives his final mission in the war as he works out his frustration on a punching bag. Whedon had a lot to work with, as the “man out of time” aspect of the character had not been explored yet on film. He chose to leave much of that for Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo Brothers, 2014), so Steve finding his way in the modern world is merely touched on in The Avengers. Whedon begins this journey, however, by allowing Steve to reclaim his former identity in the modern context. Encouraged by Fury and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), he dons an updated Captain America costume and the leads a group of heroes fighting evil, much like in the Second World War. Steve’s arc in the film is about him becoming that leader, a man who can give orders to Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk and, perhaps most difficult, Iron Man. Much like in The First Avenger, he must earn the respect of those who doubt him to emerge as the quintessential superhero, but now in an era when his ideals are viewed as old-fashioned. It’s not until Steve takes command during the final battle, one of my favourite moments in the film, that the Avengers are truly formed.
Whedon did not want to include other characters from the previous films as he wanted to remove each hero’s support structure. It’s interesting, therefore, that Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) appears alongside Tony Stark/Iron Man in the film. This was at Downey’s insistence, as he wanted to continue to develop their relationship. Tony’s arc over the films has been the most fascinating in the MCU. Systematically and credibly, over eight films and counting, Downey and his collaborators have evolved Tony from a self-centred, iconoclast jerk and ladies man to a selfless, self-sacrificing hero and devoted partner to Pepper. The Avengers represents a major step in that evolution. He joins the team as a wild card, stirring things up and coming into conflict with every other major character. He literally prods Banner, encouraging him to embrace the Hulk, perhaps irresponsibly. Most notably, he is called out by Steve, the ultimate selfless hero, for only looking out for himself. Over the course of the film, Tony learns to be a team player and in the final battle, perhaps inspired by Steve, he sacrifices himself for the greater good. Touchingly, he calls Pepper as he prepares for the sacrifice. This is not the same Tony Stark from Iron Man, he has grown. In the end, he is rescued by the Hulk, the character he irresponsibly provoked earlier. Tony’s arc in the film is the clearest example of Whedon’s work to develop these characters through interactions with each other. It’s wonderfully done.
The introduction of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is epically saved until last, and he is immediately put into contrast with the other characters. Not only is he seemingly more powerful than any of them, and acts above their petty squabbles, but he has a different agenda. As his brother, he is compassionate and only wants Loki home safe. He also seeks to remove the Tesseract from Earth rather than turn it back over to SHIELD. Thor’s arc in Thor was about making him less selfish, angry and war-hungry. Whedon continues that here, depicting him actively trying to prevent conflict, to bring peace and protect people. His different agenda brings him into conflict with the others at first, showing signs of his earlier selfishness, but he comes to respect the other Avengers as allies and teammates.
This is as good a time as any to discuss Loki, the MCU’s first truly great villain. Until recent films, he was the one villain from Marvel Studios that critics and fans appreciated. He was last seen falling into a cosmic abyss, disappointed that he had been denied rule over Asgard. He has clearly met with some bad people in the meantime. Whedon and Hiddleston depict him in The Avengers as greasy, sneering and purposefully stripped of his sad, sympathetic qualities from Thor. He is angry and arrogant, convinced that humanity is looking for a ruler to tell them what to do, and that he can be that ruler. Hiddleston is magnificent in the role owning every scene with his poisonous flowery language and certainty of victory. This makes it all the more satisfying when Natasha manipulates him, or Tony seems immune to his brags, or the Hulk smashes him around like a rag doll. Whedon builds up Loki only to hilariously slap him down. Despite a strong set of heroes portrayed by a game, talented cast, The Avengers would not have worked without a solid villain. Hiddleston was more than up for the task.
Besides all of these superpowered characters, there are also some important regular humans in the film. The first Avenger to be introduced is actually Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). In the commentary, Whedon admits that he was not able to find enough for the character to do throughout the film, so he decided to have Loki brainwash him early on. This certainly gives Clint more to do in the film, and nicely references the character’s villainous origins in the comics, but it also ensures that Clint has little impact. Renner gives an interesting, understated performance, contrasting his showy co-stars, but that only serves to diminish the character more.
Despite appearing in Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010), Natasha was basically a blank slate at the beginning of the film. Whedon is known for writing strong female characters, and he doesn’t disappoint. Natasha is constantly being underestimated by her male foes, first a befuddled Russian general then Loki. She uses this underestimation to manipulate them into giving her information. Natasha also frequently references her Russian spy background, and brainwashing, hinting at a backstory as deep as her male counterparts. Unfortunately, whereas the male characters already had their solo films, Black Widow has yet to be given a chance to shine on her own. Strong supporting appearances such as this one are nice and all, but not the same. Johansson does sell the physicality of the character, however, lending credibility to the idea that a regular human, albeit highly trained, could stand toe-to-toe with superhumans.
Agent Phil Coulson is interesting, as his death in the helicarrier attack catalyzes the team. Marvel Studios creative chief Kevin Feige, who is singularly responsible for the existence of the MCU, was clearly playing the long game with these films. One of his only stipulations to Whedon was that Coulson must be killed in The Avengers. Coulson was introduced in Iron Man, and later appeared in Iron Man 2 and Thor. He thus had a personal connection to Tony and Thor. The Avengers establishes him as an ally, and fellow SHIELD agent, to Natasha and Clint. Finally, many of his early scenes depict him sweetly but awkwardly fawning over Steve. Coulson’s death in the film was shocking upon first viewing, but it ultimately made so much sense. There is no other single character that could unite the heroes and give them something to avenge. This is a point not lost on Nick Fury.
I saved Nick Fury for last because the film belongs to him. The Avengers was originally bookended with the debrief of Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), Fury’s second-in-command, after the Battle of New York. The original arc of the film was Hill developing from skeptical of Fury’s leadership to respecting him as she watches him handle the crisis. These bookend scenes were removed, but the film, and thus the audience, still tracks Fury’s brilliant, world-saving manipulations. After brief appearances in four previous MCU films, Jackson’s Fury finally gets a chance to shine. He brings in Natasha because she wants to save Clint. He recruits the Hulk by appealing to Banner as a scientist. He ties the mission into Steve’s wartime experiences, and plays on Tony’s curiosity to recruit them. And finally, he targets Thor’s guilt over Loki to bring him into the fold. Most overtly, when Coulson is killed Fury gives Steve and Tony one final push. He produces Coulson’s vintage Captain America trading cards, covered in his blood, and gives a speech about heroism. Of course, the cards were not on Coulson when he was killed. It’s all grand manipulations to create the team he envisioned and save the world. The climax of the film is largely about Fury stepping out of the way of his creation, the Avengers, and letting them do what comes naturally. Of all the characters in the ensemble, Nick Fury has the best claim to star of the film.
All of this character work is a result of Whedon’s excellent screenplay. Every major character has a unique voice and is allowed to grow from their previous appearance. They are all left in meaningfully different positions as they move towards their next appearances. He also doesn’t fall into the trap of having heroes fight heroes for no good reason or due to misunderstandings, which would have undermined their intelligence. Instead, the fights between heroes in The Avengers are based on their conflicting perspectives or agendas. I also appreciate how Whedon allows his characters to be smart. Whether they are brilliant scientists (like Selvig, Tony or Banner) or tacticians (like Fury or Steve), they are allowed to be unabashedly smart in their own ways. And finally, The Avengers is funny. Really funny. There are so many hilarious, on-character moments sprinkled throughout the film that make the whole thing a joy to watch. Whedon and the cast have such a light touch that the enormous film never feels dour or overwhelming.
Besides the writing the film, though, Whedon also directed. He clearly recognized this as an appropriate time to go big, so he swings for the fences and films his talky, character-driven spectacle on the biggest scale possible. Part of the reason The Avengers fits into the classic blockbuster pantheon so comfortably is because it’s made in the classical blockbuster style. The film is full of bold, bright colours, sweeping camera moves, restrained editing, blaring score, attention-grabbing angles, and BIG moments. Fury, for example, is shot at a ridiculously low-angle for his first few minutes of screentime, establishing his stature and importance. Whedon knew that this was not the film for visual subtlety. The exciting, kinetic action sequence that opens the film, in which Loki arrives, steals the Tesseract and destroys a SHIELD facility, ends with Coulson asking Fury “What do we do?” The camera lingers on Fury as he thinks, the music swells, and the title “THE AVENGERS” appears on-screen in answer to the question. Whedon knows his audience, and I am sure he could hear the inevitable audience cheers before he even screened the film. There are so many moments like this, showy moments that knowingly play into the excitement of the fans.
Whedon’s big directing style is on display throughout the film, but never more so than in the final battle, when the Tesseract opens a portal above Manhattan from which the Chitauri cannon-fodder aliens attack. Clocking in at 26 minutes, the action climax follows in a long tradition of protracted battles at the end of blockbuster films, but it sets itself apart in a number of ways. It has a clearly-defined arc, it addresses the mindless destruction endemic in most blockbuster climaxes at the time, and it’s filled with strong, well-earned character moments.
I’ll give an overview of the sequence here, but I highly recommend The Battle of New York: An ‘Avengers’ Oral History compiled by Matt Patches and Ian Failes for Thrillist in April 2018, for a more in-depth look at the sequence.
The plan for the battle was produced early in the script-writing to give the visual effects team enough time to complete it. Whedon gave the sequence a clear, five-act structure that ensured it would be dramatic, dynamic and purposeful. In the battle, the heroes begin fighting on their own, then they come together to fight as a team. They gradually become overwhelmed and start to falter, so the powers-that-be panic and launch a nuclear warhead at the city. Tony sends the warhead through the portal and Natasha closes it, ending the threat.
The Avengers is often compared to other big action blockbusters in the way the heroes seem to save the day by destroying entire cities, theoretically resulting in the deaths of countless, unseen innocents. The film actually addresses this trend of “destruction porn”, however. The heroes work with local police to clear the area around Stark Tower, the nexus of the portal, and then keep the focus of the invaders on them, containing the attack within a relatively small area. This is at least a more thoughtful approach to city destruction than other, similar blockbusters at the time, which seemed to revel in knocking over as many buildings as possible for no clear reason. Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Bay, 2011) and Man of Steel (Snyder, 2013) come to mind.
The final battle also includes two moments that are the clearest example of Whedon’s showiness. First is the full assembling of the Avengers. Banner arrives, and Tony leads one of the Chitauri’s mammoth Leviathan creatures towards the team. Steve tells Banner to get angry and Banner responds that his secret is “I’m always angry,” an instant-classic moment that still gives me chills. Banner turns into the Hulk, punches the Leviathan, the music swells, the Avengers defeat the monster. And then they rise, backs to each other in a circle, as the camera pans around them preparing to fight the Chitauri that surround them. In a worse film, with less effective build-up to the battle or weaker characters, this moment would be laughable. Whedon pulls off this money shot because he understood that this is what audiences wanted in an Avengers film. It’s akin to Luke destroying the Death Star in Star Wars or Brody killing the shark in Jaws. It’s a cathartic “hurrah” moment, culminating six films of setup. It’s the type of moment all blockbusters strive for. The scene plays out with Tony saying “Call it, Captain,” acknowledging Steve’s leadership of the team for the first time. Steve gives his orders, and the Avengers fight the alien invasion as a unit.
The second showy final battle moment is “the tie-in shot,” a long single shot that moves through the battle, linking the six heroes as they fight. It starts on Natasha, having taken over a Chitauri glider. Tony flies past, blasting enemies, and the camera follows him as he helps Steve then flies past Clint, who is shooting arrows from a rooftop. Clint fires an arrow at a glider, and the camera follows the arrow until the glider crashes into a Leviathan. Atop the Leviathan, Hulk and Thor are battling more Chitauri. This is the longest shot in the film and took the longest for the visual effects artists to complete. Whedon admits that he considered cutting it until it was pointed out that the shot was the whole reason for making the film. This is the Avengers, in Manhattan, fighting together to save the world from an attack.
Above all, Whedon directs the action very well. Everything is clear and understandable. In each of his major action scenes, he establishes the geography and stakes seamlessly. Most blockbuster climaxes come off as a lot of sound and fury with unclear goals and outcomes. And as they stretch on longer and longer, it’s easy to not care about the next showy gag or set-piece. It’s a credit to Whedon and his team that the 26-minute final battle never drags or loses focus. It’s as exhilarating and well-made as any blockbuster action climax ever made.
The film also features some key moments that set-up the future of the MCU. Previous MCU films seemed lower-stakes and more isolated than The Avengers. As the universe developed, the heroes become well-known and celebrated, like celebrities. This all begins in The Avengers, which ends with a montage of news reports depicting various reactions to the final battle. Thor takes Loki home, and the rest of the Avengers disperse. The film closes with an assurance from Fury that they will come together again when needed. It doesn’tdirectly set up a sequel, but speaks to the inevitability of one.
The Avengers set the new gold standard for comic book films. It’s bright, fun, funny, colourful, witty, entertaining and unapologetically geeky. Whedon described the Marvel Studios “house style” as intimate, humourous and epic, and letting these elements all breathe the same air. He demonstrated for the first time how this was possible. Whedon pulled together threads from five different lead-up films to create something that stands on its own as fantastic entertainment. He made a film that is as smart, witty, imaginative and entertaining as the blockbusters of my youth, and I will always be grateful for that. Moving forward, any comic book film that failed to be so true to the characters and source material, so intelligently written, so classically directed, so purely fun, would pale in comparison to The Avengers. And it helps that it was an enormous hit.
Kevin Feige considered The Avengers to be greater than the sum of its parts. He predicted that audiences who avoided the solo lead-up films may be drawn into the spectacle of the team-up, and he was right. The Avengers was the first film to make over $200 million in its domestic opening weekend. Ultimately, it made over $623 million in North America and over $1.5 billion worldwide. It was the biggest film of 2012 and was, at the time, the third-biggest film of all time worldwide, behind Avatar (Cameron, 2009) and Titanic (Cameron, 1997). Before they produced any films, Marvel Studios made a deal with Paramount Pictures to distribute their films. This deal extended from Iron Man to Iron Man 3 (Black, 2013). Rival studio, Disney, purchased Marvel Entertainment in late-2009, however. In October 2011, Disney made a deal with Paramount to officially distribute The Avengers and Iron Man 3, allowing Paramount’s logo to remain and sharing some profits. And so, The Avengers was the first Marvel film distributed by Disney but, really, everyone made money.
And money influences business decisions, which is why it came as no surprise that other studios scrambled to find potential shared universes to mimic the success of the MCU following The Avengers. Paramount created a writer’s unit to expand the Transformers brand but the first spin-off, Bumblebee (Knight, 2018), was only just released. Sony Pictures was on the verge of launching a new Spider-Man series, and made immediate plans to expand it into spin-off films, but the Amazing Spider-Man films were unpopular. Universal Pictures made plans to create their Dark Universe of classic monsters starting with The Mummy (Kurtzman, 2017), but plans were scrapped when that film bombed. 20th Century Fox took their five X-Men films to-date and made plans to expand the brand, which has met with some success. Disney bought Lucasfilm in October 2012 and immediately announced plans for new Star Wars episodes as well as spin-off films.
The studio that has pursued shared universes most prolifically, however, is Warner Bros. They rebranded the Harry Potter series under J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World, and launched a series of Fantastic Beasts films. They are producing a shared universe of Conjuring films. The studio also launched the Monsterverse with Godzilla (Edwards, 2014). Most significant, however, is the so-called DC Comics Extended Universe (DCEU), a series of interconnected comic book films based on DC Comics properties that most closely resembles the MCU. Although the DCEU has experienced commercial success, it has remained frustratingly low-quality, with the exception of Wonder Woman (Jenkins, 2017) and, arguably, Aquaman (Wan, 2018). The producers behind the DCEU seemed so intent on catching up to the MCU shared universe as quickly as possible that they have failed to focus on making individually great films. I am a big fan of DC Comics, and I dream of a DC shared universe as good as the MCU, but it’s not there yet.
Ultimately, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has reaped the benefits of being first. They slowly introduced their characters through five films over four years. They stumbled quite a bit early on, as The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2 are far from perfect. But Marvel persisted, and tied everything together with a film so good, and so successful, that all of their early mistakes were forgiven. Spurred by the success of The Avengers, and with Disney’s backing, Marvel Studios continued to take risks. Potentially standard sequels such as Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier take surprising narrative turns. Potentially niche comic book properties such as Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014), Ant-Man (Reed, 2015) and Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016) were adapted into big-budget films. Unique cinematic voices such as James Gunn, Taikia Waititi and Ryan Coogler were given huge blockbusters to make their own. Marvel could take these risks because they came from a position of strength following The Avengers. From then on, they were seen as reliably high-quality entertainment and have, thus, defined the past decade of blockbuster cinema. For good or bad, like it or not, all of this lies at the feet of The Avengers, the greatest superhero film of all time.
Marvel’s Avengers Assemble (2012) – Official trailer | HD
Stan Lee Cameo Corner: Stan appears in the closing new montage as an elderly chess player in a park, incredulous about superheroes in New York City. That is 15 cameos in 26 films.
- A mid-credits scene reveals that Loki’s mysterious benefactor is Thanos. Thanos and the Infinity Stones would continue to be woven throughout the films of the MCU in the build-up to Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers, 2018)
- After the credits, paying off a line from the end of the final battle, when Tony suggests the team goes for shawarma, the Avengers silently eat around a shawarma restaurant table while the staff cleans up from the battle in the background. This scene, shot after the film’s world premiere in April 2012, was a nice subversion of the post-credits scene tropes that had been established over the previous few years. Rather than teasing upcoming films, it’s a throwaway gag, an in-joke. A nice way to end Phase One of the MCU
- Mark Ruffalo’s first appearance as Bruce Banner. He would go on to portray the character in at least four more films.
- Cobie Smulders has reprised her role as Maria Hill in three films and counting thus far
- Lisa Lassek, Whedon’s frequent editor, co-edited this and Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015)
Marvel Cinematic Universe Viewing Order:
This one is very straightforward. Below is the ideal viewing order for Phase One of the MCU.
- Iron Man
- Iron Man 2
- The Incredible Hulk
- Captain America: The First Avenger
- The Avengers
Next Time: The first pure reboot of a Marvel series when Sony Pictures launches The Amazing Spider-Man.