MCU Rewind: Assembling the Avengers Was An Impossible Task, But Marvel Studios Did It Perfectly
The hype leading up to the first MCU team-up film was nowhere near the level the hype leading up to Endgame has reached. Still, at the time, The Avengers was one of the most hotly anticipated superhero movies of all time. I honestly don’t recall what the prevailing feeling on social media was about the movie, but personally, I believed it would be a disaster. Taking four distinct characters from four discrete stories and putting them together in a single movie felt like too much for anyone to achieve. Even though my expectations were low, I planned to see it opening weekend. I wanted to support the effort because, even if the execution were flawed, I wanted the MCU to try again and again until they got it right. So, imagine my surprise when after the wordless post-credits scene closed, I was left stunned in my seat because they did it. Avengers was about as perfect as such a film could be, and it marked the beginning of a new era in cinematic storytelling.
The opening of the film was something of a risk, and it actually made me very frightened about what awaited us. A character known as The Other — played and/or voiced by Alexis Denisof — opens with some straight-up exposition. He talks about the Tesseract being “awakened” and reveals that Loki, his magic spear, and the Chitauri are all ready to make humanity burn. It’s strange and evocative of a kind of 1990s sci-fi movie storytelling. It’s brief and quickly we find ourselves on the site of some unknown S.H.I.E.L.D. base where the Tesseract is “misbehaving.” This film is the payoff for putting agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in every Phase 1 movie (save for The Incredible Hulk, though their absence there gets justification in this film, too). It provided the pathway for the unification of each film’s heroes, all of whom have some sort of history with S.H.I.E.L.D. It also allows Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury to maneuver the individual characters into becoming a team.
The structure of the film is pretty straightforward and what you might expect from it. It starts with the heroes separated, a threat arrives, they come together, then split apart, then come together again, and save the fricking day. It seems an almost elementary structure in hindsight, but it was actually revolutionary in its simplicity. Instead of focusing on the marquee heroes, tying the film to the S.H.I.E.L.D. story allowed each hero to enter the narrative naturally. First, we see Cap, then we see Iron Man, and finally, Natasha convinces the Hulk’s better half to help out. Naturally, in this film, not a lot of time is devoted to examining where each character is in their respective lives. There is little subtext to parse through because the film is very straightforward with their introductions, conflicts, and resolutions.
Captain America is lonely, troubled, and feels like a man-out-of-time. Not only this, he doesn’t feel like he has a purpose. Yet, when Fury shows up, he doesn’t seem all that excited about having a mission, either. Iron Man is in a great place, enjoying his relationship and continuing to mine Arc Reactor technology for applications outside of the suit. Thor, who we don’t see until the culmination of the first act, is trying to track down the Tesseract and his foster brother Loki. And Bruce Banner, played by Mark Ruffalo in his first outing in the role, was just minding his own business trying to help people. If we wanted to nitpick the film, we could say that these intros are rushed and superficial, without any real examination of the characters’ state-of-mind. Of course, this is also one of the first movies ever where each of those characters had at least one movie that already answers all those questions. You could have watched Avengers as your first MCU movie and still understood and enjoyed it. However, you were supposed to do the homework and watch the films leading up to this one.
There is no single emotional journey in this film, at least not one that we focus on. Rather, the central “character” in this story is the Avengers or, more specifically, how these characters are able to put their differences (and egos) aside to work together for the common good. The idea gets distilled into a single interaction between Chris Evans’s Steve Rogers and Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark at the midpoint of the movie. The tension and distrust between the Avengers reach critical mass, and Steve wants to actually fistfight Tony. “Put on the suit,” he says to Tony more than once, in the most threatening tone the character has ever used before or since. We cut away to Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton — the hero Hawkeye, but compromised by alien mind control (because, comic books) — who attacks the flying aircraft carrier that serves as the Avengers base in the film. Scrambling to their feet, Cap tells Tony to “put on the suit,” with urgency and fear in his voice. The time for their disagreement is passed. Now they must team up to save the craft and all the souls on board.
Since the beginning of the MCU, what makes these movies work is their hyper-focus on the characters and their emotional journeys. Any good superhero story does this, using the powers and tights and fights as set dressing and setting the inner turmoil as the main “conflict” of the movie. However, save for a trio of other films, this is the first movie to focus on a superhero team rather than an individual character. To hone their focus onto a single character’s story in the way that some critics say the film should, arguably, would be a disservice to the other characters. That’s the utter genius of the shared-universe concept. These team-up films can be about the team dynamics, leaving the inner-emotional character stuff for the solo efforts. (And they even found a way to do that for Banner, who can’t be in a solo movie due to rights issues.) We get individual character moments, like when Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson, talks about the “red” in her “ledger” where Hawkeye is concerned. It’s just that the ultimate focus of the film is on the team’s dynamic and how they come together when it counts.
Even the villain’s interior motivations and journey are all but ignored. It may be a retcon, but recently Marvel Studios made clear that during the events of this film, Loki was under the control of his weapon. At the time, we did not know that his spear contained the Mind Stone, but seeds were planted even during the end-credits scene in Thor to suggest that Loki wasn’t quite himself. In that scene, when Loki appears in a reflection, his skin is mottled, his eyes are darkened, and even his teeth look befouled. When he first appears in Avengers, these problems are still present but are more subtle. Also, we know that “cognitive recalibration” (meaning getting hit in the head really hard) undoes the mental control. After the Hulk slams Loki into the floor of Stark’s penthouse, he does not rejoin the battle. We are left to think it’s because the Hulk rocked his world, but Loki’s a little tougher than that. Likely, his mind is clear for the first time since the Other handed him the weapon.
Because there was so much going on in this movie, director and writer Joss Whedon was smart to keep the story so straightforward. However, just because the heroes are heroic and the villains are almost mindlessly evil doesn’t mean this film lacks complexity. As is always the case with these subplots, the S.H.I.E.L.D. storyline is mostly focused on world-building. However, it is also the most complex part of the story. Up until now, S.H.I.E.L.D. was basically a force for good in the lives of our heroes. They help save the day in both of the Iron Man films and, despite being heavy-handed at first, ultimately prove to be on the side of the angels in Thor. They are absent in The Incredible Hulk, which is for the best because otherwise, Banner would never have gone with them in this film. Only in Avengers does S.H.I.E.L.D.shift towards something a bit more sinister, which is paid off in later films like Winter Soldier and Ant-Man.
What sets off the conflict is that S.H.I.E.L.D., or more specifically Nick Fury, was not using the Tesseract to create sustainable clean energy but rather to build weapons. In fact, while snooping around the cargo hold, Cap finds weapons emblazoned with the Hydra symbol and what appears to be one of their uniforms, used in First Avenger. As Fury tries to explain why these items are here, Tony gets one of the best lines in the whole franchise when he unlocks secret computer files while Fury tries to explain. “I’m sorry,” he says to Fury, “what you were lying?” Still, Fury’s excuse makes sense when he finally starts telling the truth. Because of the power at the disposal of the alien races S.H.I.E.L.D. knows about, they tried to develop weapons strong enough to fight them because, as Fury says, humans “are hopelessly, hilariously outgunned.”
In the face of the off-screen failure of Fury’s “Avengers Initiative,” S.H.I.E.L.D. was left with no recourse but to develop weapons of mass destruction. There’s also some irony at play here, as well. Because despite their differences during that argument, all of the assembled Avengers feel that weapons of mass destruction are a terrible idea. However, it is a weapon of mass destruction — specifically a nuclear bomb — that ends the invasion, saving New York and the Avengers themselves. Fighting the unknown threat becomes a big theme in the MCU going forward, which is another fairly obvious choice in the era of the War on Terror (which, at the time of this writing, is still going on in earnest). In part, this might be why the culture-at-large has so responded to superhero films. How wonderful would it be if there were protectors out there who could prevent days like September 11, 2001, or, at least, avenge them after-the-fact?
The superhero genre is really just a sub-genre of science-fiction, and in that tradition, the real messages the “authors” are trying to get across are not always so obvious. The MCU doesn’t dive too deeply into real-world politics, despite what people on the internet who use “SJW” as an epithet will tell you. This movie only hints at it, but it kickstarts a larger story about how the very institutions we build up to protect ourselves can be corrupted. The real enemy at play in all of this is fear. There is the fear of having those you trust turned against you, which we see through Loki and the actions of those he enthralls. There’s the fear of uncontrollable power, as well. When the Hulk is unleashed in the second act, we see the unflappable Natasha huddled against a piece of machinery, frozen in terror. There is the fear of unknown threats in the scene preceding the Hulk-out, both from S.H.I.E.L.D. and from the heroes. The former is worried about how they can fight aliens, and the latter are worried about why S.H.I.E.L.D. is kickstarting a new arms race.
Finally, there is the fear the drives the “World Council,” who would rather nuke New York than risk further alien invasion. This whole film is about how fear can make people do the worst things, and the only way to defeat it is, as Steve Rogers says, “together.” The least-informed critics of the superhero genre complain that these movies “train” audiences to believe that someone will come to rescue them. This is absurd. The message of superhero stories, at least the ones that do it right, is that is their humanity what gives them their true strength. In Avengers that message is compounded with the notion that working together is better than the alternative.
Iron Man and Thor were both huge gambles for the studio, but by the time Avengers rolled around Marvel earned plenty of goodwill with audiences and critics. If the movie was not an utter disaster, pretty much everyone would call it a success. Like me, most folks just appreciated the attempt, figuring that they could improve on the sequel. For those of us with lowered expectations, this film stunned and delighted us. The fans who had high expectations, though? They also were overjoyed with the film we got. Avengers is one of those rare cultural moments where almost everyone was satisfied with what the creators gave us. Bringing these characters — and the high-paid actors who play them — together was a nearly impossible task, but they did it. Since then, each successive Avengers film has been asked to do the impossible, and they mostly succeeded. The MCU dominates the box offices and American (even global) culture. They’ve created the kind of phenomenon that many assumed the world had moved past in the days of streaming video and all the media vying for our attention spans.
To admit my own biases, it’s difficult to discuss this film without just consistently raving about how wonderful it is. My eight-year-old self, discovering the rich and vibrant world of comic books for the first time, would not have even dared to dream such a feat was possible. As we head into the second phase of the MCU, I held on to that notion because the mighty MCU stumbled with a few of their subsequent releases. Movie audiences and, especially, critics are a spoiled and greedy lot. Even when they are pleasantly surprised by the success of a movie like The Avengers, that shouldn’t work but does, they just demand more. The “next one” has to be both similar enough to evoke the same feelings but different enough to feel new. It has to be “better” than the last one, even though such a distinction is nebulous and subjective. Marvel Studios met those challenges better than anyone could have expected. As The Infinity Saga draws to a close, this first “act” remains one of the singular cinematic accomplishments of the early 21st century, because it proved a shared universe was possible.
The conventional wisdom of pre-Avengers Hollywood was that film series are challenging because you can’t count on moviegoers to see all the installments. If there is a sense that a movie is a “part one” of something, some fans will just wait it out until the second installment premieres. Similarly, there is the sense that new fans will find a series of movies preceding a theatrical release too daunting. They won’t want to “catch up” on the story just to go see a later installment in the theater. The Avengers dispelled those myths (and Infinity War and Endgame bury them completely). Since this film, D.C. and Warner Bros. rushed out their own shared superhero universe, which struggles for a lot of reasons but mostly because they didn’t exhibit the patience Marvel Studios did. Universal wanted to create a shared universe around their classic movie monsters but failed. Sony tried to create a “Spider-Verse” to compete with the MCU but also stumbled out of the gate. Marvel Studios showed us feature film shared universes are possible, and their imitators showed us just how difficult this is to actually pull off.
On the back this incredible achievement, Marvel Studios could have continued to do more of the same. Fans would likely have graciously accepted formulaic solo films followed by a team-up every few years. Yet, the MCU took a drastic shift in its second phase. Some of these risky films, like Winter Soldier or Guardians of the Galaxy, were unmitigated successes. Others, like Iron Man 3 or Thor: The Dark World are almost universally panned. However, to push the MCU forward these were necessary steps to take because without them we’d never have gotten the breathtakingly awesome and dramatic films that built the third phase of this universe. What the fourth phase holds for the studio and its fans is uncertain. But even if everything they do after Endgame fails miserably (an unlikely notion), what they accomplished here is unparalleled and a gift comic book and movie fans (both now and in the future) can love forever. These characters and the actors who play them are immortal, much like their comic book counterparts.
The next film in the MCU is Iron Man 3 which marked a return to the solo-storytelling that built Marvel Studios. As their flagship character, the expectations for this movie were incredibly high. What they got, however, did not meet them. Iron Man 3 is often ranked as one of the worst in the MCU not because of story flaws (though those exist), but because it was such a departure from what fans wanted in the wake of Avengers. Today, with the benefit of hindsight and the knowledge that Iron Man didn’t go anywhere, the culmination of the “Iron Man trilogy” deserves far more respect than it gets.