As I continue down the #RoadToInfinityWar, I come to the pinnacle of Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase One, the culmination of five films and the foundational world-building that led to The Avengers. In 2012, we had never seen anything like it. Sure, there were those old Universal Monster movies that paired up Frankenstein, Dracula, and company, but never did we see such a wide range collection of disparate properties, tied together into a cohesive narrative. I remember much talk then of if something like this could even work from a storytelling perspective, let alone into a crowd-pleasing blockbuster. To be honest, when the first trailer dropped for The Avengers, I didn’t know if it would all come together. Boy, did this film prove itself to me and the world!
Tasked with the job of making the film was Joss Whedon as director. Love him or hate him, he has made a career off of writing and envisioning ensemble productions, making him a no-brainer at least from a writing perspective. Handing him the keys to the kingdom as a film director was a creative risk in the eyes of many, as he had only directed one theatrical-release film prior (2005’s Serenity, a fan-pleasing conclusion of sorts to his abruptly canceled “space western”, Firefly). Still, his credits on television as the creative lead run numerous and popular. Fans knew he could handle the storytelling demands of unique individuals, working even begrudgingly together toward a common goal. He had even written comics and wrote scripts for unmade comic-book movies, like his much-storied take on Wonder Woman, years prior to it actually being made. With this, he had his work cut out for him, taking Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America, and supporting characters into a believable threat scenario and make them “gel” as a cohesive team, as a survey of those films creates a list of similarities and differences. The good news was that everyone was pretty impeccably cast coming in; the reality, though, was that it all lives or dies by his script.
In this film, we see the Avengers Initiative, only hinted at and talked around prior to now, coming into the time of greatest need. The director of SHIELD, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), enlists the assistance of Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, replacing Edward Norton), in supplement to the vast resources and agents he leads. He knows that at a time when the Earth is in supernatural and life-threatening peril, that an ordinary solution can’t fix extraordinary problems. Each of these men is incredibly unique and gifted in their own ways: Stark patrols the world as Iron Man, his technological marvel of a suit, Rogers is Captain America, a super-soldier military strategist brought back to life after decades frozen with impeccable character and the ability to lead others, and Banner is one of Earth’s brightest scientific mind, even if his rage brings about a destructive monster, the Hulk. They, as well as special-agent Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson), must work together, alongside the Asgardian demi-god, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), to stop Loki from bringing an alien force to Earth and destroying everything we know and love. It’s a fairly simple concept that required every bit of the five preceding films to set up properly. With all the pieces put in place, this film gets to be the playground we get to watch our toys used to their fullest potential.
With Whedon accompanied by Zak Penn, who was well versed in writing comic-book films, I can say that the script is what keeps us coming back over the years. Of all the MCU Phase One films, this is undoubtedly the most fun, and I watch it often even after all these years. You can tell Whedon had a ball making this, and surely he felt the amazement writing it that audiences got while watching it all play out. The mere mortal, SHIELD Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), the connective glue of a character that appeared in almost all of the preceding films, acts as an avatar-of-sorts for the audience here, showing the amazement we are all feeling by seeing the events take place. He plays an incredibly important role in everything here, from a storytelling perspective as well as making it all relatable.
Is the film the most “comic-book”-ey of them all? Of course, but why wouldn’t it be? It’s that aspect that it nails so well. If you go back and re-read the original Avengers comic debut, you’ll see that we could have gotten something far “hokier” than what they wrote. Those original characters are mostly here, but the threat is more credible here and, post-9/11, the New York City setting resonated without feeling exploitative. The threat faced here is one that can be understood globally, and that’s likely the reason the film was embraced worldwide. With many countries rebranding the Captain America film to only “The First Avenger” for political reasons, it was good to see this film embraced, as the threat is not from Earth, but against us from the Chitauri, an invading alien force brought here by Loki (Tom Hiddleston).
Was it necessary that we have a deep understanding of who the Chitauri were to enjoy this film? Not at all. They are cannon-fodder at the behest of Loki, and it’s probably for the best that we only get shrieks and grunts from them. It cements that them as a force rather than characters we need to fully understand. It isn’t a bad thing, per se, but with this compulsion to understand villains we feel in modern times, it is a critique I have heard. For any wanting to dig into understanding a villain, they need only to look to Loki. Arguably, he is the central piece that makes this whole thing work as well as it does. Sure, audiences (myself included) love to hear Stark’s banter and the like, but without a believable and investable villain, it all fails. Hiddleston returns to his role in even finer form than he did originally.
It’s hard to put into words the entertainment that is experienced seeing this film play out, even after multiple times of seeing it. The incredibly crowd-pleasing moments this film has in spades still hold their charm, and that’s rare for any film to do. The comedy and exhilaration that comes from the perfectly peppered jokes and action set-pieces are amazing to experience and even more so to ponder that it all works so well. The film is supplemented by an incredible hero theme from Alan Silvestri. The look and feel of the film feels an appropriate extension to each of the preceding films, while still maintaining an identity of its own.
Honestly, this is the first of the films to cement an identity as a Marvel style that really carries through to the most recent films: crisp, clean, and colorful with zippy dialogue and a sense of fun throughout. Does it begin to feel derivative? To many, yes, but here, we see the reason for its appeal. There is little darkness on display here, with the lighting of the above picture showing about as dark as it gets. The use of color is dramatic here, and it keeps everything light and approachable. This film’s box-office receipts prove just how approachable the final film turned out being.
Perhaps the biggest strength of the film is witnessing the Hulk truly come into his own as a star. His films never seemed to fully resonate with all people, but I have yet to find a person who didn’t love everything about him here. He quite possibly steals the show whenever he is on screen, due to a much more relatable Banner from Ruffalo and his ability here to actually grin from time to time (who knew?). The swagger that Robert Downey, Jr. brings clashes head-on with the old-school heroics of Chris Evans. The seeds of conflict are planted here, as we know they eventually come to blows later down the line. While it’s necessary to the story for Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to be featured as a villain first, it does feel weird to see him as mindless before we get to see him as full-on heroic. Still, don’t take that as serious critique; all of the casting is so well done and natural that the strength of the cast is mind-blowing.
Visually, there are so many set-piece moments, and the live-action Helicarrier still takes my breath away every time. Much has been written about the sheer amount of destruction that takes place in the film, and while we could debate the effectiveness of our heroes in “saving” the day, it’s undeniably a thrill to watch the last hour or so transpire. Some of the film’s best comedy, funny enough, comes amidst the bombast of explosions and fighting that takes place. All of the strength of these moments stems from the firm establishment of characters we know and love, and it comes naturally and all just feels right. It all results in an exhilarating mix of emotion that is like riding a thrill ride. Seeing it all in 3D back in the day was a highlight of that medium for me, and the fun translates, regardless of the format you watch it on.
Content-wise, there is mild language and action galore, but I find it impossible to keep this movie away from kids. There is so much fun to be had in enjoying it. It is the wish-fulfillment of kids everywhere, regardless of their age. I never thought I’d see the day that these heroes would share the screen, but honestly, it brought tears to my eyes in 2012, not because of anything deeply moving in the film, but just in seeing how incredibly well-done the final product was. I can think of nothing that would improve what we got. It’s not perfect, because what film is, but it is likely the pinnacle of what the MCU can be for the broadest of audiences. On the topic of spiritual matters, there is little, other than that great line from Captain America about God. It’s just a fun and character appropriate moment that felt good to see. That being said, I don’t see anything here that is spiritually troubling. All-in-all, the film is about as good of a time one can have at the movies.
Can you tell I love this movie? It will likely remain a favorite of mine for my lifetime. I saw the film as many times in theaters as I’ve ever seen a film, and that was all for good reason. It will forever stand as Exhibit A in the case for why the Marvel Cinematic Universe exists and why it continues to thrive. Later, I’ll review its proper follow-up, Age of Ultron, as well as the films before and after it that fill in the gap. It’s easy to see how things change between this film and that film, but love that one or hate it, it does nothing to take away from everything done to almost-perfection here. The Avengers is one of the most enjoyable film experiences audiences are likely to have, and the number of films following and success that has been had is largely attributable to just how good this film works, overall. Don’t miss it…
Or those after credit sequences! Be sure to keep an eye on that “purple guy”; I think he might be important.