(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: The Avengers is a big party of a movie…and a party that may have changed studio movies forever.)

The Avengers is the quintessential blockbuster experience. No film before or since has resulted in the kind of global celebration that followed in May of 2012, something even its second sequel Avengers: Infinity War may or may not be able to top despite bringing together twice as many franchises. Only time will tell, but time has been kind to Marvel’s first culmination, and not without good reason.

It’s a film that changed the way movies were made and watched, impacting everything from industry goals to the mainstreaming of “nerd culture” and fandom. Its lasting legacy isn’t just the sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe, which drops its nineteenth entry into theatres soon (not to mention its seventeenth seasons of television, if you’re a complete-is)t. The mark left by the MCU can be felt in almost every other studio’s failed shared-universe franchises, from Sony’s The Amazing Spider-Man spinoffs, to Paramount’s shared film/television Terminator-verse, to Universal’s The Mummy-led Monsters series, and of course, to Warner Bros.’ own superhero crossover world, which all but fizzled out with Justice League.

And while the failures of its imitators are hardly cause for celebration, it stands to reason that Marvel was far ahead of the curve even before its purchase by Disney. Kevin Feige & co. have been doing it right before anyone else was doing it at all. The proof is in the pudding, and the pudding set to perfection at one very specific moment…

That Shot

You know the one. You remember what you felt when you saw the Avengers assemble for first time, as the camera circles around them and Alan Silvestri’s musical theme reached its crescendo. Run a quick search on YouTube and you’re likely to find dozens of videos capturing live audience reactions to the scene, from all over the globe and in more languages than you knew the film was even dubbed into. What’s more, it’s sandwiched between two other major moments that hit similar highs in quick succession. On one side, the Hulk’s “I’m always angry” transformation before punching an enormous Leviathan; on the other, his “Hulk? Smash!” moment, in which he’s let loose on the alien invaders. It was clear from that sequence on that the Marvel party wasn’t going to stop – but it’s also a sequence that arrives over an hour and 50 minutes into the movie.

Were it a scene in isolation, we’d have probably put it on a couple of best-action-set-pieces lists and called it a day. But it’s a moment that, per critic Bob Chipman, the entire film is built around, answering the looming question asked by the both film as well as audiences of six years ago: can these disparate elements come together and become greater than the sum of their parts? The answer was a resounding “Yes,” and what followed was, as Chipman puts it, Marvel’s victory lap.

But the reason it works isn’t just director Joss Whedon’s specifically comic book-like staging. While hiring someone who had actually written Marvel comics was a stroke of genius (his Astonishing X-Men remains one of the best modern mutant sagas), it was both Whedon’s penchant for balancing character dynamics as well as his understanding of how to weave together the themes of individual characters that made him the right guy for the job.

While Thor spends a good chunk of its runtime on Asgard, The Avengers is the first Marvel movie that feels like it takes place on an Earth from a comic book universe. An alternate reality we could’ve conceivably arrived at after the events of films prior, entries in which the settings were all distinctly familiar, from caves to factories to tiny towns – but it especially feels like it follows the fantasy World War II seen in Captain America: The First Avenger.

In each film prior, the superheroes were elements that stuck out in otherwise normal worlds. In The Avengers however, nearly an hour of the film takes place on an invisible aircraft carrier transporting secret, magically-powered weapons; the same weapons Captain America once tried to get out of the hands of HYDRA, the Red Skull’s Super Nazis. It’s a world where some far-off, unseen villain in space grants Loki the power over mystical objects, setting up something far bigger on the horizon, and it’s a world where secret, shadowy international councils have become necessary now that monsters and aliens and men of Iron roam the streets and the skies. But the film isn’t as far removed from the real world as its setting suggests; if anything, it’s about fantasy and reality rubbing up against one another to see which one wins out.

There is Only the War

Late into the film’s final act, after our superhero team has nearly fallen to the alien invaders, the World Council makes a difficult decision. It chooses to sacrifice millions in order to save billions, sending a nuclear warhead straight for Manhattan. It’s the kind of dark turn you’d expect of a superhero story like Watchmen, a story that transplants superheroes into a supposedly “realistic” world – but that’s the difference between Watchmen and The Avengers, and thus the difference between their outcomes. The fantasy of The Avengers isn’t just that superheroes exist as a concept, but rather that these specific people exist. People like Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hawkeye, Black Widow and The Hulk, who are willing to put everything on the line and go above-and-beyond to save everyone they can.

It’s an idea that’s put to the test in future entries, but in this one, it’s a mirror to a world of cynicism. A world where the obscured faces of men in suits order an airstrike via a drab, familiar military machine, piloted by an anonymous soldier, to cause destruction in Manhattan – perhaps the site of the 21st century’s most recognizable image of destruction – and it’s a world where these heroes, with all their smarts and strengths and colourful garb, have been locked out of the biggest scientific advancements of the 21st century.

The Tesseract is a source of unlimited energy. In World War II, the Nazis used it to make weapons. In 2012, the U.S. government used it for the same purpose through S.H.I.E.L.D., rather than bringing in minds like Bruce Banner and Tony Stark to use the mystical object to further their work in the fields of medicine and clean energy. “War isn’t won by sentiment,” the Council tells Nick Fury, who responds: “No. It’s won by soldiers,” immediately before recruiting Steve Rogers. It echoes the conversation in The First Avenger, where Tommy Lee Jones’ Col. Phillips tells Abraham Erskine that war isn’t won by kindness, but by guts. At this moment, all Fury needs is someone who follows orders. Rogers knows the Allies won World War II, even though he was frozen in ice toward the end of it, but he knows something is amiss. “They didn’t say what we lost.”

What was lost was conscience. Fury & co. are working on bigger, more destructive nuclear weapons than the ones dropped on civilians in Japan, and upon discovering these secret projects – bombs not unlike those built in the real world today – Steve “We have orders, we should follow them” Rogers can no longer remain a man who blindly follows. And so he charges into the battle of New York regardless of the World Council’s plans.

Steve, questioning his own commitment to this new U.S. Government, questions the commitment of Tony Stark to the mission in general. Stark is a man who tries to think his way out of every situation, claiming he’d “cut the wire” rather than laying down on it for anyone else the way Steve would – and has, in the past – but Stark only ever thinks of himself. The Iron Man builds monuments unto his own image, scraping the very skies with a building bearing his name. He only figures out Loki’s plan when he has his narcissism reflected back to him by the mischievous demigod, who plants his alien flag on Stark’s own monument for all the world to see.

While Steve Rogers’ arc in this film forms more of a bridge between entries (The Winter Soldier picks up his thread and runs with it admirably), The Avengers is the conclusion to a major part of Tony Stark’s story, in which he finally learns to fight for something greater than himself, setting into motion the next phase of his life in which he tries (and fails, repeatedly) to do exactly that. It’s all very serious under the surface, even though the form it takes is a fireworks display, and Stark eventually takes the same “one-way trip” that Steve dared to decades earlier (Stark survives his suicide mission, but barely). But despite all this noise about personal loyalties, the most fun element in the film, ironically, happens to be the guy who talks about trying to commit suicide but being cursed with the strength to survive it.

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