Road To Endgame: 'The Avengers' Changed Cinema And Avoided The Mistakes Of Past Marvel Movies

(Welcome to Road to Endgame, where we revisit all 22 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask, "How did we get here?" In this edition: The Avengers changed studio filmmaking, though not before ticking off The Pentagon.)

The Avengers is as close as you can get to a quintessential blockbuster experience. Few films before or since have resulted in such widespread global celebration, something even the film's third sequel, Avengers: Endgame, may or may not match. Only time will tell, but time has been kind to Marvel's first culmination, despite the series overall fabric favouring entertainment over meaning in the realm of political outlook.

The film changed the way movies were made and watched, affecting everything from industry goals to the mainstream visibility of fandom and "nerd culture." Its lasting legacy isn't just the sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe, which drops its twenty-second entry into theatres soon – its impact can also be felt in almost every other studio's failed shared-universes. It stands to reason that Marvel was ahead of the creative curve even before its purchase by Disney in 2009. Kevin Feige & co. have been doing it right before anyone else was doing it at all.

While this plan understandably seemed in doubt during its buildup, Marvel Studios marked its arrival with unprecedented financial success, crystalizing on-screen during one specific moment...

That Shot

You know the one. You remember seeing the Avengers assemble for first time, as the camera circles around them and Alan Silvestri's musical theme reaches its crescendo. You may even remember cheering or applauding.

The film was shot in a narrower ("taller") aspect ratio — 1.85:1, compared to the other films' 2.39 and 2.35 — to accommodate the eight-foot-tall Hulk in group shots where in the team occupied the entire frame. Run a quick search on YouTube, and you're likely to find dozens of videos capturing live audience reactions to this climactic scene, from all over the globe and in more languages than you knew the film was even dubbed into.

What's more, this now-iconic shot is sandwiched between two other major moments, each of which hits similar highs in quick succession. On one side, the Hulk's "I'm always angry" and his transformation before punching an enormous Leviathan. On the other, Captain America's order of "Hulk? Smash!" after which the Hulk lets loose on alien invaders. It was clear from this one-two-three punch, and the ensuing rapturous response, that the Marvel party wasn't going to stop.

What's sometimes forgotten, however, is that this sequence arrives nearly two hours into the film.

The Avengers is one of the rare MCU films where the action beats feel entirely like extensions of story and character. The whole film is built around this rousing sequence, answering the looming question asked by both the film, and by the audience: after a six-year buildup, can these disparate elements come together to become greater than the sum of their parts? The answer was a resounding "Yes," and what followed was Marvel's victory lap, an explosive payoff to an entire movie's worth of character dynamics and interwoven themes (a feat that was replicated in Avengers: Age of Ultron).

The Avengers is also the first Marvel movie that takes place on an Earth significantly different from our own. The settings in prior entries felt distinctly familiar, from caves to factories to tiny towns. Here, the pretense that Marvel's superheroes exist in a "realistic" universe was finally done away with. The world of The Avengers is, unequivocally, the future of the series' fantasy World War II, where Nazi factions used an Infinity Stone to build weapons of mass destruction (Unfortunately, this through-line also results in its own complications, since the mal-formed politics of Captain America: The First Avenger carry over as well).

In prior films, superheroes were unique elements in otherwise normal surroundings. In The Avengers, nearly an hour of the film takes place on an floating, invisible aircraft carrier transporting magically-powered weapons, the same weapons Captain America once tried to get out of the hands of H.Y.D.R.A. (Red Skull's Diet Nazis). This is a world where some far-off, unseen villain in space grants Loki mystical objects — we now know all about Thanos' plan — and it's a world where shadowy international councils have become necessary, now that monsters roam the streets and Gods fly through the skies.

However, the film isn't as far removed from "real world" concerns as this setting suggests. If anything, The Avengers is about fantasy clashing with reality to see which one wins out.

There is Only the War

Late into the film's final act, after the Avengers have nearly fallen to alien invaders, the World Council makes an enormous decision. It chooses to sacrifice millions of lives in order to save billions, sending a nuclear warhead straight for New York. It's the kind of dark turn you'd expect from a story like Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' 1986 comic classic that transplanted superheroes into a supposedly "realistic" setting. But the major difference between Watchmen and The Avengers — and thus, the difference in their outcomes — is the function of their characters.

Watchmen sees our worst selves — violent, egomaniacal, detached — being granted untold powers. The fantasy of The Avengers however, isn't just that superheroes exist in concept, but rather, that these specific kinds of people exist. People like Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who are willing to put everything on the line, going above-and-beyond to save everyone they can.

The dilemma Captain America faced during World War II becomes a dilemma for all the Avengers to overcome. No matter the scenario, they aren't willing to trade lives. Not in this film, not in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and not in Avengers: Infinity War. While this unwillingness to compromise is put to the test in future films, it's presented in The Avengers as a bright alternative to the darkest parts of our reality, where men in the shadows order airstrikes without care for collateral damage, all for "the greater good."

In depicting U.S. fighter planes being ordered to attack Manhattan, the film not only aligns The World Council's methods with that of H.Y.D.R.A. in Captain America: The First Avenger, but with the spectre of global terrorism in a post-9/11 word. A bold conflation, at least on the surface, though one muddled by the fact that this film, like Iron Man and Iron Man 2 before it (and Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain Marvel since), sought U.S. military funding.

The Avengers was almost government propaganda, and it still retains some of this DNA.

The Propaganda Question

Marvel films like Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain Marvel were made with U.S. military assistance, and thus, with military-approved scripts, making them government propaganda. The Avengers however, was actually turned down during its production, because The Pentagon couldn't reconcile the idea of the U.S. military answering to a higher authority. Granted, the production was lent Humvees and other ground equipment regardless (the F-22 and F-35 fighter jets in the film were digitally rendered) so the conundrum here vis-à-vis The Avengers' place as propaganda is noteworthy.

On one hand, the production most certainly set out to appease the powers that be. The World Council, a fictional consortium of international leaders, embodied authoritarian overreach despite American military equipment being employed to bomb American citizens. America itself is never really framed with any military outlook, let alone one that could be held accountable.

On the other, one might argue that The Avengers is able to side-step the propaganda issue given that it eschews real-world militarism, unlike its Earth-bound predecessors. The fighter jet sent to bomb Manhattan, while representative of U.S. military equipment, is ordered by an organization whose reach supersedes America's (the council members aren't given national designations until later in the series), so it's enough of a fantasy that the propaganda question doesn't really matter.

It's a double-edged sword, narratively speaking. The reluctance to contextualize America's place in the S.H.I.E.L.D. hierarchy turned the Pentagon off subsidizing the film; the U.S. military could not, given its relative absence in the story, be presented as heroic. And yet The World Council, a fictitious entity whose only real-world counterpart is the distinctly non-militaristic United Nations, is presented as villainous, without ever framing America's place in its ranks, despite S.H.I.E.L.D. being coded American through-and-through. In effect, the U.S. military can't be presented as having questionable motives either.

At best, this incidental political apathy is an upgrade from prior entries like Iron Man, in which U.S. military occupation is the status-quo, but its ill-effects originate elsewhere. At worst, it's the series' continued failure to say anything of consequence, hinting at statements about power without ever daring to actually make them.

Secrets Have Secrets

The state of this world is two-fold, torn between reality and fantasy, and the Avengers must overcome this discrepancy in order to save the day. In other words, in order to make the film entertaining.

On one hand, suited men with obscured faces order airstrikes to be carried out with familiar, grey military machinery, piloted by anonymous soldiers. On the other, our larger-than-life heroes, with all their strengths and smarts 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, H.Y.D.R.A. used it to make weapons. In 2012, S.H.I.E.L.D. uses it for the same purpose, rather than bringing minds like Bruce Banner and Tony Stark on board to further their work in medicine and clean energy.

"War isn't won by sentiment," the World Council tells Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who responds: "No. It's won by soldiers" before recruiting Steve Rogers. This exchange echoes Captain America: The First Avenger, wherein Col. Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) tells Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tuccy) that war isn't won by kindness, but by guts, before recruiting Rogers' more malleable peer, Private Gilmore Hodge (Lex Shrapnel). In this moment in The Avengers, all Fury seems to want is someone who'll follow orders. Rogers is told the Allies won World War II, but he knows something is amiss: "They didn't say what we lost."

What was lost, it would seem, was conscience. S.H.I.E.L.D., now divorced from America in the narrative, recycles H.Y.D.R.A.'s plans. The U.S. government employing Nazi tactics would have made for a more challenging story (and a realistic one, given America's hiring of Nazi personnel after World War II, something Captain America: The Winter Soldier even touches on), though one can hardly blame four-quadrant entertainment for stepping into the realm of fantasy. However, despite the continued separation of H.Y.D.R.A. from Nazi ideology, this setup functions well enough from a character standpoint, especially in how it creates conflict between two of its leads.

Captain America vs. Iron Man

Fury & co. are working on bigger, more destructive devices than the ones dropped on Japan. Upon discovering these secret weapons, Steve "We have orders, we should follow them" Rogers decides he can no longer follow blindly. While questioning his own commitment to S.H.I.E.L.D., Rogers also questions Tony Stark's commitment to the mission. 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 Rogers would, and has in the past.

Stark, at this point in the series, thinks mostly of himself. He builds monuments unto his own image, touching the skies with buildings bearing his name. In fact, he only figures out Loki's (Tom Hiddleston) plan once he has his narcissism reflected back to him by the murderous demigod, who plants his flag on Stark's skyscraper for all the world to see.

While Steve Rogers' arc in this film forms a bridge between entries (The Winter Soldier builds on his newfound skepticism), The Avengers concludes a major part of Tony Stark's story, in which he finally attempts to fight for something greater than himself. It also sets into motion the next phase of his life, in which he fails, repeatedly, to figure out the path to doing so. Instead, Stark creates newer, bigger problems in the process, escalations that Rogers must eventually deal with.

Despite the tensions between them, the two men also become linked by their experiences in a way few that other characters are. Stark's major turn in The Avengers involves flying through a wormhole. It's rather traumatic, something Iron Man 3 eventually tackles head on. In flying a weapon of mass destruction away from New York, Stark takes the same "one-way trip" Rogers was forced to decades earlier: a willing suicide mission, as he tries to contact the woman he loves (Stark survives, albeit barely).

Rogers and Stark butting heads over loyalties is fun to watch, but the film's most enjoyable element, ironically, happens to be the character who mentions trying to kill himself while being cursed with the strength to survive: The Incredible Hulk.

That’s My Secret

Something The Avengers understood about the Hulk, which neither of his prior solo outings managed to capture, is that he's fun. It seems so simple in retrospect: a big green monster smashing disposable villains is perfect popcorn entertainment. Both moments on either side of the Avengers assembling are Hulk-centric action beats, and regardless of whether the "I'm always angry" line fits his narrative, it became instantly iconic because of what followed.

Is Bruce Banner always angry? Mark Ruffalo certainly brings a nervous energy to him, but his actual anger is never the focus of his story. It's unfortunate that no Marvel film has explored such a fundamental part of the character, but what we get in The Avengers is an arguably superior version of his arc in The Incredible Hulk, a story in which Banner, at least nominally, learns to embrace the monster within.

Dr. Banner resents the Hulk. It prevents him from living a normal life, a regret he expresses to Natasha Romanoff while rocking an empty crib (a thread that continues in Avengers: Age of Ultron). Banner tries to steer clear of anything that might turn him mean and green. It's been a year since his last incident, so having his isolation intruded upon understandably upsets him. Tony Stark is fascinated by Banner, but the doctor believes no good can come of the Hulk, despite Stark's insistence on him having a higher purpose.

When Banner first transforms in the film, it's out of his control. His face, mid-transition, is stamped with fear — specifically, the fear of what he might do to Romanoff. After this, the Hulk is presented much as he was in his The Incredible Hulk: in shadow, like a monster waiting to wreak havoc. He even chases Romanoff while knocking down walls, recalling the first appearance of Obadiah Stane's Iron Monger in Iron Man as he chases Pepper Potts.

This Hulk ought to be a villain. He's trapped in a cage of Banner's making, and letting him out unwillingly has disastrous consequences. Letting him out intentionally, however, is a different story. It's Banner embracing everything he is on the inside, "always angry" or not. He uses this emotional momentum to take down a space serpent, before leaping up the side of a building and smacking aliens into walls. Banner doesn't just embrace the monster's anger; his smile before he leaps to cause more mayhem shows just how much he enjoys being the Hulk. By giving in to his baser instincts, the mayhem becomes fun for audiences too.

By the end, the Hulk even saves Tony Stark from falling to his death. It's a moment that builds directly upon Banner's story, and it's the first time we see the Hulk use his powers for something other than destruction. A higher purpose indeed.

Gods and Humans

At one end of the spectrum we have Thor and Loki, figures of myth and legend who have the powers of Gods. At the other, we have Hawkeye/Clint Barton and Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff, assassins who use guns and arrows. The latter duo ought to have no place within a cosmic sci-fi film. In fact, they replace superpowered heroes The Wasp and Ant-Man from the original Avengers comics. Yet it's this very dynamic, the contrast in the genres to which they belong, that makes all four characters — Thor, Loki, Hawkeye and Widow — feel narratively vital.

They represent the extremes within which this world operates. The Asgardian princes embody the operatic grandeur of a story of armoured aliens and magical kingdoms. Barton and Romanoff however, ground the film in a human perspective, reflecting the real-world effects of super-powered battles.

By this point in the series, Thor and Loki's arcs are, admittedly, at a standstill. Their story here, much like Captain America's story, is connective tissue between entries. Their main function however, is fleshing out what this mish-mash setting feels like, and their interactions with "realistic" elements like Hawkeye and Widow help dramatize this world's fabric.

A spy working from the shadows, Romanoff is one of the team's most surprising members. She fights shoulder to shoulder with the Avengers, not only to escape her bloody past, but to atone for it. She's also a foil to Hawkeye, who's hasn't yet had to contend with the kind of guilt Romanoff lives with. If anything, Barton's conscience is clear, having rescued Romanoff when he was sent to kill her, but more recent events have forced him (literally, via Loki's mind control) to take innocent lives.

"Don't do that to yourself," Romanoff tells Barton, when he asks how many people he's killed. Romanoff is familiar with the emotional consequences of being a killer — another element carried over into Avengers: Age of Ultron — her very reason for joining the Avengers. Neither Black Widow nor Hawkeye take narrative precedence by any means, but they flesh out the human stakes of this conflict in a way that endangering abstract billions no longer does at this point in blockbuster history.

Some say these characters are wasted in the film; I disagree, and not just because they get their own stellar action beats. Thor, after a solo entry in which he faces up to his warmongering (at least in theory), finally accepts that Asgardians may not be much better than humans. He likens his brother, and thus himself, to mystical creatures that destroy everything in their path, a perspective that plays a vital role in the Avengers' sequel.

Thor, Black Widow and Hawkeye, much like Bruce Banner, see themselves as monsters with destructive capabilities. That's four out of the six Avengers, people who according to Loki "lie and kill in the service of liars and killers." He's not wrong, which is exactly why the camera circling around the team in their moment of heroism works as well as it does.

It's the beginning of the Avengers becoming more than their pasts.

A Statement of Intent

In fighting the alien invasion, the Avengers are also out to prove they can be more than what they appear to be. More than a group of squabbling misfits in close proximity — something Loki sought to take full advantage of with his intentional capture — and more than just hired guns in service of two-faced regimes. It's after they're torn apart on the Helicarrier that they have to work towards being more, hesitating to lift their hammers and bows and shields, before doing what needs to be done.

They need to prove they're more than just an archer forced to kill against his will, an assassin with red in her ledger, a monster who puts people in danger, an unruly brute with a hammer, a soldier following orders and a man who fights for himself. It's that shot of the Avengers assembling that tells us these characters may, in fact, be able to work together and become something more. Not long after, an unbroken, fluid take moving across New York City proves it definitively, a shot in which we see the Avengers working in tandem to take down the invading forces.

The Avengers don't kill Loki, as he claims they're wont to do. Instead, they prove him wrong by capturing him again, despite this leading to their downfall earlier in the film. It's an old-fashioned notion, but as Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) puts it, "People might just need a little old-fashioned."

The Avengers were brought together to transcend barriers of culture and language. The film's closing moments feature a montage of worldwide reactions to their antics; some are critical of the Avengers' role in society, while others celebrate these modern icons and their awe-inspiring spectacle. These debates would eventually be dramatized in future installments, as the series would go on to dominate the cinema landscape.

These reactions in the film aren't unlike conversations we find ourselves having today, about the place of this cinematic universe and its effects on popular culture. Marvel's world, like ours, is one in which The Avengers changed everything — for better and for worse.

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Expanded from an article published April 9, 2018.