The Avengers Revisited

(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.

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