The Avengers is the biggest success Marvel, Disney, and the entire comic book movie industry has ever seen. Directed by Joss Whedon of Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame, The Avengers was the (first) end result of the shared universe experiment that Marvel Studios was attempting. This finally brought Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, Captain America, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Nick Fury, and more all together for a true celebratory fireworks display. If this worked, it would change the landscape of film forever. The Avengers would go on to not just be Marvel Studio’s biggest hit, but it would become the third highest-grossing film of all time, only behind James Cameron’s Avatar and Titanic. It is the textbook example of a comic book movie, the gold standard to strive for, and a validation of comic book storytelling as an art form. It was a truly monumental success.
How was this achieved? The choice for Joss Whedon to direct was perfect. Whedon is a master at directing an ensemble cast, to the point where it’s basically what he’s known for. The exciting part of The Avengers is seeing all of these different characters together and interacting onscreen, and Whedon’s penchant for being able to juggle multiple characters and their stories, in addition to his trademark witty dialogue, ensured that every Avenger got their time to shine, and their own arcs to go through. It’s an impressive feat for a movie of this scale.
The Avengers also proved to be accessible to general audiences, even those who had never seen a single Marvel film beforehand. You don’t necessarily need to have seen any of the previous films to understand what’s happening in The Avengers, every character’s introduction at the beginning of the film tells you all you need to know about them. Another smart choice the film makes is that it keeps the plot simple and streamlined. The Avengers needs to overcome their differences and work together to stop Loki and his alien army. That’s really it, and the film never deviates from it.
Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner is leaps and bounds better than Edward Norton’s. Ruffalo’s Banner is cautious and he’s someone who fears The Hulk not because of any danger to himself, but because he knows innocent people will be hurt. His face reads deep emotional pain and sadness over the life he was robbed of, but he also has a strange sense of humor about his situation. At this point in his life, Bruce has given up trying to rid himself of The Hulk and instead has a sort of good natured-ness about his condition, understanding that it’s something he simply has to try and live with. He also still tries to do some good in the world, even in hiding. We see that he’s become a local doctor in the country he’s hiding out in. Ruffalo somehow balances levity and charisma, which Norton’s Banner never had, with even more emotional depth than Norton’s Banner ever had. He brings real subtlety to what is arguably Marvel’s least subtle character. And he accomplishes all of this in one single scene: His introduction and conversation with Natasha. And sparks were flying between those two in that scene and throughout the whole film; I resent the argument that their romance in Age of Ultron “came out of nowhere”, but we’ll save that discussion for another time.
The Hulk himself finally became a character to cheer for. This marked the first time he was truly successful onscreen, because he’s just so much fun in it. The iconic “I’m always angry” scene is still the greatest Hulk transformation to date, and his delighted grin at Cap’s orders to simply “smash” shows us that he’s having a good time, so we do too. The visuals of Hulk are acceptable in his solo film, but The Avengers is the first time he doesn’t just look good, but looks great. I’m sure having some Disney money helped the motion capture technology this time around. The Avengers is also the first time we see Hulk use his powers for something other than destruction. His leap and catch to save Tony from his free fall received just as many cheers and applause in the theater as the legendary shot of all the heroes circled together.
Not only does The Avengers stand on its own without a hitch, but the events of the film would go on to directly affect all future films, with ideas brought up in The Avengers coming back for our heroes to deal with. Tony Stark faces the first situation that he truly can’t have any sort of control over. It’s a situation he can barely even comprehend. The concept of aliens and gods is completely foreign to Tony; a threat he never even considered to be a possibility until now. And in the climactic battle, in his first truly heroic, selfless act, he almost loses his life. This all would go on to haunt him throughout the rest of the MCU, and it is the biggest influence on his behavior and decisions moving forward.
Steve Rogers is fresh out of his frozen slumber and trying to understand his place in the modern world. What does Captain America represent to the current climate, if anything? “Aren’t the stars and stripes a little old-fashioned?” he asks
Coulson. Steve serves the purpose of the everyman in this film. He isn’t just new to aliens, he’s new to everything, to the very world that the film takes place in. He starts off with the idea of “We have orders. We should follow them.” But Tony’s rebellious and untrusting nature, paired with Bruce’s own suspicions, are enough to send Steve on his own investigation into the very people he works for. What he finds is that S.H.I.E.L.D. is using the Tesseract to create weapons of mass destruction, even basing these weapons off the inventions of Hydra and their use of the Tesseract. It’s a direct betrayal to what Steve thinks S.H.I.E.L.D. stands for, and it reminds him that the world, even seventy years in the future, with all of its social and technological progress, is never as black and white as it may appear. He, along with Natasha and Clint, defy their orders as agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., steal a Quinjet, and take off to fight in the Battle of New York. While he does continue to work for S.H.I.E.L.D., his trust in them is broken and he knows them to be flawed. This loss of trust in the government he devoted his life to serve follows him throughout the rest of his time in the MCU.
Natasha proves to be more than just a capable fighter, she is first and foremost a spy, and a master at mental manipulation. From the interrogation in her introduction to her ability to outsmart the literal God of Mischief himself into giving away his plan, Black Widow is really given her due here. Her time working for the KGB and even S.H.I.E.L.D. means that she has blood on her hands and crimes to make up for. “I’ve got red in my ledger. I’d like to wipe it out.” Natasha chooses to try and make the really heroic decisions, to protect and fight for a better world, to make up for the mistakes of her past and hopefully clear her conscious. Clint Barton, after being brainwashed by Loki, wants to make up for the people he killed while doing Loki’s bidding, and maybe even get a little revenge. Clint is also just a really good guy who always does the right thing, similar to Steve Rogers. Is Hawkeye wasted in this film? A bit, yes. Having him be mind-controlled for most of the runtime does prevent us from getting to know the man, but it does show us how capable Hawkeye is as an adversary. He takes down an entire helicarrier and brings S.H.I.E.L.D. practically to its knees, almost single-handedly. So while we may have not gotten much of his character, we do get to see skills on full display. He also gets some of the best action beats in the Battle of New York.
Thor comes to Earth to stop Loki, but also wants to save him. Thor still holds out hope that his brother can be redeemed and come home. He never fights him with the intention of killing him, and during every altercation he pleads with Loki to stop his conquest, to realize that he has the power to put an end to it and do the right thing. Thor tragically realizes that his brother may simply be too far gone, and beyond saving. Loki murders Coulson in front of him, and then proceeds to try and kill Thor without hesitation. In order to save the planet, he has to steel himself and be prepared to kill his own brother if it comes to it. It’s a test not just for his dedication to being Earth’s protector, but for his worthiness to lead and take the throne of his own planet.
Speaking of the God of Mischief, Loki became the real breakout of The Avengers, creating a massive fanbase and adoration for the villain. How was this accomplished? In an email sent to Joss Whedon, Tom Hiddleston, an actor who one hundred percent understands and dedicates himself to the character, sums everything up about why Loki works so well as the antagonist for the Avengers. “It’s high operatic villainy alongside detached throwaway tongue-in-cheek; plus the “real menace” and his closely guarded suitcase of pain. It’s grand and epic and majestic and poetic and lyrical and wicked and rich and badass. Throughout you continue to put Loki on some kind of pedestal of regal significance and then consistently tear him down. He gets battered, punched, blasted, side-swiped, roared at, sent tumbling on his back, and every time he gets back up smiling, wickedly, never for a second losing his eloquence, style, wit, self-aggrandizement or grandeur, and you never send him up or deny him his true intelligence. That he loves to make an entrance, that he has a taste for the grand gesture, the big speech, the spectacle.” Loki earns his right to be the ultimate baddie that no Avenger can beat on their own; a Saturday morning cartoon, mustache-twirling villain, while at the same time a genuinely menacing, incredibly intelligent, manipulative mastermind. He repeatedly outwits our heroes, and in doing so forces them to overcome their differences and work together to finally defeat him. His ability to bring the Avengers to their lowest point is what eventually leads to his own downfall.
Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson ends up being the secret weapon of the film. Coulson is the consistent string that ties together all of the films prior, even more than Nick Fury. He has a personal relationship with Natasha, Clint, Tony and Pepper, Thor, and, in a genius move, is revealed to be the biggest Captain America fanboy. It adds a new level of innocence to the character and Whedon knows how to make him lovable, giving him the light comedic moments in the first half of the film. Coulson is the representation of all the comic book fans who are sitting in the theater eager to finally see their heroes come together on the big screen. He’s the biggest advocator for the Avengers Initiative and believes in every single one of them and their ability to save the world. “We need you.” he tells Tony in Iron Man 2, in the first time he drops his tough government persona and reveals his true, genuinely good-hearted nature. It’s why his death at the hands of Loki works. Coulson’s murder is the loss of innocence, the first true death of a recurring character in the MCU. Coulson never gets to see his dream of the Avengers together come to fruition, if anything he only witnesses the opposite. Yet with his dying breath he understands what his death might be able to accomplish. “This was never gonna work if they didn’t have something to…” Coulson’s death serves as the catalyst that finally brings The Avengers together, and it specifically spurs Tony and Steve into action. Tony, who was initially cautious around Coulson, learns to trust and respect him because he learns that Pepper does. His death wakes him up to the fact that his selfishness and uncooperativeness has consequences when the stakes are this high, and innocent people’s lives are at stake. Steve learns what Captain America means, or should mean, to the people of the modern world, and what he needs to do to accomplish that. “With everything that’s about to happen, people might just need a little old-fashioned.” Coulson tells him.
All of this leads us to the grand finale, the fireworks display, the celebration of all of the work and dedication that Marvel Studios put together in this new idea of a shared movie universe. The Battle of New York works not just purely as spectacle, though it certainly is that, but as character-driven action. An action sequence that is earned, that makes all of the build up throughout the previous films worth it. The Avengers, finally assembled, working together to stop the biggest threat the world has ever faced. Emphasis is put on not just taking down aliens, but on saving and protecting the people they’re fighting for. This role primarily goes to our heart and soul, Captain America, who makes containment of the alien army the number one priority, choosing to stay on the ground and defend a single choke point, saving and getting as many civilians to safety as he can. The Avengers remains one of the only superhero universes where the films remember that they need to show us the heroes actually saving people, not just fighting.
The Battle of New York remains one of the greatest action sequences to ever be put onscreen, and it has yet to be topped in the MCU (though Infinity War is looking into giving it a run for its money). It works on every level, and is absolutely thrilling to watch no matter how many times you’ve seen it. The Avengers was an event. It was something that everyone had to go see and witness. The idea of multiple characters from several different movies appearing all together in one big extravaganza was completely new and exciting. It’s something that no one has able to successfully replicate since. Look at Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man universe (scrapped after only two films), Universal’s Dark Universe (dead before it even began, only one film in) and, of course, DC’s ill-fated Justice League universe (in disarray after two films and who’s grand team-up film ended up being their lowest-grossing out of all of them).
Why was The Avengers successful where others weren’t? Marvel’s secret is the immense amount of planning and forethought they put into their universe, and above all, their dedication and time that they commit to all of their characters. It’s why I’ve spent this entire essay primarily talking about each one of them. The awesome spectacle is nothing if I don’t care about who’s involved. Marvel’s devotion to the Avengers team and the time spent with each of them is what makes it all work. It’s what makes the grand display of an hour long action scene worth it and thrilling. Even though The Avengers was dropped down to fifth place after the 2015 nostalgia trip that was Jurassic World and The Force Awakens, it remains a benchmark of entertainment and popular culture. Marvel Studios knew that this was make it or break it time. They delivered, and the world has never been the same since.
Connections to the MCU: The Battle of New York and the public emergence of the Avengers is the biggest impacting moment of the entire MCU, and the aftermath of it all would go on to affect not just the films but the television shows as well. Every show set in the MCU, minus Agent Carter, takes place post-Avengers. Spider-Man: Homecoming deals with people getting their hands on leftover alien technology, Tony gets some serious PTSD from the battle, Loki’s deeds carry on into the Thor sequels. S.H.I.E.L.D. secretly planning to make weapons from the energy of the Tesseract, the World Security Council attempting to nuke New York City, and Fury’s little white lie surrounding Coulson’s death, all serve to show the darker underbelly of the organization, an idea that would come back in the biggest way possible in The Winter Soldier. A member of that council would go on to become a major antagonist in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and of course, Coulson would return to spearhead that very show. We are also given our first glimpse at the ultimate MCU villain, Thanos. He gives Loki the scepter and the army to steal the Tesseract and conquer Earth for him. Loki’s failure and loss of not one, but two Infinity Stones does not bode well for his fate when he runs into Thanos again in Infinity War.