Written by David Holland
We made it. At last we will see the Avengers on screen together. And not just in little cameos during each others’ movies, but in a true ensemble fashion. And sure, Bruce Banner looks a little different from the first time we met him, but Nick Fury and Phil Coulson are here to tie it all together and remind us that this is one giant universe, the culmination of years of careful planning.
Obviously this has been in the works on some level all along. Nick Fury referenced the “Avengers Initiative” way back in the first Iron Man, SHIELD has had an increasingly significant presence throughout each of the films, and all of this planting has to pay off eventually. It’s hard to overstate exactly how ambitious this was at the time. The Harry Potter universe had wrapped up eight movies with three directors, but there were also seven books of source material to build on. One of the downfalls of comic book movies has been the decades of source material. The question is not “Which parts of the canon do we cut?” but “Which parts do we include?” Plus, a comic book movie has to be provide enough context so that casual fans don’t get lost but give enough depth that superfans are also satisfied, and this is a delicate process. By the way, if you screw up that process just remember that nerds are a notoriously unforgiving group of fans. In order to pull off this miracle, the MCU brought in nerd king Joss Whedon, a man who created the greatest television series of all time, which went on to have fourteen seasons, three feature films, and a satisfying conclusion.
Whedon is well-versed in the comic book material, but not devoted to recreating specific moments panel-for-panel in a way that has often plagued the works of Zack Snyder. In the end, he had to make a lot of difficult cuts. He threw out an entire Hawkeye backstory, which explains in part why he’s the Avenger with the least amount of screen time. In this film the question of who to cast is also largely already answered (except for Bruce Banner), so now it’s only a matter of whether the director can make a cast who was largely chosen for him work together to create a coherent story.
How Does it Hold Up?
I know I said this was ambitious before, but it bears repeating. Obviously the first Avengers film sort of pales when you compare it to the climactic battle in Endgame, but if Avengers doesn’t work then there is no Endgame. Marvel Studios hadn’t really flopped yet, and I will say again when we introduce more heroes that they are more than willing to play it safe when it comes to an origin story, but I don’t think Avengers was necessarily a sure thing from the jump. Other ensemble superhero movies that have followed in Avengers’ wake have been far less successful – Watchmen, Justice League, and Suicide Squad, for example. Some of that may be because Avengers set the tone for what a successful ensemble hero movie should look like, and some of that may be because the characters are less familiar, but I still think it is worth noting that putting some famous people in costumes with lots of fancy graphics still isn’t enough to make a comic book movie good.
Avengers brings its team together in Act 1 – Black Widow recruits Banner (NOT Hulk) from semi-hiding in India, Coulson does the same for Iron Man, and Fury for Cap. Thor comes late to the party, but his return to Earth nearly completes the team and sets up the tense meeting on the Helicarrier. Whedon does a great job of showing us that this is a team by necessity and, in true Whedon fashion, brings them oh so close to everything they wanted before crushing them to a point of desperation.
That desperation brings the team back together. The invading Chitauri leave no time for internal grudge matches. There’s a temptation to look back at The Avengers in comparison to Endgame, but on its own it is an accomplishment. I was struck by a particular shot that starts with Black Widow riding a Chitauri air scooter on her way to the Tesseract. Iron Man joins the shot, blasting at enemies and then landing with Captain America. They fight together for a moment (just long enough to give us a quick, iconic shot of Cap deflecting Iron Man’s blast at enemies), and then we follow Iron Man as he flies up the side of the building from which Hawkeye snipes. The camera lingers on Hawkeye and then follows one of his arrows to its target, who crashes into the Chitauri monster that Thor and Hulk are fighting together. The shot ends with Thor and Hulk standing triumphant, before Hulk punches Thor, a moment that makes perfect sense to any Dungeons & Dragons player who, as a Barbarian, has been forced to punch a teammate in order to maintain their “Rage” bonus.
That whole shot I just described is less than a minute, but it’s emblematic of Whedon’s approach. Apparently the original plan was to focus around Iron Man, given his wild popularity. This approach was championed by RDJ himself, and Whedon said they tried it at first, but it didn’t work. Instead, he tried to balance the attention given to the Avengers as much as possible. As you may have noticed, we have taken a pro-RDJ stance during this rewatch, but Whedon undeniably made the right call here. For the Avengers to work, it had to be a true ensemble, not Iron Man and his Merry Men. The New York battle during the climax sets a high bar for any comic book movie and also walks a delicate line: make your climactic battle high stakes but not so high that we lose the reality of the persons involved. When we see Black Widow and Captain America on the ground we see them dealing with real people – police officers, civilians, even Yasha from Critical Role.
My original idea for theme of this movie was “teamwork”, which is workable if uninspiring. But I came across a quotation by Director Joss Whedon about the writing process for this film. He was describing is inspiration from 1960’s-era Avengers comics in which there was a great deal of conflict within the team: “In those comics, these people shouldn’t even be in the same room, let alone on the same team. That’s the definition of family.” If you’ve ever been part of a large institution, such as an employee at a big company, a faculty member at a school, or even a member of a church you have seen these dynamics play out. There’s a hotshot with all the resources in the world – both mental and financial. He is immediately at odds with the man from another generation, who doesn’t like the hotshot’s individualistic streak. Throw in someone with anger issues, a guy from a completely different culture, and a few people with deep dark secrets, and this is starting to sound more like a tumultuous Thanksgiving than a superhero ensemble.
Bruce Banner sums it up best in the moment when they should be celebrating – Loki is captured, the Tesseract will be discovered shortly, everything seems to be going their way and yet Cap and Iron Man have nearly come to blows while Fury and Black Widow have hands on guns in case Hulk shows up. Banner tells them: “This is not a team, this is a chemical mixture designed to create chaos. This is a time bomb.” It takes their failure on the Helicarrier and the death (not death) of Phil Coulson to bring them together. In a way, there’s nothing more familial than that. The conflict in the third act is different from all of the others – no one is trying to outdo the others or accomplish a personal goal. The seriousness of the situation forces their hand. Captain America takes the lead, each Avenger is given a task, and the world isn’t saved unless each of them does their job. The end of the film actually reminded me of the old Justice League cartoons I used to watch as a kid. The JL all lived together on a giant satellite base orbiting Earth, but here the Avengers finish their job and then go their separate ways. Agent
Robin Scherbatsky Maria Hill actually wonders aloud if they can be counted on to come together if needed again, but Fury is confident they will, that it is in their nature to show up when needed. After all, that’s what family does.
We did it! We finished! Congratula- wait, what do you mean “Phase 1”?