Everything about The Avengers (or Avengers Assemble if you’re from the UK, but I’ll be referring to it as The Avengers) was a risk. A calculated one, but a risk nonetheless. What started in 2008 with Iron Man was about to reach its peak with a multi-film journey reaching some sort of conclusion (oh how innocent we were). The Avengers had to balance bringing characters from different films together for the first time, having them all be faithful to their respective writers’ and directors’ vision, continuing a story that has been building for 4 years, developing established relationships so they matter in the context of this film’s story, satisfying long-time comic book fans, and keeping it all digestible for an audience who may or may not have seen Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, or Captain America: The First Avenger. Shoving that all in the hands of a man whose biggest directing credit was 2005’s Serenity seemed like utter madness.
And yet, here we all are, 7 years and 15 films later, waiting on the climax of one of the all-time great film franchises that arguably would not have happened without this entry in 2012. If The Avengers didn’t work, it was back to the drawing board. But it worked. It worked to the tune of $1.5billion worldwide, telling the world that if they weren’t ready yet, they better prepare for, in today’s parlance, the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
While I am a fan of many of projects Joss Whedon has been involved with, such as Firefly and Serenity, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Cabin in the Woods, I’m not sure he’d have been my first choice for a blockbuster of this scale. Yes, he’s shown with his TV shows that he’s a master of the ensemble – a talent he no doubt puts to great use here – he had to translate his customary band of misfits onto the cinema screen. I’m positive that Kevin Feige, the mastermind behind the entire MCU, told Whedon to take everything he knew and make it bigger. Make it bigger on an end-of-the-world level. What Feige didn’t tell him, was Whedon had to make everything bigger.
On my rewatch recently, the first in a surprisingly long time, I noticed how claustrophobic the film was. For a large majority of the film, all of our heroes and villains are stuck on a helicarrier 30,000 feet in the air. Whedon forces them into a situation where they must get to know each other. It would’ve been the easiest thing in the world to have the film be a massive action blockbuster and dot in character development at small beats before it all kicks off again, but Whedon holds fire. We certainly get there, but he refrains. There is a long stretch of the Avengers getting to know each other, bickering, planning, until it all reaches boiling point with the film’s first true Avengers action scene over an hour into the film.
An hour is a long time in film. In most films, you’re reaching the key turning point in a film’s plot, there’s a twist around the corner, you’re racing towards a conclusion. In The Avengers, we’ve barely started. This scene is the catalyst for the following 80 minutes, a breakneck race to save the world, but Whedon never sacrifices character for action.
During this first major action sequence, Whedon carefully splits them up to develop their relationships carefully. In one scene, Cap and Tony are butting heads, literally moments from squaring off in a fight (“put on the suit, let’s go a few rounds”), they’re forced to drop everything and work together. It’s an obvious play from Whedon, but it works a treat as the two de facto leaders of The Avengers are forced to set aside their differences for the greater good. You learn a lot about a hero in these moments, and Whedon lets them all flourish.
There’s a fine balance between character moments and hero moments that The Avengers manages terrifically. While Cap and Tony set aside their differences, just across the helicarrier, Thor is moments away from hammering Hulk square in the jaw in one of my favourite moments in the film. As Banner said earlier, this isn’t a team, it’s a time bomb. The way Whedon pushes his heroes down only to build them back up again when they realise there are bigger things at play here is an absolute masterwork.
A superhero film lives and dies by its moments. The hero shot, the “remember when…?” moments, those goose-bump inducing sequences. The Avengers has these by the bucket load. The aforementioned Thor vs Hulk fight is one of those moments you never thought you’d see on screen. It’s Cap launching Black Widow onto a chitauri go-kart, it’s Iron Man shooting an energy beam at Cap’s shield to be deflected onto oncoming chitauri, it’s Bruce saying, “I’m always angry” and punching an alien lizard spaceship square in the nose. It’s the circling hero shot following this exact moment showing all our heroes in their final forms that, 7 years later, still sends chills down my spine. This film is as good as we could have hoped for as a culmination of 4 years of groundwork, and it’s as good today as it was when it first came out.’
He took his time, but Whedon knew he had to make The Avengers big and make it big he did. The Battle of New York remains one of the best extended sequences in the entire MCU. It gives every hero their moment in the spotlight. One of my favourite moments in the entire film is an absolutely majestic one-shot that follows Iron Man as he flies through the city, stopping by all of the team to help out briefly, resulting in Hulk and Thor taking down another of those alien lizard spaceships together before it crashes into Grand Central Station. In a scene full of moments, this stands out as a director almost showing off at this point, but he’s earned it. He knows he’s nailed it, and is allowing himself a personal moment in the spotlight with this long-take. It gives me goosebumps every time.
Beyond this scene, the confident filmmaking on show is fantastic. Every hero is choreographed so well, with their own styles and nuances to admire, and it lets them work together in organic ways. Of course Cap’s shield can deflect beams. Of course Thor will electric slam a metal shard Hulk broke off into a ship to destroy it. The choreography works, but it works because it’s given time to sell it, we’re allowed to watch the action unfold without too many cuts, it shows every hit, every blast, every Hulk smash front and centre for us to enjoy. It’s superhero action on ground level for so much of it, and it all works terrifically.
Finally, to cap off this glorious scene, we have Tony sacrificing himself to save tens of millions of people. The last man you would expect to put his life on the line, but he does it. It’s a moment that’s given so much nuance with the missed Pepper phone call, all the heroes at their lowest points hoping for something, anything to save them, and Tony delivers. It’s a beautiful moment delivered expertly, cutting all the music away and letting the sacrifice speak for itself. Then, on his plummet back to Earth (I’ll let the questionable space gravity slide on this one), he’s saved by Hulk leaping through the air and holding a lifeless Iron Man in his arms. It’s one of those things you just don’t expect to see, but we see it, and it feels earned. This team has gone through so much in this film, didn’t think they’d work, but they put everything on the line and saved the world. Then Hulk screams in Tony’s face, he wakes up, and asks for shwarma. Tony’s back. The Avengers did it. They saved the day. I love this film.
The Avengers was a statement. Marvel was on the map with its previous efforts, but it would’ve been all for naught if this one didn’t work. Thankfully, all the risks Marvel Studios took with this one paid off and then some. For me, it’s one of the top 5 films in the entire franchise, and it has been there consistently since it came out. This was the film that truly convinced me that the MCU will be a success.
With Endgame on the horizon, and it seemingly being focused on the original Avengers given the incident in Infinity War, I can only hope the film does these heroes justice. I have every faith that it will. Avengers? Smash.