Film #6 in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Marvel’s The Avengers
“The end is near.” Avengers: Infinity War is set to hit theaters at the end of the month. Each weekday FilmExodus will be spotlighting a film from the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the buildup to Infinity War. Don’t expect a Stan Lee cameo though. This is… The Road to Infinity.
In 2008, when Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury told Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark that he was part of a bigger universe, audience members did not dare dream of a universe that included everything from Rocket Raccoon and Ego the Living Planet to your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. None of that was on the table. What was on the table when Fury appeared at the end of Iron Man was a milestone superhero crossover movie. What we were being promised was The Avengers.
It’s difficult to cast your mind back to a time when the appearance of Nick Fury in a Marvel movie for less than a minute was basically a rumor, and maybe even more difficult to recall that despite it being true The Avengers was not a foregone conclusion. After all, there had been Easter eggs in superhero movies before. Val Kilmer’s Batman said the circus would be “halfway to Metropolis by now”, George Clooney’s Batman famously said “this is why Superman works alone”, and yet a movie teaming up Superman and Batman never materialized.* Anyone who assumed that Favreau threw in the “Avengers Initiative” line as little more than a nod to fans would have been right to think so, and wise not to get their hopes up. As Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige has noted “a lot of things had to go right” for The Avengers to happen.
As the Marvel Cinematic Universe began to build over the next four years, an Avengers movie did indeed seem like an absolute certainty. The question became not “will we ever actually see an Avengers movie?” but “will the Avengers movie actually work?” Marvel Studios hired Joss Whedon to helm the project, a TV writer fresh off the hot cancellations of Firefly and Dollhouse with one feature credit under his belt. They had already decided to recast Edward Norton’s Hulk and Terrence Howard’s James Rhodes for creative differences and contract negotiations respectively. The general public would have to accept a grounded character like Iron Man sharing screen time with a hammer-wielding god. If it did not work when they tried to put all the S.H.I.E.L.D. stuff in Iron Man 2, how was it going to work multiplied by five?
The term “instant classic” rarely feels applicable, but watching The Avengers for the first time it was hard not to be amazed at just how well everything clicked on the spot, as the movie was unfolding. Favreau set the tone with Iron Man, but Whedon really elevated it. The audience’s investment in the characters was rewarded with both minor interactions and major confrontations underscoring their traits, worldviews, personalities, and relationships. A great example of this is the fact that Whedon never lets Steve Rogers being a man out of time feel arbitrary in a movie that does not revolve around that as a plot point at all. It is a detail that is mined for comedy, pathos, and even costume design. Much the same can be said of Thor’s relationship to his brother, Bruce Banner’s relationship to Hulk, and Tony Stark’s ego-centrism.
Like most things that work perfectly it seems obvious, inevitable, perhaps even easy in hindsight. Of course a superhero team-up worked. Why wouldn’t it? We had seen superhero teams before. There was a clear formula. None of the solo movies break the mold. To think this way though, you have to disregard all context – not just historical, but contemporary. Over the past few years, the only franchise to come close to replicating the MCU in terms of consistent output, critical acclaim, and commercial success is Star Wars – and Star Wars was ALREADY STAR WARS.