Understanding the scale of what Marvel’s The Avengers accomplished requires much more than the analysis of a single film. The enormity of what Marvel attempted with this film is so staggering, one could easily be forgiven for calling it hubris. We’re not talking about an expensive, ambitious action film. We’re talking about a four-year, six-film project featuring four distinct universes with entirely separate creative teams that eventually meet up under yet another distinct creative team. This sort of massive crossover oftentimes falls flat on its face when it’s attempted in comic books themselves, much less films based on comic books. Pulling it off would be the biggest accomplishment in the complicated history of comic book films; failure would be an unprecedented multi-film disaster, and a huge public embarrassment for Marvel.
It began in 2008 with the release of the first Avengers origin film: Iron Man. Because of the character’s less iconic status at the time, the film didn’t carry with it the sort of anticipation a Batman, Spider-Man, or X-Men might have. But the trailers heavily featuring Robert Downey Jr. being a rather entertaining asshole absolutely took the nerd universe by storm, and everyone started thinking, “You know… that looks really, really good.”
And it was. Iron Man was a huge box office success and one of the most consistently positively-reviewed films of the year. Downey Jr.’s performance as Tony Stark/Iron Man has been consistently praised, and it has become the new prototype for action superhero movies that are actually “fun.”
But that wasn’t all. Those fans who stayed through the credits (knowing how much superhero movies like to tease their audiences with details about the next film) received an absolutely stunning reward: Samuel L. Jackson walking onto the screen with an eyepatch, which anyone who reads the Ultimate Marvel series automatically registered as “Nick Fury.” And, just as that sunk in, Fury told Stark he needed to talk to him about “the Avengers initiative.”
Indeed, after the success of Iron Man, Marvel officially announced a 2011 release date for The Avengers (Which would later be shifted to 2012.) But for anyone who didn’t pay attention to entertainment news, the next clue that something big was in the works came when Marvel released their second Avengers origin film in 2008, The Incredible Hulk. While this was almost universally considered better and more successful than the 2003 Hulk, it definitely did not meet with the same success as Iron Man. Still, it kept the series moving with another post-credits reveal. This time, it was Tony Stark approaching General Ross about a “team” being put together.
After a year off, the Avengers origins films were back with Iron Man 2 in 2010. While it wasn’t as universally acclaimed as its predecessor, it was recognized as continuing Marvel’s brand of (shockingly) “fun” superhero movies, an element of the comic book medium the film adaptations had been strangely missing for decades, with the exception of Singer’s X-Men films. Most of the world-building here happened in the form of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury. This time, they weren’t merely part of a post-credits reveal: they were, in fact, an integral part of the plot.
2011 is when the series started racing to the finishline. The films released that year featured far more world-building then any of their predecessors combined. For many fans, Thor was about the character who didn’t really seem to “fit in” with the rest of the Avengers. This film had a lot of weighty world-building to do, and it would’ve been easy to get buried under that. Instead, the film turned to Babylon 5 creator and comic book veteran J. Michael Straczynski (who also literally wrote the book on scriptwriting) to co-write the story with Mark Protosevich. The script would be written by Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz of Andromeda fame, whose comic book film credentials now also include X-Men: First Class; they would also be joined by a third co-writer, Don Payne.
Since that clearly wasn’t enough overqualified individuals working on one film (I’m mostly referring to Straczynski), Kenneth Branagh (you know: the Shakespeare guy) was signed on to direct. Though the titular role was played by a relative unknown, he was placed opposite of Natalie Portman, and Agent Colston is again back and a huge part of things. The film manages not to get buried under all the world-building it needs to do, but does succeed in doing that world-building, in connecting the earth of Marvel’s cinematic universe to a much, much bigger world outside of it.
If all of the other origin films failed to convince audiences, 2011′s Captain America: The First Avenger was the final moment of, “Oh my gosh, this is really happening.” The film directly leads into The Avengers with its final scene, and as if that isn’t enough, the audience was immediately hit with a mini-trailer featuring scenes from The Avengers. Captain America: The First Avenger was also a great film in its own right. It is mostly set in the 1940s, allowing Cap to fight Nazis (and superpowered Nazis), which makes his patriotic symbolism a bit easier for modern audiences to digest. He is a throwback superhero in many ways, including the fact that he is (to put it simply) a “good guy.” He is chosen for the supersoldier project specifically because he is weaker (and therefore it is presumed, correctly, that he will use his new power much more responsibly because he appreciates it), and he makes natural-sounding statements like, “I don’t like bullies.” In its own way, Captain America: The First Avenger is every bit as refreshing as Iron Man, just in the opposite direction with a “throwback,” “good guy” hero.
By the end of the summer of 2011, all of the Avengers origin films were released, leaving only The Avengers proper. And at this point, it would be understandable if some fans began to panic. All of these heroes (even Hulk, whose film was unspectacular) have huge roles and worlds of their own, and a dizzying amount of supporting characters. Most even have dramatically contrasting genres. How could these worlds and characters possibly be combined in a coherent fashion that balanced having a unified world and being satisfying for each individual character? Marvel had two aces in the hole to address this. One was Nick Fury, Agent Colston, and S.H.I.E.L.D. The way this organization and these two characters were woven into the origin films allowed them to bring the heroes together in a believable fashion.
The other was Joss Whedon.
Nearly every nerd on the planet breathed an enormous sigh of relief when Whedon was announced as director. And rightfully so. Whedon possessed the three necessary qualities to ensure that The Avengers became the culmination of four years of successful films rather than an unmitigated disaster: he is a demonstrably excellent filmmaker whose skill is nearly universally recognized, he is a huge comic book nerd with experience writing comic books, and (most importantly) he is used to balancing an ensemble cast of strong characters due to his television projects. Simply put, Joss Whedon was the perfect man for this job.
Taking a step back for a moment: it’s actually pretty remarkable how great Marvel is at identifying who the “perfect” person for a certain role is, and then going out and getting them. The first example came in the film that started the new wave of quality superhero films in the 2000s with Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen cast in the leading roles for Bryan Singer’s X-Men films, and tapping Joss Whedon to write and direct The Avengers is the newest, ultimate example of this insight.
If this review is starting to read more like a love letter to Marvel, it’s because the entire film series up to and including The Avengers is essentially Marvel’s love letter to its fans. Marvel has made some serious missteps (X-Men: The Last Stand…), but by and large they’ve mostly made some incredible decisions. Some of these have just been fantastic, film industry-savvy choices (Singer, Downey Jr., Branagh, Straczynski), but other times Marvel has simply listened when fans have had a fairly universal consensus that a particular actor or director would be “perfect” (Stewart, Whedon.) The success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, culminating in The Avengers, has rewritten the book on comic book films.
I know this is an unusual review inasmuch as I didn’t spend a whole lot of time talking about the film itself, because much of the accomplishment the film represents can only be understood when considering the series in toto. But since you asked, The Avengers is an unmitigated joyride. Each hero’s powerful personality is allowed to shine, each hero has several “signature” moments that contribute to the overall action of the film, and you never quite get over the fact that you’re seeing four completely separate film universes meet on the screen. The drama, the “fun,” the pacing, the dialogue is all top notch. Everything, everything that comic book fans have been demanding from comic book films–and conditioned to accept will never happen–happened in this series, and this film in particular. I am absolutely astonished at the achievement this film represents. Anyone who tries to make a comic book film from now on will have to deal with this film.