Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. On the one-year anniversary of Avengers: Endgame, we look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe and how it changed the face of superhero (and blockbuster) cinema forever. Read the rest of our MCU coverage here.
Comics had always felt like a world apart from me.
I never consciously recognized it, but I spent the earlier part of my lifetime with pop culture beating it into my brain that comics were for boys. And even as the years went on, it felt so intimidating to enter that world without anyone to guide you. If you didn’t have an older sibling to hand you an issue and say, “Here, read this,” it could feel impossible to know where to begin, especially because we were talking stories that spanned 50 years or more. Where would you even start?
Most millennials my age had passing awareness of some of the characters. We grew up on Fox’s animated Spider-Man and X-Men series, both of which would see wildly successful film franchises in the 2000s. But Marvel’s other offerings simply didn’t share the kind of culture permeation seen by the likes of Batman and Superman, so when The Avengers came along, I felt a general malaise about watching them.
I’d only seen the first Iron Man and had a litany of questions: Would I be able to follow along? Would I know who was who? Would I care? After all, most people had either never heard of or had no real opinion of Captain America, Black Widow, and Hawkeye, and yet here they all were—major stars in the biggest blockbuster of the season.
But there was a crucial difference this time. Back in 2012, I was at the peak of my love for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the strange little film from earier that year called The Cabin in the Woods. Both are examples of how Joss Whedon knows how to welcome you into a world you might not have ventured into otherwise.
I remember thinking Buffy was merely an odd, goofy monster-of-the-week adventure until I actually watched it and saw a show that understood grief and the tremendous pain of finding yourself and your purpose. Whedon knew exactly how to marry the odd and goofy with incredible tenderness and sincerity. Better yet, The Cabin in the Woods meanwhile both celebrates and critiques the genre that had always most intimidated me. Whedon’s work, simply put, is just really good at bringing a general audience into the fold. So with him at the helm of The Avengers…
I finally felt like I had an invitation.
The result is a bit of a miracle—a film that created the entire foundation for the expansive Marvel Cinematic Universe that would follow. Whedon’s incredible efficiency of storytelling knew how to introduce all of these disparate characters, ones that came to the film on the heels of their standalone features but suddenly needed to interact in real and meaningful ways. To make things more complicated, each character had up to 126 minutes of backstory that audiences may or may not have seen.
That meant Whedon had to give the audience an understanding of who these people were without boring those that already knew, all while making their relationships to each other clear at the same time. Whereas Infinity War and Endgame are borderline incomprehensible if you haven’t been following the saga, Whedon knew The Avengers was both the capstone for “phase one” of the Marvel Universe journey and the cornerstone of a new one.
Whereas Infinity War and Endgame are borderline incomprehensible if you haven’t been following the saga, Whedon knew The Avengers was both the capstone for “phase one” of the Marvel Universe journey and the cornerstone of a new one.
In the opening scenes, the plot quickly moves from beat to beat, but it also allows us to meet each Avenger in drum tight fashion. Our villain, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), enters with his devious plan to steal the Tesseract, a powerful cube capable of controlling space itself But guarding that MacGuffin? Our first avenger, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), a loyal and fierce soldier who fights with a deadly accurate bow and arrow (because it’s fun, dammit).
However, Loki manages to brainwash him, and together they escape with the cube. In hindsight, the choice to team Hawkeye with the villain is a remarkable way to keep his character involved with the plot without saddling the team with another early introduction when he comes back to the good guys.
But with the Tesseract gone, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) makes the dire proclamation, “We’re at war.” His right-hand man, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), asks him, “What do we do?” Well, we finally have the raison d’être. BOOM. The title card appears.
It’s time for the Avengers to assemble.
We then meet Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) mid-interrogation. Her scene showcases her prowess, yes, but more importantly her wit and her charm. Whedon gets us to like her instantly by showing her quickly turn the tables on her captors with hilarious nonchalance. It’s especially needed considering her introduction in the much maligned Iron Man 2 isn’t particularly memorable. We then pivot to her directive from Coulson to meet with “the big guy”—and even I instantly knew who he meant. Now we’re onto Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), better known as the Hulk.
But instead of painfully rehashing everything that might have occurred in the previous Hulk film, Whedon cuts to the meat of Banner’s predicament. He’s been without “incident” but lives in fear of the next one. Banner is useful, but the Hulk isn’t. Rather, he’s a terrifying liability. But once he’s on board, we cut to Fury arguing for the existence of the Avengers initiative where he’s informed that “war isn’t won by sentiment.” His reply? “No, it’s won by soldiers.”
This means our next character is, of course, Cap (Chris Evans), the ultimate soldier. He’s the only one of the crew to get a flashback sequence, which makes thematic sense for a character who’s been unfrozen from that past. We get all the core moments from his love of Peggy to his sacrifice in WWII to his return to life after being frozen in ice. But Whedon elegantly presents all these flashbacks as Cap works out his aggression on a punching bag.
This isn’t just “background information”; it tells the audience that these memories are both haunting and driving him. He’s lonely and lost, a man out of time who is struggling to adapt to a shocking new world. And even if we haven’t seen the prior film, we understand all of this in a minute or two. Better yet, we understand exactly why he’s receptive to Fury’s offer: he’s a soldier at his core. This may be the only thing he still knows how to do.
When his scene ends, we reach the crescendo’s peak. At last, we have Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). We’re brought effortlessly into the scene because so much of the character is built around the snarky charm that Downey is distinctly good at. We see him at his most Tony Stark-ian, cocksure and over-confident, certain he can handle whatever is being asked of him without a second thought. This, of course, is a great set up for his hubristic folly because the task at hands is going to be much, much tougher than he imagined. Especially when he meets the final member of the team.
Of course, this is Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who makes his grand, electric entrance at precisely the wrong moment. It’s not just that it happens late into the film, though. It’s that Loki is already in the Avengers’ custody. It seems that Thor wants to handle the situation personally. Their confrontation makes their relationship plain as well. He and Loki are brothers incapable of seeing eye to eye, one forever resentful of the other. We also glean that Thor sees himself as Earth’s protector from Asgardian threats. Of course, this also puts Thor into direct conflict with the other members, and they have to broker an uneasy truce on what to do with his brother.
And with that, we have it… Avengers assembled!
Except not at all. The story simply isn’t about putting these heroes in place so they can fight bad guys with nary a worry. In doing press for the film, Whedon evoked the famous idea that, to paraphrase, “The Avengers don’t make sense as a team, but that’s exactly what makes them interesting.” So immediately, our heroes are all in conflict. They all want different things in different ways, and each of them think that they know how to handle it best.
And even with all the conflict, the audience gets glimmers of group dynamics they’ll come to love. Tony and Banner toy with science like a couple of excitable nerds. Cap and Thor provide wonderful laughs as fishes out of water who are just trying to make sense of the conversations around them. From all this, we get the promise of what this team can be.
It’s not just that this film introduced all these characters with whip smart economy, nor is it just because it allowed me to fall in love with them through their charm and smashtastic glee. It’s that I felt like I was brought into the team.
But it quickly all unravels. When a brainwashed Hawkeye attacks the carrier, they refuse to listen to each other and work as a team. Hulk goes on a rampage, reminding us that he’s just as dangerous as we thought if not more so. Loki escapes. Then, in a moment of genuine stakes and anguish, Agent Coulson dies.
Yet, with everything going on, it’s so affecting because the film took the time to set it up so beautifully. A character who always seemed at the fringes was given so much wonderful screentime because he’s the excitable superfan. He’s us, the audience, and he’s the one who believed in the Avengers’ potential. From that place of loss, the team is finally ready to rally.
And boy, do they rally. The third act of The Avengers is widely regarded as one of the most fun and raucous blockbuster finales in recent memory, and it achieves this precisely because the film took so much time to introduce these conflicts and set up their catharses. Their teamwork feels like a joyful unleashing of all of their potential, something that the film only managed to keep at bay not by putting it off and teasing it, but also by saddling them with screw-turning conflicts. By the adventure’s end, we finally have the Avengers that we wanted from the beginning.
Overall, it shows itself to be a grand finale of an introduction. It’s not just that this film introduced all these characters with whip smart economy, nor is it just because it allowed me to fall in love with them through their charm and smashtastic glee. It’s that I felt like I was brought into the team too, and because Whedon did it so successfully, The Avengers started a Marvel Cinematic journey that would unfold over the course of the next decade and 23 movies to date. We may take this sense of affinity for granted now, but when we look back, we have to remember the diligent work that went into making it a reality.
After all, some assembly was required.