2012 was a big year for movies.
Christopher Nolan concluded his critically acclaimed Batman trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises. Peter Jackson released An Unexpected Journey, the first installment of a long-awaited Hobbit adaptation. James Bond (the film series, not the character) turned 50 with Skyfall. Something called The Hunger Games started while something else called Twilight ended. There was even a new Spider-Man (he wouldn’t be the last). But there was one movie in particular, written and directed by the creator of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, that would not only become one of the biggest movies of all time, but would also change the way superhero movies – and blockbuster movies in general – were made forever, for better or worse.
No, not Much Ado About Nothing, the Shakespeare adaptation Joss Whedon somehow shot over 12 days in his own. And it wasn’t The Cabin in the Woods either, which was actually directed by Drew Goddard, a frequent collaborator of Whedon (even though it would have been cool as hell if that movie had changed everything). No, the movie I’m talking about today is the OTHER movie Joss Whedon was involved with in 2012. Hint: it’s in the title of this post.
The Avengers (or Marvel’s The Avengers or Marvel Avengers Assemble depending on where exactly in the world you reside) is almost definitely a movie you’ve heard of before. You’ve probably even seen it once or twice. I’m going to let a character tell you what it’s about anyway.
“There was an idea,” Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) explains, simultaneously pitching the concept to executives, “called the Avengers Initiative. The idea was to bring together a group of remarkable people to see if they could become something greater. To see if they could work together when we needed them to, to fight the battles that we never could.” These remarkable people – Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk, among others – had all previously appeared in their own movies to varying levels of success, but what if they all appeared in the same movie together? It had worked in the comics back in the 1960s, so why wouldn’t it work in a movie 50 years later?
Well, it worked. It worked a lot. “A new universe” was born. History (and a lot of money) was made. And everyone else in Hollywood immediately rushed to reverse-engineer their own cinematic universe without spending the time it takes to plan these things out. Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment, now playing catch-up to Disney and Marvel after deconstructing the superhero movie with the aforementioned Batman trilogy, launched the DC Extended Universe with 2013’s Man of Steel (though it wouldn’t really begin until 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) and has seemingly been making it up as they go along ever since (so far 2017’s Wonder Woman is the only installment to emerge relatively intact as an actual, uh, movie). Universal’s Dark Universe, a reboot of what could be considered the original cinematic universe, died on impact: 2017’s The Mummy was a complete disaster, and the creative talent responsible for it have already fled and moved on to bigger and better things (no, I don’t know how this keeps happening either). More are announced every week – they keep threatening a Transformers cinematic universe – but so far none of them have really worked, at least not when compared to the scale and success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Everyone has somehow learned the wrong lessons: it turns out that just throwing all your intellectual property together on screen isn’t enough – you need something more than that (and you definitely don’t need a giant pillar of light shooting into the sky).
Let’s go back a few years (don’t worry, I’m actually going to start talking about The Avengers shortly). The Marvel Cinematic Universe had all been the dream of a man named Kevin Feige. Feige had been an executive producer on many Marvel movies before, but after becoming president of Marvel Studios in 2007 he started to turn his dream into a reality. 2008’s Iron Man was the risky but ultimately successful beginning, introducing Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and setting up S.H.I.E.L.D. and the idea of a shared universe (“You’ve become part of a bigger universe,” Fury teases in the first of what would become a great number of post-credits scenes). 2008’s The Incredible Hulk was a mostly forgettable second entry, introducing a Bruce Banner (Ed Norton) that would eventually be recast (Mark Ruffalo), the most exciting part being an appearance by Stark, reminding everyone these things are all connected. 2010’s Iron Man 2 kicks things into high gear, introducing Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and giving Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. more to do. 2011’s Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger introduced the remaining Avengers, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), and (briefly) Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and then going even further by contributing two additional but incredibly important elements to The Avengers: a villain, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and a MacGuffin (they would later call these Infinity Stones), the Tesseract. By 2012 all the set-up was complete: Feige had planned this thing to work like a machine, but it was now up to one man to deliver on the hype and promise of a Marvel Cinematic Universe years in the making.
Joss Whedon’s task was immense. Not only did he have to somehow bring all these characters from five previous movies together, all differing tones and genres, but he had to also set-up the future of these characters and movies to come (Thanos, the villain these movies have been building towards since first appearing in a post-credits scene of this movie, will finally get to do something in this year’s Infinity War). Fortunately, Whedon was the (perhaps only) man for the job: despite his relative inexperience in making movies (this was only his second after 2005’s Serenity), he more than made up for it with his years of working in television as a Feige-esque figure (and perhaps television was a more relevant prerequisite for working with ongoing, serialized cinematic universes). And not only was he a master of ensembles (see the Scooby gang in Buffy or the crew of the Serenity), but he was an avid Marvel comics fan and knew exactly what made all these characters tick (it turns out this is actually kind of important if you want people to care about these kinds of movies).
The main reason why The Avengers (and the Marvel Cinematic Universe in general) works is the same thing that drew readers to Marvel comics back when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were first creating these characters back in the 1960s. These characters aren’t aliens or gods (well, there are some exceptions): they’re mostly ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations and consistently depicted as human first, superhero second, often struggling with problems that are completely relatable to readers (and now viewers). Captain America has lost everything he’s ever known and is now alone and unsure of his place in the world. Iron Man is arrogant and reckless, all about his ego; Thor thinks the others are beneath him and wants to get his brother back so he can go home; the Hulk has anger management problems and just wants to be left alone; Black Widow seeks to redeem her troubled past; and Hawkeye… well, he’s annoyed he’s been brainwashed (Whedon would make up for this by giving Hawkeye more to do in the sequel, but I do think having the character work as one of Loki’s minions was a great way to give the character something to do and show exactly what he’s capable of considering how little we had seen of him up until this movie). Anyway, when these characters come together (even though they probably don’t belong together), their problems are only magnified: they are forced to work together to overcome them… and “become something greater.” Like he’s done over and over in his career, Whedon takes the ultimate dysfunctional family and transformers them into Earth’s mightiest heroes.
It’s not an easy process. The characters argue and fight with one another, maybe even more than they do with the enemy they’re supposed to be fighting. And Whedon, known for killing off beloved characters, kills off a charismatic Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. named Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), who was perhaps the unintentional heart and soul of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, having appeared in the two Iron Man movies and Thor, and expressing a great appreciation of Captain America. “Phil Coulson died still believing in that idea,” Fury says, referring to the idea of these characters working together to become something greater, “in heroes.”
Coulson’s death is what pushes the Avengers to really become the Avengers: they needed something to avenge, and Coulson unfortunately drew the short straw (and I don’t care what Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. says, he’s still dead to me). Captain America becomes a leader once again; Thor gets his brother back, along with a new “family”; Hulk learns to control his anger and work with others; Black Widow does indeed start to redeem her past; and Iron Man puts aside his ego (or embraces it) and makes the ultimate sacrifice, diverting a nuclear missile (humanity’s response to Loki is to simply blow stuff up before he can) through a portal before passing out and falling to his death… only to be saved by the Hulk (if there is one moment that sums up The Avengers it is this: no wonder they spoiled it in every trailer). There is a great sequence during the climax of the movie that jumps from Avenger to Avenger and shows them truly working together to defeat Loki and his army while also saving the people of New York City, and it is a pure joy to behold. These characters have become the heroes they were meant to be together: “an old-fashioned notion,” sure, but it allows Whedon to essentially reconstruct the modern superhero movie after the competition (Nolan’s Batman trilogy; Watchmen) spent years deconstructing and subverting it.
There is no cynicism or judgment to be found here, no attempt to make things gritty or realistic: Whedon has taken a comic book and brought it to life with all the love and respect it deserves, and the audience feels it completely. This is what sets it – and the Marvel Cinematic Universe – apart from everything else: when the people making these movies truly care about these products they’re making, you can tell (and I don’t want to keep bringing up DC, but this is one of the main reasons why a movie like Wonder Woman works and a movie like Suicide Squad doesn’t).
Whedon really captured lighting in a bottle with this movie, an act he unfortunately hasn’t been able to repeat since. Age of Ultron is a decent sequel and I admire Whedon for not trying to recreate the first movie, but it still fails to capture and excitement and enthusiasm of The Avengers. And when given yet another immense task in finishing Zack Snyder’s Justice League not even he could salvage a working movie out of the mess (some would argue he even made it worse). Whedon pulling off the impossible proved that nothing would ever be the same again: inexperienced directors would be given the reins of major franchises (Marvel, Star Wars, Godzilla, etc.), release dates would be announced far before a movie’s title, cast or crew were even confirmed (and would almost never stick), and executives would wonder how they could turn what would almost always work better as a standalone movie with a sequel or two into an entire universe. Thanks to Joss Whedon and The Avengers, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was here to stay, and everything else better change or die.
Midwest Film Journal will post new, weekly entries of “The Marvel Decade” until the release of Avengers: Infinity War on May 4, 2018. Each entry is written by a different writer — some familiar to readers of the site and some fresh faces handpicked by members of the group. Each writer chose a Marvel movie that inspires insights or personal connections that they will highlight in their piece.
The MCU is a franchise that’s popular largely because of what it means to so many people, and that’s something we aim to capture with “The Marvel Decade.”
Join us again next week when guest writer Rachael Derrick looks at the depiction of PTSD in 2013’s Iron Man 3.
PREVIOUSLY IN “THE MARVEL DECADE”
Iron Man (2008) — Evan Dossey
The Incredible Hulk (2008) — Nick Rogers
Iron Man 2 (2010) — Joe Shearer
Thor (2011) — Aly Caviness
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) — Sy Stiner