The movies that make up Phase 1 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, by themselves, might not have been all that special to me. I enjoy most of them, but even when they were first coming out, I wouldn’t have listed any of them in my top three favourite superhero movies, and with the way the superhero industry has exploded since 2008, I certainly wouldn’t now. They’re all entertaining romps with a little bit of heart, and…that’s pretty much it.
This is the movie that made them special.
Director and Writer: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson
Music By: Alan Silvestri
(This is also the point at which it becomes impossible to talk about MCU movies without spoiling some things about their predecessors, so…spoiler warning if you’re not caught up.)
After an ominous monologue from one alien to another unseen alien, we open with the Tesseract, a powerful object retrieved by SHIELD in Captain America: The First Avenger, creating a portal in an underground base. Out pops Loki, looking a bit the worse for wear after falling to his presumed death in Thor, but carrying a staff that allows him to mind-control a couple of scientists and SHIELD agents. They help him destroy the base and escape, and given that Loki’s first act on Earth was to announce his plans to conquer it, Director Fury figures now would be a good time to assemble the super-team he’s been hinting at for the last few movies. They’ve all got very different personalities, some are adjusting to major culture shock, some are harbouring dangerous secrets, and some just plain don’t get along, but it’s up to this new team of heroes–Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye–to stop Loki’s plans and save the world. Or, failing that, to avenge it.
I think it would be hard to overstate how much of a milestone The Avengers is, both for the MCU and for superhero movies in general. It was the first major crossover in superhero movies. There had been a few team movies before this, but they usually followed groups of close-knit heroes who were all introduced at the same time, like the X-Men. The Avengers was different: five out of its seven team members had already been established in their own movies (even multiple movies, in Iron Man’s case), and their big team-up would not just be a crowd-pleasing crossover, but a major in-univere event that would advance all their stories. Not being a comic reader at the time the movie came out, I remember being sceptical. Could a hero whose origin was completely based in magic and otherworldly realms, like Thor, work on the same team as a technology-based hero like Iron Man? How could an old-fashioned World War II hero like Captain America work with a high-tech spy agency like Nick Fury’s SHIELD? How would there be time to develop all the characters, including some who hadn’t gotten their own origin stories yet, and still have a comprehensible plot?
Nowadays, with the much-hyped Infinity War advertising a cast of something like 25 different super-people, my doubts seem silly. But I think it’s worth pointing out that, even today, no non-Marvel studio has yet managed to put out a super-team movie as successful as The Avengers.
It helps that Marvel picked the right man for the job. Joss Whedon has his weaknesses as a creator (which we’ll probably get into more when I review Age of Ultron), but he generally excels at two things: putting together an effective ensemble cast from characters with wildly different personalities, and writing insanely quotable dialogue.
Both strengths serve him well in this movie. It’s got a disproportionate number of the most iconic lines in the MCU, for starters. “I understood that reference;” “Genius billionaire playboy philanthropist;” “We have a Hulk;” “That’s my secret, Cap: I’m always angry;” etc….they’ve all become deeply ingrained in the vocabulary of even casual Marvel fans. It helps that the actors’ delivery is invariably excellent, but the dialogue as written is basically a perfect storm of Iron Man’s snappiest witticisms, the Shakespearean flavour of Asgard and Cap’s 1940s slang. Both the heroes and villains in this movie are excellent talkers.
As a results, the best parts are the scenes where all the different heroes are chilling on the helicarrier, just getting to know each other. It’s fun to see Tony Stark and Bruce Banner bond over mad science, Agent Coulson’s fangirl moments over Captain America, and the newly-introduced bond between Black Widow and Hawkeye. And of course, the epic rivalry between Iron Man and Captain America, which is really at the heart of all the Avengers team-up movies, gets its start here. It makes a lot of sense: an irreverent playboy who’s constantly upgrading his technology and likes the fame and fortune that come with superheroing would naturally butt heads with old-fashioned Steve Rogers, who isn’t used to computers yet and still thinks like a soldier. Their conflict will eventually lead to serious trouble for the team, but in this movie it just leads to growth for both of them. Tony learns the value of self-sacrifice and gets over some of his lingering pride. Steve begins to learn he can’t always trust the people giving him orders. They form an unlikely (and uneasy) friendship that will shape much of the MCU from here on out.
Of course, the action scenes are fun, too–particularly the climax in New York City. Although it would be overshadowed by later films, that sequence is still a fantastic example of teamwork on display in a fight scene.
I do have a few complaints about the movie. One is that it downgrades Loki from a clever schemer with complicated motives to a moustache-twirling cartoon villain. Tom Hiddleston’s performance is still fun to watch, but he’s not nearly as interesting here as he was in Thor. And the Chitauri invasion, while perfectly fine when this movie came out, feels generic now that so many other comic book movies have centred on heroes battling faceless armies of disposable freaks for the big finale.
It’s also a shame that Hawkeye spends most of this movie brainwashed, because I feel he got the short end of the stick when it comes to characterisation for the Avengers. We don’t really learn anything about him in this movie, other than the tiniest glimpse of his history with Black Widow and the fact that he has a dry sense of humour. Combine that with his total lack of superpowers, and he doesn’t really seem like he deserves to be playing on the same team as, say, Thor.
Overall, though, I still love this movie, and it’s definitely the crown jewel of Phase 1.
- The Avengers
- Captain America: The First Avenger
- Iron Man
- Iron Man 2
- The Incredible Hulk