The Avengers (2012) [MCU Retrospective]
This is a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe Retrospective series (ie. a sane person's marathon of the MCU). All entries can be accessed by clicking here.
Director: Joss Whedon
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92%
Domestic Gross: $623,357,910; International Gross: $895,455,078; Total: $1,518,812,988
After five films and four years of patient marketing, we finally get to the long anticipated finale of Marvel Studio’s first ‘experiment’. But truth be told, what started off as an experiment marked with uncertainty and curiosity, quickly turned into a venture of anticipation and expected success. I'd say that after the second Iron Man film, there was no question that The Avengers was gonna be an astronomical success. The writing was clearly on the walls, and it was pretty hard to ignore its 50-plus sized font. Did everyone expect it to make that much money? Maybe not. But no sane person on the planet would’ve expected it to not make loads of cash. Something like this had never been done before, and whatever hindrances you might have about overly zealous fandom in popular culture, there was no denying that the hype was much deserved. The Avengers was (and still is) a huge deal.
Objectively, does the film itself match up to its media hype? Thinking back to 2012, and even ignoring the film’s eventual box office onslaught, the answer would have to be yes. I’ll be upfront by saying that I have a lot of issues with The Avengers, all of which will be succinctly documented in the next few paragraphs. But even with that in mind, I can’t argue that the film bolstered the type of excitement and energy that it had promised. Seeing four franchise starters (Iron Man, Thor, Captain American and the Hulk) together in a single film speaks volume to the degree of novelty and reinvention that the MCU was able to pull off. Regardless of whether or not I actually liked the product on a personal level, I found it difficult not to embrace how special The Avengers was for both superhero movies, and cinema, in general.
Having said that, I can’t say I’m a particularly big fan of the film itself. I still remember seeing that opening scene for the very first time in theatres, and thinking to myself: why does this feel like such a cheap movie? The cinematography was certainly a problem, with Seamus McGarvey crafting what looked like something that oddly felt more appropriate for television, rather than cinema. This might seem like an overstatement, but its one that I think is pretty accurate with the exception of the battle scenes in New York. What McGarvey and the CGI team did here was pretty epic and absolutely worthy of praise. Its baffling how the rest of the film faired so differently from an aesthetic standpoint. I suppose Joss Whedon was going for more crisp visuals for this team-up event, but never did Earth’s mightiest heroes look so uninspired. That scene in front of the opera house might've looked so cool on paper, but in reality, had a flat appearance with way too many cheap tones.
Those familiar with this site will know that my mentioning of Joss Whedon a few sentences ago was most certainly a signpost for more to come. In fact, my negative opinion towards Whedon probably started with The Avengers. It seemed like he was always pretty involved in crafting this eventual crossover event, and I certainly give him lots of credit for doing that. But so many of the creative choices in this film just left me bewildered in disappointment. I don’t want to make this a point by point rant, so will just focus on a few of the bigger issues I had with the film. Having already mentioned the films overall visual tones, I’ll move onto the story’s emotional anchor. Using the ‘death’ of Agent Phil Coulson as the primary motivational event that would bring The Avengers together in a time of need is one of the weakest moves I’ve probably ever seen for such a large-scale film. Not that any particular event was needed in the first place, as each character’s inherent goodwill as superheroes would’ve been fully believable on its own. But if you’re going to go that route, Coulson doesn’t have the kind of weight to pull this off. Nothing against the character, but he’s just not meant to be that interesting. In fact, his rather simplicity as a character is more fitting for television, as evidenced by his eventual post on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Poor writing for one of the film’s supposedly most epic and emotionally charged moments.
I’ll also point out that Hawkeye just isn’t that cool a character, and his inclusion feels very Whedon-esque (even though he initially debuted in the first Thor film). Making him a possessed bad guy from the start of the film didn’t do the character any favours either. But perhaps the most important thing about an Avengers film is how each individual member actually comes together as a team, and I think Whedon actually deserves some credit here. Having firmly established himself as a king of one-liners through his television work, the banter between the Avengers is quality stuff. Bearing in mind that Whedon had some very capable actors to work with, the dynamic verbal exchanges seen on screen are equal parts fun and witty.
And even though I clearly stated my disdain for the film’s cinematography, I must once again say that the battle in New York was captured quite nicely. The physical banter between each member during this epic fight scene was also pretty impressive. I forgot how awesome it was when the Avengers finally assembled in full form, and Alan Silvestri’s contribution as the film’s composer cannot be overstated. The MCU has its share of rather forgettable soundtracks, but Silverstri’s Avengers theme remains one of the artistic highlights for the entire franchise. Hearing the tune come into full form with the Hulk finally smashing down is by far the best thing about this film.
The fact that no other studio has really been able to replicate the type of success of Marvel Studios speaks to the unique miracle that is the MCU. The Avengers was certainly a turning point for the studio, which solidified its then untested formula of creating a cinematic universe across multiple films. Disney certainly knew what it was getting into when it bought out Marvel in 2009. The Mickey Mouse machine has always been a machine when it comes to churning out maximally populist content, and the MCU has become a product of its overgrowing machinery. Attempting to decipher whether this is a good or bad thing for Marvel is a rabbit hole I’ll go down at some other time.
Looking back, I can safely say that although The Avengers was probably the biggest MCU film at the time, it was far from the greatest. But does it even matter? At this point, everyone was pretty much in it for the long haul. Much like a television show, you’ve gotten attached to these characters and don’t necessarily expect every outing to be perfect, or even great. I’ve written about this sentiment before, and its one that I held onto for some time. That being said, I think we can all look back and marvel at how The Avengers was, and continues to be a historic part of cinema and popular culture.