For many movies that are remembered as the best of their genre, game changers, the journey towards this status usually takes a number of years. Classics like Citizen Kane, The Shining, and Blade Runner are seen as definitive forms of cinema now, but they all flopped when they were first released. But this is not the case with The Avengers. Before it’s 2012 release, there was a strong feeling among fans that Marvel and director Joss Whedon had created something very special based on the trailers and marketing campaign as a whole.
The Avengers isn’t on par with the eventual classics that I’ve already mentioned – hell, it’s not even the best superhero movie, not as long as The Dark Knight still exists in this timeline. The Avengers was something new: a team-up movie that brings together a bunch of heroes from different standalone series in order to face a world-ending threat. This happens in comics all the time, but this was the first time it happened on the big screen.
The reason The Avengers is still so iconic is more than the fact that it started a whole new sub-genre of movies, and that’s where it lands on the same level as though cinematic giants. Put simply, it’s down to a director, who, at the arguable height of his creative powers, managed the impossible task of giving each major character in the film an arc and a purpose within the main plot. There are some silly things in the movie, some convenient plot-jumps as there are in almost any blockbuster, but The Avengers is too much of a blast to sweat the small stuff. So, let’s go through each major character one by one to break down why this movie still stands up so well.
Tony Stark/ Iron Man
Easily Robert Downey Jr’s best work so far, Tony spends most of the movie finding out that his blunt but charismatic style of heroism just won’t cut it when the bad guy isn’t wearing a duller version of his suit. His ideological opposite, Captain America, and his antagonism towards Tony’s methods, coupled with the death of Coulson, help Tony to recapture his strength as a hero willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to save the day.
Steve Rogers/ Captain America
Steve’s arc in the movie is to go from a fish-out-of-water on the sidelines to the leader of the team. In The First Avenger, Steve was an inexperienced soldier with a huge advantage over his enemies and a penchant for Nazi-punching. With the playing field levelled by Loki, Joss Whedon unlocks Steve’s strengths as a tactician as he spends the final fight as a General on the front line, his purpose restored.
The god of Thunder is also the winner of the movie’s best entrance – and no amount of appropriate AC/DC soundtracks can beat that. The Avengers plays like the second of the two-part story that started with Thor’s debut and he is not in the mood to play this time around. He has the closest connection to Loki and a measure of blame for his brother’s actions, and while Thor’s arc isn’t a richly defined outside of those factors, he still gets some great moments like his first round with the Hulk.
Bruce Banner/ The Hulk
As much as I wanted Ed Norton to have another crack at the Hulk, Mark Ruffalo owns the role within 20 seconds. Considering Bruce Banner is one small piece of this sprawling movie, he has one of the best-defined arcs. Both Hulk movies before this have been about Bruce trying to rid himself of the Hulk. The Avengers, on the other hand, has Bruce come to accept that “the Other Guy” has his uses. What helps this transformation feel real is how much the movie builds up the Hulk’s first appearance. Like Banner, we are supposed to fear this transformation, and the tension that simmers over the lead-up to his first change really helps lend his fear some validity.
Natascha Romanoff/ Black Widow
After cleaning up the little puddle of Jon Favreau’s drool left over from Iron Man 2, Joss Whedon remembered to give Scarlett Johansson a character to play. While he would be criticised for his treatment of the character in the future (we’ll get there when we get there), Black Widow is one of the best aspects of the movie. Whedon and Johansson achieve this by constantly subverting our expectations of a woman in a predominately male genre. Every time it looks like she’s in danger, like her introductory scene and her interrogation with Loki, she reveals herself to be in cool, comfortable control. It’s also worth noting that more fans have a problem with Hawkeye taking on a God with an alien army with a bow and arrow than with Black Widow taking them on, usually with hand-to-hand combat. That’s how convincing she is as a hero. Get that fucking movie made Marvel!
He has a bow and arrow, I guess. More on him in the next team-up.
The Un-Wasted Villain Corner
Since there is no recognisable romantic box ticking, lets go straight to the villain. To understand how great Loki is in this movie, and how well he is utilised in the story, we just have to compare him to Steppenwolf from Justice League. Steppenwolf had one job, and one purpose in Justice League: get those Mother Boxes. He doesn’t have any real screen time where he talks to any of the heroes, except right before a badly-constructed action sequence. Now think about Loki. His introduction is the beginning of the movie. He has scenes in which he verbally faces off against every Avenger which are tailored to his and their story arcs. He’s also cool as fuck, with Tom Hiddleston having a whale of a time picking up where he left off in Thor.
The Avengers is a deeply characterised movie with a simple plot at its core: introduce the heroes, have them fight amongst themselves, then team up and save the day. It’s the details that make it fly, like the fact that every action sequence has a specific point: contain the Hulk, get the engine working before the Heli carrier falls out of the sky, capture Loki, to name a few. Each action scene is goal-based and gives us a chance to see what each of our heroes bring to the team before they even are one. Perhaps the most crucial part of all is the focus on saving actual people in the final fight ; many superhero movies following this would forget this to the detriment of it’s heroes journey (yes, I’m ragging on Man of Steel, and it deserves it).
The Avengers proved that comic book movies could be as ambitious as comics themselves, and by keeping it simple and character-based, it’s till the gold standard in team-up movies. So, what happens when the team is disbanded and everyone goes back to their day jobs? Find out when we join Tony next week.
By Kevin Boyle