The Marvel Moment

At the end of this month, Avengers: Endgame will bring to a head Marvel’s decade-long experiment in shared-universe storytelling. To mark the occasion, The A.V. Club is revisiting all 21 movies in this mega-franchise through a single, significant scene in each: not the best or most memorable scene, necessarily, but the one that says something about the MCU as an ongoing blockbuster phenomenon. This is The Marvel Moment.

Back in 2005, Marvel had an idea: bring together a group of B-list comic book superheroes to see if they could become something more. Each character would exist within their own movie franchise but would unite for a giant crossover event every few years, creating a live-action comic book universe. For many comics fans, this was the Holy Grail. For Marvel, though, it was a gamble, built on a $525 million loan from Merrill Lynch. By 2012, it was clear the gamble was starting to pay off. With a cumulative gross of $2.3 billion, the first four movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe were commercially successful, reinvigorating Robert Downey Jr.’s career and making bonafide leading men out of Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans. But for all of that success, Marvel still needed to prove they could put Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and Hulk side-by-side in a single movie. They needed their long-planned crossover, The Avengers, to cohere. Thankfully, it all came together in a single shot.

It’s been said that The Avengers’ success hinges on the way director Joss Whedon balances the movie’s competing personalities, often putting them in conflict with one another. But Marvel already spent most of the first “Phase” of its cinematic universe establishing the “character and performance first” ethos of its brand. The fact that the characters are strong isn’t a surprise. What is a surprise is that, in The Avengers, the action isn’t too bad either.

If there’s one thing the MCU was lacking until this point, it was a memorable action sequence, which is an odd thing to say about a franchise of superhero movies. Most of what had come before was either dull and unremarkable (Thor) or digitally muddled (The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2). The Avengers didn’t deviate drastically from the franchise’s set-piece formula—the action is still augmented with fun character beats and quips, and the climax features a largely dispensable CGI army—but Whedon’s version of that formula excels in execution. Nowhere is this more apparent than the lengthy single take during the Battle Of New York finale.

The sequence is short but impressive. It starts on Black Widow riding atop a Chitauri goon. The focus then drifts, without cutting, to Iron Man blasting by, and the camera—with the help of the effects team—follows him, snaking its way throughout the battle, showcasing each of the six Avengers working together, defending the city against the alien invasion. The shot only lasts about 40 seconds, but still manages to feel momentous while it’s unfolding. It’s fun, inventive blockbuster filmmaking—Whedon crafting something that felt like a moving version of a double-page spread from a comic book. Beyond that, though: Holy shit! This was the holy-grail moment fans were waiting for ever since Nick Fury popped up at the end of the first Iron Man movie, the single moment they were promised when Marvel announced their grand experiment: a chance to see Iron Man reflect his repulsor beams off of Captain America’s shield, and Thor and Hulk tag team a fucking Leviathan. Marvel’s full vision coalesced on screen for 40 glorious seconds. It finally delivered the universe.