In 10 For The ’10s, The A.V. Club looks back at the decade that was: 10 essays about the media that defined the 2010s, one for every year from 2010 to 2019. Today: 2012 and The Avengers.
On May 4, 2012, I—along with a very, very long line of people—made the journey to Times Square on a Friday night, a place that any sane New Yorker avoids 99% of the time. But we were there for a specific reason: It was the opening day of The Avengers. The crowd around me pulsed with excitement—kids wearing costumes, adults debating the merits of various superpowers, a couple near me having an extremely in-depth conversation about whether Joss Whedon’s experience with his Serenity cinematographer Jack Green contributed to the richer depth of color suggested by the trailer—as we slowly filed into one of the dozen-plus theaters showing the film.
I’ve written before about the fickle nature of Times Square moviegoers. If a film contains so much as a single listless patch, there’s a chance they’ll turn on it, slowly beginning to check their phones and hold conversations well above a whisper, thereby ruining the experience for everyone else. But give them something energetic, smart, and compelling, and they can be the greatest audience in the world, reacting with unfiltered passion. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that The Avengers crowd fell squarely in the latter camp: Even if we hadn’t been primed to respond favorably to it as the culmination of the first five (more or less) well-received entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the movie would’ve likely still had the same effect. It remains the high-water mark of Avengers films, and one of the most entertaining superhero flicks of any era, let alone the crowning achievement of Marvel’s Phase One. When Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner reveals his big secret (“I’m always angry”) and Hulks out in order to single-handedly punch out a Chitauri Leviathan, people lost their minds. There was a guy in the front row who stood up and hopped back and forth in front of the screen hooting, he was so adrenalized by what he had just witnessed. When the big green guy knocks Thor out of frame? Forget about it. There were calmer crowds when the Beatles played Ed Sullivan.
The past decade has seen the ascendancy of the superhero film, and more specifically the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Marvel Studios. Marvel’s success could be called unprecedented: Outside Pixar and maybe the long-running James Bond series, it’s hard to think of a match for the MCU’s 23 consecutive hits. But as the MCU expanded, encompassing backstory and mythology that built on itself with every new film (mimicking the comic-book source material), a curiously unremarkable fact emerged: The Avengers was a runaway cultural event that could never be repeated, no matter how many additional stars and characters joined the MCU. There were many crossover tentpoles to come, but only one of them could be the first.
A shared cinematic universe was not a new idea in the late ’00s. From Universal’s monster movies of the 1930s—which saw Frankenstein, the Wolfman, and other classic horror icons come together onscreen after individual star turns—to Toho’s Godzilla movies staging one giant kaiju fight after another, the concept has periodically sprouted, though nearly always in the previously disreputable genres of sci-fi and horror. Then there are the one-offs that bring together disparate series, like Freddy Vs. Jason and Alien Vs. Predator, the latter even getting a much-scorned sequel. The low-budget comedy antics of Kevin Smith’s View Askewniverse marked one of the more recent, pre-MCU examples of an onscreen shared universe, a natural outgrowth of Smith’s comics fandom. (And his Mallrats had a Stan Lee cameo five years before X-Men’s.) Even Marvel had previously put up a test balloon of this sort, with 2005’s Elektra spinning off of Daredevil, albeit to horrendous and mostly ignoble (and ignorable) effect.
The studio had bet pretty much everything on its mid-2000s foray into self-produced cinema. In spite of kicking off the current wave of superhero blockbusters with the otherwise lucrative Blade, X-Men, and Spider-Man series, Marvel’s policy of licensing its characters to other studios had earned it a pittance. But in 2005, Marvel negotiated $525 million in financing to launch its own series of films on the back of then-second-stringer Iron Man. Had the plan failed, there would be no MCU (and Merrill Lynch would own Captain America, a dispiriting proposition); instead, Marvel’s gamble paid off, the massive profits of each movie feeding into the next. Even The Incredible Hulk, considered a bit of a commercial failure, pulled in $134 million domestically and more than a quarter-billion dollars worldwide.
But the real battle was won in the hearts and minds of moviegoers. Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, and Iron Man 2 were slickly produced popcorn entertainment that still felt like they had a big, beating heart at the center of their stories—an essential ingredient to creating affection for characters that would extend beyond the life cycle of the box office. Just as Marvel had done with its comics decades before, the company realized that if it could create beloved heroes in their own series of films, bringing them together in a single team-up would not only generate even more enthusiasm, but would serve as a payoff for fans who committed to seeing every movie the studio put out. Consider it the cinematic equivalent of the comics’ crossover stories, in which a cliffhanger in Uncanny X-Men would continue in an issue of The New Mutants, and so on. An even more accurate comparison would be the so-called “event” series, in which a limited-run book tells a self-contained story, yet possesses characters and subplots whose arcs play out across a variety of other titles. (One of the most noteworthy of the modern era: 1991’s Infinity Gauntlet.)
The Avengers was meant to be the event series around which all the other films rotated. Thor and Hulk will have plenty of adventures on their own, but in planning to cap off the MCU’s first “phase” with the Joss Whedon-directed team-up, Marvel was introducing the rich currency of a shared universe straight into the mainstream of Hollywood cinema. For the first time in most movie fans’ lives, a culturally ubiquitous and commercially popular variety of films were going to be linked together by a single movie. Even if it wasn’t wholly unprecedented, it certainly felt like it was. Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, Thor, and (let’s be frank) supporting players Hawkeye and Black Widow would join forces for a story that had been carefully prepped from the moment Nick Fury told Tony Stark that he wasn’t the world’s only superhero.
It was exhilarating. A lot of that has to do with Whedon’s excellent writing and directing, which juggles more than a half-dozen characters and multiple story arcs with the breeziness of a Saturday morning serial. He’s patient with the introductions; it speaks to his intentions that Black Widow gets the same screen time and setup as the characters who’d already headlined their own films. Even when Thor flies into the middle of the action without so much as a “Hello, my name is…” it’s so that the Asgardian can take a few quiet minutes of one-on-one time with Loki—a reminder of the character’s emotional core and personal stakes. Each Avenger gets a hero’s welcome of sorts; even if you didn’t catch it in a crowded theater of vocal fans, the movie often rah-rahs for you—its love for these characters is palpable. And the love of all of them in one room? Something special.
That was the unique thrill of seeing these heroes interact: There was a sense of boundaries being broken. When a door opens in an Avengers film, anyone could walk through, be it a recurring presence like S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson or Loki himself. It was surprising, and fun, a world of possibilities coming together before your very eyes. Avengers assemble, indeed.
And once it was over, regardless of your level of enjoyment or how many times you re-watched it (and for some of us, both numbers were high), the Rubicon of the shared universe had been crossed. Not unlike the first time you ride a roller coaster versus the second time: still thrilling, but you know what to expect. Look no further than the opening moments of Avengers: Age Of Ultron for confirmation. Whedon doesn’t bother with any intros—he knows we know who these people are, and that we’re ready for their story to progress—so he dispenses with any preludes, dumping us straight into the action and giving a single shot of all of the Avengers leaping headlong into battle in the first minute.
There’s no thrill of excitement at simply seeing these various characters all together. This is just how it’s supposed to be. It was what we already expected, only one film into the flagship franchise of the MCU. Just a couple of films later, Captain America: Civil War was pitting the entire array of heroes against one another, before Infinity War reduced half of them to dust, and Endgame brought them back to life. It’s still a kick to see unexpected pairings spring to life; Infinity War saw Dr. Strange and Iron Man fighting together on the streets of Manhattan, and Black Widow duking it out side-by-side with Okoye. In Endgame’s climactic fight, we see Hawkeye handing off the Infinity Gauntlet to Black Panther, while Captain Marvel gives a smile and an assist to Peter Parker.
But that’s all they are, from now on: fun pairings we expect to see, that we’ve seen before in other permutations, and now want to see more of. The genie of the shared universe has been fully released from the bottle, and no amount of mass team-ups (and Endgame has a truly staggering tonnage of heroes) can put it back and recapture that initial thrill of seeing it all come together. The MCU will continue to be a source of entertainment and fun, and new generations will discover its pleasures with an equal degree of giddy enthusiasm.
But in 2012, it really did feel like our world was invaded—not by the Chitauri, but by the colossus of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For good and ill, Hollywood cinema hasn’t been the same since.