In the past decade, Hollywood has attempted to transform the franchise into something else: the cinematic universe. It’s a lofty and slightly absurd goal. Movies, we are now to understand, never exist as stand-alone stories, unless they’re arthouse flicks or Oscar bait (and even then, maybe not). They don’t exist as mere sequel generators, either. Instead, movies are supposed to form interconnected webs with other movies, to reach out storytelling tendrils into different media and across different timelines. If you’re invested in one of these universes, the hope is that you will keep coming to the movies, watching the TV shows, playing the video games, buying the tie-in merch, lining up for the amusement park rides.
Even if you leave the artistic implications of this whole idea aside completely, it still utterly obliterates conventional ideas of moviegoing. With the cinematic universe, you aren’t disappearing into a dark room to lose yourself in someone else’s story for two hours. Instead, you’re basically waiting around to watch another episode of a vastly expensive TV show, one that only arrives a few times a year. The cinematic universe is a game-changer. It’s also, for the most part, a failure.
Cinematic universes don’t usually work. Something always happens to fuck them up. The whole enterprise has unleashed one crashing, dismal disappointment after another. Think about it. The Star Wars movies have made a ton of money, but they’re also going through an identity crisis, and people don’t seem to care much about the movies that exist outside the main storyline about the Skywalker family. DC’s answer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe has missed more often than it’s hit. The X-Men movies are the shitty, shambling alternative to the main Marvel Universe, and they’ve completely wrecked their coherence by indulging in time-travel shenanigans. A planned Transformers universe has thus far launched exactly one spinoff. Sony tried it with a Spider-Man universe, and they bricked it so badly that they basically had to license their main character back to Marvel. Universal made a whole big thing about unveiling their Dark Universe, using their classic cinematic monsters and turning them into star-heavy circa-now blockbuster fare, and then they promptly face-planted with a Mummy movie that nobody liked.
Look: It’s hard enough to make one good movie. To come up with characters that people like and want to see again—or, as is more often the case, to adapt preexisting characters in ways that people like—is a perilous, inexact venture. You can’t just will a whole cinematic universe into existence. There are a few right now that are quietly working. The Conjuring has spun off a tiny empire of cheap, effective, lucrative ghost movies. M. Night Shyamalan found a smart way to thread the characters of a couple of his better movies, and their forthcoming crossover Glass could potentially lead to more. The two movies in the Godzilla/King Kong MonsterVerse have thus far been pretty fun, and they’ve been patient about combining those towering-colossus stories. But unless you want to get into that elaborate theory about how all the Pixar movies are connected, there’s only one large-scale cinematic universe success, and that’s Marvel. Marvel figured it out, and 2012’s The Avengers is the moment that it all coalesced and began making sense.
As a comic book company, Marvel figured out early that the kids reading their books wanted to see characters coming together. As early as 1940, Marvel had the Sub-Mariner fighting the original Human Torch. Over the decades, Marvel invented a whole cosmology of flawed and fascinating super-characters, all with their own byzantine and interwoven backstories. The company sold Marvel Universe reference books, giving kids like me a chance to pore over pre-Wikipedia tiny-font summaries of strengths and weaknesses and alliances, letting us know (for instance) just how far the Taskmaster’s imitating-other-super-stuff abilities went. This got messy—all these stories unfolding over multiple books, from multiple writers, sometimes with the same characters. You were forced to consider things like how Wolverine could possibly have enough spare time to go on, like, eight different adventures per month, showing up in everyone else’s comics. Eventually, Marvel got into rebooting its own characters, or spinning them off into things like the Ultimate universe. But the basic idea—all of these titans live in the same world, and they all have to deal with each other—resonated.
In 2005, Marvel, on the verge of going out of business, secured itself a $525 million loan by presenting the idea that its characters could exist in a bunch of different movie franchises and that they could also come together in crossover movies. They’d already sold off the rights to their most popular characters, so they had to make do with the B-listers: Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk. Against all odds, it worked. The early Marvel movies were a mixed bag, but the idea of the looming crossover was enough to keep people excited. Marvel stoked that fire by figuring out an intricate dance for those first few films: Characters show up for cameos in each other’s stories, stoking future crossovers with post-credits stingers. Four years after introducing the idea to the public with 2008’s Iron Man, Marvel finally pulled it all together with The Avengers. And they made it work. I still can’t fucking believe that they made it work.
Joss Whedon, director and co-writer of The Avengers, had only directed one feature film before The Avengers: 2005’s Serenity, a satisfying but distinctly non-lucrative spinoff of his short-lived sci-fi TV show Firefly. Whedon was a veteran script doctor and a creator of culty TV series, not a master of the blockbuster form. And yet he was a perfect choice—maybe the only choice, when you consider how wrong it could’ve all gone. Whedon had a voice, one that he’d spent years developing on TV. It was a sort of snarky variation on Aaron Sorkin fast-talk patter, one that was capable of conveying both exposition and emotional resonance in the context of quippy and wordy dialogue. He knew how to communicate the internal dynamics of ersatz-family teams; all of his TV shows were, in one way or another, about exactly that. And he knew comic books—not just as a fan, but as a writer. (His run on Astonishing X-Men was some good shit.) Whedon was uniquely qualified to handle this one supreme juggling act.
Rewatching The Avengers today, it’s still not entirely clear how Whedon pulled it off. He approached it like he was a coach at the NBA All-Star game. He had to figure out how to showcase all of these enormous competing personalities, to let all of them shine without allowing any of them to dominate. He had to switch in and out of all of their individual stories and figure out how they could interlock, even when some of those characters were actual ancient Norse deities. And he had to do this in the context of a compelling story, one that would fit in the requisite widespread-devastation set pieces and set up future installments for everyone. The degree of difficulty must’ve been off the charts.
And there are things about The Avengers that don’t work. Too much of the dialogue is dedicated to the vague MacGuffins that would eventually turn out to be Infinity Stones. (The intro, especially, is rough.) Too much of the special-effects budget goes to swirling blue energy, which only ever looks like CGI nothing. Captain America’s costume looks like shit, and he kills brainwashed S.H.I.E.L.D. agents by throwing them off of an airborne helicarrier, which is exactly the kind of thing that Captain America exists to not do. Hawkeye, the team member already saddled with the dumbest and weakest power, spends most of the movie as a zombie drone. I really hate Tony Stark’s fake-vintage Black Sabbath shirt. Iron Man ends the movie by committing nuclear genocide against a race of aliens, and nobody pauses to consider what that might mean, even if those aliens were mid-wormhole invasion. And the movie’s entire plot mostly works as a flimsy excuse to get those characters together, by any means necessary. There are no real dramatic stakes when you know that everyone’s going to be back for who knows how many sequels.
But the magic of The Avengers is that these quibbles barely matter when you’re watching it. It’s a light, frothy, rewarding piece of entertainment that continually hammers your pleasure receptors over and over. If you’re at all invested in these characters, or in seeing this venture work, the movie offers up countless little thrills. The superheroes all start fighting each other right away, just as they constantly do in comics, and we get to see just how well they measure up against each other. They bicker in ways that reveal just how different they are, and then they slowly earn each other’s respect. They get fun, breezy theater-applause introductions and telling little character moments and great lines. And they all end up working together.
By rights, Iron Man should be the star of The Avengers. Robert Downey Jr. is the one bona fide movie star on the team, and Iron Man is the character that got the boulder rolling downhill in the first place. In some ways, Iron Man is the star; he’s the guy who gets to give the big nuclear-wormhole death blow. But he’s also an asshole, a preening and self-important billionaire prick who’s constantly jockeying for alpha position by shitting on everyone around him. Stark risks turning Bruce Banner into the Hulk by needling him, passing it off as hijinks. He gets his ass kicked by Thor, and then he tells him, “No hard feelings, Point Break. You got a mean swing.” But in the end, he puts that asshole nature to good use, treating hostile god Loki like an employee who’s about to get fired, before finally pulling the hero moves that Captain America said he wouldn’t.
If there is a star throughout, it’s Captain America, who overcomes an ass-ugly uniform to convincingly present as the team’s charismatic all-heart leader. Most of the other characters treat him with something like religious awe. (Agent Coulson even uses the word “superhero” when talking to him, something that doesn’t happen enough in superhero movies.) Captain America is sincere and good-hearted and totally allergic to Iron Man’s irony, and he’s also burdened by bewilderment, completely out of his time. But in Whedon’s hands, that becomes both inspiring and funny. Cap’s most stolid good-guy lines are funnier than everyone else’s quips: “There’s only one god, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.” The character’s combination of silliness and gravitas remains a source of wonder.
Even in the knowingly goofy Marvel world, a character like Thor shouldn’t work; he’s pretty much a transplant from a fantasy series. And in some ways, he’s the least defined non-Hawkeye member of the team. He just kind of shows up, unbidden and unrecruited, and he spends too much of the movie posing dramatically and letting CGI lightning flow through him. But Chris Hemsworth still makes the character work, largely through sheer size, handsomeness, and confidence. He commands respect in every room. And just as importantly, Thor brings Loki into the picture. Tom Hiddleston’s mischief god isn’t the most intimidating villain; we know throughout the movie that he isn’t going to win. But he’s a blast anyway, sneering bitchily and haughtily declaiming about how he’s “burdened with glorious purpose.” His line about the Avengers being “such lost creatures” gets at the whole idea of the movie. It’s not that the Avengers can’t beat almost any enemy. It’s that the individual members are all too wrapped up in their own bullshit to get it together in time.
As the most lost of those creatures, Mark Ruffalo does a whole lot with not much. Ruffalo was a recasting. Edward Norton had been the Hulk in the not-great 2008 stand-alone movie, which now only barely plays as a Marvel movie. But Norton wanted some level of control over the character, and you just don’t get that with Marvel. Ruffalo downplays the character, keeping him in the background and internally seething all through it. Banner is the one character who is constantly terrified that things won’t work out because he knows how it looks when his powers get out of control. He’s the one with no patience for everyone else’s petty resentments, like Iron Man’s feelings about how much his father loved Captain America. And as the first actor ever to play both Bruce Banner and the motion-capture Hulk, Ruffalo figured out how to invest his monster with some humanity, to turn him into something other than a raging CGI muscle-blob. When the Hulk works with the rest of the team, it’s out of character, but you buy it because you can still see the Banner in there.
There are smaller joys in there, too. The Black Widow, despite the whole no-superpowers thing, carries herself as an equal member of the team, and her ass-kicking character introduction is the best of the lot. We get to see her play Loki to get the information that she needs, and we also get to see her kick alien skeleton robot things in the head. A S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier gets a reveal that’s straight out of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Nick Fury shoots a pistol at a god because, even though he knows it won’t work, he’s not going to back down.
As a movie, The Avengers is no masterpiece, and there are moments where it only barely hangs together. But as summer entertainment, it overachieves in every possible way, bringing a sense of fun and wonder to its masterful property management. I have a hard time regarding it as a work of art, and yet I keep pulling up scenes on YouTube when I can’t sleep. And it did what it needed to do. The Avengers made an obscene $1.5 billion, and it emboldened Marvel to continue making over the cinema in its own image, to the point where my children now know and love a once-obscure trigger-happy space raccoon the same way that they know and love Bugs Bunny. That is one hell of a magic trick.
Other notable 2012 superhero movies: The Avengers’ only real competition in the 2012 superhero-movie sweepstakes was The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s conclusion to his grand Batman trilogy. It’s a fascinating and ambitious mess, more of a supervillain movie than a superhero one when you consider that the hero is absent for most of the best scenes. The cast and length and budget are all huge, and some of it is thrilling: Anne Hathaway’s knowing and badass Catwoman, Nolan’s increasingly competent action scenes, Bane’s coat. And some of it is mystifying, like Tom Hardy’s barely discernible mask-voice or the mystifying decision to center way too much of it around a mysterious inescapable prison that Batman promptly escapes. By the end of it, Nolan is attempting to pull some blockbuster-Eisenstein moves, and it comes perilously close to descending into pure insanity. Ultimately, it’s a movie burdened by its two much-better predecessors, as amazing as certain scenes may be.
But if The Dark Knight Rises does too much, The Amazing Spider-Man has the opposite problem. It doesn’t do enough. A transparent and cynical attempt to keep the Spider-Man character in the Sony house, rebooting Sam Raimi’s series only five years after it ended, it retells the whole tired Spider-Man origin myth with shockingly little variation from the previous iteration. The movie has its charms, especially the massively overqualified Emma Stone’s portrayal of Gwen Stacy. But it’s about as rote and by-the-numbers as superhero movies get, right down to the way it portrays the villainous Lizard as a generic computer-generated monster. My pet theory is that director Marc Webb only got the job because his last name is Webb.
Another Marvel-affiliated movie fared even worse. Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance, a sequel to a movie that never should’ve had a sequel, manages to be even shittier than its predecessor. By moving its action to desolate Eastern Europe, it plays out as a cheap direct-to-DVD action movie, with the wrinkle that Nicolas Cage (a man who has been in more than his share of cheap direct-to-DVD action movies) occasionally erupts into an expensive computer-generated monster who sadly acts nothing like Nicolas Cage. Hyperactive directing team Neveldine & Taylor prove what hacks they are, something that should’ve been obvious from their not-actually-funny Crank movies, and poor Idris Elba, a man who should’ve already been one of the world’s biggest movie stars by that point, gets saddled with orange contact lenses and a terrible French accent.
Josh Trank’s Chronicle had a lot of fun with the idea of telling a superhero origin story as a found-footage horror movie, attempting to tell a grounded and contained story about three kids who suddenly become telekinetic gods. The movie falls apart as it goes, and it wastes a pre-Human Torch, pre-Killmonger Michael B. Jordan, but the movie’s early discovering-powers scenes are a total blast. Trank’s career has been rough since, but the movie had a real spark.
Next time: DC attempts to launch its own universe with Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel.