Countdown to Infinity War: Revisiting The Avengers (2012)

Four years. Four years since that teaser at the end of the Iron Man credits, where Nick Fury teased the “Avengers Initiative”. Four years and here it was, the movie that nerds worldwide had been waiting for. Don’t get me wrong; we’d had superhero team movies before. By this point, we’d seen four X-Men movies (and honestly, of those four, only First Class has aged well), two Fantastic Four movies (neither one aging well at all), and Mystery Men (an acquired taste). But The Avengers felt… different.


Time and attention to detail had been devoted to this project, a strong cast had been (pardon the pun) assembled, and hints as to the plot and principal villain had been planted in previous films. By the time 2012 rolled around, we were ready to be blown away.

The Plot: In possession of the Red Skull’s super-weapon the Tessaract, SHIELD director Nick Fury…

…has employed experts to unlock its secrets. Only, during the studying of the device someone crosses untold distances to reach Earth to steal the artifact: Loki!

Loki suborns numerous SHIELD agents, among them Clint “Hawkeye” Barton…

…and Thor’s friend Doctor Selvig…

..which allows Loki to escape and craft a plan to employ the Tessaract to open a gateway to bring forth an army to conquer Earth. Only the planet’s mightiest heroes…

…have any hope of stopping him. But can they refrain from fighting among themselves long enough to become the team Earth needs?

So does The Avengers deliver? Short answer: hell, yes. This movie set the bar that all other superhero movies aspire to. Its production values are amazing, the script top-notch, the cast amazing. The action sequences are sheer eye candy sweet enough to make your teeth hurt. The film is satisfying in every way.

And yet… Look, for years, I considered this movie to be the gold standard by which all other superhero movies should be measured. But the problem is, it seems Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has learned the wrong lessons from this film. What I mean is that Feige now seems to think that we love to see superheroes fight. Not just physically fight, but verbally spar as well. Because of later Marvel movies, it’s harder to for me to like The Avengers, so it’s hard to look at this movie objectively without thinking about the legacy it carved out for the films that followed. I can’t deny the fights between the various heroes are compelling and entertaining. We got Iron Man vs. Thor…

…Thor vs. Hulk…

…Hulk vs. Black Widow (sorta)…

…Black Widow vs. Hawkeye…

…and Iron Man and Captain America in a nice little tension-filled verbal confrontation.

I get what director Joss Whedon was going for here; these are all alpha type personalities used to dominating a room, and used to being unique in some way or commanding attention. And when those types encounter rivals, they instinctively go on the defensive. In some cases, they see peers as opponents first and allies/friends second, or their personalities are so dissimilar that they take a instant dislike to each other. And let’s be fair, this feels realistic and it fits in with the history of the team in the comics going all the way back to the 1960s.

In the comics, the Avengers often fought among themselves, no matter what the lineup. If it wasn’t Hawkeye fighting with Quicksilver over his affections for the Scarlet Witch, it was Quicksilver and the Vision doing the same, or Hawkeye quarreling with Captain America over how to run the team, or Captain America butting heads with Iron Man over the Super Human Registration Act, or Hank Pym going bat-shit insane and siccing a giant robot on everybody because they wanted to kick him out of the team for being a dick and him subsequently slapping his wife Janet/Wasp when she tried talking some sense into him. And yeah, I know, that’s a gross oversimplification of events; I own those comics and remembered being stunned by what I read and saw…

…but to be completely fair to Hank Pym, the man was mentally ill and never got treatment, and writer Roger Stern put him through hell afterwards. He was unemployed, friendless, got framed for murder, and was humiliated and thrown in jail. And Janet later got her own back by laying him out. It’s sad that so many people remember the assault but forget why it happened or the aftermath, and yet keep bringing it up again… and again… and again…

Pardon me for the digression, but I do have a point, and that is that Joss Whedon was being faithful to the source material when he had the Avengers imploding before our eyes, and it was done well in my opinion. You see that once the true threat emerges, the team bands together, forgetting all their differences to face the Chitauri and Loki as a united front. And it isn’t all conflict; for example, there are terrific character moments between the Avengers, like Stark and Banner…

…and Natasha and Clint.

I especially appreciate the relationship that this pair share. There’s an intimacy here, but it’s as friends, not lovers. It’s wonderful to see Whedon didn’t go down the easy path of having Natasha actually fall in love with one of the male Avengers. What a disaster of a plotline that would have been.

And now we come to my biggest issue with the movie: the villains. Loki is fantastic here. Whereas in Thor he came across as a bit whiny, here he’s the master manipulator, given power by an unknown sponsor and determined to take over the Earth. He goads and prods, moving Avengers around like chess pieces, as his super-weapon does it work on their psyches, until finally the Hulk breaks loose and things go to hell.

No, Loki isn’t the problem—the Chitauri are. Remember in my Iron Man 2 review, where I talked about how much I hated the robots? The Chitauri are pretty much organic robots.

We saw similar faceless minions in Captain America with the masked HYDRA agents, and we will see their like in later films as well. One of the reasons Iron Man was so good is because the terrorists had faces; they were people. Despicable people to be sure, but when they were taken down, it was a lot more satisfying than seeing faceless minions drop. (Okay, I grant you, the giant flying worms? Yeah, those are all kinds of cool.)

On top of that, I’m not crazy about what happened to Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, who spends half the movie as a mind-controlled flunky. Renner is a talented actor, and he’s wasted for most of the film. What if, instead of Barton remaining under Loki’s control, he broke free, but not before helping the God of Mischief form a team of super-powered mercenaries? Imagine if we had gotten the Masters of Evil in the first two acts? We could have gotten the likes of Batroc…


…and others. We could have had actual supervillains fighting superheroes. Instead, we got Iron Man relegated to repairing a SHIELD helicarrier when he could have been fighting a guy like MAULER.

What if such a confrontation ultimately led to Stark realizing people were using his technology for devious purposes? Iron Man 3 could have been Armor Wars!

Damn, I’m digressing again. The point is, Marvel Comics has so many super villains, even C-grade ones, that they could have easily been used to good effect rather than the nameless goons that Barton leads. I fear we’re never, ever going to see an actual supervillain team fighting a superhero team in these movies, and the closest we’re ever going to get is what we saw in X-Men: First Class.

As we’ve seen from his past projects, Whedon’s strength is dialogue and humor, and he provides it in spades here. While there are attempts to give everyone a moment to shine—Clint Barton being the sad, lone exception—one Avenger in particular is the first among equals:

Iron Man’s fight with Thor is one of the highlights of the film, and the best of all the movie’s hero-vs.-hero conflicts. And his verbal confrontation with Steve Rogers is powerful stuff, as we see two men with very different backgrounds butting heads, with Steve seeing Tony as a pale reflection of his father, while Tony possibly feels a little insecure in the presence of a man who knew his father in ways he never did. I think it’s wonderful that these characters start out as anything but friends, but come to respect each other over time. It makes what we see in the later movies that much more heartbreaking. But Whedon laid the groundwork here in this film that other directors built upon, and he did a spectacular job.

Should Tony have gotten so much screentime? Well, it’s not Robert Downey Jr’s fault that he’s the best actor out of the bunch, save perhaps for Samuel L. Jackson. Everybody puts in a solid performance; it’s just that Downey has charisma to spare.

Mark Ruffalo is good, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say something that might be controversial: Edward Norton was a better Bruce Banner. There, I said it, and I’m not ashamed to think it. As good as Ruffalo is, Norton’s Banner felt more like a man trying to contain an unstoppable engine of rage and destruction. Ruffalo just seems mildly annoyed by “the other guy”. I would have loved to have seen Norton’s Banner play off against the others.

Scarlett Johansson is terrific as the Black Widow.

Joss Whedon is no stranger to writing strong women, and Natasha Romanoff is no exception. She’s intelligent, tough, skilled, and when necessary, ruthless. I would have liked to have seen at least one more woman on the Avengers roster (e.g. the Wasp), but at least the lone female wasn’t some shrinking violet or damsel in distress.

Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston share a particularly good moment together. We can see the evolution of Thor’s character from a selfish fool to someone who’s begun to take some strides down the path of wisdom.

His appeals to Loki’s sense of reason sound like a concerned brother afraid of his sibling about to do something monumentally stupid and trying to talk him out of it, and I like how Thor actually listens to what Loki is saying. This is a guy who’s learned some hard lessons… in just two days. And no, I’m not letting that go.

Chris Evans as Captain America is solid, and while we don’t yet see where things are headed for the character, we do get the groundwork for his ultimate evolution. WWII-era Captain America followed orders, and respected authority. In Avengers, Steve Rogers meets Nick Fury, a man with a lot of secrets who isn’t afraid to manipulate people in order to achieve his ends. We see the beginning of Steve Rogers’ disillusionment with authority figures as he begins to think for himself.

As for Clark Gregg as Phil Coulson… Man, his death shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but it did.

And it had the impact Whedon wanted. By this point, Coulson had become a fan favorite, as a very competent everyman who could talk to super soldiers, master spies, geniuses, and gods, and be comfortable around all of them. Coulson felt like a nerd whose dream of actually appearing in a real-life comic book came true.

Cobie Smulders’ Maria Hill is solid…

..but honestly, I don’t have a lot to say about her, because she wasn’t given a whole lot to work with as Fury’s sidekick. She says “sir” a lot. I do like that she comes across as strong and confident and she’s likable. Also, unlike her comic book counterpart, she’s actually intelligent. I’m not kidding; in the Civil War comic, she tried to have Captain America arrested before the Super Human Registration Act even passed.

Finally, we come to Nick Fury.

Up until now, Samuel L. Jackson had been a mere plot device, a minor character who popped in and out of movies to add a bit of exposition here and there. It wasn’t until this movie that he got his chance to shine. And damn, does he ever. Nick Fury is just so damn cool, as he stands up to so-called gods and shadowy authority figures…

…and he’s as much at home commanding a gigantic flying ship as he is firing off a missile.

Fury is a manipulative bastard, but you can tell it’s not because he craves power or gets off on control. He truly believes this is the best way to safeguard Earth, by pushing and pulling people this way and that, and compelling the Avengers to do what they need to do while also providing support. His plan to use HYDRA weapons makes perfect sense when you consider what the Destroyer did in Thor; who knows what else is ready to drop down on planet Earth? The idea is to protect the world by any means necessary, and if that means using a recent death to shame proud men into looking past their egos and doing the right thing, then dammit, that’s what he’ll do.

Damn, and they were vintage, too.

Alan Silvestri provided the soundtrack, which is the first time in the franchise that a composer worked on two films. He does a pretty good job here, although I think his work on Captain America is a little stronger. I will say the Avengers theme is pretty potent. He’s slated to return for Avengers: Infinity War, and I can hardly wait to hear what he has in store for us.

I know I said some negative things about the film here, and seemed to focus more on the bad than the good, but I really love The Avengers. It was one of the rare times these days when I went to see a movie more than once in the theater. It’s a big budget summer blockbuster that delivers awesome visuals that have to be seen on the big screen to truly be appreciated. It’s loud, action-packed, funny, poignant, and the perfect culmination of what would be known as Marvel’s “Phase One”.

As far as the comics go, early in the 2000s, writer Brian Michael Bendis launched Avengers Dissasembled, where an insane Scarlet Witch ripped the team apart. This was done so that the Avengers could be reformed with franchise powerhouses like Spider-Man and Wolverine. For well over a decade, the Avengers franchise flourished under numerous titles, with various teams and factions forming, along with the group being featured in just about every single crossover event. In 2012, the event comic in question was Avengers vs. X-Men

…where the two teams went head-to-head over the fate of the Phoenix Force, and like it or not, this event led to some major shake-ups that were felt for years to come in both families of comics.

Next time: The beginning of Phase Two, as 2013 sees Iron Man and Thor both getting sequels. Will they live up to the level of quality Joss Whedon delivered in this movie? Wait and see!

Tag: Countdown to Infinity War

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