clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
The Avengers stand among wreckage and flames during the Battle of New York Image: Marvel Studios

Filed under:

The Avengers was the real beginning of the ‘Marvel movie’ as we know it

With a major year of MCU storytelling ahead, we look back at a movie still influencing the franchise a decade later

Ten years ago, the Avengers first assembled on movie theater screens around the world. Marvel’s The Avengers made $1.5 billion in May of 2012 and, whether anyone likes it or not, changed how audiences think about movies. But the success of the movie didn’t just change our world, it changed how Marvel produced their fictional one, as well.

The Avengers was proof that audiences didn’t just want one-line references to other comics or visual Easter eggs buried in the background of shots. They wanted an entire world depicted on screen, and they wanted to see their favorite characters interact in it. But, most crucially, it turned the Marvel movie — and the idea of the superhero movie, in general — from a solo story into a crossover ensemble film. Every Marvel movie is now an Avengers movie, to some degree.

The 2012 Avengers was the sixth installment in, and culmination of, a sequence of movies now referred to as “Phase 1” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Each movie preceding The Avengers introduced characters who would then “assemble” in the final movie, which was written and directed by Joss Whedon, with a story by Zak Penn. The movie’s basic plot is both fairly straightforward and, also, sort of a rats nest.

The Avengers opens with Loki, the villain from Thor, hypnotizing Dr. Erik Selvig, the astrophysicist from Thor working for Nick Fury (who himself graduated from the post-credits scene of Iron Man to a supporting role in Iron Man 2) and Fury’s agent Clint Barton, who briefly appeared in Thor. Loki forces Selvig and Barton to help him steal the tesseract, an alien artifact first introduced in Captain America: The First Avenger, which then causes Nick Fury to ask one of his other agents, Natasha Romanoff, who first appeared in Iron Man 2, to recruit Dr. Bruce Banner, or the Hulk, who first appeared in the movie The Incredible Hulk (though played by a different actor). Then Fury recruits Iron Man, from the movie Iron Man, and Captain America, from Captain America: The First Avenger. Eventually, Thor, from the movie Thor, shows up, naturally, because Loki is the villain from his movie. All the characters from the different movies argue and bicker with each other until they put aside their differences and decide to stop Loki. And then, finally, because the copyright for The Incredible Hulk was still tied up with Universal Studios, one of the characters gets to say “Hulk” one time and all the heroes do a bunch of cool poses together. It’s a great time.

Why was Loki doing any of this? Anyone who stuck around the after-credits scene learned he was working for Thanos, but, unless the viewer was familiar with the big purple guy from the comics, his true role in the Marvel cosmos only made sense once Guardians Of The Galaxy introduced audiences to his daughter, Gamora.

The success of The Avengers proved that one kind of Marvel movie formula could work. Characters that debuted in previous individual films could come together in a crossover event. The tactic Marvel had used in its comics for decades translated to screen. And not only that: the promise of teaming up superheroes was tantalizing enough to audiences that it could transform formerly B-list superheroes like Iron Man or Thor into household names.

The Avengers eat shawarma together
The Avengers (2012)
Image: Marvel Studios

But while The Avengers was proving that Marvel’s initial formula worked, it also redefined the very concept of the “Marvel movie” as time went on. The pre-Avengers MCU basically ends with 2013’s Iron Man 3, the last sequentially named MCU sequel. Aside from the Guardians Of The Galaxy films, which are named after mixtape volumes, no other MCU film after Iron Man 3 has a standalone sequel number for a title, eschewing them for subtitled named sequels. It’s also a fairly small-stakes story about Tony Stark dealing with PTSD (stemming from the events of The Avengers, mind you). But he spends the majority of the movie out of the Iron Man suit and, though parts of the film would go on to be referenced in future movies, and it features supporting characters like Pepper Potts and James Rhodes, it is distinctly a solo adventure for Tony Stark.

After Iron Man 3, the feel of a Marvel film changes quite a bit. First, most notably, Marvel films become quippier. Though nothing can top the absolute meta-snark maximalism of Whedon’s Avengers script, which, by the time he came back for Avengers: Age of Ultron, reached levels of self-parody. After Iron Man 3, Marvel zeroed in on a specific kind of self-effacing, tension-releasing humor for its movies. There are also a few narrative elements that start to appear with increasing frequency after writer-director Shane Black’s trilogy-capper.

The Avengers established a three-tier Marvel fight scene standard, with the fights getting bigger — and involving more characters and locations — as the movie progresses. You can see this structure clearly in Guardians of the Galaxy, as the Guardians split into two groups to take down Ronan the Accuser’s ship, while the Nova Corp fight a battle outside. Whedon’s film also cemented the dynamic where a Marvel film’s cast of characters get better at working as a team throughout the film. Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man are good examples of this, but it’s also just as true for later releases like Captain Marvel and Black Panther. One interesting example of the Marvel effect found beyond the MCU is the theatrical cut of Justice League, where Whedon stepped in to conduct massive reshoots, and in the end product, characters quip and snark and bicker with each other before putting their differences aside. Compare that to the much more operatic buildup to the final fight in Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

Perhaps most importantly, The Avengers introduced the MCU’s first “beam of light” trope, its first MacGuffin quest, and its first non-human army of bad guys: Loki, the film’s villain, has to steal the Tesseract to open a beam of light which then allows an alien army to destroy New York City. Thor: The Dark World is interesting to revisit within this framework because it’s the first attempt at reverse-engineering what worked about The Avengers. Premiering in 2013 after Iron Man 3, it has a large cast of returning characters, who all, crucially, get their own plotlines, particularly Loki. And the film’s wildly forgettable villain, Dark Elf Malekith, wants a space artifact called the Aether, which has embedded itself in Thor’s love interest Jane Foster. So he invades London with his army of Dark Elves to get it. Many portals ensue.

Thor: the Dark World’s portals
Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Image: Marvel Studios

The Marvel films that come after Dark World push these ideas even further. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, there’s a big fight scene at the midway point, when Captain America first sees Bucky again, and then a larger multi-staged set piece at the end, with Natasha Romanoff, Nick Fury, Captain America, and new character Sam Wilson, working together to shut down a floating helicarrier. In fact, like The Avengers, it opens in media res, which actually isn’t super common for a Marvel movie. In Guardians Of The Galaxy, the Guardians fight and bicker with each other until they decide they have to stop Ronan the Accuser who wants to steal an artifact called the Power Stone, a MacGuffin that emits a glowing beam of light. They fight Ronan and his army in his spaceship up in the sky, until they fall to the ground and finish the battle. In Avengers: Age Of Ultron, it’s not a beam of light and an army of aliens, but a floating city and an army of robots. Ant-Man almost functions as a parody of The Avengers, replacing Nick Fury and Natasha Romanoff with a very old and, possibly insane, Hank Pym and his begrudging daughter Hope van Dyne. They have to learn to work together with Scott Lang and his team of thieves to stop industrialist Darren Cross from building the Yellowjacket suit. And the final fight scene has Ant-Man, like Tony Stark in The Avengers, sacrificing himself by going into a portal, though, this time a portal to the Quantum Realm, not outer space.

Four years after The Avengers, Captain America: Civil War boils the formula down to its bare essentials while also inverting it. Characters return from previous movies, a conflict is introduced in the first act to pit the heroes against each other in the second act — a literal fist fight this time — and then a final fight takes place, though, not in some kind of floating city in the sky or spaceship or around a beam of light, but instead, a descending bunker, where they pull each other further and further down until Captain America is ready to cut Tony Stark’s head off with his shield at the very bottom.

Though Marvel pride itself on genre-hopping, pick any three narrative building blocks in The Avengers and you can probably find them in a subsequent installment, functioning in one specific, trope-like way. And these days, Marvel superheroes don’t get their own movies anymore — at least not like they did in Phase 1 of the MCU. Spider-Man: Homecoming, complete with multiple Tony Stark cameos and an opening scene set directly after the events of The Battle Of New York from The Avengers, is stuffed with plot devices designed to make Marvel’s loneliest hero less isolated. Peter Parker gets a Siri-like A.I. he can talk to the whole movie and also a sidekick “guy in the chair” in his friend Ned, who is talking to him remotely.

If you’ve ever had the nagging feeling that your favorite MCU characters feel a little lost in their own theatrical vehicles, this is The Avengers effect in action. I mean, Black Panther dies in his own movie and a supporting cast of Wakandans take over for him.

But we are at the cusp of another change in how the MCU structures its movies. And, strangely enough, thanks to COVID-19 delaying Marvel’s release schedule, it’s happening slow enough that we can actually get a pretty clear glimpse at the studio attempting to replicate their last big box office success.

Avengers: Endgame final battle with all the portals and wakandan warriors and big Ant-Man and shit
Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Image: Marvel Studios

The MCU’s last two-part crossover event, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, pair two very different movies in terms of plot, tone, and pacing, that both end with a new innovation for the MCU. In Infinity War, the heroes lose, and in Endgame, they win, but both movies feature large-scale final battles that no longer resemble the six Avengers defending New York City from an alien invasion 10 years ago. Now, our heroes have assembled individual armies large enough to fight the armies charging towards them. Doctor Strange has his wizards, Black Panther has Wakandan warriors, Iron Man has an infinite supply of drones and suits, Thor has his Asgardians, and the Guardians have an armada of Nova Corps and Ravager ships. After 10 years of Avengers-style movies, the MCU has become so crowded it can no longer fit all its characters within the confines of an Earth city. Now MCU movies take place on desolate beaches, the void of space, mythical other-realms, or fields in upstate New York.

To deal with the aftermath of Endgame, the creators behind Marvel movies are pushing each installment to be it own mini-Endgame. And, just like Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World before them, they’re having some trouble figuring out how to do it gracefully.

Black Widow is a solid, post-Avengers movie — a first act full of momentum, approximately 2.5 big set pieces, a cast of characters bickering and fighting with each other until they learn to work together, and a final big battle in the sky. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, though, feels far more informed by Endgame. The movie is so crowded Shang-Chi doesn’t even get to have the title for himself. It’s also both epic and personal, with a wandering middle act full of character development (and references to other MCU movies), and a final fight scene between opposing armies. Eternals is clearly pulling parts from Endgame, albeit clumsily, complete with CGI armies, time-hopping, and cosmic stakes. You could also easily trim 45 minutes from it by removing all the references to the wider MCU. The thought process seemed to be “how do we do a crossover movie with characters who have never been in a movie before this.” Spider-Man: No Way Home, meanwhile, definitely understood that after Endgame, everything has to be a crossover, even if it requires seven standalone Spider-Man movies worth of build-up to get there.

As movies like Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Spider-Man: No Way Home — and their gargantuan COVID-era box office hauls — prove, audiences are ready for a new, larger-scale kind of Marvel movie. But that is also leading to some increasingly vocal anxieties about exactly how far this can go. Sure, 10 years ago, people could follow five movies that built up to a crossover event, but can this level of interconnected storytelling last across 30 movies? So far, it’s working.

DOCTOR STRANGE playing with some Scarlet Witch type magic IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)
Image: Marvel Studios

We’re now, a decade after The Avengers, barreling into 2022 and a fourth phase of a Marvel Cinematic Universe that is no longer solely owned by Marvel, a single universe, or even strictly cinematic. It’s also the first phase to not have an Avengers sequel scheduled for it. The MCU, which is now owned by Disney and involves an active partnership with Sony, has recently expanded canonically into a multiverse and also has direct continuity with a slate of TV shows that stream on Disney Plus. If you’re a fan of Marvel, this is everything you’ve ever wanted.

But MCU crossover events tend to reflect the anxieties and concerns of Marvel Studios in real life, as well. Ten years ago, The Avengers premiered. In the movie, the six Avengers saved New York City and became a symbol to their fictional world that superheroes were real. Outside of the movie, it proved that audiences were ready for multiple superheroes in one movie and inspired countless attempts at rival interconnected intellectual property universes trying their own hand at distilling the Avengers movie playbook. (Anyone remember Universal’s Dark Universe?)

Now, after Avengers: Endgame, half of Marvel’s fictional universe has been “blipped” out of existence and then blipped back in, and every Marvel movie, like Shang-Chi, Spider-Man: No Way Home, and the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, is a battle to protect the very fabric of the MCU’s fictional reality and requires a crossover of characters across Marvel’s movies and TV shows to save it. And outside of the movies, the most common criticism of the MCU, one that you can easily find on Twitter during the lead-up to every new installment, is that Marvel has recreated the same problem they’ve had for years with their comics: It’s just too much story to keep up with. It’s currently up to 27 movies and four TV shows, with the canon status of other properties in limbo. (Just exactly how much of Netflix’s Daredevil is currently in continuity? What about Agents of SHIELD?) That’s the central question Marvel is trying to answer with a Phase 4 of mini-Endgames.

Sure, Spider-Man can hang out with Iron Man, Captain America can wield Thor’s hammer, and there are MCU introductions for the X-Men and Fantastic Four seemingly around the corner. Every movie is promising team-ups, Disney Plus spinoffs, and Lord Of The Rings-level battles to end all battles. But for the first time ever, it’s unclear where it’s all going.

First, it was a question of whether or not the Avengers could fit in the same movie. Then it was a question of whether or not they could stop a villain like Thanos, teased out over multiple years and movies. But now, the direction of the MCU is much less clear. We know there are new villains like Kang out there. It also seems like someone (by way of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Valentina Allegra de Fontaine) is recruiting the Dark Avengers. And we know there are multiple timelines crashing into each other. But we don’t know what any of it means just yet. For as complicated as everything has been up until now, the MCU has never been as busy as it is now.

Ten years ago, Marvel had, “an idea to bring together a group of remarkable people, to see if we could become something more.” They did it and it worked. But the MCU is a much bigger place than it used to be, and will require more clever work to hold it all together.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon