The Marvel Cinematic Universe may have began ten years ago, a fact that makes one feel uncomfortably older than they should, but it sometimes feels like it didn’t really come together beautifully and gracefully, cementing itself into the tightly constructed beast that we now know it as, until Marvel’s Avengers Assemble (as it was known in the UK and Ireland) made its way into cinemas.
From 2008 to 2012, the movies that were came from the stable of Marvel Studios ran from the hugely enjoyable (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America:The First Avenger) to the messy (Iron Man 2), to one that the studio sometimes pretends doesn’t exist (The Incredible Hulk), until it becomes necessary for it to exist again (Captain America:Civil War).
However, when Joss Whedon’s belated big screen directorial follow-up to Serenity arrived in 2012, Marvel gave us a classic of the genre and haven’t looked back since, kick starting a run of movies that has seen nearly every studio in Hollywood attempt their own cinematic universes in an attempt to ape the success, much of which is down to producer Kevin Feige.
Of course, the biggest mistake that the likes of Warner Bros. and Sony have made in trying to launch their own takes of comic book-inspired cinematic universes is that they didn’t do what Marvel did so well; play the long game, get us to care for the characters in either their own movies, or as guest stars in others, and then bring them together, creating a lovely feeling of warm novelty in the air as we see a bunch of characters from separate movies come together to save the world.
That was a big key in the success to the movie; over the course of the four years in the lead up to Avengers Assemble, we got to see Tony Stark, Thor, Steve Rogers, and, with a different face than he would wear here, Bruce Banner in their own adventures, some of which featured appearances from Black Widow and Hawkeye, so seeing them on-screen together felt like something we hadn’t seen on a silver screen before. It literally had the feeling of reading a comic, where characters walk in and of other characters’ stories with frequent abandon (a similar conceit that makes the DC’s Arrow-verse on television feel fun and fresh, more so than its big screen equivalent where Warner Bros have clearly struggled, outside of Wonder Woman).
Since Avengers Assemble is the coming together of the band, it means the threat facing the world has to be the biggest threat EVER, and for a director who had worked mostly on television shows with limited budgets, but ones with scale and scope to them, he really goes to town with the expansive set pieces, particularly in the extended final act which sometimes feels like it outdoes Michael Bay, but does so with charm, humour and fun, with a clear understanding of what is going on, edited cleanly and precisely and with genuine stakes for our heroes.
Nowadays, when every studio is trying to bring together separate franchises, there is a fluid natural feeling to Whedon’s movie. Yet it’s also easy to see why other studios have stumbled somewhat (spectacularly in the case of Universal Pictures and their attempt at bringing together their back catalogue of monster movies, a good idea in principle, but which failed massively with the mis-judged Tom Cruise vehicle The Mummy).
It could have fallen apart so easily here too, but the choice of Whedon as writer and director was canny; as creator and showrunner on television shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse, Whedon’s television output had a brilliant ability to mix ensemble casts, all given equal share of stories and screen time, and bold story arcs with scale, emotional stakes and humour. He essentially takes what he did so well with his television series and applies it to a movie that might have fallen apart under the weight of what it had to do in lesser hands.
Every character gets their chance to shine (unless you’re Hawkeye), the action sparkles, the dialogue even more so, and whenever a large-scale set pieces begins, they never outstay their welcomes, with pauses for some delirious jokes and humour.
No surprise, the film was a massive hit, and the first of the franchise to hit over a billion at the box office, cementing Hollywood’s dependence on comic books as a means to create franchises (for better or worst, depending on your point of view) and pretty much making Marvel the big cheese of Hollywood franchises for the rest of the decade.
Nearly every Marvel movie after this would get a box office boost, not least Thor and Captain America, whose sequels to their first movies would out gross their first installments by a considerable margin. The entire franchise would essentially become the world’s biggest budgeted television series, with every movie filtering into the next, either through plot strands or post-credit sequences, and it would also allow the studio to take a chance on lesser known properties such as Guardians of the Galaxy, and more visually experimental efforts such as Doctor Strange.
A sequel was inevitable and it would duly arrive in 2015, with Whedon once again back in charge, so to speak, with Avengers:Age of Ultron, with the entire cast returning, and a larger, more substantial role for Hawkeye. It would also fall in the trap that Iron Man 2 fell into, by forgetting to be its own movie and instead feeling at times like a placeholder and set up for other movies, while Whedon’s open comments on feeling exhausted would sometimes be clear to see on-screen, save for one or two bright moments.
The first Avengers movie, which is strictly speaking the sixth entry into the franchise if you want to be picky, is still a breath of fresh air after all these years. Arriving the same summer as The Dark Knight Rises (a film that is much better than its detractors would have you believe), Avengers Assemble is the light compared to The Dark Knight Rises’… well… dark. It probably stroked more of the never-ending, and quite frankly pointless, Marvel vs DC battle, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that 2012 saw two epic comic book properties come to the screen with amazing production values, delivered by filmmakers with a clear command of their characters and material.
Avengers Assemble is forever a blast of fun and will probably remain a high watermark of the genre. In bringing together the characters and the movies they stem from, it will be seen as the watershed for the current era of Hollywood blockbusters.
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