The most ambitious superhero crossover event could not have been possible without the former-most ambitious superhero crossover. Marvel’s The Avengers, if you can believe it, was 6 years ago. Age of Ultron was 3 years, and Civil War only 2. (I know it’s “Captain America,” but it’s TOTALLY an Avengers film.) What a road it’s been. The MCU has blossomed radically with each new phase. It is the franchise formula that other studios have repackaged, to less-than-stellar results. Marvel Studios set the modern superhero standard, which is why even when the genre is deconstructed from time to time, the MCU is in prime position to reconstruct it.
2012 seems like such an innocent time. Avengers was Marvel’s biggest gamble up until then. It’s worth remembering that a superhero crossover had never been attempted before in film. Warner Bros. mulled the idea a great deal with the first iteration of Justice League (there was a script, cast, sets already built) but aside from Batman and Superman, none of the other Justice League members would get a solo movie to introduce their mythology. WB made that mistake anyway and look at how the eventual Justice League turned out
Marvel Studios took the time to establish its Avengers roster with each of its Phase One films – shots at world-building while servicing origin stories that showed where our heroes humbly (or not-so-humbly) began, and where they would drastically end up. To be clear, they are not perfect. Iron Man 2 is essentially Avengers 0.5; the Incredible Hulk is the MCU’s ugly baby; while Thor lamely shoehorns Hawkeye. (If you’re gonna put Jeremy Renner in your movie, you’d better use him!) My only gripe with Captain America is its weirdly muddled visual palette despite being the most optimistic origin film.
Yet these were necessary going into a crossover because the plot of Avengers hinges on elements introduced in each of the Phase One films. The pleasantries are out of the way, allowing us to haply enjoy the Tesseract as a MacGuffin which it already is in concept. It’s the mass appeal of a shared universe and the potential for cross-referencing: you get to see characters and events interact, heroes making a cameo or two, or join forces. It’s serialized storytelling, essentially television in movies. If you commit yourself to the season, fillers and all, the more rewarding the payoff will be. Phase One may have been a testing ground, but it works out a formula that achieves liftoff by the end.
It helps to have one creative voice shepherding Marvel’s grand vision of a crossover. Avengers feels distinctive in that sense, it’s action, it’s gags, it’s visual language. Admittedly, the film has a bit of a rocky start. The opening serves to bring the conflict to Earth’s doorstep and prompt the heroes into action, but it’s awkwardly executed. We’ve never quite gotten to know Nick Fury or Agent Coulson. Hawkeye’s there too and he hasn’t been in the MCU longer than a cameo. This is also the first time we meet Maria Hill. They may be “together,” but it doesn’t feel like it. Hell, when the Avengers inevitably meet on the Helicarrier, they’re not even together.
Joss Whedon described the Avengers as a family. (No, not the Dominic Toretto-version.) The way Whedon sees it, the Avengers “don’t belong in a room together.” Dysfunction is an interesting way to approach a team-up because cooperating requires group function. Instead, dysfunction is the theme, and there’s plenty to go around. Bruce Banner and Black Widow, Captain America and Nick Fury, literally everyone and Iron Man. There’s more than one elephant in the room and the whole shindig threatens to turn upside down.
Avengers is comprised of a lot of bickering and in-fighting, contrasted by Loki’s mind control over Hawkeye, Selvig, and the Chitauri. They’re together without question, a hive mind, and that makes them hollow. The Avengers’ internal division is crucial so that when they do come together, we feel it. It becomes a feat in of itself. It’s why the finale in New York completely and wholeheartedly sings, even now in a blockbuster climate that dictates the grand action-packed finale be at least 30-minutes. (Avengers’ finale clocks in at 20-minutes.) The 360-degree shot was the money in the trailers, but in the finished film it’s merely an appetizer for this glorious continuous shot – only a minute long. In a 2-and-a-half-hour movie where our heroes are at odds with each other, that minute is everything.
The Avengers lose the battle on the Helicarrier, but they come together at the very end to win the invasion of New York. It’s a joy to see this unity as much as it is watching them work out the kinks. Stark’s banter as he enters the bridge is still a show-stopper full of comic wonder: Point Break, that one guy playing Galaga. Even Steve’s delight at catching a pop-culture reference is enormously endearing. It takes him a while to adjust to everybody’s shared language, as do we in adopting the MCU’s cinematic language.
These films have gone on to interact and reference each other in a multidimensional number of ways. Not only do characters get to evolve over the course of their own trilogies, their jokes, too, get sequels: the previously mentioned Point Break, Thor’s adopted brother-jab as well as the Hulk-smashing-Loki bit that gets refreshing new context in Ragnarok. Such instances might make the universe feel smaller to some, but it aids in grasping the MCU’s grand expansion (where we have since ventured to new planets, new reaches in space).
If Avengers felt fresh, then its sequel, well, feels more of the same.
Everything that’s wrong with Age of Ultron can be traced back to its opening. The look of the film is muddled, bleak. It’s among the first slew of Marvel movies that are strangely desaturated. (They’re fighting in the snow, which mutes their color schemes.) We are even introduced to 2 new characters whose powers throw a monkey wrench into the Avengers’ well-oiled machine. The sequence is a lot to balance and it doesn’t quite soar the way it’s intended to. It’s essentially the continuous shot from the previous film cranked to 11 – an appropriate summation of the entire movie. Everything we loved about Avengers pushed to the point where we don’t quite love it anymore.
Age of Ultron seemingly does its own thing while readying threads bound to be interwoven all through Phase Three onward. Thor’s Infinity Stone side-quest is a necessity in that manner but requires him exiting the narrative at its most dramatically compelling at Barton’s farm house. (According to Whedon, the two were a compromise.) Age of Ultron is forced to lay the groundwork for the studio’s burgeoning film slate and by doing so it can no longer disguise itself from being a corporate entity.
This comes at tremendous cost: short-changing its villain and nearly killing the narcissistic appeal of Tony Stark. There’s no hiding that this is his fault. (And Banner’s, though at least he’s capable of recognizing his error.) The script hints at an Oedipus Complex by invoking Stark as Ultron’s primary creator and influence, which is perfect for the aforementioned narcissism, except Whedon seems lost as to what should be done. Ultron is on the bleeding edge of becoming more than what his creator intended and seeks constant resurrection of himself through newer, bigger, and better forms – paralleling Stark’s own pursuit of his Iron Man suit’s perfection. Otherwise there’s nothing beyond that. Ultron is the villain in concept and not much else.
That’s the most disappointing part about Age of Ultron. Ultron, one of the most pivotal villains in Marvel lore, is a one-off. If Thanos is represented as the big boss battle, then Ultron is the mini-boss you face along the way. Ultron’s storyline is reconfigured to serve an in-between narrative. That lessens his menace, if it was there to begin with. His plan to decimate the world by way of a Sokovian-meteor is inspired villainy, but the true devastation isn’t felt until Civil War. (The conflict of Sokovia is mere table-setting in that regard.) There’s plenty to admire about Age of Ultron after the fact.
Yet, there are still things I love about the film. I wish the party scene at Avengers tower could go on forever. (Rhodey repeating his tank story gets me EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.) Everyone trying to lift Thor’s hammer is pure Whedonesque. It’s one of the few sweet spots in the film and a rarity in the MCU where our heroes get to cut loose. In 2018, it seems like a distant memory.
I have my gripes with both the film’s opening and ending spectacle, but the Hulkbuster sequence in the middle, stands tall as my favorite set-piece. (I do NOT care for that skirmish in Seoul.) And the farm house might be Whedon’s greatest contribution to the MCU narrative, wherein Hawkeye is redeemed and rooted in a tangible, domestic arc. Who knew the guy with the bow and arrow would become the heart and soul of this movie. Age of Ultron is its own triumph in that regard.
Where Whedon stumbles in grounding the Avengers, his successors succeed.
Civil War is far and away my favorite Avengers film and it’s not even an Avengers film. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo render a far more grounded real-world superhero lens than Age of Ultron, but they do something even bolder in the name of its title hero.
The film presents Steve’s worldview as naïve and privileged: “The safest hands are still our own.” He decides that. The footage of the devastation in New York and Sokovia doesn’t retcon their heroics; it opens the perspective of collateral damage. When Cap goes on to say, “The Avengers were formed to make the world a safer place. I feel we’ve done that,” he can’t even look Thunderbolt Ross in the eye. For the past 2 Captain America films, we’ve seen how Steve’s uncompromising worldview defines him, makes him something we should aspire to be. Now, we see how that’s virtually unattainable.
Unlike Batman V. Superman (DC’s answer to the hero vs. hero conflict), Civil War at least allows perspectives to clash long before the fighting starts. Ultimately, Steve and Tony reach an impasse, but we watch them go there. We see the Avengers tear themselves apart. Sure, Zemo has a hand in the shifting tectonic plates, but the Accords and the issue of oversight are the looming consequence that can no longer be avoided. Zemo’s revelation at the end is but a nudge in the conflict as opposed to overt machinations. (I’m looking at you, Lex Luthor.)
Much has been said about Civil War coming too soon while the MCU is in its relatively nascent stages (in comparison to the comic book universe), but the film itself feels opportune. We’ve seen Tony and Steve go head to head on the Helicarrier. We’ve seen them splitting hairs (or wood) at the farm house and watched them draw battle lines during Vision’s birthing sequence. Civil War was always going to happen sooner rather than later.
This is the key existential-hero conflict done to scale: Avengers no more. Tony himself is so torn and lost from his tenure as Iron Man that he confides in Spider-Man, a kid still early in his life-saving days. Parker’s eagerness to help out the little guy humbles Tony, the same way Steve’s overriding Bucky-allegiance makes him narrow-minded and selfish. Our heroes swap defining traits and agendas: Tony aligning with the government after famously flipping the bird to them, and Steve operating outside the law despite having devoted himself to authority when he became Cap. By the end, Steve ceases to be Captain America.
Arguably, you need to have seen the Iron Man, Captain America, and Avengers films to get the full weight of the film’s impact. As the MCU goes on, this will become the prerequisite going into the theater, if it isn’t already. This is in keeping with the serialized phase-structure of the MCU and now an attractive model in film where characters typically had a trilogy to tell their stories, that is if the first film is a success. After Iron Man, no one could’ve anticipated where this would end up, that he, Cap, and Thor would get their trilogies and then some. That so many others would join the roster. That this already massive world of superheroes would get even more massive. Look where we are now. Marvel Studios is in it for the long haul. Frankly, so are we.
If Civil War grounded this universe, then Infinity War goes back to being larger than life. Our heroes have fought cosmic threats, artificial intelligence, and each other. With another cosmic threat hurling their way, it appears the Avengers have come full circle. Marvel has done plenty of teasing and world-building since then, but does it all come to fruition? We shall see.