Wednesday, May 4, 2022

A Day Like No Other

Once upon a time, the idea that an Avengers movie could even happen seemed like a crazy pipe dream. That's quaint to consider in light of where the MCU has gone since but at one time it was far from a guarantee that an Avengers movie would ever come together. When The Avengers was released ten years ago today, on May 4th, 2012, it was a major milestone. As they dramatically proclaimed in the comics about the founding of The Avengers, it was "a day like no other."

For anyone who thinks that successfully piloting the course through Phase 1 of the MCU was insignificant or that those movies just sold on the basis of special effects or whatever, just look at how singular Marvel's achievement is. Everyone wants to do what Marvel does but no one else has cracked that code. No one else has even come close and it's sure not for lack of trying. Creating successful movie franchises is hard. There's no foolproof formula to it. And it's not just about creating and launching a franchise but to keep it going and hold on to an audience year after year. 

I mean, where's that last installment of the Divergent series? They got through three films, made the first part of a two part finale and then just let it go when no one showed up to see Allegiant. The Chronicles of Narnia sputtered out after three movies. And the Dark, they had so many plans for that! All of which, by the way, I was very excited for. And of course, Marvel's main rival, DC has struggled to follow Marvel's model. 

To put into further perspective what a feat producer Kevin Feige and his collaborators pulled off, you have to remember that when Marvel Studios started, it was widely perceived that they were already operating at a disadvantage before they ever shot a single frame of film. Fox owned the X-Men and The Fantastic Four and all that came with them and Sony had the rights to Spider-Man - the crown jewel of Marvel - and the rights to his extended universe of characters while Marvel Studios was left with the likes of Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Captain America, and Black Widow. These were not thought of as the kind of characters that anyone could build a successful studio with. No household names in that bunch, except maybe for the Hulk. But the Hulk was still no Spider-Man. And the rest were only known primarily among comic book nerds. They were perceived as also-rans. That is until Feige and co. proved otherwise. Today everyone knows these characters. Everybody knows who Iron Man is. Not just that, they know his civilian identity of Tony Stark every bit as well as they know that Bruce Wayne is Batman. You see people walking around with Captain America T-shirts all the time. And that's only because Marvel Studios made films that successfully sold these characters to the public. 

Had Jon Favreau's 2008 Iron Man not succeeded, nothing after would have come to pass. We'd be living in a world without the MCU. But it clicked and that first MCU post-credit tease with Nick Fury alluding to a bigger universe made a mind-blowing promise of what could happen if there was enough of an audience to support it. It's odd now to remember how every step of the way leading up to the Avengers, there was an element of uncertainty among fans with the release of each Marvel movie where we genuinely worried, oh no, what if this next one tanks? What if this all falls apart? 

There was every chance that a Thor or Captain America movie could have fallen on their faces. It was very possible that audiences would just not show up, whether the movies were good or not. But when they came out and they clicked, especially Thor, it was clear that, yeah, The Avengers is really going to be a thing. 

When it was released, The Avengers was a vindication of both the creative efforts that had brought Marvel Studios to that point and also the nerd culture that had believed in and embraced these characters for decades and who had always known how cool this could all be if it was taken onto a bigger stage. 

As much as an Avengers film was unlikely to happen in the first place, actually getting there was still no guarantee that the final product would be satisfying - in fact it would have been pretty easy to screw it up. So as much as he might be out of favor today, writer/director Joss Whedon really deserves credit for making a movie that lived up to an impossibly high level of anticipation and that proved that these diverse elements could work together. If it turned out they couldn't, that would have been an immediate game over for the MCU. 

It's taken for granted that Thor and Iron Man and Black Widow and so on can crossover into each other's adventures in the comics on a regular basis and that those interactions don't seem weird or require any explanation but that didn't mean that the same would be true in a movie. Because it worked so well here, though, and because these team-ups went on to be the cornerstone of how the MCU operates, no one thinks anything of how trying to service the narratives of all these characters could have easily fallen apart. It's not quite the kind of thing they hand out Oscars for but what Whedon accomplishes here is a far more impressive feat than it's given credit for being.

The Avengers gets off to a slightly wobbly start in its first act but once Thor enters the picture and he, Captain America and Iron Man square off for the first time and we have that moment when these characters are finally sharing the screen together and these worlds collide, the movie jumps to another level and it keeps escalating all the way through to the sprawling third act battle with the Chitauri, undeniably one of the greatest action sequences in a comic book movie, if not arguably the greatest. 

As in the comics, Loki is the catalyst to bring the group together and Tom Hiddleston is still the most entertaining adversary that Earth's Mightiest Heroes have faced. 

Ultron and Thanos may be scarier and more dangerous but Loki is just fun. It's great to have this team go up against a Trickster, not just for their power set but for the mix of personalities where you have characters who communicate with sarcasm or with rage or with square sincerity, all of which interact with Loki so well. Yes, the stakes are still high and still serious but there's a level of levity inherent in tangling with Loki and also such an enjoyable certainty in knowing that Loki will suffer a humiliating comeuppance. We know Ultron and Thanos will be beaten when they go up against The Avengers but there's a different sort of anticipation in knowing that the smug, eternally pleased with himself Loki will not just lose but will suffer a real indignity by the end. 

Some would say (probably even Whedon himself) that Whedon should have walked away after The Avengers rather than returning for Age of Ultron but I like Ultron quite a bit and feel it's an underrated MCU entry. The thing is, The Avengers is just a tough act to follow. "Getting the gang together" is always a foolproof narrative whether it's a western or a heist film or whatever the genre may be and in the case of The Avengers, watching these particular characters come together for the first time - and the added novelty that came along with it here because no one had seen this kind of multi-movie crossover before - is so much fun that the next step was inevitably going to feel slightly warmed over in comparison. And of course, by the time of Age of Ultron the whole landscape of the MCU had changed from where we had left things at the end of The Avengers. After Captain America: Winter Soldier, S.H.I.E.L.D. was no more. We do get the return of Fury and the Helicarrier at the end of Ultron but it's not the same as where we left off in Avengers with S.H.I.E.L.D. as a still-functioning unit and with Fury and Hill monitoring trouble spots across the world, ready to call on The Avengers whenever a danger might arise that no single hero could withstand. So The Avengers is special in that despite seeming to set up a reliable formula for ongoing adventures, things were shaken up very quickly in the MCU and so this first time was also the last time for this particular style of Avenger film. 

If only Disney+ had been a thing back then. It would have been so cool to have, say Avengers: The Series, taking place between the first movie and AoU with a short season of episodes with this team going up against second tier Avengers foes like Count Nefaria and the Grey Gargoyle. Yes, I know that would have never happened anyway with it totally not being worth the time and money for Disney/Marvel to pay their feature film cast to do like six mini movies between installments of their actual blockbuster movies which are exhausting, incredibly costly efforts on their own but hey, it's fun to imagine. What If, am I right? 

It's perhaps too easy to regard The Avengers as merely a step on the way to even bigger things because as fans we've been so conditioned to keep chasing that next MCU high (and The Avengers did have one of the MCU's best post credit scenes with the introduction of Thanos) but ten years later we should pause to appreciate what a crazy, singular achievement The Avengers actually was. Marvel successfully scaled the top of that particular mountain before anyone else. As prevalent as superhero films already were by 2012, The Avengers was a movie like no other.  


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