Welcome back, True Believers! To mark the 10th anniversary of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, join us as we rewatch the entire series, one film at a time.
We’ve finally reached the end of Phase One, and all the threads of our last five installments are being drawn together as Earth’s Mightiest Heroes assemble for the first time. Does it all add up to a single story, and if so, who’s the protagonist? How neatly do these disparate characters gel? And why does Alex like MCU Hawkeye so much? Find out below the cut.
THE AVENGERS (2012)
Tim: Avengers is probably the film I’ve revisited the most since initially seeing it in the cinema, and while I still get that visceral joy I had upon my first viewing in some sections, I can definitely see the gears working now when it comes to getting all the pieces into play. It’s easy to forget how unprecedented this whole idea was at the time. I can remember a friend struggling to explain to his dad that Thor and Iron Man and Captain America would all be in the same film.
Alex: You’re right, it’s hard to remind yourself how much this felt like a big experiment. We’ve talked in the past about these early movies still feeling like Marvel is taking a risk, like each release could be the one to bring the franchise crashing down, and how that means they can feel a little cautious. Avengers is the last time that’s true, I think – and it’s indicative of how much the MCU changed the cinematic landscape that, just six years on, this kind of crossover storytelling almost feels small-scale.
Tim: I’d disagree with this being the final risk Marvel’s taken, but I’ll leave that for some of our subsequent coverage. It’s certainly some of the most complex work it’s had to do to set a story in motion. Even with something like Infinity War, which is bigger in scope, the players are so well established it just leaps right in.
Alex: You can definitely feel that heavy lifting at work. Mostly it’s deftly handled – Whedon brings the same awareness he showed when taking Firefly to the big screen with Serenity, that the film has to serve two audiences – but for me it means the film takes a little while to get properly fun.
Tim: I do like that we launch straight into that Marvel Comics bullshit, with a voiceover announcing that “The Tesseract has awakened” in portentous tones. But you’re right – the majority of the film, certainly the first half of it, is given over to first getting the team together, and then justifying why they should stay together. Do you think there’s any other way it could have been handled?
Alex: Nope – I absolutely think it’s necessary. And, honestly, there are a lot of fun moments along the way as, one by one, we meet the team.
Alex: So, for the first time in this series, we find ourselves at a film which doesn’t really introduce any major characters. Everyone important, including the villain, has popped up in at least one film already. But two of the Avengers do get fairly seriously redefined.
Tim: I mean, Hawkeye technically got an introduction in Thor, but we didn’t really get any sense of the character there. And you could argue to same thing here, with him being mind-controlled for about half of his screen time. In some ways, it’s a smart decision – it allows the film to establish how a guy with a bow and arrow can be a threat by setting him against the protagonists, but it means his first chance at characterisation doesn’t really occur until his post-head trauma conversation with Widow, and even that is more about her.
I know you’re a defender of MCU Hawkeye and Renner’s portrayal, but I feel a little bit like he’s wasted here, and in the MCU in general.
Alex: So here’s the thing about me and MCU Hawkeye. There are a few things I like about his role. Particularly the idea of having a straight-up military guy in this team of gods. That’s sort of true of Natasha, but she’s a super-spy. Renner is cast straight off the back of Hurt Locker, and he feels like he’s still got one foot in that world.
But really, that’s all intellectualising, and what I really like is that he fires arrows that do cool tricks. I made an excited note every time he loosed one. USB hacking arrow! Tiny minigun arrow! Molten lava-spewing arrow! Trick arrows, Tim!
Tim: I agree with all of those points in theory. I too am very excited every time a new trick arrow gets broken out, and when Renner’s casting was announced I thought he’d be a great fit. But I feel like he’s a bit too dour and bland as Clint – my favourite versions of Hawkeye from the comics are (of course) Human Disaster Hawkeye from Fraction and Aja’s run, and Constantly Grumbling Hawkeye from Busiek and Perez’s run. You’d just figure someone who’s dedicated their life to the bow and arrow would have a bit more personality.
Alex: I can’t disagree with that. He’s basically a quiver and a bow attached by a pair of excitingly muscular arms – it’s just that, for me, that’s enough.
But the other character who gets the most reworking here is, as far as I’m concerned, an unmitigated success. With Ed Norton having departed the role and that film left dangling on the edge of continuity, the reintroduction of Hulk could have been a disaster, but Ruffalo’s twitchy, hand-wringing, constantly uncomfortable Banner is immediately definitive.
Tim: Ruffalo really is the first person to truly nail this role. His line about feeling like an “exposed nerve” gives us some fantastic insight into his mindset, and you can really feel that in most of his interactions. His chemistry with both Natasha and Tony is terrific, and his overall weariness is a great counterpoint to Stark, Thor and Cap, all of whom are fairly up-and-at-’em in their energy
Alex: On that note… what’s your favourite pairing of characters in the movie? For me it’s got to be Tony and Bruce, Science Bros.
Tim: There are a lot of fantastic match-ups during the film. The small moments we get between Hawkeye and Black Widow during the Battle of New York are great, as is them playing “the mean cool kids at school” when Loki’s sent back to Asgard at the end. I also really enjoy Tony and Steve’s interplay when they’re trying to fix the rotor, but it’s got to go to the Science Bros.
Alex: Science Bros!
Alex: The interesting thing about bringing these superheroes together in one movie – and this ties back to the challenge you mentioned at the outset – is that it’s not just the characters that meet, but their own versions of this world. How do you think this film handles blending together the disparate styles and genres of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor?
Tim: The film gets a bit of grace in this capacity, because while we’ve established Cap as a character, he’s been removed from his initial setting and brought into the modern day. The two minutes at the end of First Avenger didn’t really establish an overall tone for how Steve fits into the contemporary MCU, so in many ways this film gets to remake the character, or at least his tone and style.
That said, I think Captain America is the stickiest fit. His characterisation and tone don’t really find their feet until the third act, when we get to see him in action in the Battle of New York. That makes sense – Tony Stark is much more at home in the techy world of helicarriers and hacking, so Steve should feel a bit like a sore thumb. What’s interesting is how smoothly Thor slides into the equation.
Alex: That does initially feel counter-intuitive, because he’s from an entirely different genre, but I wonder if the reason Thor immediately fits in has more to do with the dialogue. Apart from the odd bit of ‘thou’ing and ‘wouldst’ing, his film maintained a similar tone of snappy banter to the Iron Man movies – which is pretty much the default mode of Whedon’s writing.
Tim: Yes. And despite the presence of Loki, both characters are pretty firmly removed from their Asgardian trappings. Thor’s not quite as down-to-earth as he is when he’s smashing mugs in New Mexico, but he’s somewhere between that and full-blown Prince of Asgard mode.
It’s worth talking about the Whedonisation of the characters and the overall tone a little, I think. He’s obviously skilled at balancing large casts, and maintaining a tone that mixes drama, humour and action, but do you think he pulls the MCU a little too much into his comfort zone?
Alex: Funnily enough, the one real disappointment I remember from my first viewing of Avengers was that it didn’t feel quite as Whedonesque as I’d been hoping. As you might be able to tell from another of our blogging projects, I’m a big (if conflicted) fan of his work, and Avengers came out within a month of Cabin in the Woods, which is A Very Joss Whedon Movie Indeed.
Tim: I think the main issue I have, especially watching now, is that killing off Agent Coulson seems to come directly from Whedon’s basic playbook. The film suggests that without the death, the Avengers wouldn’t have the motivation to unite, but that feels lazy to me
Alex: Oh, you’re absolutely right about that. It’s a storytelling tic, and if you’ve heard Whedon talking about the climactic deaths in any of his other projects, you’ll know he basically considers one death at the end of the second act to be necessary, in order to establish the stakes.
Weirdly, though, dying was the thing that landed Coulson his own TV show, so I guess at least there’s a silver lining.
Tim: True. And while Agents of SHIELD had a real rocky start, it actually gets good in the later seasons. Ghost Rider shows up!
BUILDING A UNIVERSE
Tim: This film is the conclusion of Phase One, and the first grand scale crossover between the different branches of the MCU. Does it feel like a suitable climax to the various themes we’ve seen established so far? Is Phase One even a single story, or are the individual films too distinct to count as a single narrative?
Alex: I think The Avengers does a great job of smoothing over the cracks and making it seem, if not like this is all one cohesive story, then at least all of its events – Norton’s Hulk possibly notwithstanding – can logically coexist.
I mentioned the gradual way we’re reintroduced to each Avenger, and that section of the film acknowledges the different traditions these characters grow out of, until eventually all of the tones and genres feel like a natural part of this film’s vocabulary. Black Widow gets her own James Bond pre-titles adventure in Russia, before jumping across the globe to a very different colour palette in Calcutta, where the Hulk is hiding out, and onto Captain America’s abandoned gym, which retains some of his trademark sepia tone.
One interesting thing about that method is how long it waits to bring in Tony. If we’re considering these films as a single story in any meaningful sense, then surely Stark is the protagonist.
Tim: I think that’s fair, and while I think it’s difficult to pull a single thread of story out of just Phase One, when we consider the whole of the MCU up to the current day, there’s a couple of different narratives that emerge, and both seem to centre on Stark.
Alex: (Or, possibly more accurately, Starks, plural.)
Tim: The first is essentially his character arc across the various films – embracing being a superhero, then becoming damaged by it and seeking an alternative, attempting to step back, realising that he can’t and so instead trying to establish a legacy in the form of Spider-Man. That’s a fairly comprehensible and solid arc across the 20 films so far.
The second is the idea of the superhero versus the military industrial complex, and that’s obviously one that both Stark Sr and Jr figure into.
Alex: Looking at the first of those ongoing threads… This film feels like a turning point for Tony. When we catch up with him, he’s following through on the good – and vitally, non-superheroic – work he promised to do in his own films, and his life with Pepper seems stable and happy. If we’re looking at this little cluster of films, that seems like the end of his arc. He’s come to terms with the legacy his father left for him, a legacy we got a better taste of in Captain America – and it feels like the first hint that maybe he’s ready to retire as Iron Man.
But then the events of this movie disrupt that story, and put Tony on a slightly different path, the one you’ve mentioned, that is still playing out and I suspect will reach a conclusion in Infinity War part two.
Tim: I think that the point that Steve makes in the film – that most of Tony’s adventures have been relatively self-centred, and haven’t forced him to really confront the danger he’s placing himself in, or risk sacrificing anything too great – is a good one. Even his palladium poisoning in Iron Man 2 feels closer to a mid-life-crisis sense of mortality kicking in, rather than something truly traumatic.
Alex: Steve’s line really stuck out to me on this rewatch, partly because of the new context it takes on when you consider how Infinity War ends. “You’re not the guy to make the sacrifice play.” This film is him gradually becoming that guy.
Tim: Which, when you consider that his next move is to essentially retreat from that position, is some really interesting characterisation.
Looking at the other theme I mentioned, and the military industrial complex, I think we get another turning point at the exact same moment – Tony sending the nuclear warhead into space. This is the point where superheroes become more powerful than the strongest weapon that the military has. Up until now, as we’ve noted, the military in its various forms has been closely entangled with the origins of superheroes and how they behave in the world. This is the film where our characters start to exceed the grasp of those institutions.
Alex: Interestingly, SHIELD seem to think that tipping point has already been reached.
Coulson tells Thor “you changed everything around here”, and Fury pinpoints the moment it all changed: “Last year earth had a visitor from another planet who had a grudge match that levelled a small town. We learned that not only are we not alone, but we are hopelessly, hilariously, outgunned.”
Tim: Yeah – in a lot of ways, this entire film is a statement to that effect. If we consider Civil War as Avengers 2.5, you get a trilogy that touches on the theme of government vs superheroes in a lot of interesting ways, but by the time we get to Infinity War, that question seems to have been left behind.
Alex: A lot of the movie is spent questioning how superheroes fit into the existing military paradigm, or if they do at all. ‘Soldier’ and ‘war’ are basically keywords in the script, culminating in Tony shouting: “We are not soldiers!”
This film, and to some extent all of Phase One, borrows heavily from The Ultimates, Marvel’s more ‘realistic’ reimagining of the Avengers from the early 2000s. That comic basically said: if superheroes existed, they’d be government-controlled weapons. But the MCU takes that as a jumping off point and says: no, actually, if superheroes existed they’d make that whole way of thinking redundant.
Tim: And I think that’s the situation we find ourselves in looking at the MCU now – the government has realised that the rules no longer apply, and we’re moving closer to the kind of world we find in the comics, where superheroes are just an accepted part of life that everyone has to deal with. That all starts here, with their very public introduction in New York.
Tim: My first Infinity Gem is the mountainside conversation we get between Thor and Loki after our boy Hemsworth first arrives on the scene. We’ve talked about Whedon synthesising the other franchises into the Avengers, and this feels like a perfect continuation of the brothers’ dynamic from Thor. There’s a real sense of Thor’s despair for his brother, his desire for him to simply come home.
And we haven’t really touched on Loki much in our talk so far. After saying the Hiddleston was a little underwhelming in Thor, I think he’s terrific here. There’s a desperation to his behaviour that suggests he has gone through something horrible during his time with Thanos (or possibly even that the Mind Stone has some sway over him?), but it’s mixed in with his ambition, his inferiority complex and his need to belong. I’m glad he gets to share scenes with a large part of the cast, because Hiddleston is great in all of them, and we get to see a lot of facets to Loki through his different interactions.
Alex: I also wanted to make up for our lack of Loki chat, by picking a scene I can probably summon in your mind with just two words: “Mewling quim.”
Loki and Natasha in the helicarrier’s Hulk-prison room is a great chance for Hiddleston to play the full supervillain – casual misogyny and all. He does some brilliant monologuing, but if we were meant to be impressed by him, it’d leave me uneasy. Of course, Natasha flips the script on Loki, and – as beautifully set up by her introductory scene in Russia – reveals this was her interrogation all along. Tricking a trickster god is a pretty baller move, but the scene also gives us the most information about her character we’ve had up to this point.
There’s just enough genuine vulnerability in what she says that it seems at least some of it is true. Especially as she sums up her motivations in the other quote I could have picked to hyperlink your brain straight to this scene: “I’ve got red in my ledger.”
Avengers does a really good job of summing up its characters in these little memorable soundbites. “I put a bullet in my mouth, and the other guy spat it out.” “Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist. “I’m always angry.” They’re iconic, and the very best of them leave enough room for the audience – and future filmmakers – to fill in themselves.
Tim: Speaking of iconic, we’ve agreed to cheat a little on our second Infinity Gems and combine them into a joint rave about the Battle of New York that takes up most of the final third of the film. A lot of superhero films (and action films in general) hit their peak during the second act and sort of limp home in the finale, but Avengers builds to something truly amazing.
Alex: Given Whedon’s history as a script doctor, I wonder if it was a deliberate attempt to fix the most commonly identified weakness in the Marvel formula.
As far as I’m concerned, the rest of the film is basically vestigial, something that was required to evolve to this point but frankly could be jettisoned once you reach the Battle of New York. It’s possibly my favourite action sequence of all time.
Tim: I seem to remember hearing that Whedon and the producers broke it down into distinct stages to help structure it, and you can feel that evolution as the heroes come together, fight, struggle and finally succeed. There’s a wealth of tiny triumphs and minor defeats along the way.
Alex: Speaking of tiny triumphs… Do you want to just trade some of our favourite moments?
Tim: Absolutely. As I mentioned earlier, I love the snippets of banter we get between Natasha and Clint. It helps sell their relationship, and also gives us the sense of how out of their depth they feel among the aliens and gods.
Alex: But also, Tim, Hawkeye shoots an arrow without even looking and it blows up a spaceship. C’mon, the dude is cool!
Tim: There’s a moment right at the beginning, just after he’s suited up, where Tony’s HUD swipes right, changing from blue to red. It’s like he’s pressed a big button that says “ACTION STARTS NOW” and I love it.
Alex: I love Cap commanding the police, telling them how to save people, sent pure superhero waves direct to my heart. Emphasises that his super powers are tactics and empathy, just as much as they are punching a dude real hard. My newfound love of Steve Rogers at work, there.
Tim: It’s hard to watch Loki stab Thor with one of his throwing knives now without thinking of Thor’s anecdotes from Ragnarok about his brother turning into a snake and such. It’s such a dick move, and absolutely the kind of thing a shitty little brother would pull in a fight.
Alex: Speaking of stabbing… Natasha steering the alien speeder by sticking knives into the pilot – not just a great action beat, but also a smart way of untethering the character from street level fighting.
Tim: I like that Natasha is also the only one smart enough to figure out how the Chitauri weapons work, and turn them against the users. The whole fight really sells her intelligence and tactical mind, but also lets us see her desperation. She’s not built to fight on the same level as Iron Man or Thor, but in the end they wouldn’t win without her.
Alex: Because the battle takes place across basically every recognisable bit of New York, we finally have a big enough playground for Hulk to cut loose, and the results are magnificent. I’ll never recapture the joyous shock of him punching Thor out of frame, or pulverising Loki, but basically everything he does is a reason to punch the air.
Tim: Likewise, Thor atop the Empire State Building, building up lightning strikes then wrecking the shit out of the leviathans emerging from the portal really gets across his god-like status, and now feels like a teaser for the finale of Ragnarok.
Alex: Hawkeye’s quiver is automated, and applies the correct arrowhead for the situation. Trick arrows, Tim!
Tim: And we can’t talk about the Battle of New York without addressing the masterful tracking shot that takes us around the city from hero to hero, showing them interacting and combining their abilities in different ways as they fight. It’s basically everything I’ve ever wanted from a superhero action sequence, and ends with the perfect exclamation point of Thor getting sucker punched by Hulk.
Alex: That shot is magnificent, and one lift from the Whedon playbook which is entirely welcome, but I also see it as a microcosm of how this whole sequence works. The battle has numerous moving parts – for example, Cap, Widow and Hawkeye start out at street level while Thor and Iron Man take the battle to the skies – which interlock in different combinations throughout.
Tim: Those combinations, seeing how these different characters interact, is really what makes this entire film work. It takes a little while to get there, but once they’re all in one place, playing off each other, it really soars.
THE OFFICIAL T+AKTMCU RANKINGS
- Avenger Fuckability Scale – Expanded Edition
Alex: It’s well established that I have an enormous crush on Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, but I have to admit that, post-Ragnarok, my enthusiasm for the long flowing locks has diminished. Bring me a shorn Hemsworth, stat!
Tim: Thor wig watch doesn’t have nearly the same variety that Black Widow’s does, but this is definitely the worst end of the scale for our God Of Thunder. Far too mid-’90s Fabio meets beach bum.
On the upside, we have the delightfully scruffy Mark Ruffalo, who, while presenting an entirely different energy to Chris Evans, ties with him on my list of Avengers Hotness. Gotta appreciate that sexy professor vibe.
Alex: Given that Ruffalo’s Banner has been compared to our friend Chris ‘actual quantum physicist’ Sparrow, this is a bit awkward but… yeah, he’d get it.
- Once he’s done fitting the arc reactor for Stark Tower, Iron Man emerges from New York Harbour next to the Staten Island Ferry, which he’ll go on to help save from sinking in Spider-Man: Homecoming.
- A billionaire building a big tower in New York and slapping his name on it is less of a good look now.
- Loki’s cell is pretty bare, and doesn’t even have a toilet. Do Asgardians poop? Bruce Banner certainly does, so it’s good he didn’t end up locked in there.
- The shot of Hulk getting hit by Mjolnir is another iconic moment, and him sinking into the helicarrier floor as he tries to lift the hammer is a really nice touch.
- The last person Iron Man fought was Whiplash, who used electricity to heavily damage his suit. He’s clearly addressed that flaw, because when Thor hits him with lightning, it now charges up the batteries.
- She’s not listed in the credits that I can see, but I could swear one of the SHIELD agents is Kennedy from Buffy. That’d put her the company of follow Whedon regulars Alexis Denisof (Wesley in Buffy, here playing Thanos’ little helper) and Enver Gjokaj (Victor in Dollhouse, here playing a cop who is apparently a direct descendant of SSR agent Daniel Sousa).
- Black Widow Wig Watch: I think this might actually be the wig highlight for Natasha. It’s close to one of her more iconic comic book looks, it’s relatively natural looking, and it suits the character. To be honest, I’m not sure how much wig is even involved here – it may we be Johansson’s natural hair, just dyed red. Definitely a vast improvement on her Iron Man 2 introduction.
- The noise Hulk makes when he destroys the jet he’s surfing on and is jettisoned off is kind of hilarious.
- Fashion Statement of the Movie: Loki’s formalwear when he shows up in Germany. Dude can really rock a suit.
- Fashion Disaster of the Movie: A tie between Cap’s awkward new uniform, which thankfully is addressed by Winter Soldier, and Tony Stark’s weirdly rumpled jacket when he’s onboard the helicarrier. Were you wearing it inside the armour or something, Anthony?
- The one-use lasers from Iron Man 2 make a couple of reappearances here. In the Mark VI, they’re used to clear debris from the helicarrier’s turbine, and in the Mark VII, he attempts to cut into a Leviathan with them, to no avail.
- One can’t help but wonder if the way the Sceptre and the Tesseract interact is going to come up again in Infinity War part two, or if the whole “it can’t protect against itself” thing will be swept under the rug, now they’ve been established as two different Infinity Stones, rather than a Stone and its weird stepchild artefact.
- Obligatory Post-Credits Sequence post-credits sequence recap: Oh, it’s Thanos. I am still amazed at how compelling Infinity War managed to make this dude, because nothing about these early teases gets me excited.
- Bonus Post-Credits Sequence post-post-credits sequence recap: Shwarma! I watched the US version of the movie, and it’s the first time I’ve seen this scene as part of the whole. To this day, I wish we’d got just one film of the Avengers hanging out and eating takeaway. In fact, now we’ve got Peter Parker in the MCU, maybe they can double down and give the people (me) what they really want: Spidey nomming with his mask rolled up halfway.
If you enjoyed this piece, and want to support the site, please visit patreon.com/timplusalex to help us make more stuff – and get access to exclusive articles, ebooks, mixtapes and more while you’re at it.