There’s an argument to be made that Joss Whedon’s The Avengers is the most important superhero movie of the 21st century. The reasons are numerous, from its proof of concept that a crossover event on this scale could work, to its staggering box office success, to the now-vast media empire which would not exist had this one film fallen apart.
The MCU began with Marvel literally using its entire catalog of characters to secure a massive loan to produce its own films, and while the early success of Iron Man and the other Phase 1 films was promising, that huge gamble was still largely dependent on The Avengers succeeding. And that wasn’t necessarily the safest of bets, given that despite Whedon being nerd royalty and an established screenwriter, script doctor, and TV director, the film was only his second full-length feature.
It paid off, of course, and its wild success changed pop culture forever. However, looking back on the film, it’s very clearly a product of a time when we could afford to be a little cynical about superheroes.
The Avengers takes place in a far simpler era, when you could count the number of MCU movies that preceded it on one hand, and it felt like a big deal to even get two or three of these characters on screen together at the same time.
Things begin with Loki (Tom Hiddleston) arriving on Earth to steal an extremely powerful artifact known as the Tesseract; Loki not only grabs the Tesseract, but the minds of Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) and Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) to help him open up a portal that will allow an alien army to invade and subjugate the planet.
Professional bad-ass planet saver Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) isn’t a fan of this idea, so he, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), and S.H.I.E.L.D. assassin Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) enlist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) — a.k.a. Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, and, well, Thor — to literally save the world.
So much of The Avengers feels like it was a real joy to assemble (yes, pun intended). There’s the surprising chemistry of its cast: Downey Jr. and Ruffalo of course spark brilliantly off each other, but Evans also makes for a delicious sparring partner. The third act (typically a weak spot for MCU movies) is an epic masterpiece, with its centerpiece being a stitched-together one-shot showing all of the Avengers in the thick of battle against the Chitauri. And of course, a nationwide obsession with shawarma was born from the film’s final moments.
Really, though, this is what stands out, as we mark the 10-year anniversary of the film: How it seems to treat the very concept of a hero as an artificial construct. The Avengers perhaps owes a tip of the cap to Christopher Nolan’s also pretty cynical take on Batman, a trilogy that literally declares the Dark Knight to be “the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs.”
But as a storyteller, Whedon’s wheelhouse has always been the subversion of tropes, going all the way back to the story of a young blond girl walking through a dark alley at night, easy prey for vampires. So him making a superhero movie where most of the superheroes involved aren’t even sure they want to be there proves to be a natural fit.
The Avengers are a supergroup literally known as “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes,” but a good portion of their first on-screen adventure together is spent convincing them to actually team up; one of the film’s weakest points on a pacing level is the 20 minutes or so where characters look at screens on the Helicarrier and bicker with each other. Even Steve Rogers, Captain America himself, has to be nudged to join the fight (and remember, a key part of this guy’s backstory is that he became a super-soldier after he kept lying to World War II recruitment offices while trying to enlist in the Army).