In 1995, Marvel Comics created “National Superhero Day” and, in the process, provided comics and superhero fans the world over with a great excuse to celebrate their favourite characters and publications.
Released: 4 May 2012
Director: Joss Whedon
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget: $220 million
Stars: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Stellan Skarsgård, and Samuel L. Jackson
When Loki Laufeyson (Hiddleston) arrives on Earth wielding a mind-controlling spear and in search of the Tesseract, Nick Fury (Jackson), director of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.) activates the “Avenger Initiative”. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey Jr), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Evans), Doctor Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Ruffalo), Thor Odinson (Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Johansson), and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Renner) are called into service but, with such big egos and personalities among their ranks, these assembled heroes must find a way to co-exist before they can combat this otherworldly threat.
The development of an Avengers film began in 2003 with an outrageous plan to release a series of solo films for each character before having them all meet up, similar to how the Avengers formed in the comics back in 1963 courtesy of Martin Goodman, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Dick Ayers. It was an unprecedented move, one which saw fledging studio Marvel Studios roll the dice on lower-tier heroes such as Iron Man and win big time with a slew of massively successful and popular superhero films, each one hinting towards a much larger, shared cinematic universe.
When the time came for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to finally meet onscreen, Marvel Studios turned to Joss Whedon to rewrite the script and direct the film and included Iron Man (Favreau, 2008) and Iron Man 2 (ibid, 2010) director Jon Favreau as an executive producer. After some differences of opinion, Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige chose to recast Edward Norton in the role of Banner/Hulk and easily the biggest superhero film of all time was officially underway. The Avengers (known as Avengers Assemble here in the United Kingdom) was an absolutely phenomenal success, making over $1.500 billion at the box office, receiving rave reviews, and kicking off the extraordinary blockbuster success we know of today as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
Avengers Assemble was the first time we had ever seen superheroes come together in a big screen, big budget movie. Before the MCU, before Iron Man, superheroes always existed in isolated bubbles and never interacted and, as a big fan of the interconnected world of the comics (not just in Marvel but in DC Comics and pretty much ever comic publication), I was excited to see these characters come together onscreen for the first-time and will always lean towards an interconnected, shared continuity. It was a risky venture taking admittedly B to D-tier characters like Iron Man and Captain America and shaping a series of movies around them but Avengers Assemble totally justified that risk, allowing these volatile egos and characters to share the same screen and mixing fantasy, science-fiction, magic, and technology all together in one action-packed adventure.
Loki’s threat is immediately established when he suddenly arrives on Earth and makes short work of Fury’s men and then uses his spear to take control of Professor Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and Barton. Though only a singular villain, one whom Thor has been able to best in combat before, Loki is a significant threat to the world since he is, effectively, a God and he has the entire Chitauri army at his command. Before the Chitauri arrive, though, Loki is formidable enough to justify bringing in Iron Man (despite Fury’s earlier reservations) and Cap since Thor wasn’t supposed to be able to get back to Earth. When Thor does arrive, his mission to capture Loki and bring him back to Asgard is hampered by Earth politics (since Fury wants to hold Loki accountable for the death and destruction he’s already caused) and as a result Loki manages to manipulate the fledgling Avengers into bickering and fighting with each other rather than him, allowing him to take possession of the Tesseract and bring the Chitauri to Earth. While he avoids active, physical combat, Loki is a daunting opponent when he does engage in battle, able to go toe-to-toe with Thor (thanks, largely, to Thor holding back out of love for his brother), easily catching Hawkeye’s arrow, and tossing Stark out of a window with just one hand. His downfall comes not only through the unification of the Avengers but is spelt out by Stark, who monologues about how, win or lose, they would hunt down and hold Loki personally responsible to ensure that he never truly wins, and, of course, more explicitly through the sudden and hilarious beat down he receives at the hands of the Hulk.
Essentially, the film is a significant chapter in Cap’s story; since Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011) ended with Cap being dethawed in the modern day, this was only the second time we had seen him in action; unfortunately, because of the nature of the film, Cap’s reintegration into society is largely glossed over and, rather than being dwelled upon, is replaced with Cap wishing to be given a mission, a focus, a reason to fight in the modern world. As a result, he unquestioningly follows Fury’s directions primarily out of instinct, duty, and a need to have a reason to go on in a world that has largely passed him by; he clashes with Stark’s rebellious attitude, believing that they should follow orders like soldiers, but is convinced enough to investigate further and is disgusted to find Fury in possession of Chitauri technology and with contingencies in place to combat the Avengers since they have the potential to be a threat to humanity. Cap is all business when in battle, instinctively taking command and exuding leadership even though he is the most out of touch and out of place of all the characters; his initial antagonism with Stark is eventually put aside to lead the team during the Chitauri invasion and Cap fights to the bitter end even when he is vastly overpowered by the alien forces, taking the most damage of any of his team mates (including the “weaker” members like Natasha and Barton).
Stark is just as stubborn and snarky as ever; he’s clearly insulted by Agent Phil Colson (Gregg) and Fury’s decision to relegate him to a “consulting” role in the Avengers Initiate despite his claims to not want to be part of the team and believes himself to be the only one smart and capable enough of combating Loki’s impending threat. He comes aboard with the program purely out of a selfish desire to lord himself over Fury and the other Avengers and to learn more of S.H.I.E.L.D.s secrets, using them to call Fury out on his hypocrisy, and constantly goading his team mates (particularly Banner) into being themselves and rejecting Fury’s orders and control. While the prevailing arc for the entire team is learning to work together, Stark personifies this as he is the most antagonistic and reluctant to work as a team; he’s the most affected by Coulson’s death due to him knowing the agent the best, his experiences witnessing death and suffering first-hand in Iron Man, and his inability to properly cope with death and loss. Coulson’s death galvanises Stark, turning his incredulity to vengeance and giving him the motivation to not only put aside his ego to work with the team but also acknowledge Cap’s superior leadership skills.
Banner appears very differently to where we left him in The Incredible Hulk (Leterrier, 2008); fearing the unpredictability and ferocious nature of the Hulk, he has stayed in hiding, suppressing the Hulk with some success, but is unable to deny his innate wish to help others in need with his scientific and medical expertise. Banner has managed to keep the Hulk at bay not only through a risky and unique technique (he’s “always angry”, indicating that he constantly keeps his emotions at a level where the Hulk is satiated but doesn’t actually emerge) and a vehement refusal to acknowledge or speak the Hulk’s name. Banner is convinced to help advise on Loki’s spear by Natasha’s beauty and simply her asking him nicely, rather than forcing him to comply, but, while he is clearly excited to be working with S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Tesseract and forms a fast, budding friendship with Stark (with Stark goading Banner and acting like an annoying brother to him), he quickly comes to realise that Fury’s intentions aren’t entirely noble and questions the validity and ability of a team that is little more than a “timebomb” of ego and emotions. When the Hulk is forcibly unleashed as part of Loki’s plan, he is unbridled rage and fury, lashing out at everything and everyone around him in a mindless rage since the transformation was against Banner’s will. Later, during the Battle of New York, Banner initiates the transformation willingly and the Hulk is much more…maybe not “docile” but let’s say willing to cooperate, taking Cap’s orders and specifically targeting to Chitauri threat while protecting and aiding his teammates. A measure of Banner’s influence and the Hulk’s intelligence is seen as the Hulk makes the effort to save Iron Man from his fatal fall and his dismissive grunt of “Puny God!” after beating the piss out of Loki.
Thor’s arrival on Earth comes out of nowhere and is quickly waved away with a brief line about “dark energy”; personally, I never liked this or understood why the filmmakers had the Bifrost be destroyed in Thor (Branagh, 2011) when they knew very well that Thor would be back in Avengers Assemble but it is what it is and Thor is there. Thor is handicapped by his emotions towards his brother; he is elated and heartbroken to see Loki alive after believing him dead and just wants his brother to abandon his crusade and come home. Loki, however, is too full of jealously, rage, and resentment and constantly taunts, defies, and dismisses his brother, who finds himself unable to simply wade in, muscles bulging, and retrieve Loki thanks to opposition from Iron Man, Cap, and Fury and the greater issue concerning the Tesseract. Thor offers knowledge of another world, another level of understanding, that is unique amongst his teammates and spends much of the film believing his brother still has good in him and wishing to return him home. After Loki kills Coulson before Thor’s eyes and tries to kill him with a trap intended for the Hulk, Thor reluctantly gears up and enters the fray, so determined to stop his brother’s mad schemes that he’s willing to fight alongside the Avengers and submit to Cap’s orders since he, like Cap, is a stranger in this world and still learning how to navigate modern, human society.
Natasha is still relatively new in this film since audiences only saw a fraction of her true character and abilities in Iron Man 2 so it’s good that she gets a solo action scene at the start of the film to showcase her physical and manipulative abilities. We learn bits and pieces of her character and backstory through her interactions with Banner, Loki, and Barton but she remains very much a mystery even by the end of the film. This would, of course, continue over the years since Black Widow was one of the last of the original Avengers to get a solo film, meaning an air of mystery constantly surrounds her, but much of her arc is focused on her relationship with Barton (which is one of duty, gratitude, and mutual, platonic respect) and her commitment to Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. Like Cap, she follows orders unquestioningly but it also feels like she has her own agenda and reasons for going along with S.H.I.E.L.D.; while she, like Barton, is one of the weakest links in the Avengers, she’s still capable enough to hold her own against the Chitauri…for a time, at least.
Barton, who is only referred to as Hawkeye once in the film, spends most of the movie under Loki’s command (though this does harken back to his comic book beginnings as a villain); as a result, all we know about him is the few bits and pieces Natasha reveals about their relationship and their background. However, we do get to see him in action on more than one occasion; he’s a crack shot, almost to superhuman levels, and is able to bring down an entire Helicarrier with a single, well-placed arrow. He is an essential soldier in Loki’s army, offering him insight into Fury’s operation and resources, but is also able to provide the Avengers with key information regarding Loki after Natasha literally knocks some sense into him. He proves himself capable enough in the finale by providing much needed and peerless cover from a high vantage point, from which he is able to take out multiple Chitauri with a few well-aimed shots. He’s easily the least developed of all the characters thanks to the role he plays in the film but it works for the plot and means we’re left wanting to know more about him and his backstory. Fury plays a much larger role in this film than in the previous MCU movies since he’s a pivotal supporting character rather than a mere cameo; he believes that Loki represents a very real threat to humanity but also believes wholeheartedly in the concept of heroes and the ability of the Avengers Initiative to combat Loki’s threat.
Fury opposes the World Security Council when they dismiss the Avengers as a legitimate solution and when they order a nuclear strike on New York which, along with his own brand of snark and dry wit, makes him a rebellious and layered character in his own right. However, he’s also a secretive and manipulative individual, constantly telling everyone only as much as they need to know and a handful of half-truths (as Stark says: “Fury’s secrets have secrets!”) and believes in having contingencies against any and all possible threats, both foreign and domestic. While he doesn’t fight alongside the Avengers in the final battle, he’s crucial to their formation and is a charismatic and alluring figurehead for their group. Sadly, this was as prominent as Fury would be for some time, with him quickly going back to being either a cameo or supporting character over the years, which is a shame as it’s always great to see Samuel L. Jackson in the role and interacting with these characters. Similarly, Coulson also gets much more screen time and development this time around; still acting as Fury’s go-to and the liaison between S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers, Coulson (whose first name is revealed to be “Phil” rather than just “Agent”) is the relatable man among Gods, the common thread that links all of these volatile personalities together. Initially, all they really have in common beyond their heroic tendencies is their relationship with Coulson, with Stark having the closest link to him and Coulson being especially in awe of Cap, his hero and idol, and Coulson’s death is both sudden and heartbreakingly brutal. It’s a fantastic moment that serves to galvanise and motivate the them and, as much as I’ve enjoyed some episodes and seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013 to 2020), it did annoy me that his dramatic death was undone so soon after the film’s release. Thankfully, the MCU movies don’t acknowledge Coulson’s resurrection so his tragic death remains the principal motivating factor behind the coming together of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.
Considering the large cast of bombastic, unique characters and actors, Avengers Assemble is fantastically well paced; sure, Natasha and, especially, Barton don’t get anywhere near as much screen time or development as established guys like Cap or Stark but they get several character defining moments and character beats that help to keep them relevant and integral to the plot. The film isn’t full of non-stop action but it never feels slow or like it’s wasting time; any time there isn’t some kind of physical conflict, there’s a conflict of character, beliefs, or ideologies as each of the characters interacts with each other in different ways. The central conflict in the film is between the individual Avengers as much as it is with Loki as each one must learn how to interact and co-operate with the other, which leads to some friction between Rogers and Stark, disdain from the God-like Thor, and distrust from the understandably agitated Banner.
This all comes to a head in one of the film’s most intense moments where the fledgling Avengers argue over Fury’s manipulations, the threat each of them oppose, and their conflicting egos in a scene that is easily as powerful as any of the film’s fight scenes. Here, each character talks and argues over each other; lots of fingers are pointed, egos are bruised, and accusations are made thanks to the influence of Loki’s spear, which exacerbates their most negative aspects and fuels the distrust and tension between the group. It’s an amazingly realised scene, with lots of dynamic camera work on offer and allows the characters to vent their frustrations and concerns about each other, the mission, and the inevitable escalation of conflict that threatens Earth now that it has experienced otherworldly threats and, in it, these conflicting personalities actually grow stronger as a result of their brutal honesty.
However, amidst this, there are also numerous amusing little moments that help to add to the film’s levity and develop each character: Rogers handing Fury a $10 bill after being awe-struck by the Helicarrier, Stark pointing out that one of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents is playing Galaga (Namco, 1981), Thor’s humiliation regarding Loki’s actions and heritage, and Banner’s flashes of anger all help to make the characters real and relatable. One of the best examples of this is Cap’s confrontation with Loki in which he, despite being “out of time”, recognises Loki’s evil and potential threat and openly opposes him just as he did a similar dictator in World War Two and engages him in combat despite Loki’s clear physical advantage over him. Cap’s whole character is that he continues to fight no matter the odds and that is continuously seen in Avengers Assemble as, even when outclassed or outnumbered, he continues to get back up and go on with the fight until it’s done, one way or another, and fails to give in to intimidation from concepts beyond his time such as Gods, aliens, and advanced technology.
Their interactions with each other are equally impressive, with the heroes just as likely to come to blows as they are to work together; this means we get to see these bright, colourful costumed characters fighting with each other as much as alongside each other. Iron Man fights with Thor, Cap joins in to make it a triple threat, Black Widow fights with Hawkeye, and Thor memorably goes toe-to-toe with the Hulk to set up a friendly rivalry that would be fantastically revisited in Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017). It’s a staple of superhero team-ups that the heroes simply must fight at least once and Avengers Assemble delivers on this in spades; we’ve watched each of these characters in their own films, or be involved in other MCU films, over the years so to see them match wits, trade blows, and fight together is a true fanboy’s delight.
The finale is little more than a battle against mindless, indistinguishable alien hoards who, conveniently, operate in a hive mind and are “easily” shut down by Stark tossing a nuclear weapon at their mothership. I honestly expected a version of the Masters of Evil for the first Avengers movie, with Loki joining forces with Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) outside of the Realms and then teaming up with Emil Blonsky/The Abomination (Tim Roth) and/or Samuel Sterns/The Leader (Tim Blake Nelson) once they reach Earth for a smaller scale, six on six style team vs. team movie and, in some ways, it is a bit disappointing that the Avengers only went up against one villain and an army of drones but it really works in the film since the entire point of the movie is to bring these volatile characters together. The actual antagonist could have be anyone or anything and it wouldn’t really matter but it being Loki works wonders thanks to Tom Hiddleston’s iconic performance; he’s truly a snake in the grass, a wily, manipulative, vindictive villain who is intelligent and cruel enough to match wits with each of the Avengers both physically and vocally and the only previous villain I could see being able to do anywhere hear as good a job would be Hugo Weaving.
One issue I have though is that, as much as I loved the “Avengers Assemble!” scene we eventually got, I still don’t get why we couldn’t have heard that iconic cry during that awesome panning shot of the team standing back-to-back. I think we definitely could have heard this cry in each of the team-up films and appearances of the group and it wouldn’t have taken away from that impactful scene; if anything, it would have added to it since it would be a rallying cry for the reunited heroes. Still, the Battle for New York is amazing in its scope; the Chitauri may be interchangeable alien drones but they are relentless. The Avengers are able to combat them and easily defeat them but their numbers are legion and, apparently, inexhaustible and it isn’t long before they are overwhelmed even with the might of Thor and the Hulk. The Chitauri’s larger reinforcements and advanced weaponry and sheer numbers mean that it is simply a matter of time before the Avengers, for all their power, are overwhelmed and Loki is successful, meaning that the Avengers’ main concern is holding the line and keeping the invasion at bay while their team mates confront Loki and cut off the source of the invasion. All throughout the film, Loki converses with “The Other” (Alexis Denisof) and is clearly being given power and resources from an unseen third party, revealed at the very end of the film to be none other than Thanos (Damion Poitier). At the time, we could never have anticipated the extent to Thanos’s threat and importance to the MCU but the bringing together of cosmic characters like Asgardians and threats like the Chitauri and Thanos only hinted at how large and varied the MCU was destined to become.
Avengers Assemble is still one of the biggest and most entertaining movies in the MCU and, perhaps, ever made. Of all the movies in the MCU’s first phase, it’s easily my favourite and, for me, set the standard not just for subsequent MCU team-up movies but for every film in the MCU going forward. No longer were these characters going to exist in their own isolated bubble; they would interact with their fellow characters, reference the larger world we finally saw in all its glory, and be part of something much bigger and greater than a series of self-contained films.
For me, this is the greatest appeal of the MCU; before Iron Man, superhero films were always solo affairs and we never saw heroes interact with each other. Thanks to the MCU, all of that changed and, finally, the movies came to resemble the comics by having a shared universe that has a tight continuity and an actual tangible, long-term plan. The film is alive with character moments, an amusing dry wit, and action-packed sequences but, as thrilling as the bombastic fight scenes can be, it’s all the little interactions and interpersonal conflicts that really make this film so entertaining and appealing to me even to this day.
What are your thoughts on Avengers Assemble? How do you feel it holds up now that the MCU has become this massive, multimedia juggernaut? Were you disappointed that the film focused solely on the one villain and side-lined Hawkeye with a mind control sub-plot or were you satisfied with Hiddleston’s performance and the interpersonal conflicts between the characters? Which of the Avengers is your favourite and which of the comic’s characters are you excited to learn more about or see join the team? Which of the MCU movies, shows, or characters is your favourite and why? How are you celebrating National Superhero Day today? Whatever your thoughts, leave a comment below and be sure to stick around for more superhero and comic book content throughout the year.