Cinematic universes are all the rage now.
But we have to remember that before they were the exception, not the rule.
Marvel set off on a grand experiment: Take 4 heroes who are the stars of their own franchises and put them together in one team movie.
There were so many risk factors at play.
First, if one of the setup movies was not a hit, it could derail the whole process. In other words, if one went down, they all would go down. You can see this in the slow build following the lukewarm reception of The Incredible Hulk after Iron Man.
Second, you have a question of balance. How can you build and maintain an individual franchise with your character as the main hero if they play second-fiddle to someone else in your group movie? If Iron Man simply dominates Captain America, then how are we supposed to take Cap as seriously as the leader of his own series. If you mess up the group film, it could crash your multi-franchise plan.
Finally, you have the question of scale. If the characters alone fight world-ending threats, the stakes for the group work must be raised. The visual spectacle must also be brought to its highest level. People would expect a level of quality that must surpass what had come before, not simply maintain to the level of the others.
And Marvel delivered with The Avengers
Joss Whedon gets the lion's share of the credit and rightly so. Marvel took a big chance on a director who had only helmed one other feature film, Serenity, that was loved by critics and fans, but bombed at the box office. And Marvel decided to put all of their eggs into his basket. Again, I think that people underappreciated what an enormous risk this was. In retrospect it seems obvious, but it was in no way a secure gamble.
But Whedon understood each of the characters, what gave them a unique voice/perspective, and understood how they brought something interesting and unique to the narrative. Yes, people remember Tony's wise cracks (which are some of the best bits in any Marvel movie), but everyone brings something to the table. Black Widow is a regular human among titans, and yet she is the one who is able to trick Loki into revealing his plan. Thor is the most alien of the team and it is revealed that it is his appearance in our world that set off the other-worldly arms race. Whedon had a huge advantage in that each of these characters had their origin story already told, so he could just dive right in to the narrative.
Whedon made each of the characters shine. A trap many writers fall into is to have the characters all sound like the writer. Whedon allows the characters to be the characters. As a devout Catholic, I have always appreciated that Whedon had Cap mention his faith in God. When asked about why he did this, Whedon responded, "I don't believe in God, but Steve does." This imaginative power allows the characters to feel more real and three-dimensional. This also allows for interesting combinations and conflicts.
Speaking of conflicts, Tom Hiddleston as Loki is one of the greatest comic book villains. He had a good turn in his first outing in Thor, but he really let his dark charisma shine in The Avengers. Whedon makes the threat of his power real, but even more so the threat of his mind. Like Hannibal Lector behind his cell doors, we are constantly under threat from Loki's machinations. His charm is a sharpened dagger waiting to stab. And yet we love to watch him. He is completely fascinating even when he does things like murder characters we love.
This brings us to Clark Gregg as Coulson. Up until this point, he had been the everyman of the MCU. He was the most human of all the characters we encountered. His death was such a shock, one that drew audible gasps when I saw it at the premiere, because we had become used to him as part of the fabric of this cinematic universe. And he was one of us, one of the ones the heroes were supposed to protect. And they failed. This failure pushed the entire rest of the story to a sense of urgency. The heroes could save Coulson. They avenged him.
Returning to the concept of spectacle, Whedon made the most watchable Marvel film. The Battle of New York is long and many films have made the mistake of copying its length but not its depth. Whedon wove a tapestry of action that constantly thrills. The single-take shot following the heroes all throughout the city creates an amazing sense of scale, teamwork, and dynamism as the heroes do their best against the hordes. There is a valid criticism that the Chitauri lack depth. But by the time you get to this part of the story, the audience is waiting for the heroes to cut loose. Besides Loki's charisma makes up for much of this.
Visually there are so many iconic moments, the 360 shot of the heroes, Cap giving out the instructions, Iron Man using Cap's shield to reflect his blasts, Thor dropping the hammer on the shield, Hulk punching the Chitauri monster, Hulk punching Thor, Hulk smashing Loki... this are visual moments that stay with you.
Thematically, the movie resonates so well because it touches on the archetype of the hero: someone who will put others before themselves. One of the reasons that Iron Man is placed front and center of this film is that he is the one with the strongest character arc. This is the movie where Tony goes from being super to hero. He makes the choice to save all of New York immediately and without complaint he flies into the darkness to save those in the light.
And because of the success of The Avengers, the MCU is now the gold standard of movie franchises. Now instead of worrying about one bomb derailing everything, you have the studio taking chances on odder properties like Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Doctor Strange. And these movies are all hits primarily because Marvel has established and solidified their brand with Avengers.
The movie is also at root, just a good deal of fun. To this day, I still quote from it. It is a bright, bold, spectacle that has wit and heart.
And for that reason it is the #5 Super-Hero film of all time.