It’s been 10 years since the Avengers first assembled. And while this is surely an anniversary of note, it is a bit hard to feel nostalgic when we’re currently knee-deep in the superhero team-up era. Supernaturally gifted crusading crews are a dime-a-dozen and stories of good guys uniting to defend galaxies against all-powerful thugs and snap-happy genocidal maniacs are formulaic — even the best of them. But, then again, maybe the fact that supe-squads are now a staple on the big (and small screen) is proof enough of how monumental that first Marvel merger actually was? After all, where would comic book films be without the success of The Avengers and all it has inspired?
Looking back helps us imagine, but the short answer is “stuck.” Before Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, and Jeremy Renner lent their star-power to the MCU, comic book films had shown themselves to be in need of a catalyst for expansion that could build on the narrative and technical gains of the preceding 10-12 years.
The occasional sidekick notwithstanding, early superhero fare gave us one good guy, multiple bad guys, and a limited number of storylines to explore within its strict architecture. Even standout films with bold directors (like Tim Burton and Sam Raimi) felt constrained, shackled to tropes that told us to root for the hero and hate the villain, even if the villains felt infinitely more interesting.
When the X-Men entered the game, the blueprint changed. Suddenly the big screen was filled with a more diverse lineup of men and women with singular abilities, distinct personalities, and their own motivating factors. Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine may have been our introduction to the world of mutants, but he wasn’t the only reason why that first film – and some of the ones that followed – worked. With Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and his school for gifted children, an entire world was built, one filled with differently-abled individuals that appealed to the masses. Jackman’s Wolverine was a tortured government experiment on a journey of self-discovery. Anna Paquin’s Rogue was a young girl trying to find where she belonged. Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey was a woman with unlimited powers who was often at war with herself while Halle Berry’s Storm emerged as a natural leader, albeit one with a mysterious past. Instead of pigeonholing its audience into cheering for just one main character, X-Men gave fans a superhero buffet, a pick-your-flavor twist on the genre that opened up the scope of its storytelling and who that storytelling might reach.
But X-Men’s approach to creating a superhero universe had its flaws. Its “villains” were mutants, just like our heroes, but they fell on the opposite side of a moral dilemma about society and its treatment of mutant-kind that didn’t have a clear-cut answer. In a lot of ways, it was interesting, but was it also too cerebral and self-limiting in how many times you could go back to that well?
Jump to 2009, after the X-Men franchise had found itself in need of reinvention, and Warner Bros., inspired by the success of its Christopher Nolan headed Batman reboot series (and with a hunger to repeat that success), turned to the previously thought unfilmable comic classic Watchmen to give fans a more stylistic film with a more grown-up tone with a story that, at times, felt convoluted and grimdark.
Of course, by this time, Marvel had already begun laying the groundwork for its eventual cinematic universe. In 2008 it introduced Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, giving fans a charming, quippy protagonist who was less brooding and dark than those that came before – an aspirational a**hole just trying to do some good in the world. The idea that a hero could be earnest, charismatic, even funny, carried through to other solo outings too, making Marvel characters feel accessible and identifiable in ways their fellow comic book crusaders just didn’t. In Capitan America: The First Avenger, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) was an everyman with dreams of defending his country but even after science experiments and drug enhancements and a showdown with a skull-faced hell reject, the best part of his story was the idea that anyone could do something heroic – that anyone could be the good guy. Even Thor, a self-identified god, came across as the kind of himbo you’d want to hang out with — a hero who wasn’t self-serious with comedic underpinnings Marvel easily exploited for laughs. Despite facing world-ending threats and crippling internal issues, these original Avengers were just a bit irreverent, their stories filled with enough comedy and light-hearted moments to let audiences breathe a bit before the next catastrophe took place.
While that formula was being perfected, Marvel also started teasing its eventual team-up, dropping easter eggs and spinning connecting threads through its solo films. Howard Stark, Tony Stark’s estranged father, was behind the government project that gave Captain America his abilities. In Iron Man, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) approached Tony about a collective of gifted good guys he coined The Avengers Initiative. In Thor, as Hemsworth’s other-worldly royal castoff tried to regain favor by doing penance on Earth, Hawkeye (Renner), Fury’s right-hand man, was keeping watch. And, in RDJ’s second outing as Tony Stark, Johansson would eventually sneak in, teasing audiences by playing an undercover Natasha Romanoff whose job was to spy on Stark for her S.H.I.E.L.D. bosses. Some of these threads were more obvious than others, but they all worked to weave together the bigger picture Marvel had in mind and their payoff came with The Avengers.
With first impressions already made in past films, crafting a story that assembled the MCU’s original squad and tasked them with defeating a familiar foe was a subtly genius move. Fans already recognized the threat Loki – the trickster god who orchestrated much of the chaos in the first Thor film – posed to the team and why foiling his plan to raze New York and rule mankind would prove especially challenging for his brother. Thor couldn’t defeat Loki on his own – not with a Chitari squadron at his command – so he reluctantly sided with Earth’s human defenders.
There are three specific moments from this film that I want to call out for their impact on the genre and pop culture. First, CGI Hulk picking Loki up and slamming him repeatedly into the ground in Stark Tower — a moment that stands as a reminder that sometimes the simple pleasures of these things are worth leaning into. Second, the real triumph of The Avengers came when an uneasy standoff amongst the newly-formed team culminated in a brawl that temporarily fractured the group. It’s that scene engineered by Marvel, one years in the making, that proved a superhero team-up could not only work, but it could also make individual characters more interesting and predictable comic book tropes exciting again. Lastly, the most memorable scene of the movie might be that climactic battle to save Manhattan, raising the bar for everything that followed in terms of craft and scale.
After The Avengers, Marvel and Warner Bros. realized bigger was better (both in terms of villainous ambitions and the size of these stories and casts) and they began cramming as many familiar faces as they could into these epic adventures. Some, like the Russo Brothers’ Endgame and Infinity War installments, worked, some, like David Ayer’s The Suicide Squad and that second Guardians of the Galaxy outing, didn’t. But its influence is still being felt.
The superhero world continues to expand on-screen, introducing innovative ways to unite its heroes with Spider-Man Into The Spider-Verse, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, and series like Loki and WandaVision introducing multiverses and diverging timelines that present internal dilemmas that end up roping in other characters to help solve. It’s a new phase of storytelling, but it’s one that wouldn’t be possible without Marvel betting big with its Avengers Initiative.
The upside of all of this is obvious for these studios and for audiences who never tire of these projects, but while the floor is higher for these things, the ceiling is non-existent, creating risk and stress by way of a mandate to make these things interesting, compelling, fun, and oftentimes, bigger with more and more spectacle. Because if they don’t, then the less committed portion of the audience might get bored and start focusing on any number of other entertainment options with the bigness to captivate and succeed with the masses. It’s an interesting legacy, to be sure for this one film, one that has its positives and negatives, but the anniversary of the thing that opened up the sky is worthy of remembrance for what it inspired.