It may seem hard to believe today, but there was a time when feature-length superhero crossovers were nothing more than a pipeline dream, with studios reluctant to finance such a hefty project. It wasn’t until 2012 that the first of these projects came to fruition, bringing four of Marvel’s biggest superheroes together for a blockbuster like no other.
At an off-limits military base, the mischievous Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has stolen the Tesseract, a blue, luminescent cube that acts as an infinite power source. Whilst doing so, Loki brainwashes and kidnaps a number of the base’s employees, among them scientist Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and agent Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), in hope of using them to carry out his evil deeds. It is with these acts of treachery that Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) – the director of spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. – requests the services of four remarkable people.
First on his list is Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson), an ex-Russian operative who is highly-trained in close-quarters combat; following her is Dr Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), an expert in nuclear physics and gamma radiation. For muscle, Fury hires Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), the alter-ego of Captain America who, only recently, awoke from a decades-long cryosleep; and finally, there’s Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) an industrialist better known as the superhero Iron Man.
Once his team is gathered, Fury’s next objective is to locate and apprehend Loki, and he’s not the only one with that goal – Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the God of Thunder, is also seeking to find Loki, with the intention of bringing him home to Asgard. After some physical deliberations, Thor agrees to let S.H.I.E.L.D. detain Loki for questioning. As egos collide and fractures grow within the group of heroes, S.H.I.E.L.D. is no closer to uncovering Loki’s master plan, leaving their operation vulnerable to attack.
Plans for a team-up of Marvel’s various franchises were first concocted back in 2008, when Jackson made an uncredited appearance as Nick Fury in Jon Favreau’s Iron Man – his character makes mention of a program called the “Avenger Initiative” in a nowadays-customary post-credits scene. After Disney acquired the rights to Marvel Studios in 2009, it immediately began developing a shared universe with the intention of bringing its heroes together, a move that was risky at best.
See, when Disney bought Marvel Studios from Paramount Pictures, it didn’t gain ownership of the brand’s two most-popular properties, those being Spider-Man, which was in the possession of Columbia Pictures, and X-Men, which was possessed by 20th Century Fox. Instead, Disney had to make do with Marvel’s comparatively-lesser protagonists, ones which most filmgoers wouldn’t be familiar with. For The Avengers to be a success, it had to be truly special, and blessedly, it is exactly that.
The cast is just the first of many elements worth praising, with every single actor inhabiting their role brilliantly. Robert Downey Jr. is a delight as the playful Tony Stark, his fun performance matched only by Tom Hiddleston’s impish Loki; Chris Evans, meanwhile, takes on a more serious persona as Captain America with nothing but conviction. Somewhere in the middle is Chris Hemsworth as Thor, who can be sincere or funny when the need arises.
Playing more vulnerable characters are Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo. The former provides complexity and nuance to Black Widow, a character who is now more relatable and fleshed-out than she was in her first appearance, Iron Man 2; the latter, as Bruce Banner, has the job of conveying a man desperately trying to contain his rage at every opportunity, which he does impeccably – a remarkable achievement, given this is Ruffalo’s first time portraying the character.
More significant than that are the movie’s special effects. It may come as a surprise to know that the majority of The Avengers has been digitised – many of the action sequences, including the climactic battle for New York, are filmed in front of green-screens, with the scenery being added during post-production; yet the scenes are so flawlessly rendered that one could be mistaken for believing that everything was shot on location. This quality even extends to the computer-generated characters, with Iron Man’s armour and Hulk looking astonishingly realistic.
More impressive still is how deftly The Avengers blends action with comedy, and how excellent both elements are. The fight sequences – which include Iron Man taking on Thor, Hulk going mad in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s sky-carrier and, of course, the enormous battle in Manhattan – are among the most thrilling ever placed in a superhero movie; the gags are equally as entertaining, which well-timed one-liners and even some physical comedy to be found.
And the excellence of The Avengers doesn’t end there, for it also possesses a smart script. Written by the film’s director, Joss Whedon, it provides the audience with just enough exposition and backstory to introduce each and every character – one could happily watch this picture without having viewed the other Marvel films beforehand. While there are irritants present in the screenplay, such as the superfluous conversations and juvenile conflict between the heroes, they barely detract from the rest of the experience.
In the six years since its initial release, The Avengers is still seen as one of the best instalments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it’s no wonder why. It’s the blockbuster that combined a talented cast, state-of-the-art effects, thrills and humour to assemble a phenomenal viewing experience that ranks among the greatest superhero films of all time.