6. The Avengers (2012)

This post is part of a series I am writing on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe from Iron Man to Endgame. There will be spoilers for the entire series of films.

The Avengers (2012) Poster

After five films setting up the universe and introducing the characters, it was time for the team-up film. This was the experiment, the test to see if the cinematic universe would work and fans invested in the previous films would turn up for the crossover. Spoiler: It worked.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon wrote and directed the film, a sensible choice given his reputation for being good with ensemble casts on TV, and having a similar tone in his work to what Marvel had begun to establish. At the film’s release his hiring was pretty widely praised, though it’s since been tarnished both by his lacklustre follow-up film and revelations about his personal conduct with actresses on his shows. Regardless, he turned in a solid movie that still sits among the top tier of Marvel Studios’ work.

But a top tier Marvel movie tends to be more of a B+ than an A, and it’s not without its faults. The first half of the movie is a mixed bag. The opening scenes feel more like a TV show than a blockbuster movie, and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki at the beginning is lacking that dramatic flair that made him so popular. There’s some good dialogue and jokes for Tony Stark, Nick Fury, Bruce Banner (now played by Mark Ruffalo) and Steve Rogers, but when Thor arrives his stilted cod-medieval speech has been dialled up far beyond what it was in his first film, and Hemsworth struggles to deliver it convincingly.

Black Widow’s characterisation is pretty one-note. One of the biggest sources of backlash against Whedon following Age of Ultron was the way he wrote Natasha, having her compare herself to the Hulk as a monster, and specifically linking that to the fact she had been sterilised as part of her spy training. That take on her is already evident in Whedon’s work in this film, where she’s fairly detached from other people, and her biggest driving motive is making up for the “red in her ledger”, from the people she hurt before Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) spared her and brought her in to S.H.I.E.L.D. She has a close relationship with Clint that seems more built out of guilt and blood debt than affection. Whedon also puts Natasha up against Bruce Banner and Hulk multiple times in the movie, first sending her to recruit Banner in India, then being the one trapped with him on the helicarrier when he loses control. It’s clear in hindsight that this was another play on the idea she sees herself as even more of a monster than Hulk, having had full control of herself when she did whatever it was that makes her feel so guilty – and also gives him plenty of opportunities to make her scared and vulnerable, something that none of the other characters have to go through. You could do something interesting if you dive into that kind of characterisation deeply, but here it’s not really explored, just present.

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The characters that are meant to form our big super-team spend a lot of this film bickering pointlessly. Thor’s arrival to claim Loki turns into an excuse to have him, Iron Man and Captain America punch each other, and then on the helicarrier they all get into arguments for little more reason than that the screenplay wanted them to not come together until after they’d lost someone (specifically, Agent Coulson, returning from the Iron Man films and Thor). Captain America’s famous rant against Tony Stark, that he isn’t the type to “make the sacrifice play”, doesn’t hold up given Cap – having been briefed on all the members of the team – knows Tony regularly puts himself into danger wearing his suit with no superpowers of his own (we don’t see Tony start to use drones and remotely-powered suits until Iron Man 3). Of course he then goes on to sacrifice himself by flying a missile through a portal into deep space, not the first or last time he’d risk everything to protect people. Having the characters mistrust Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. makes sense, but these personal rivalries are only there to force a second-act low point that could have worked just as well without them.

Hawkeye gets the shaft (ha) in this one. He’s mind-controlled by Loki and doesn’t get the chance to have a personality until well past the halfway mark where there isn’t time to really do anything with him. It’s not something any of the later films remedied, as we continually find out things about him – he spared Natasha’s life when he was meant to kill her; he’s secretly a family man; when his family died he became a merciless assassin – but we don’t actually get to know him at all. I still believe that Jeremy Renner is capable of playing a decent Barton as a down-to-earth, more comedic character if given the right material, and I can only hope the upcoming Hawkeye TV series takes inspiration from the excellent Matt Fraction and David Aja comics and gives us that side of the character, though having a family doesn’t really fit that version of him.

But on the more positive side, the film gets more fun as it goes on. Loki gets to be his flamboyant egomaniac self from Stuttgart onward, although his “mewling quim” line to Black Widow remains a terrible decision that seems to have come from the idea of “villain = sexist”, ignoring that Loki was raised by Frigga and grew up with Lady Sif and has no reason to think of women as weak or incapable.

The action scenes from the helicarrier to the final battle are well executed. The Battle of New York makes a good set piece; it has a strong sense of location, we get a lot of perspectives of the people on the ground – something notably lacking in later films – and showcases all our characters. Every one of the main heroes gets to take a shot at Loki (literally, in Hawkeye’s case) and demonstrate why they’re here. And Hiddleston is great at being a character you love to see get punched, particularly when it’s by the Hulk.

Ruffalo is an excellent Bruce Banner, bringing an interesting nervous energy to the role, that of someone who seems laid back but is constantly holding himself in check, which fits in well with his iconic moment from the final battle.

Hulk transforms
“I’m always angry”

It’s a shame that Hulk gets sidelined so much in the MCU, only appearing in team films and Thor Ragnarok (which takes enough pieces from Planet Hulk, one of his best comic storylines, that it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a real adaptation of it in the current MCU), apparently all because Universal still has some sort of hold on Hulk’s distribution rights.

The Chitauri invaders are a pretty boring enemy for the most part – a bunch of identical mindless drones; literally so, judging by how they all collapse when their mothership is destroyed – but keeping things centred on Loki and the Avengers instead of developing these aliens is clearly the right choice here.

An odder choice is the decision to obscure who was responsible for this invasion. The film opens with Loki being told by a strange alien – called only The Other – that he will be provided an army to conquer Earth if he retrieves the Tesseract, and we see The Other again later in the film, when he chastises Loki for not making enough progress. We only find out who this person is working for in the end credits, where it’s revealed – to those who recognise his face from the comics, at least – that he works for Thanos. I’m not sure what including this throwaway character really added to the film, other than allowing them to make Thanos into the mid-credits stinger. They could have easily had Thanos be the one giving Loki his instructions, and I don’t think it would have made any difference to the film at all – it would be essentially the same role he fills in Guardians of the Galaxy. Of course if they’d used Thanos as a character in The Avengers they might not have cast Josh Brolin for the part, and who knows how the MCU would have turned out in that case.

The film ends with the Avengers all going their separate ways – Thor to an entirely different planet – with Nick Fury assuring us that when the world needs them they’ll get together again. He doesn’t seem to have any real evidence to support this assertion, but that’s par for the course for the MCU’s Nick Fury, who seems to run on faith more than information, an odd trait for the head of a spy organisation. Still, he has to be right or Marvel wouldn’t have an opportunity to make all the money in the world, and isn’t that the goal of every corporation?

The Avengers brought to a close Phase 1 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There had been some mixed successes in these first six films, but they’d proven that they could introduce a bunch of characters in individual films then have them come together for a big crossover event, and now it was just to be seen where they would take things next and what new elements they could introduce. In terms of what came after, The Avengers now looks like a pretty small film, but you kind of have to start small(ish) and build from there, and that’s what Marvel – particularly Kevin Feige, who has been the driving force behind Marvel Studios over the last dozen years or so – was doing.

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2. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

This post is part of a series I am writing on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe from Iron Man to Endgame. There will be spoilers for the entire series of films.

The Incredible Hulk (2008) Poster

The Incredible Hulk kind of has an unfair reputation as one of the “bad” Marvel movies. It’s certainly no masterpiece, but it’s… fine. I enjoyed it when I first saw it, and for a long time it was the only Marvel movie I owned on DVD.

I also don’t have a problem with Edward Norton as Bruce Banner. It seems unlikely that Norton would’ve been a good fit for the MCU in the long run (particularly with his need to have a hand on the script), and as it turns out he didn’t want to stick around, but I don’t think he did a bad job at all, and I suspect his rewrite was an overall improvement of this film. The problem I guess is that he just doesn’t really stand out in the role – his performance certainly isn’t as interesting or memorable as Mark Ruffalo wound up being.

And that might be the problem with the whole film. It isn’t bad, but it isn’t trying to do anything particularly interesting with the character. It lacks the humour of Iron Man, and the plot ends up being a pretty generic comic book story. There were some good decisions made: not rehashing the origin story, instead having it happen in a montage over the opening credits, let us get straight to business with the actual story. The first act is pretty decent, with Bruce in hiding in Brazil, controlling his anger and trying to find a cure, until he gets discovered and is forced into the open. Once he returns to the USA, however, the rest of the film is pretty by-the-numbers as he meets up with his love interest, gets caught out by the military for a (fairly good) action scene, escapes and manages to get the cure, only to have to bring the Hulk back to stop the film’s villain, Abomination.

Tim Roth feels miscast in his role as Emil Blonsky, who becomes Abomination in the finale. I like Roth but he doesn’t quite seem to fit. The character’s rivalry with Hulk is also entirely one-sided; while they do cross paths a few times, I really doubt Banner has any idea who he is when he finally goes in to fight Blonsky’s final, monstrous form.

It all just feels like a “comic book movie”, of the kind we used to get before Marvel Studios and their winning formula. It’d perhaps be less out of place beside Fantastic Four than Iron Man.

It’s also a really ugly film. Almost every scene is dark, and the teal and orange and green colour grading make the entire film look kind of sickly. The design of the Hulk, too, has this ugly texture and colouring; they were going for monstrous, and it’s well animated, but not at all visually appealing. I just don’t want to be looking at this guy for an entire film. The redesign of the Hulk from Avengers onwards is a huge improvement, both looking more like the comic character and conveying so much more of the actor beneath the effects.

I’ve seen a few different explanations of why the Hulk never got another standalone film. It was something brought up repeatedly but never followed through on, and eventually one of Hulk’s best stories was cannibalised for Thor Ragnarok instead. Sometimes we’d be told they thought they needed to hold back one of their characters so that people would have a reason to go see the ensemble movies; more likely than that is that Universal Pictures reportedly held on to the distribution rights for all future Hulk films. But it doesn’t seem to have been because they thought this film was a failure.

In terms of the larger Marvel universe, the film doesn’t really have much of an impact. Thor Ragnarok calls back to the scene where Bruce jumps out of a helicopter, and William Hurt has reprised his role as General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross several times, but that’s as far as it goes. Betty Ross might as well never have existed for Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner.

Ultimately, between the recasting of Banner and the lack of a sequel it tends to feel like this film has been forgotten, both by Marvel and the fans alike. I don’t blame anyone for forgetting about it, though. It’s a pretty forgettable film.