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As Marvel’s Avengers head toward a conclusion of sorts with this week’s Avengers: Endgame, it would seem like the perfect time to revisit their cinematic history to date — but that journey through seven years of nostalgia proves to result in a number of unexpected discoveries about the direction of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and how it relates to its comic book source material.
What’s immediately apparent from watching the primary Avengers movies of the MCU to date — 2012’s The Avengers, 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War and 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, which may lack the Avengers banner but is, let’s be honest, far more an Avengers movie than it is a Captain America one — is that the first two movies may share a cast and a title, but they feel very much removed from what followed in a multitude of ways.
It’s true visually — 2012’s Avengers has a much brighter color palette than what audiences have come to expect from an MCU movie, but it also looks significantly cheaper; the opening scenes in the secret SHIELD base resemble nothing as much as a Syfy Original Movie, shockingly — and in terms of story focus. Both of Joss Whedon’s outings as Avengers writer-director are, essentially, character-focused pieces that end with desperate battles in which the only solution is for the heroes to work together to achieve their desired goal — a goal that is, of course, “stop the bad guy and save everyone else.”
That last part turns out to be particularly important. For Whedon, saving people is the primary goal of the Avengers, and fighting the bad guy is a secondary mission — something done as a distraction to stop them from hurting any more civilians, at least until it’s time for the movie’s climactic scenes when the final confrontation is unavoidable. It’s something that is obviously, unmistakably heroic — these characters overcoming their petty grievances with each other to work toward a greater good that requires no level of personal gain.
By comparison, both Avengers: Infinity War and Captain America: Civil War are impressively self-involved. The heroes have a personal stake in their conflicts, which should make things feel more intense — and, to a certain extent, does — but also lessens the scope of the storytelling, even with Infinity War’s literal universal scale. When everyone knows everyone else, the ultimate battle between good and evil feels as much like the airing of a long-held familial grudge as it does an epic showdown with the fate of all life in the balance. It’s something that the MCU can get away with because, by this point, fans have been part of the family for more than 10 movies and are already invested in the various storylines, but it’s a problem nonetheless.
That feeling of incestuousness is deepened by the fact that, when watched back-to-back, it’s very obvious that Whedon was attempting to build a supporting cast for the Avengers movies — there’s literally no other reason for Stellan Skarsgard to show up in Age of Ultron, not Samuel L. Jackson, other than to remind audiences, “these super guys have regular friends” — and also that the creative team behind Civil War and Infinity War have little interest in that supporting cast — or, for that matter, a supporting cast that isn’t predominantly composed of superheroes.
Again, this is a problem that the movies get away with based on audiences’ existing familiarity with those characters, as well as the fact that there are so many superpowered characters in the MCU by the time of Captain America: Civil War. But it’s something else that makes the MCU feel far smaller than it should, especially in stories that should — by the very nature of their team-up structure — feel like the largest of all stories to date.
Arguably, the movies made by the Russos feel more like authentic translations of the comic book experience than those made by Whedon, but that’s not necessarily a compliment; by the 1990s, superhero comics faced the same problems of inaccessibility, self-obsession and insular storytelling as the most recent Marvel movies, and it’s those comics that most closely mirror the effect of watching Civil War or Infinity War. Whedon’s two Avengers movies, in comparison, are uneven mixes of team dynamic influences from Stan Lee, Steve Englehart and Chris Claremont — Marvel’s 1960s and ’70s, in other words — and, even then, there’s no direct parallel to a comic book experience thanks to Whedon’s own affectations.
Does this mean that one school of Avengers moviemaking is better than the other? Definitely not; it’s purely personal taste, and if nothing else, there’s something to be said for the Marvel model evolving as the MCU grows. But, as the franchise continues beyond Endgame, it’ll be interesting to see what kind of Avengers movie will exist in the future — if there are any more Avengers movies to come, of course.
Avengers: Endgame opens Friday.
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