The Marvel Movies Debrief: Avengers Recap, Legacy, and MCU Connections

Earth’s Mightiest Heroes finally team up in Joss Whedon’s superhero spectacle. We revisit the epic conclusion of the MCU's Phase One…

The Avengers (2012) Poster

This article contains spoilers for The Avengers and the wider MCU.

“Was that the point of all this? A statement?”

“A promise.”

When Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury finally reveals his motivations to the World Security Council at the end of The Avengers, it’s hard not to think of the parallels with Marvel Studios’ head honcho, Kevin Feige. The film was the culmination of Phase One of his shared-universe masterplan, bringing together four marquee heroes – Iron Man, Hulk, Thor and Captain America – in one epic ensemble actioner, the likes of which we’d never seen before.

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In fact, The Avengers was both a statement and a promise. The big-name team-up format – used to great effect in comic books for decades – changed the face of superhero cinema: the film was the first MCU movie to earn over $1 billion worldwide and had rival studios (most notably, Warner Bros’ DC Films) rushing to establish their own cinematic universes and crossover events. Essentially, it proved that Feige’s ambitious – and risky – proposition could actually work; a Big Idea that paid off in spades. But the first Avengers adventure also blazed a remarkable trail for what was to follow – the key first checkpoint on the road to Infinity War.

The man trusted with bringing Feige’s dream to fruition? Joss Whedon: creator of much-loved TV franchises Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Firefly, part-time comic-book scribe and covert Hollywood script doctor. A great choice, almost everyone agreed – although it’s worth noting that The Avengers was only Whedon’s second big-screen directing gig (after 2005’s Serenity). Any doubt in his cinematic credentials was swiftly revoked upon the film’s release, though – the finished product saw the writer/director firing on all cylinders, with The Avengers picking up plaudits aplenty and smashing it at the box office.

Though it’s loaded with MCU references, in-jokes and foreboding, the story itself is kept commendably contained: vengeful Asgardian Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is sent to Earth to steal the powerful Tesseract and lead an alien invasion on behalf of a mysterious cosmic benefactor. Meanwhile, SHIELD director Fury rekindles his “Avengers Initiative” and brings together six heroes – Loki’s brother Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) – to stop him.

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OK, so that’s an extremely stripped-down recap – and one that doesn’t quite capture the intricate character work on display. Whedon’s script is perfectly balanced: everyone gets their moment to shine, while the spiky interplay between the Avengers themselves – powered by their clashing personalities – expertly showcases each team member’s idiosyncrasies. The set-pieces – from the opening SHIELD-base ambush to the breathtaking Battle Of New York – are suitably spectacular, while the dialogue is effortlessly witty throughout: choosing a best quip (see below) is nigh-on impossible, thanks to the sheer number of solid-gold zingers.

The A-list cast all bring their A-game, too. Jackson relishes his expanded role as the Avengers’ gaffer, while Ruffalo’s new-look Bruce Banner is much easier to warm to than Ed Norton’s previous incarnation. As the film’s “full-tilt diva” antagonist, Hiddleston is at his scenery-chewing best. And while Downey Jr. and Hemsworth are as entertaining as ever, it’s arguably Evans that shows the most progress here, giving an understated performance that really sells Cap’s journey from awkward man-out-of-time to confident supergroup leader. If anything, Renner gets the short-straw, spending half the movie as a drone under Loki’s influence, but even he squeezes in a couple of genuine hero moments.

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Perhaps fittingly from the man who brought us Buffy, though, it’s Johansson’s Widow who arguably steals the show. Not having had the benefit of a pre-Avengers solo adventure (although she did make a standout first impression in Iron Man 2), Whedon stuffs the film full of opportunities for character development – and Johansson grabs them with both hands, gamely committing to the cause and making the role her own.

An early interrogation scene brilliantly showcases “the famous” Black Widow’s athleticism, intellect, and dry sense of humor (“This moron is giving me everything,” she deadpans while tied to a chair), while the script plants so many seeds of intriguing backstory it’s almost criminal that Marvel has taken this long to commission her own movie… (Why was Hawkeye originally sent to kill her? What went down in São Paulo? Exactly how much red does she have on her ledger?)

So, despite the fact that we’re now 20-plus films into the MCU, its sixth instalment – and its first major crossover – is still undoubtedly one of its best. In fact, given what’s come since, Whedon’s achievement is somehow even more impressive – slick, coherent, tightly scripted and impressively staged, The Avengers remains a top-tier Marvel.

The Avengers (2012)

Standout Scene

It’s not really fair to call the entire 30-minute Battle Of New York – in which Loki’s Chitauri forces launch their attack on Earth – a “scene”, although it is a humdinger of a finale: well-structured, finely crafted and crucially, given the amount of FX work, coherent. So we’re going to pick one high-point… Banner finally joins the fight (“That’s my secret…I’m always angry”), and smashes down a mammoth Leviathan (the flying metal dragon thingys), before assembling with his teammates for that iconic circling shot as Alan Silvestri’s The Avengers theme blasts out. Still gives us goosebumps.

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Best quip

Thanks to Whedon’s script, The Avengers is a veritable treasure trove of one-liners. But we’re going to go for two words: “Puny god”. Highly commended awards also go to Fury (“Let me know if real power wants a magazine or something”) and a non-Hulk Banner (“That guy’s brains are a bag of cats…You can smell crazy on him”).

Agent Maria Hills in The Avengers (2012)

First appearances

Most of the Avengers ensemble have already appeared onscreen by this point, but the film’s major new signing is Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill, a high-ranking SHIELD agent and Fury’s right-hand woman – now an MCU regular. We also say hello to Jenny Agutter and the late Powers Boothe as two World Security Council members who will pop up elsewhere in the MCU continuity (in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and TV’s Agents of SHIELD respectively), and Whedon regular Alexis Denisof as The Other, a servant of Thanos who we’ll next meet in Guardians Of The Galaxy.

So long, farewell

Coulsooooooooooooooon! OK, so that cheeky Cobie Smulders outtake (and the fact that Clark Gregg has been a core cast member on Agents of SHIELD ever since) might have slightly ruined the film’s big moment for us, but Phil’s “death” at the hands of Loki is still a shock in the context of the story. Whedon has never been afraid to kill off fan-favorite characters with little warning, and he continues this trend here – Agent Coulson’s demise provides the impetus for the estranged Avengers to regroup and “suit up” for one last stand against the alien invaders.

Agent Coulson and Thor

It’s all connected…

As you might expect, there are tons of references to other MCU movies and TV shows in The Avengers. Here are some of the key ones:

• Ed Norton might have morphed into Mark Ruffalo, but Marvel isn’t exactly ignoring The Incredible Hulk here. Coulson informs Cap that Banner’s accident stemmed from a failed attempt to recreate Abraham Erskine’s super-soldier formula, while the Culver University set-piece is glimpsed briefly in archive footage. And when Banner says, “The last time I was in New York, I kind of broke Harlem,” he’s referring to the Hulk’s previous punch-up with the Abomination.

• “Howard Stark fished that out of the ocean when he was looking for you…” Tony’s dad is revealed to be the rescuer of the Tesseract after it was lost at sea at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger. “You should’ve left it in the ocean,” Cap warns Fury.

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• The weapon that Coulson blasts Loki with is made from the remains of the Destroyer – the Asgardian war machine sent by Loki to kill his brother in Thor.

• The movie contains two Infinity Stones. The Tesseract is later revealed to contain the Space Stone, while Loki’s sceptre is shown to house the Mind Stone in Avengers: Age Of Ultron – which explains how he’s able to control Hawkeye, Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and others in the film. Ironically, the final, crucial stone that Thanos acquires in Infinity War is the one he actually had first, before loaning it to Loki and ultimately losing it to the Avengers.

• “You have reached the life model decoy of Tony Stark,” the tech-genius tells Coulson over the phone. LMDs haven’t yet been seen on the big screen, but they’re a mainstay of Marvel comics and were a major component of Agents of SHIELD’s fourth season.

• Cap asks Stark if the late Coulson had any romantic connections. “There was a Cellist I think,” he replies. He’s referring to Audrey Nathan (played by Whedon alumnus Amy Acker), who we meet in the first season of Agents of SHIELD.

• Powers Boothe’s World Security Councilman, Gideon Malick, returns in the third season of Agents of SHIELD, where he’s revealed to be “one of the last heads of HYDRA’s old guard”, obsessed with bringing back the organization’s exiled Inhuman master, Hive.

Chitauri in The Avengers (2012)

• The climactic Battle Of New York has long-reaching implications for the wider MCU. The point at which most Earthlings in the Marvel universe realised that aliens existed, the event is alluded to in many of the Phase Two movies (most notably, as the reason for Stark’s PTSD in Iron Man 3) and Marvel’s small-screen offerings, such as Daredevil. Chitauri tech salvaged from the battleground has also powered plot points for Agents of SHIELDLuke Cage, and Phase Three’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, in which Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes turns the leftovers he’s scavenged into advanced weapons – including his own Vulture suit.

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• Talking of alien invaders, the dragon-like Leviathans also appear in the next two Avengers movies. In Age Of Ultron, a recovered Leviathan corpse is seen in Wolfgang von Strucker’s HYDRA base, while some more active Leviathans are seen helping Thanos and the Black Order to invade Gamora’s homeworld of Zen-Whoberi during an Infinity War flashback.

• “The world will be his, the universe yours,” The Other tells his unseen master at the beginning of the film. And we all know who that turns out to be…

Credit check

“Humans… They are not the cowering wretches we were promised. To challenge them is to court death…” The Other laments Loki and the Chitauri’s defeat, as his master is finally revealed: Thanos turns to camera and smiles. Elsewhere, the tired Avengers are seen chowing down on some Shawarma in a half-destroyed New York eatery – a very Whedon-esque throwback to Stark’s post-battle food craving.

What are your thoughts on The Avengers? Have we missed your favourite moment or reference? Let us know in the comments below…