This article contains Marvel Cinematic Universe spoilers.
When Marvel Studios released The Avengers in 2012, they probably didn’t know that they were about to change the Hollywood film industry forever. The movie would go on to gross over $1.5 billion at the global box office, and it set the template for Marvel’s blockbuster MCU movie strategy over the next decade. Other studios tried and failed to replicate the movie’s superhero team-up success, but their output never quite earned the right to take a place at its side. Only Marvel could beat Marvel.
These days, The Avengers is an odd movie to talk about. Some of it seems almost quaint compared to the spectacles that Marvel have delivered since, and its once-beloved director – then at what would be the peak of his career – has fallen from grace. A handful of the film’s big stars, like Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr, and Scarlett Johansson, have since left the MCU juggernaut behind. The Marvel Cinematic Universe itself has also tried to move on from the core concept of the Avengers in Phase 4 by introducing new superheroes like Shang-Chi, the Eternals, and Moon Knight.
Looking back at The Avengers ten years later, it’s still a fun movie that evokes nostalgic feelings of a time where anything seemed possible for Marvel, and there are plenty of moments in the film that have more resonance thanks to the many MCU projects that we’ve been treated to since.
Let’s revisit some of the most notable MCU callbacks and payoffs tied to The Avengers…
Battle of New York
The entire Battle of New York became an MCU callback in the Phase 3 closer, Avengers: Endgame. The gang risked it all in their efforts to reverse Thanos’ Snap, travelling back in time to try and acquire three Infinity Stones from under their own noses. The Back to the Future 2 vibes were off the charts as Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Steve Rogers, and Scott Lang made their way to Stark Tower and beyond with a solid heist plan that nevertheless went awry when Loki managed to disappear into a portal with the Tesseract. Along the way, Bruce was embarrassed by his past behavior, Tony made a casual mistake rooted in the kind of arrogance he’d never quite been able to shake, and Steve got to evaluate the shape of his own ass.
The Battle of New York also quietly set up a major theme of accountability in the MCU when a montage of post-battle reactions revealed a grumpy Senator Boynton questioning whether the Avengers should be held responsible for the destruction in the city. This was picked up again later in the Russo Bros’ Captain America: Civil War, where Team Cap and Team Iron Man would come to blows over the implications of the Sokovia Accords. Established by the United Nations and ratified in 2016, the Accords were set up to provide oversight for the actions and consequences of the Avengers – and any other superpowered beings on Earth – following several apocalyptic events.
The Battle of New York then became part of a Broadway show: Rogers: The Musical. Its climactic tune, “Save the City”, featured in the premiere of Hawkeye, and played out in full during the series’ post-credits scene. Billboards advertising the show also appeared in Spider-Man: No Way Home. The musical reminded us that society remembers historical events in its own way, and not necessarily a factual one.
When Natasha Romanoff met Bruce Banner in Calcutta to try and recruit him to the Avengers, she told Bruce that she started young. We later saw some twisted flashbacks to Natasha’s Red Room graduation in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but 2021’s Black Widow explored Natasha’s childhood in 1995, when she was working undercover for the Russians as a young teen who had just begun to taste the possibility of freedom. In a distressing flashback, we found out what happened when her fake family’s cover was blown and she had to escape the United States, only to be dragged back into the Red Room and the many more missions set out for her. Watching this, we knew that she would go on to be coerced and brainwashed. Both Age of Ultron and Black Widow give Natasha’s story a lot more weight in an Avengers rewatch.
There was also Natasha’s admission to an imprisoned Loki that she had “red” in her ledger that she wanted to wipe out by working for SHIELD. In Black Widow, we discovered what Loki was referring to when he brought up “Dreykov’s daughter” in his list of Natasha’s past misdeeds. Dreykov was the Red Room’s overseer, who Natasha attempted to assassinate as a way to prove to SHIELD that she was fully prepared to defect. Unfortunately, a bomb set by Natasha and Clint Barton that was supposed to kill Dreykov badly injured his young daughter instead, setting in motion a chain of events that would later see her become Taskmaster in the MCU.
Natasha’s quest to make peace with her past culminated in the ultimate sacrifice during Avengers: Endgame, when she killed herself so that Clint Barton could acquire the Soul Stone. This was a key part of bringing back those who were wiped out in The Snap.
There have been a surprising number of Avengers payoffs for Hawkeye in the MCU.
There was that triumphant moment in Age of Ultron where Clint stopped Wanda Maximoff from messing with his head by slamming a trick arrow into the side of hers. “I’ve done the whole mind control thing,” he told her. “Not a fan.” But The Avengers also boasted the first appearance of Clint’s “hacker arrow” which he used to upload a virus to the computer systems of the SHIELD Helicarrier. Almost a decade later, a variation of the arrow would return in Marvel’s What If…? on Disney+. Tooled to include a USB, this version of the hacker arrow would be utilized to upload the consciousness of Arnim Zola to an Ultron robot so that he could attack Ultron Prime, saving the multiverse. Another model of the USB arrow popped up in “Echoes,” the third episode of Hawkeye. Clint’s protégé, Kate Bishop, used it during a ruse on the Tracksuit Mafia.
The series also created its own Battle of New York retcon, recreating an iconic moment that now included a young Kate observing Hawkeye mid-fight. It served as her inspiration to become “the world’s greatest archer” after her father’s death.
This is a fairly obvious one, but important all the same! The Avengers marked the first appearance of Thanos, whose quest for balance in the universe would irreparably alter the fates of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. In The Avengers, Thanos was revealed as the one who sent Loki to retrieve the Space Stone-housing Tesseract. He would then eventually pry it from the trickster during the opening scene of Avengers: Infinity War, and use it as part of his Infinity Gauntlet when performing The Snap, leading to the extinction of half of all life in the universe. Five years later, the Avengers reversed this atrocity for the most part in Avengers: Endgame.
We have presumably seen the last of Thanos now, though he did re-emerge as part of some multiverse tales during What If…?.
Loki and Thor
That iconic moment where Hulk threw Loki around like a ragdoll in The Avengers came back around in Thor: Ragnarok. In an arena fight between he and Thor, Hulk pulled the same trick on the God of Thunder, much to the delight of his adopted brother.
There are various other callbacks to Loki’s Avengers projection trick in the MCU. He asked Thor if he’d ever stop falling for it before he launched the Hulk containment unit out of the Helicarrier, and by the time the duo reunited once again in Ragnarok, Thor was bored of the trick, throwing a stone at Loki to prove he’d finally learned his lesson. There was a sweet moment later in the movie when Loki subverted his expectations by really being by Thor’s side in his time of need.
Interestingly, Loki’s Avengers monologuing during his encounter with Steve Rogers in Germany subtly paid off in his Disney+ show, Loki. “Freedom is life’s great lie,” Loki told Steve. A Variant version of Loki who absconded with the Tesseract mere days after this meeting with Captain America would still be of the mind that freedom is a lie, and he would arguably fight that battle again with another female Loki Variant, Sylvie, when she tried to free the multiverse! This may be a fight that Loki is always destined to lose.
Captain Marvel fleshed out the long friendship between Agent Phil Coulson and Nick Fury that was first properly hinted at here, retrospectively making his death in The Avengers even more heartbreaking. Coulson would live again in Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, but only fans of that show can be the judge of whether the consequences of his demise in the movie truly paid off in those seven long seasons.
During his final moments in The Avengers, Coulson declared that it was in Loki’s “nature” to lose. When Mobius M. Mobius met Loki’s Variant shortly after the events of the Battle of New York in Loki, he said something very similar in his TVA interrogation, and it was integral to breaking down Loki’s obsession with vengeance.
We got an answer to “what happened to all the Chitauri tech that fell to Earth?” during Avengers: Age of Ultron, where it was nabbed by HYDRA, and in Spider-Man: Homecoming, where it was being developed into weapons and used on the streets by the likes of Adrian Toomes following the Battle of New York. His salvage company operation had been taken over by the Department of Damage Control, a partnership created by Tony Stark and the U.S. government.
The Tesseract and the Mind Stone
In The Avengers, The Other said that the Tesseract had “awakened” after SHIELD began messing with it to forge an arsenal of Phase 2 weapons. This first attracted the attention of Thanos and his minions, so Loki was given the Mind Stone in the form of a shiny scepter in an attempt to conquer Earth. More Tesseract history would be explored in Captain Marvel, where energy from the Space Stone served to bless Carol Danvers with her superpowers, but following the Battle of New York the Tesseract would also be key to both Loki’s death in Avengers: Infinity War (after he stole it in Thor: Ragnarok), and his rebirth as a Variant in Loki after he stole it again in Avengers: Endgame.
The Mind Stone inside Loki’s Scepter would be behind the creation of Vision, Quicksilver, and Scarlet Witch. Vision began housing it in Age of Ultron and beyond, while HYDRA’s former experiments with the Scepter transformed the Maximoff twins, as revealed during a post-credits scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and later developed further in the Disney+ series WandaVision.
Iron Man and Captain America
Arguably, one of the biggest all-time MCU character payoffs was first seeded in The Avengers when Tony and Steve got into an argument on the SHIELD Helicarrier. “You’re not the guy to make the sacrifice play, to lay down on a wire and let the other guy crawl over you,” Steve told Tony. “You better stop pretending to be a hero.” Tony retorted: “A hero? Like you? You’re a lab rat, Rogers. Everything special about you came out of a bottle.”
Though Tony did prove Steve wrong at the end of The Avengers by diverting a nuke sent to destroy New York, he made the sacrifice play more purposefully in Avengers: Endgame, where he performed his own Snap knowing that the Gamma radiation from using the gauntlet would kill him and save everyone else. Meanwhile, Steve proved that not everything that was special about him came from his superpowers when it was revealed that he was worthy of wielding Mjolnir.
If your favorite The Avengers callback or payoff isn’t mentioned here, let us know in the comments!