How The Avengers Changed Cinema for Better and Worse

It’s been exactly 10 years since The Avengers changed our idea of Marvel and moviemaking forever. But what does that legacy mean?

Cast of The Avengers in Battle of New York
Photo: Marvel Studios

I was living in North Carolina when Marvel’s The Avengers opened in theaters. That feels noteworthy because at least in May 2012, and certainly during a Saturday matinee, North Carolinian audiences were generally not the type to stand up and cheer fictional characters through a screen. But that’s exactly what happened one sunny afternoon when, in a darkened room, Captain America, Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Robert Downey Jr.’s wily Iron Man stood shoulder to shoulder in a dizzying, rotating dolly shot during the climax of the Joss Whedon superhero event.

It is an understatement to say the audience went nuts. Ten years later, moviegoers turning into sports fans during a Marvel movie is expected; it’s as synonymous with that studio as post-credits scenes and easter eggs. But in 2012, it genuinely did feel triumphant. It was as if we stood at the peak of Marvel Studios and producer Kevin Feige’s gambit; the culmination of a project that began with a single line in 2008’s Iron Man about being “part of a bigger universe.” As it turned out, it was less a peak than a plateau. And after the end of Marvel’s Phase One, we soon realized that as far as the eye could see was a landscape littered with more finely calibrated and thoroughly vetted “cheer-worthy moments,” as the modern Academy Awards might say.

Still, it’s worth thinking back on a golden moment like that, because I too cheered with a big goofy grin at the Avengers assembling. And I grinned even wider—perhaps with a snort or two—when the Hulk subsequently threw Tom Hiddleston’s hapless Loki around a digital set like a rag doll caught in a Rottweiler’s mouth. The experience was a blast for someone who grew up reading Marvel Comics and, judging by its then-historic opening weekend gross of $207 million, it was a thrill to many more folks who never glanced at a comic book panel too.

To this day, The Avengers remains a landmark film in the Marvel canon and superhero genre. It’s the movie that proved this shared universe experiment could work (like hulkbusters) and audiences would embrace the weird and nerdy if it’s synthesized properly. It was also the movie where Feige, with a large helping hand from Whedon, locked down the formula that virtually every single Marvel movie thereafter would follow: the banter, the emphasis on self-deprecating humor (as opposed to Jon Favreau’s more freewheeling light touch that colored most of Phase One), and the pivot toward digital photography and overwhelmingly blue-screened comic book imagery that sidesteps any tenuous connections to real world themes. It all began here.

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There are exceptions of course, the occasional Marvel movie about the death of a bad parent, the menace of government surveillance, or the legacy of the African diaspora. But those are the outliers you can count on one hand. By and large, the following 20 or so Marvel movies released in the last decade have been constructed in The Avengers’ image; perhaps more troubling though is much of the rest of Hollywood’s mainstream output has been too. While few of the imitators have reached the heights of Marvel’s success, they have contributed to Marvel’s trailblazing path toward a future where even in a pandemic your movie can succeed… as long as it’s Marvel or the superhero competition across the street.

A decade later, it’s worth asking was getting a smooth, streamlined shared cinematic Marvel universe worth the sea change this uber-franchise seems to have marked?

The New Marvel Method

When Iron Man was filmed in 2007, there really wasn’t a template to go off. There was barely a script. Actor Jeff Bridges, who played one of Marvel’s few villains meant to embody an actual menace in the real world—in this case the utilitarian cynicism of the military industrial complex—famously criticized the experience in 2009 when he said, “There was no script, man. They had an outline.”

Blockbuster filmmaking being a little more freewheeling with constant rewrites (and inevitable reshoots) was already commonplace well before Iron Man in the 2000s. However, Bridges’ dissatisfaction belied how much relative freedom there was on that first picture. According to the actor, he, Downey, and Favreau would retreat to a trailer between scenes and hatch out dialogue and character beats based on broad scenarios.

That habit of rewriting blockbusters continued to flourish in the 2010s, but Marvel’s brief stint with this degree of latitude for its talent did not. Indeed, if one goes back to the first Iron Man, it’s kind of shocking how much the movie attempts to ground its story about a billionaire CEO in a suit of, more or less, magical armor into something resembling reality. The movie begins in what already then felt like America’s forgotten war, Afghanistan. The picture then roots much of its conflict in the central hero confronting the legacy of his family’s wealth stemming from weapons of war and death in the context of dead American soldiers. When Iron Man flies his red-and-gold armor into battle for the first time, it is to save an Afghan village from being slaughtered by weapons manufactured by his family’s business.

It would be the first and nearly last time a Marvel movie attempted to infuse its superhero theatrics with something approaching real world stakes. Which in a vacuum is fine; superheroes are a basic power fantasy for children, and many of the original comics had little or nothing to do with adult stakes. But there was a variety in the type of stories Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and Steve Ditko liked to tell on the page. And even on the screen, there was a freshness and friskiness to Iron Man, complete with Downey’s Tony Stark being introduced as a playboy who seduces a reporter in the movie’s opening scene. When contrasted with modern Marvel movies’ largely sexless disposition, it’s somewhat jarring.

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That change began in The Avengers, a satisfying crowdpleaser that had the scope of a Michael Bay movie (if not the visual flair), only now with far more engaging characters. And the emphasis on those likable, reappearing characters crossing paths, interacting with each other and knocking one another down with cracks at the expense of their genre (and nominally dramatic stakes) has turned into boilerplate. Once, it felt transgressive when Downey deadpanned to Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) that he looks like Legolas. Now, much of the humor in these movies lands with the familiarity of a sitcom, literally so in the case of the Hawkeye TV series.

Before The Avengers, Tom Hiddleston was a Kenneth Branagh protégé from the world of theater. He was cast to bring some degree of tragic gravitas to Loki in Thor. Love or hate that 2011 fantasy-superhero hybrid, “gravitas” is not a word anyone would throw around in regards to modern day versions of either Thor or Loki.

In The Avengers, Marvel found a formula and it worked. It still does. And with slight tweaks every now and then—such as, say, having it be three eras of Spider-Man actors trading zingers and hugging it out instead of the current Spidey doing that same routine with Downey —the formula can score upwards of $2 billion.

But even in the vacuum of superhero movies and four-quadrant Hollywood blockbusters, the effect has arguably been chilling. Before The Avengers proved the Marvel Studios gamble was a brilliant one, the rarified airs of big industrial Hollywood spectacle could see lots of highs and lows, especially among capes and cowls. For every Batman Begins, there was a Fantastic Four released in the same year. One year after Iron Man and The Dark Knight, the once crowning X-Men franchise released X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

Yet I would argue there was also a greater variety of style and substance, with directors like Christopher Nolan, Sam Raimi, or even Ang Lee being given as many keys to the kingdom as a journeyman directing Ben Affleck in Daredevil. Granted, gambling on a director with authorial intent can lead to wildly varied results unto itself. It’s the distance from, say, The Dark Knight and the 2003 version of Hulk. But it’s safe to say no one would’ve ever made such a bizarrely brooding psychological character study of the angry green man like Lee did…. and no one will again because the Marvel method has helped iron out that one greatest variable in blockbuster moviemaking: artistic interpretation.

A Marvel Studios movie is first and foremost a Marvel Studios movie, with almost always the same house style, tone, and visual aesthetic. Only once in a rare while is there an artistic voice that supersedes this hegemony. And that is not a uniquely bad thing. Many Marvel movies are supremely entertaining and very few are anything less than entertaining. But the sameness that maintains quality control also disincentivizes risk and innovation.

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That baseline quality, and the enthusiasm it generates in audiences, is why so many other studios have attempted to mimic the style. The 2010s is littered with aborted shared universe launches, be it for a DC Extended Universe, a Transformers shared universe, a Robin Hood and his Merry Men shared universe, a King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table shared universe, or most infamously, Universal’s failed attempt to launch the “Dark Universe” around its classic library of movie monsters.

Marvel unquestionably executes this model better than any other studio, but even among the superhero genre, it makes it rarer for films like Logan or The Batman to happen, and when they do, I can attest by reading the analytics and Google search data that fans are much more eager to talk about a post-credits scene that doesn’t exist in Matt Reeves’ brooding superhero epic than they are just about anything else in the actual picture.

Audiences and the Industry Make Theirs Marvel

In 2015, three years after the release of The Avengers, one of the most visible figures in the mainstreaming of modern geek culture gave an interesting interview to Radio Times (via IndieWire). Fresh off completing the Cornetto Trilogy with director Edgar Wright—a series of films steeped in homages to zombie movies, buddy cop actioners, and alien invasion yarns—Simon Pegg made this admission about the state of the movie industry.

“I’m very much a self-confessed fan of science fiction and genre cinema,” Pegg said. “But part of me looks at how society as it is now and thinks we’ve been infantilized by our own taste. We’re essentially all consuming very childish things—comic books, superheroes… Adults are watching this stuff and taking it seriously. It is a kind of dumbing down in a way, because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and reevaluate how you felt about… whatever. Now we’re walking out of the cinema really not thinking about anything other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot.”

There’s an irony in this. After all, Pegg is one of the stars (and eventual screenwriters) of the modern Star Trek movies, which I’m sure Paramount Pictures would have loved to see grow into a shared universe if the quality of the sequels had been a little higher. Nevertheless, it was a succinct description from one of the heroes of geekdom acknowledging the creative malaise in Hollywood happening concurrently with its embrace of geek culture.

If the effects of Marvel Studios’ dominance just meant superhero movies were all doomed to hit the same innocuous note, it would be a minor downside for fans’ ability to enjoy seeing all these characters onscreen. But of course Marvel movies haven’t just signaled the decline of risk-taking in its genre; they’ve signaled the decline of risk, and even the demand for it, in an entire medium.

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It must be noted this shift in the economics of Hollywood moviemaking began before Marvel or The Avengers. Director Steven Soderbergh famously retired (temporarily) from making movies in 2013 due to the larger economic interests and corporatization of studios leading, even then, to the decline of mid-budget movies. Though his retirement was brief, his motivations were not, and one of his fellow Gen-X filmmakers, Spike Lee, had an interesting insight into the shift in what audiences and studios appeared to want by the early 2010s.

“I’m not Steven Soderbergh, I’m not banishing myself,” Lee said in Flavorwire in 2014. “I’m adaptable! [I’m not] saying, ‘Fuck Hollywood, I never wanna do another studio film.’ That’s not the case at all, but there’s some films the studio doesn’t wanna make lately.” Lee went on to note his breakthrough movies into the American pop culture mainstream were studio efforts.

Malcolm X was a studio film,” Lee said. “Do the Right Thing was a studio film.” Indeed, Do the Right Thing multiplied its $6.5 million budget for Universal Pictures by more than five times when it grossed $37.3 million domestically in 1989; Malcolm X earned $48 million domestically off a $33 million budget in 1992. The first of those was healthier than the latter, but what feels like a novelty today is that a studio would spend north of $30 million on a Malcolm X biopic—and that was 1992! With inflation, that budget is closer to $67 million in 2022 money. While the variety of voices making movies has widened, the amount of money being spent on them in the non-superhero or blockbuster realm has demonstrably shrunk. Consider that Regina King’s soulful historical fiction, One Night in Miami, which also features Malcolm X as a major character, cost only $16 million…. and premiered on Amazon.

The economic reasons for this are bigger than any single franchise or genre, even if superhero movies have become the primary one that audiences go see in theaters. In truth, it began with the implosion of the home media market in the late 2000s due to the advent of streaming services like the aforementioned Amazon Prime or Netflix. Additionally, as more studios were subsumed by larger and larger corporate conglomerates, the fiscal bottomline became the overriding determination of what got greenlit… and what didn’t. Making a $300 million profit off a $200 million superhero movie with a built-in audience is far more appealing to AT&T than making, say, $40 million off four $50 million films. If they all hit.

The reality is that more movies are made now than before, with a greater diversity of storytelling talent in front of and behind the camera, but the vast majority of them are produced as indies without a major audience or for a streaming service that feeds them into niche algorithms. Meanwhile, Hollywood studios continue to decrease their output as they invest greater amounts into tentpoles that are either Marvel movies or are chasing the Marvel movie formula.

In 2002, 10 years out from Paramount Pictures distributing the Disney-produced The Avengers, Paramount released 20 films; in 2012, the same year that Paramount closed out its contract with Marvel, the studio released 15 films; in 2022, long after its financial stake in the lucrative superhero genre concluded, Paramount is theatrically releasing 11 films (it was supposed to be 13 until two projects were sold off to separate streamers).

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Now consider the studios with the coveted superhero intellectual property.

Viewed in this larger macro sense of an industry shifting from home media to streaming, and from an economic strategy that favored a diverse portfolio to one that’s a glorified collection of IP brands, Marvel movies could be viewed as a symptom and not the cause for the deterioration of cinema and Hollywood moviemaking. Some can (and have) argued that by giving audiences what they want, Marvel is actually the last bastion for movie theaters, saving cinema from obsolescence in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. It cannot be understated how important Marvel’s Shang-Chi was last September in salvaging studio confidence in theatrical distribution after some releases were beginning to flee to 2022 due to the advent of the Delta variant.

Yet to return to Pegg’s above quote, one cannot help but suspect that studios’ doubling down on blockbusters in the 2010s, with all competitors chasing the highs that Marvel proved a market-tested product can achieve, exacerbated the problem instead of solved it. In other words, when the studios largely abandoned mid-budget movies to make more blockbusters, they conditioned audiences to only see those big event spectacles in the theater. This includes even Disney who essentially shuttered its speciality label Touchstone Pictures and sold off Miramax Pictures around the exact same time CEO Bob Iger put all of Disney’s moviemaking eggs into the basket of acquisition by buying Pixar Studios, Lucasfilm, and Marvel.

Disney technically helped produce Pulp Fiction and The Sixth Sense in the 1990s, and Gangs of New York and The Proposal in the 2000s. In the 2010s? It was all in on Marvel Studios movies, Star Wars nostalgia trips, and remakes of classics from their animation vault. The only arguable innovation occurring at the company was at its animation studio and Pixar, but even those houses that used to rarely make sequels were incentivized to pursue Cars 3, Frozen II, and Finding Dory.

By flooding the multiplex with only “sure thing” blockbusters, and there is no surer thing than a Marvel movie, studios helped cultivate an audience appetite for exactly the same thing in exactly the same way. To the point where fandoms actively get upset when the product isn’t as advertised in the trailer. Nowadays, plot twists amount to false advertising.

It’s unknowable if audience tastes would’ve naturally gravitated to pure childhood nostalgia and escapism all the time without the choices being made for them a decade ago by studio boardrooms, but it sure was decisive when Marvel created a template for ongoing, endless success with limited artistic deviation—a model the rest of the industry covets and haltingly attempts to duplicate to this day.

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Martin Scorsese famously earned the ire of Marvel fans when his quote about their output not qualifying as “cinema” went viral. But less dissected is his subsequent op-ed in The New York Times where he trenchantly explained the economics that the Marvel method helped popularize.

“If you’re going to tell me that it’s simply a matter of supply and demand and giving the people what they want, I’m going to disagree,” Scorsese wrote. “It’s a chicken-and-egg issue. If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing.”

And that one kind of thing has become a lot easier to define under the Marvel method, or as Scorsese described it, “The gradual but steady elimination of risk. Many films today are perfect products manufactured for immediate consumption. Many of them are well made by teams of talented individuals. All the same, they lack something essential to cinema: the unifying vision of an individual artist. Because, of course, the individual artist is the riskiest factor of all.”

A decade on from The Avengers, and whether that film was a symptom or an active agent of change, we have seen the world it’s wrought. Despite daily claims on social media or in our own comment sections about the need for more original movies from Hollywood, and lamentations about the lack of new ideas, the original movies on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic are, with few exceptions, faltering at the box office right now.

Well-reviewed Hollywood films (and some of the pricier indies) not based on intellectual property, or those based on IP so obscure to modern audiences they may as well be brand new, have mostly floundered: The Last Duel, Last Night in Soho, The Green Knight, Nightmare Alley, In the Heights. What’s really hit? Shang-Chi, Dune, No Time to Die, Halloween Kills, Uncharted, The Batman, and Spider-Man: No Way Home.

This past month saw two glowingly reviewed mid-budget Hollywood movies (remember those?) in The Northman and The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. They struggled to find an audience. Even a success story like A24’s indie darling Everything Everywhere All at Once—which it should be noted was produced at a big-for-an-indie budget by two of Marvel’s best directors, Joe and Anthony Russo—is fighting its way to finish overall with what Marvel wannabe Morbius earned in a single week. Some trades have even resorted to describing these movies as “filler” for theater owners until Doctor Strange 2 comes out on Friday.

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A decade after The Avengers, the world of moviegoing is Marvel… and everything else. That’s definitely some kind of legacy.