People tend to remember where they were and what they were doing when It Happened, “It” being “any seismic cultural event with profound consequences for how we live.” The day Donald Trump—having spent his entire presidency wiping his ass with the American flag—stirred up a riot that turned into a mob scene that turned into an insurrection, I was on the treadmill. When Flights 11 and 175 collided with the World Trade Center, I was in my high school’s cafeteria foyer, witnessing death and destruction unprecedented in my lifetime unfold on televisions helpfully rolled out for our viewing pleasure by flummoxed and frightened teachers. When The Avengers nailed the superhero landing pose in theaters after four years of pouring foundation in Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, I was in a packed Showcase, elbow to elbow with comic book geeks to whom the film was nothing short of a miracle.
My ass, for the most part, sat respectfully in my seat, but there are times when an ass must be out of its seat at the movies; the Hulk one-punching an armored space dragon was one such time, and only one “one such time” in a blockbusting experiment composed predominantly of times like it. The concept of the shared universe and the prospect of a four-year cycle promising the level of excitement captured in The Avengers’ climax sounded, in 2012, like a pretty sweet deal. Five movies leading into a much bigger movie that emulates the childhood thrill of playing with all your superhero action figures in a sandbox? Why not?
That cycle, it turns out, is exhausting. Worse than that, it’s self-scaling. Rather than a few standalones topped off by an event, Marvel Studios engorged the Marvel Cinematic Universe by Trojan Horsing events into its standalones, and supplemented both with TV series, and along the road from 2012 to 2022 caught popular culture in a stranglehold of such impressive grip strength that “popular culture,” as far as movies and television are concerned, is shaped almost exclusively by superhero franchises. Even content that isn’t superhero adjacent is influenced by the MCU blueprint: Star Wars, for instance, has likewise become a cycle of shows and movies and spin-offs designed for the insidious purpose of keeping an audience hooked to their brand IVs. What passes as a “stand up and cheer” moment now boils down to fashionable social performativity and Easter eggs that have meaning only for comic book diehards.
When Martin Scorsese described superhero movies as “theme parks” rather than as cinema in a 2019 interview with Empire, thus earning the lasting, petty ire of geek partisans, he didn’t necessarily make the comparison as an insult. For one thing, he qualifies Marvel movies as “well made.” For another, and this is both the unspoken part of the interview as well as the more important message, theme parks are fun, and there’s nothing wrong with having fun. This is core to The Avengers’ experience: With no precedent on the books to support the success of an enterprise of this magnitude, the movie overcame a rocky opening 30 minutes and tied together five movies, of no direct relation, into a popcorn thrill ride wholly unlike anything its competitors had to offer.
Requisite groundwork aside, The Avengers’ formula is straightforward: Take a cast comprising some of the day’s brightest stars, give them a script bursting with snappy banter and let them play off one another in between inventive setpieces that facilitate plot instead of pausing it. If action is narrative, then The Avengers uses its action wisely, sculpting each FX-heavy fight or chase sequence around the characters’ personalities. When an invading alien force rampages through Manhattan (courtesy of an interstellar portal operated by a rogue Norse god), the film clarifies each of its six heroes as individuals and as agents of a collective: Making good on his rank, Captain America calls out orders; Iron Man and Thor dogfight with the enemy; Black Widow, Hawkeye and Cap hold off shocktroopers on the ground; Hulk does his best impression of a wrecking ball, sowing chaos all over the place with as much joy as green musclebound rage-beasts are capable of expressing.
Watching these figures, and these actors, interact represents tentpole filmmaking’s best pleasure. Over the years, however, that pleasure has been subsumed by the mechanical whims of tentpole maintenance. Marvel’s plan was always to make more movies after The Avengers, and not to quit on a high note. It was inevitable the studio’s chief moneymakers—Captain America, Iron Man, Thor—would be subject to sequels, and that new characters—Black Panther, Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel—would be introduced and given their own standalones. (It didn’t have to be the case that Hulk plays only auxiliary roles in other characters’ movies, that Black Widow would only receive a solo outing after her death in 2019’s Endgame and that Hawkeye would wind up on the undercard with a Disney+ series, but here we are.) Marvel, being a business, is selling a product. When a product sells, commerce begets more products. So it goes.
But somewhere along the way between The Avengers and the release of Marvel’s latest—Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness—“product” took precedence over “entertainment,” and Marvel ceased maximizing its movies as pop art. When yours is the number one brand in town, and to such a degree that it might just as well be the only brand in town, all they need to do is successfully pitch the next addition to the lineup. There are exceptions to this rule of course, a la Black Panther and Guardians of the Galaxy, movies that exist independently of the Avengers, their interoffice politics and their often fraught task of protecting the world from threats both terrestrial and otherwise, but even these movies eventually steer into the homogenizing currents of Marvel’s crowded superhero rumpuses.
Looking back at The Avengers today, what stands out most about the film apart from the oomph of its collective star power and, again, Hulk KTFOing a space dragon, is its spurned promise: That an Avengers movie meant an ensemble movie, where casting drawn from a handful of standalone productions enhanced the dynamics of the superhero blueprint. Every few years, audiences may have a team-up picture as a treat. But too much of a good thing exists, and when there’s too much of a good thing, the “good” loses appeal. Mechanization behind the scenes—the will and the drive to produce more at the expense of the good—emerges into the forefront. In time, the special sauce that made The Avengers feel so fresh, so invigorating, so thrilling, sours. This is a good reason to go back to The Avengers, of course, as a reminder of what the MCU can achieve at its very best—even if the movie also reminds us that the MCU left the very best behind at the start of the last decade.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.