We come to it at last: the movie that the then-recently-formed Marvel Studios predicated its entire strategy upon. As with all big payoffs, the initiative for bringing The Avengers to cinematic life came with considerable risk. Some history: comic books were a big thing with American kids many decades ago in the days before the internet, cable television, and, well, even color television. In the 1980s, the kids that grew up with these comic books began collecting them as adults, and a market for collecting rapidly grew. Incidentally, it’s not a coincidence that The Simpsons, which encapsulated 1990s America more perfectly than any other media property, had a character named Comic Book Guy who owned the comic book store The Android’s Dungeon. In the season 2 episode “Three Men and a Comic Book” that originally aired in 1991, Bart, Milhouse and Martin combine their limited funds to purchase the first issue of Radioactive Man, only to distrust each other to the point of finding themselves unable to share it.
While this episode was a result of Simpsons writers (by then well into adulthood, of course) plumbing their own past and updating it for a modern setting, keep in mind this came on the heels of the comic book collecting industry becoming an ever-ballooning bubble throughout the 1980s. Marvel Entertainment Group was purchased in 1989 for $82.5 million by the same guy who had purchased Revlon, of all things, four years earlier. Marvel soon filed for an IPO, but by the mid-1990s, the bubble had burst, and the bottom fell out of Marvel’s stock price. As with any bubble, the growth was driven by speculators purchasing multiple copies of comics and other assorted Marvel goods at increasingly higher prices with the intention of selling them later. Unfortunately, to a large extent, the seemingly humongous demand for product was apparently actually quite artificial.
However, Marvel didn’t come away completely empty-handed: during the bubble, everyone — even those who didn’t collect comics — became familiar with the Marvel brand and its roster of heroes. Needing a source of revenue to stave off ruin, Marvel spent the latter half of the 1990s trying to convince Hollywood that audiences were hungry for movies based on its characters. As the decade drew to a close, wheels finally started turning. Blade hit theaters in 1998 courtesy of New Line Cinema, X-Men dropped in 2000 courtesy of 20th Century Fox, and Spider-Man was unleashed in 2002 courtesy of Sony. However, Marvel soon discovered that the percentage of the profits it received was actually pretty miniscule. It received money up front in exchange for the movie rights, yes, and certainly hit movies drove up sales of comic books and other Marvel merchandise, but in terms of making money from the movies themselves once they were made? Not what they thought it was going to be.
According to this Slate article, Marvel received just $25,000 on the back-end for Blade; for X-Men, Marvel received nothing on the back-end; and for the first two Spider-Man movies, Marvel received $62 million — considerably more, of course, but still a paltry amount considering both movies pulled in more than $3 billion from theater receipts, rentals, DVD sales, TV airings, etc. What Marvel realized, of course, was that if they started making the movies independently and then just lining up a distributor afterward, they would stand to make money hand over fist. The only problem: they still needed money — the kind of money that movie studios only have, lest we forget, because they are owned by gigantic global media conglomerates. (Studios have long since been unable to handle the swings on their own. Even movies that seem like total slam dunks come with considerable risks, like DC Comics‘ Avengers equivalent, Justice League, which lost Warner Bros. tens of millions.)
Well, in 2005, Merrill Lynch decided to stake Marvel at the Hollywood poker table in the form of a $525 million loan — a gigantic principal in just about any context, but it’s especially bonkers considering that in 2005 this was more than double the production budget of what was then (still) the most expensive movie of all time, Titanic. It was a loan extended to Marvel based on the potential of one game-changing idea: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel would use the money to reacquire the rights to characters wasting away in development hell in Hollywood bungalows, including Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and lay the necessary road map to an Avengers film using a simple (but still risky) formula: introduce each character one movie at a time, and then combine them for an adventure in The Avengers.
Let’s do some basic arithmetic: Iron Man, Marvel Studios’ debut feature, cost $140 million. The following month, The Incredible Hulk, which cost $150 million, hit theaters. So by the summer of 2008, Marvel had spent $290 million of that $525 million loan. Marvel’s third movie, Iron Man 2, was allocated a budget of $200 million, and debuted in 2010. Keep in mind, we may live in a digital world, but in corporate finance it takes a while for money to move around even in 2019. In this case, theaters all over the world have to collect the ticket receipts, attribute grosses to particular films and keep an ever-shifting cut of it that differs based on how long the movie has been in theaters and then send the remaining money back to distributors. Marvel, of course, is not a distributor and had to wait for Paramount to collect and process the money coming back for Iron Man and for Universal to collect and process the money coming back for The Incredible Hulk.
This money (millions of dollars of it) was being wired in from all sorts of theater chains big and small from all over the country. And that’s just this one — money from overseas always takes a lot longer to move around. And until the money actually came in to the distributor, it couldn’t yet be sent to Marvel. This is just the reality of business when millions or even billions of dollars is being accounted for and sent around. If you’re Marvel though and you see Iron Man have the great opening weekend you have been waiting years to see it have, you of course want to immediately green light a sequel that’s bigger and better and more expensive. That’s why you have to have $525 million set aside from the beginning: so you can immediately budget $200 million for MCU movie #3 even after you have just spent $290 million on MCU movies #1 and #2. (Not to mention there are development and pre-production costs for MCU movies #4 and #5 to budget for.)
That many moving pieces costs a hell of a lot of money to finance and I wouldn’t be surprised if liquidity at Marvel Studios started to tighten up pretty considerably around this time. In cashflow terms, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk became assets since they were now putting money back in Marvel’s pocket, but all of Marvel’s yet-to-be-released movies — Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers — were liabilities, since they were incurring expenses (and only expenses prior to release). It isn’t surprising to me in the least that Marvel put themselves up for sale. Of course, it also isn’t surprising that they found a buyer so quickly in Disney (the MCU was clearly becoming a very valuable franchise), which swooped in and paid more than $4 billion in 2009 to acquire Marvel before it even had a chance to spend all of that $200 million budgeted for Iron Man 2.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the $525 million was a loan. Marvel was going to have to start paying it back with interest. There are also overhead/operating costs to consider when running a studio. And oh by the way, if Marvel had blown through that $525 million loan, Merrill Lynch would have become the owners of the characters, whose rights were put up as collateral. It very well could be the most high-stakes Hollywood poker story of all time — even New Line Cinema’s $300 million gamble on The Lord of the Rings trilogy a decade earlier has nothing on this. The payoff on The Avengers when it debuted in 2012 was immediate and massive. Budgeted at a gargantuan $220 million (Disney kind of has a lot of money), The Avengers shattered the domestic opening weekend record with a $207 million debut en route to taking in $1.5 billion worldwide by the end of its run.
It was also the first movie not directed by James Cameron to gross more than $600 million domestically, though this has happened an additional seven times since. The Avengers was planned as a mercenary success in the minds of corporate America, and everything went pretty much according to plan from what I can tell. It’s hard to imagine a bigger home run from a business standpoint. Could it have made more money? Sure, but consider this: Iron Man grossed $585 million worldwide. The Incredible Hulk grossed $263 million worldwide. Iron Man 2 grossed $623 million worldwide. Thor grossed $449 million worldwide. Captain America: The First Avenger grossed $370 million worldwide. Add that up and that’s “only” $2.29 billion worldwide across those five movies, which, by the way, combined cost $780 million to make. (The average cost of sales was 34%.)
It’s pretty fair to say that The Avengers‘ haul of $1.5 billion from a $220 million production budget — average cost of sales: 14.5% — blew past the expectations of those who closely followed the movie industry. But is the movie any good? Yes and no. The cast, obviously, is an all-star one by design and the actors are pretty great here. The action is by and large very good and the prolonged attack on New York City during the film’s third act is really well done. The script, however, is a herky-jerky mess plagued with pacing problems. Part of this is due to having to service so many characters at once who are interacting with each other for the first time, but the bigger issue is the plot, which is bafflingly weak. Watching The Avengers again, I couldn’t help but think back to a screenwriting class I had in college. My professor used to say every scene should stick to four rules: 1) It should move the story forward, 2) It should develop character, 3) It should have conflict and 4) It should not be repetitive.
This has always seemed like a pretty reasonable test to me, and many scenes in The Avengers do not pass this test. Part of the issue is that there aren’t any new characters here. To use a sports analogy, this is basically the All-Star Game of Marvel movies, and it only features characters voted in (so to speak) by the audience. The only character that really qualifies as new is Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who was very, very briefly seen in Thor during what was basically a cameo. However, during what essentially is his true introductory scene at the beginning of The Avengers, he is turned/enslaved/compromised/possessed by Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and spends most of the movie not acting like himself. A bigger issue, actually, is Loki and his motivations. (When confronted about them, he basically lapses into the quasi-self-pitying “I wish I was a different person but can’t really do anything about it” bullshit trope.)
When we last saw Loki at the end of Thor, he had fallen into some kind of abyss following a fight on a bridge that looked a hell of a lot like the Rainbow Road race track in Mario Kart. Of course, in the post-credits scene, we saw Loki apparently manipulate astrophysicist Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) into agreeing to work on the blue tesseract cube in the bowels of a S.H.I.E.L.D. building. (This same cube was pulled out of the ocean by Tony Stark’s father Howard toward the end of Captain America: The First Avenger following the climactic fight between Captain America and Red Skull, in case you’re wondering how S.H.I.E.L.D. got/recovered it.) As The Avengers opens, we see Loki negotiating somewhere in space with some guy apparently named the Other, the leader of some alien race called the Chitauri. (During the mid-credits scene, we see that the Other actually reports to a master of his own: Thanos, who is not named here but emerges as the big baddie in Avengers: Infinity War.)
What Loki wants, apparently, is to rule Earth, though it isn’t really clear to me as to why — from best I can tell, Loki wants to rule Earth just because his brother Thor loves Earth. This is pretty weak if you ask me. Where Marvel kind of blew it here was in not featuring Thor’s girl Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) in the movie at all. (Though to be fair, Portman was due to have a baby right around the time filming for this was going on, but it still seems like something could have been worked out just to bring her in for a scene or two.) Without Thor’s love interest to stand in for Thor’s supposed love of Earth, I’m not sure that what we see really adds up. Had we seen Loki take Foster hostage or something to that effect, it would seem like something more human is at stake. Instead, what we get is fairly Transformers-ish when the Chitauri army, offered by the Other for Loki’s conquest in exchange for the tesseract, comes to destroy New York.
Do we ever really know what the Other — which, come on, is a pretty lame name — wants the tesseract for? Not really. In fact, we hardly see the Other at all and he’s basically just there because the plot demands someone be there. This is pretty much par for the course, actually — as far as character development goes throughout The Avengers, there basically is none. We don’t know anything about these characters by the end of the movie we didn’t already know. The exception might be the Hulk, but not really for the right reasons since what we see from the Hulk during the movie makes no sense whatsoever. Seriously, if you can make any sense of what happens in what I am about to describe, you have my sincerest envy. First, Banner essentially tells us he can’t be killed: “I put a bullet in my mouth and the other guy spit it out.”
Then, as the ridiculous flying aircraft carrier battle commences, Banner gets angry for no reason other than having just fallen through the floor during an explosion and turns into the Hulk, losing control of his mind. Finally, at the end of the movie, Banner informs us that the secret to not turning into the Hulk (i.e., the reason why until the carrier incident it had been a year since he had turned into the Hulk) is to always be angry. He then proceeds to willingly turn into the Hulk and remain in control of his mind the entire time while he is the Hulk during the big battle in New York. For the life of me, I cannot figure out this logic, particularly when we see Banner get visibly angry on the carrier, only for it to subside. Of course, a few minutes later he turns into the Hulk when he doesn’t have a reason to be angry. (Falling through the floor because of an explosion causes him to be so angry he turns into the Hulk? What?)
The idea that Banner is able to become the Hulk at will and stay in control by always being angry is actually a good one that creatively solves the previous problem I had with the Hulk during The Incredible Hulk: the Hulk, when not in control, is essentially portrayed as a victim instead of a superhero when in that state. But then why have the entire middle portion of the film hinge on the Hulk being the same old Hulk? You can’t have it both ways. What Loki does is allow himself to be caught with the intention of getting Banner to turn into the Hulk and destroy the carrier from the inside, doing serious harm to S.H.I.E.L.D. and potentially the heroes themselves. This isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but it’s undone by the fact that Banner becomes the Hulk because the plot demands it instead of in a way that is earned. Anyway, I’m sure that’s the most overly analytical dissection of the Hulk that has ever been written.
The movie, to its credit, does work in spite of its various scripting issues, and make no mistake, there are many. This may be a superhero film, but the plotting is absolutely puny, herding a cast that certainly seemed huge at the time but is actually relatively small compared to later Avengers films through a pretty flimsy story. Unlike Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, which I saw on Netflix Blu-ray rentals (remember those?), I did watch The Avengers in theaters since it was getting really good reviews and was pretty underwhelmed. I didn’t see it again until I watched the first three Avengers movies back-to-back-to-back in preparation for Avengers: Endgame in 2019. My opinion hadn’t really changed. Watching it again just now for the third time, I have a slightly more positive view after having just seen it in the full context of Phase One of the MCU. The scripting issues I have highlighted are certainly still there, but just about everything else about the movie is as about good as can be expected.
I can also report that The Avengers looks better in 4K than the first five MCU movies. Shot predominantly digitally at 2.8K resolution and finished on a 2K digital intermediate (or DI), the UHD transfer looks pretty damn good for an upscale. (Since the movie was finished at 2K resolution, a true 4K version will never exist.) The reviewer at Blu-ray.com seems to agree with me in his review of the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray disc. One thing I find odd, though, is that The Avengers‘ aspect ratio is 1.85:1 instead of the 2.39:1 aspect ratio that is usually the standard for these Marvel movies. (The Blu-ray disc, from which I captured the screenshots on this page, further reduces the aspect ratio to 1.78:1 to remove letterboxing entirely on 16:9 HDTVs. Currently, I do not have a way of capturing 4K screenshots.) It could be that this was just director Joss Whedon‘s preference, but it seems like Marvel would have pushed for consistency on that.
In the end, The Avengers is extremely competently made, with the requisite high production values expected of an event picture of this magnitude. The dialogue, filled with Whedon‘s typical wit, is also frequently a treat, but unfortunately the story is forgettable and the plotting is nowhere close to sturdy. Still, the movie is fun; it features many characters we like and have come to care about already; and features expertly executed, big-budget action sequences. It’s impossible to deny that even with its flaws, The Avengers is a movie that is well above average in terms of quality.