At last, it comes to this. After five movies over four years of continuous set-up, build-up, prologue and promise, in 2012, Marvel fans were finally treated to what had to be one of the most ambitious cinematic projects in recent history. A movie that required a string of huge box office hits to justify its production, and which would become the first true crossover event in modern cinema history. Crossovers—standalone storylines that tie together various disparate storylines temporarily—are a mainstay in comic books, but not so in the movies because it’s just an insane idea. Every hit a studio produces covers for nine others that failed, so the thought of having enough hit movies to fuel a crossover is ambition bordering on mania, and yet, by the time it came to create the Avengers, it didn’t seem like a crazy idea at all. It seemed like it was about damned time.
The story takes into account the separate storylines of the movies that preceded it and begins where they all left off. The world superspy organization SHIELD has an alien artifact of unimaginable power, the Tesseract, stashed in a secure laboratory…that is, until the Asgardian rogue Loki steals it on behalf of an alien race called the Chitauri, which will give Loki an army with which to conquer the Earth if he gives them the Tesseract. In response to the theft, SHIELD director Nick Fury greenlights the Avengers Initiative, gathering the world’s known superheroes—Iron Man, the Hulk, Captain America—along with the super agent Black Widow. Their mission is to retrieve the Tesseract, apprehend Loki, and retrieve fellow SHIELD agent Hawkeye, who has been mind-controlled by Loki during the heist. It goes well at first, with the team retrieving the Tesseract, collaring Loki and returning to the SHIELD helicarrier to consider next steps. There, Loki breaks loose, the Hulk goes berserk, agent Phil Coulson earns a trip to Tahiti, and the helicarrier is badly damaged. The only upside is Hawkeye’s rescue, but otherwise, the Earth’s mightiest heroes are humiliated by the bitter fruit of their inability to work together. Nick Fury confronts the team with a token of esteem held by a casualty of the helicarrier battle, to remind them that they are damned heroes. Maybe it’s time to live up to that; the world isn’t gonna save itself. With fresh focus, the heroes regroup and head to Manhattan to confront Loki and his alien army in an epic climactic battle. How epic? Here’s a fun fact for you: a disaster modeling firm reviewed the last 20 minutes of the movie and estimated that had it actually happened in the real world, the final battle scene would have caused more than $1 trillion in insured damage to the city of New York.
This movie is a nearly two-and-a-half-hour conga line of moments of mind-meltingly awesome scenes, quotes and set pieces. Cap’s epilogue-turned-prologue. Phil Coulson and his trading cards. Every time Nick Fury says something. Every time Tony Stark says something. Thor’s hammer versus Cap’s shield. Widow literally knocking sense back into Hawkeye. Bruce Banner being told he’s got “a condition.” Going back into action. Stark telling Loki that if they can’t save the world, they’ll sure as hell avenge it. The first wave. The second wave. The third wave. Banner’s secret to success. That moment when we see the Avengers assemble in the heat of battle. Thor using the Chrysler Building as a lightning rod. Realizing that the Hulk’s only line is also the movie’s best line. Iron Man going nuclear. Nick Fury getting the last word. Shawarma.
This is a movie that gets everything the MCU does right and combines it into the cinematic equivalent of one of those gonzo sundaes consisting of 25 scoops of ice cream, a dozen candy bars and a birthday cake. And somehow, we all had room for it and did not regret a single bite. That’s not our appetite speaking as much as it is a comment on just how masterfully composed this movie was. Avengers assemble, indeed.
But despite all of this rollicking entertainment, there are a few moments where the story pauses to remind us of what’s really at stake in a world of heroes and villains so far beyond mortal ken. Nowhere do we see this better than in the movie’s moment of truth, a scene so clear and strong and powerful that it is not just my favorite moment of this movie. It is my favorite moment of any superhero movie ever made, and one of my favorite all-time cinematic moments, ever.
Earlier in the film, right before our heroes battle Loki in the German city of Stuttgart, Loki takes a crowd of civilians hostage, and demands they kneel before him. When they do, he rants about how people just to be ruled by someone strong and powerful. And that’s when it happens: an older gentlemen—who has heard this kind of talk in his lifetime before—stands up and defies Loki. He will not kneel before him. Loki makes the mistake of saying that there has never been anyone like himself. The man replies that there are always men like him. And he doesn’t mean rogue Asgardians, either. Throughout the rest of the movie, Loki suffers defeat and humiliation at the hands of the Avengers, but this old man’s words of truth are what wound the trickster god the most. He utters them knowing he’ll most likely be killed for it, but he does not hesitate. He knows what must be done, and he does it. In that moment, he’s as heroic as any super-soldier, any man of iron, any green monster, any master assassin or archer, any god of thunder. For he proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that this world might not be perfect…but it is so, so, so worth saving. Why? Because there are people like him in it.