The Avengers Changed Everything, 8 Years Ago Today

On May 4, 2012, the Avengers assembled. The Avengers arrived in theaters and changed the movie-making landscape, founding a formula for interlocked storytelling within Marvel Studios, and catapulting a franchise into an uncharted level of success. While The Avengers would break its fair share of records on its opening night and weekend, going on to become the highest-grossing super hero film at the time, the effects of the film were only just beginning. Bringing together Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, Thor, Black Widow, and Hawkeye after mostly separate appearances in five films prior, a cinematic universe was born into a phenomenon.

I remember buying my ticket to The Avengers and realizing what a big deal it was. I bought them late in the day on Thursday because I had been finishing up my re-watch of Phase 1 movies. Captain America: The First Avenger was just coming to an end when I logged on to buy tickets to AMC's Dutch Square theater in Columbia, South Carolina. In the tie where I questioned my friends on who wanted to go see the movie, show times were selling out. The theater was adding screenings every few minutes and I ended up squeezing into the 12:03am show. It was packed but our party of four got their early enough to snag solid seats in the back right section of the audience, close enough to the center.

At the time, I considered myself to be a pretty big Marvel and comic book fan. I had a record store in New Jersey where I liked to buy comics when I could, as a kid. In the college years, I would occasionally visit a spot called Heroes & Dragons for a small fix. My biggest phase of collecting comics had seemingly passed a few years earlier when I took a deep dive into various Marvel and DC titles, mostly X-Men and the Batman/Superman run that Jeph Loeb launched. Turns out, that would pale into comparison to what would follow this screening of The Avengers.

Certainly, everyone has their own memory of seeing The Avengers in theaters for the first time. If you're like me, maybe you kept your ticket stub. Many probably remember where they saw it and who they saw it with. I can name all three people I went with, despite only keeping in touch with one still, today. A lucky bunch watched it at a midnight screening, an option which has now been moved forward to 7pm on Thursday nights, which takes away a bit of the excitement generated by the exclusivity of such a late show time which attracted only the biggest of fans.

Opening with a shot which explored the inside of the Tesseract, a cosmic exchange between The Messenger and the movie's unseen mastermind, and landing on Earth for a sequence in the SHIELD facility, it was clear this movie was on to something. A cosmic threat quickly arrived but it wasn't anything most fans were unfamiliar with. The villain was Tom Hiddleston's Loki who was a major player a year earlier in Thor, quickly going head to head with Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury and winning. The Avengers theme song came through the theater speakers after Fury jumped from a helicopter and the stakes were immediately in place -- yet the Avengers had not yet been on screen.

One by one, the heroes earned some screen time. Captain America (Chris Evans) picked up where he left off in a post-credits scene. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) was putting the finishing touches on his Stark Tower. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) was on a spy mission which was cut short to retrieve the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) had been turned into a mind-controlled lackey for Loki. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) was rushed to Earth by Odin's "dark energy" as a means to stop Loki's schemes.

Not only were these characters appearing in the same film but they were being introduced to one another, often leading to momentary conflict within their own heroic efforts. Director Joss Whedon put Iron Man against Thor, showcased a moment of battle between the Marvel trinity of Thor, Cap, and Iron Man, and then had the Hulk fight Black Widow and Thor after Black Widow had to beat up Hawkeye. Moreover, each of the bouts fit the plot organically. Heroes fighting heroes could quickly be portrayed as fan service with no importance to the film's plot but each time the Avengers brawled with each other, not only was the audience entertained, but the plot called for it and the characters grew from it.

Of course, it all came down to one iconic shot which would be the moment which would impact the landscape of film for the foreseeable future. The Avengers assembled. In a beaten down New York City amid an alien invasion, the Hulk, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man stood together as the camera wrapped around the impressive six pack of Marvel characters. What followed was an epic battle, including a continuous shot which spanned city blocks, dozens of Chitauri creatues, the villainous Loki, and creatively choreographed moments of teamwork by the heroes. Ensemble hero movies were immediately the new movie-going event which every studio now desired.

The film drew us in by connecting us not only to its characters but the relationships between them. It was fun to watch Thor be literally bigger than anyone else in the room but lack the intelligence of a Bruce Banner. Steve Rogers and Tony Stark developed a friendship and a rivalry. Natasha was involved in everyone's stories, constantly "picking up after you boys," as she says in the ensemble film's sequel. Tony Stark being willing to sacrifice himself to save New York from an impending nuclear missile (albeit, a moment which was spoiled in trailers that showed the Hulk catching Iron Man falling from the sky) was the first of many heart-wrenching moments which proved the emotional connection to these characters. There's action, there's humor, there's emotion, and there is a countless series of comics to look to for more information.

As the movie came to an end, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was just beginning. Who was that purple guy smiling in the post-credits scene? Us comic fans knew Thanos and suddenly had a valuable leg up on our friends who were coming to our party. What happened in Budapest? Eight years later, we're about to find out. Will Tony be the guy to lay down on a wire and make the sacrifice play? Yes, and on the biggest stage possible. How did Nick Fury lose his eye as an expense of trusting someone? Well, that answer turned out to be lackluster, but a seed planted which was explored later, nonetheless.

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What followed The Avengers was a series of blockbusters, ranging in success from $60 million openings to the biggest openings of all-time. Now, franchises like Captain Marvel, Black Panther, Ant-Man, and Spider-Man seem to be the future of the franchise as the original six heroes pass the torch on to big screen's newer heroes. Other big screen worlds have spawned since the Marvel Cinematic Universe mastered the format with various levels of success but Marvel lays claim to the title of "biggest movie franchise of all time" through more than 23 films and $18 billion at the worldwide box office.

However, like many franchises, be it the DCEU, Harry Potter, or anything in between -- the Marvel Cinematic Universe has forged friendships for people who would not have otherwise met or known they had a common interest. When Avengers: Endgame hit theaters in 2019, the billions of dollars in ticket sales worth of moviegoers all had something in common -- assembling to see Earth's Mightiest Heroes culminate a story which began years prior. This is the best part, perhaps, for so many of us.

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