“That’s my secret, Cap: I’m always angry.”
In the middle of 2008, director Christopher Nolan created a pivot point for superhero movies. Because up to the point when Heath Ledger’s Joker said, “How about a magic trick?” in The Dark Knight, movies based upon comic books had been going in the more colorful direction set forth by directors like Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi. Nolan’s Dark Knight (and the film that preceded it) changed things. And ever since, anyone with the rights to a comic book movie has been trying to capture that same gritty feel, that same realism.
Thankfully, the folks at Marvel, who also scored in 2008 with Iron Man, thew that notion out the window. You see, around the same time that Nolan was booting up Batman for Warner Bros. and DC, Marvel was beginning its own journey as a stand-alone studio with a very specific kind of plan. A magic trick of their own, they set out to bring to life Earth’s mightiest heroes with a six-film roadmap that would lead to the most ambitious superhero movie ever produced. A massive risk that would pay off to produce our pick for the Movie of the Year. A movie that yielded the above quote, as spoken by Mark Ruffalo, which could be seen as the turning point of 2012 at the movies.
Every time I experience this moment, there’s no denying that years down the line when we look back at the movies of 2012, there’s no forgetting the year that gave us The Avengers.
2012 at the movies will perhaps be a year known for the number of blockbusters that were made with great ambition. Warner Bros. and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises sought to cap off a revolutionary superhero trilogy. Disney tried and failed to bring John Carter of Mars to franchise fruition. Lionsgate placed all its chips in on The Hunger Games and won with a little known lead actress. Universal brought back Bourne in a fresh but unsatisfying way and tried to make a board game float, only to see Battleship sink. Peter Jackson even tried to stretch 200-pages of The Hobbit into three 3-hour epics, one of which seems more than enough. And Sony brought back Spider-Man with a little bit of that Batman Begins formula.
But none of these movies — and the countless millions spent on their productions — were quite as special as Marvel’s The Avengers. None of them were quite as big a risk, either. A massive superhero team-up combining major heroes with major egos and the star-power to back them up. The need for a villain to match and challenge the hero-power. Changing actors for one of the main characters. Even the hiring of Joss Whedon, pop culture’s most popular recurring comeback story, to direct. It was all a pretty big risk for Marvel, it’s new daddy Disney and fans everywhere, many of whom had become deeply invested in the likes of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and The Incredible Hulk.
Even through all of these challenges, The Avengers was a Hulk smash. That rare kind of movie that could achieve unified success on all levels. At the box office, it earned a chart-topping $1.5 billion dollars worldwide to become the third highest grossing film of all-time. It blasted Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2‘s opening weekend record by a score of $207 million to $169 million. And it became the undisputed champion of superhero movies at the box office.
Of course, it wasn’t all about the money. A film doesn’t have to be great to earn at the box office. The Avengers unexpectedly became both a critical darling and a fan favorite. Its Certified Fresh rating on RottenTomatoes still stands at a searing 92%, right next to the spot where over 450k fans on Flixter have rated it at 96% positive. Other than recent Pixar releases, it’s difficult to find many films that combined such universal praise with such massive financial success.
And lest we overlook the fact that it’s just a damn fun movie to watch. Take a moment and think about the first time you watched The Avengers in a movie theater — assuming you were so lucky. The pacing of the film’s first act that brought our favorite heroes together. The rise of Loki’s plan that almost tears the group to pieces in the second act. And that finale; perhaps 30 or so of the best minutes of action ever put on screen, complete with a breathtaking tracking shot that involves all of The Avengers in the heat of battle, working together in a way that exceeds what our imagination as an audience could conceive. It’s vibrant, well-executed fun. The absolute antithesis of the brooding superhero films that rose from the wake of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films.
It seems oddly appropriate then, that The Avengers is such a potent memory in the same year when Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy bowed out. By throwing out the rules and following their nerdiest of intuitions, Whedon and the Marvel braintrust exceeded monstrous expectations and still managed to deliver a big surprise. And we all got to share in the fun.
When it came to selecting 2012’s Movie of the Year, the choice was clear. The Avengers wasn’t just one of the best reviewed, audience pleasing, financially successful films of the year… or perhaps ever. It was also a really great time at the movies.