Where the hell are the rest of the Avengers? The irksome nature of Marvel’s expanding universe

avengers

“The Avengers. It’s what we call ourselves, sort of like a team.”

This weekend sees the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier — or simply Captain America 2, if you’re sick of franchise subtitles — Marvel’s latest superhero actioner and the sequel to 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger. The next film in Phase Two of the studio’s aptly named “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” Captain America 2 comes on the heels of last May’s Iron Man 3 and last November’s Thor: The Dark World, both of which were the first films in their titular heroes’ respective “standalone” franchises following the runaway success of 2012’s superhero conglomerate The Avengers.

Now before I go any further, let me say this: as escapist entertainment, you can do far worse than Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. Between the Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America films, and even 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, there certainly is quite a bit to like. And as we know, The Avengers made a few bucks and satisfied many a comic book fan back in 2012. Further, I am among those who are genuinely interested in seeing Captain America 2. No doubt I’m a bit fatigued by the continued onslaught of superhero and comic book films, but with no clear end in sight — Marvel’s cinematic roadmap supposedly extends through 2028 — I’m willing to give each new film the benefit of the doubt. Among all the films in the genre, Marvel’s have consistently been among the most entertaining of the bunch, largely due to the plotting of the franchises in Phase One (pre-Avengers) and the studio’s and filmmakers’ signature balance of action and humor.

Sure, these films generally lack tension — after all, we know the heroes aren’t going to die, what with the way these things bring in money — but they are still entertaining, more often than not. However, thinking about these movies logically for a second, no matter how bad an idea that may be, there’s just one question I have, particularly with regard to Phase Two — which ends with Avengers: Age of Ultron — and beyond. Now before The Avengers, this wasn’t an issue, but with S.H.I.E.L.D. firmly in place and Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and Hulk sure to have exchanged phone numbers and email addresses, there is a huge question that stewed within me while watching Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, and which is sure to come up during Captain America 2, and that is where the hell are the rest of the Avengers?

In Iron Man 3, battling severe panic attacks and post-traumatic stress triggered by the events of The Avengers, Tony Stark must bring down an international terrorist leader known as The Mandarin. Now, The Mandarin as we first see him is really just a cover for Aldrich Killian’s high-tech genetic enhancement organization — one of my favorite moments in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and a truly unexpected story pivot that pissed off many a fanboy — but still, the world is in danger. Since the events of The Avengers, Stark has built suits galore, including what are essentially Iron Man drones controlled by JARVIS, which Stark uses in conjunction with the help of Pepper Potts and Colonel Rhodes to bring down Killian’s army. But instead of trying to fight the good fight with such a small team, couldn’t he have enlisted S.H.I.E.L.D. to help, or put in a direct call to Captain America or any of his other Avengers brethren?

And in Thor: The Dark World, Thor and his brother Loki, once foes, fight side-by-side to defeat a legion of Dark Elves who seek to destroy the universe with a weapon called the Aether. There’s some stuff in there about magic portals, the rare alignment of the Nine Realms — don’t worry, I don’t know what those are either — and Thor’s Earthling squeeze Jane, upon being infected by some mystery substance, is brought to Thor’s home planet of Asgard while Thor and Loki fight off bad guys. Now, I’m sure interplanetary travel is difficult, and I certainly wouldn’t expect Captain America to just hop on a plane and fly off to Never Never Land (although I bet the rewards miles would be well worth the trouble and any extra fees), but we’re talking about universal terrorism here. And with a fair amount of the action taking place in London, couldn’t Thor just call S.H.I.E.L.D. or his fellow Avengers to meet him and help fend off the bad guys?

Now I haven’t yet seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier, mind you, but as far as I’m aware, we don’t see or hear from the likes of Iron Man, the Hulk, or Thor, and I’d venture a guess we aren’t made privy to their whereabouts either. And I can tell you that right there is likely to be a criticism of the film that you will read about once I see the movie and write my review. I spent most of Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World wondering where everyone else was, how am I supposed to suppress that curiosity or think any differently while watching Captain America 2?

And with the Marvel universe soon to expand even further — there’s an ABC TV show titled “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Guardians of the Galaxy drops in August of this year, Ant-Man is on its way in 2015, there are several series in development for Netflix, a Dr. Strange film is happening, and rumors abound for films that might be in Phases Three, Four, and Five — this problem will continue to manifest itself for as long as Marvel tries to keep its “standalone” films separate from each other. I say “standalone” because based on how these stories are structured, it’s clear they don’t really work on their own. Instead, each film builds to the next team-up, so as much as we may like the story told within one of the films, it’s never a complete story. Each post-credits stinger serves as a cliffhanger that teases upcoming releases or other pieces of the growing Marvel puzzle. It’s, more or less, an extended TV serial that we all pay to watch on the big screen.

Really, what it comes down to is that we’ve seen these guys (the Avengers, at least) team up before, and they work pretty well in cahoots, neutralizing threats and whatnot. If you’re going to introduce a team of characters to fight international and interplanetary terror, doesn’t it make sense to bring in the wrecking crew, or at least a few pieces of it, when a terrorist threatens world livelihood and safety? Even if Bruce Banner’s phone goes to voicemail, or Tony Stark tells JARVIS to ignore all incoming calls, they should at least know what’s going on. And if the situation doesn’t make Hulk angry enough or tickle Tony’s fancy, then hey, they can just tell Thor or Cap or Nick Fury that they’re gonna sit this one out. I mean, we’ve assembled a team of heroes and placed S.H.I.E.L.D. in charge of them, so why can’t Captain America just call the organization to ask, “Where is Tony Stark?”

I understand, logistically speaking, that these actors are signed on for x-number of films and that it costs money to bring them all together. I’m not suggesting every film from now on needs to feature the whole gang, but what I am asking for is some effort from the filmmakers to at least make an attempt in the script to bring the crew together. Or hey, if the situation calls for it, they could simply enlist Tony Stark to engineer a new mechanized weapon or bring in the Hulk to do some serious bad-guy-smashing. Heck, do it off-screen and use some exposition if you have to. But don’t act like these guys all exist separate of each other save for when the next Avengers film hits.

Marvel doesn’t need to get the entire team together, but just bring back pieces of the crew as the now-intertwined stories call for it. You know, maybe like a team instead of a bunch of independent parts. Marvel can’t keep running under the assumption that these are actually “standalone” franchises when they all build on one another on their way to the next team-up. What happens in each film ought to have legitimate consequences across their whole universe, and in portraying that, it becomes necessary to involve characters from other films. After all, since the Avengers have officially formed, we know this group of characters exist within each other’s specific universe, so why don’t we see that on screen? It would sure make the films a lot more logical, and not to mention more interesting.

But unfortunately, Marvel can get away with things like this. Or, I should say, we let them get away with it. Marvel doesn’t need to tell a complete or even a mostly logical one in each of these films, especially considering it seems about half of the viewers go just to watch the post-credits sequences. The execs at Marvel just keep rolling around in money while drumming up anticipation for the next “OMG BEST SUPERHERO MOVIE EVARRRRR,” churning out new films in their cinematic serial while we sit here and watch each new entry because, hey, it’s Marvel, they can do what they want. They’ve worked their way into our good graces over the last few years, so as long as we get a superhero team-up every few films, in our good graces they are almost certain to remain, whether they deserve to or not. But my chief hope is that perhaps moving forward the filmmakers can use a bit more logic with respect to hero-sharing in order to appease those of us, like myself, who are unwilling to completely suspend disbelief in service of Marvel’s expanding universe of cinematic properties.

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