“Where are the Avengers?” It’s a sentiment that’s been echoed here and there, over and over, since that eponymous supergroup first came together on the big screen. That was back in 2012, over a decade ago — and it established a precedent that’s painted subsequent Marvel installments into an interesting corner.
Every time something major happens in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, somebody has to ask what’s going on with the Avengers, where they all are, what they’re doing, and why they aren’t assembling for the latest crisis on Earth. Not that I blame them. If I lived in a world that was perpetually on the brink of collapse, I’d be asking the same questions. But there’s too much going on in the MCU for the Avengers to come running every time. They can’t be everywhere at once, but the crises just keep coming, which forces even “minor” heroes to level up and thwart yet another apocalypse.
But should they have to?
The MCU reached new heights with The Avengers, and it inadvertently forced every film to match (or surpass) the spectacle of Joss Whedon’s 2012 film. Gone are the days of the small-scale finale, the intimate showdowns between one superhero and his very evil, equally powerful foe. Now, a bombastic third act — complete with an Avengers-level threat and an army of CGI monsters — is par the course in almost every installment of the franchise.
Don’t get me wrong, Avengers-level threats have their place in the MCU — within reason. They can establish a new hero’s power level, like in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. In the film’s third act, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) teams up with an ancient dragon to defeat a soul-eating behemoth, which effectively cements him as a being on par with Captain Marvel or Thor. But it comes at the expense of Shang-Chi’s greatest strength: the fraught relationship between the title character and his antagonistic father, Wenwu (a fantastic Tony Leung).
Sprawling third-act setpieces have also forced characters like Spider-Man to level up in a major way — again, for better and worse. Spider-Man is, for the most part, a “neighborhood” hero, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But his characterization throughout the MCU proves the franchise has no idea what to do with smaller-scale superheroes anymore. From the moment Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is introduced in Captain America: Civil War, his first steps as a hero, and his formative missions, are barely worth mentioning. He’s plucked from his native New York and dropped into an international conflict with the Avengers. His hometown automatically feels quaint after the fact, especially since we’ve already seen it razed in The Avengers.
Nick Fury once said the world was teeming with heroes big and small, but until recently, the MCU has only been concerned with the former. Every protagonist introduced has to be able to keep up with the Avengers — that, or settle for serving as a plot device. Marvel’s been doing this for a long time, but will it be sustainable for much longer? Should the threats in each Marvel film be so great that they need a super team — that, or one ridiculously-powered individual — to address them? Maybe the answer lies in the intimate stakes seen in movies like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, where the team takes action against the High Evolutionary simply because he’s trying to kidnap one of their own.
It’s time Marvel circle back to the notion first posed in Iron Man. The universe is a big place, and it shouldn’t only be about the figures that protect the biggest parts of it. The question shouldn’t be where the Avengers are at any given moment, but whether they should be called every time something goes wrong. Let’s get some more of the little guys — and no, I’m not just referring to Ant-Man. He still counts as an Avenger.