Very soon, Infinity War is promising to bring the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) together for one big fight. But do you remember what it was like when the idea of superheroes from several movies teaming up for a crossover event first became a reality? Film critic Matt Singer is currently rewatching all the MCU films and when he got to 2012’s The Avengers, he noticed something in his “What holds up” section:
The final 30 minutes of the film is one enormous multitiered set-piece. Even though The Avengers is the biggest Marvel film to date, I’m not sure its final battle, in and over the streets of New York City, has gotten the full credit its due. It is one of the great sustained pieces of cinematic action of the 21st century, weaving together the activities of six different Marvel heroes (…). You’re lucky if a movie has two or three iconic moments. The Avengers’ Battle of New York sequence has half a dozen all by itself (…).
Singer is right, of course. The “Battle of New York”, as it will be called in-universe after the events of The Avengers, is basically what started Marvel’s whole “third act problem”. While the MCU films that came before it all had characters battling single opponents in the final confrontation of the story, Avengers and its director Joss Whedon raised the stakes and introduced the concept of a group of characters fighting against an army of faceless goons with basically the whole world at risk.
So, why is the Battle of New York still so effective? That is what I want to show today. For the first time in years, I have dusted off my David Bordwell hat and actually analyzed a single cinematic sequence closely, instead of just looking at big picture stuff. I believe the sequence’s success boils down to two things: location and dramatic structure.
Set up the perimeter
Even though the Avengers are fighting for the fate of the world, their radius of action is actually pretty small. About 90 Percent of the Battle of New York take place within four blocks of New York City’s Grand Central Terminal and the MetLife Building, which is where Stark Tower is located in the movies. Instead of spreading the battle war zone across the whole city, Whedon reinforces again and again that it is in everybody’s best interest to contain the fighting to a few square miles to hurt as few civilians as possible. Whether it’s Captain America telling the police to set up a perimeter “all the way back to 39th street” or Iron Man quipping “I’m bringing the party to you”, viewers are constantly reminded that the fight is actually very controlled and centered on the main characters.
This, of course, had a big impact on production. No part of the battle was actually shot in New York. Most of the street scenes with the police and civilians were shot in Cleveland. The production also built part of the viaduct leading from Grand Central Terminal into Park Avenue, where Cap and Black Widow are doing most of the fighting, as a green screen set. But Industrial Light and Magic shot 275,000 images of the actual New York blocks where the fighting was going to take place and stitched them together to recreate the location of the fight in the computer.
What all this ultimately means, is that Whedon is able to situate us quite clearly in space, no matter how chaotic the fight gets, often opting for vertical instead of horizontal axes of action. He reinforces this several times during the sequence with characters turning around and returning to the hub of the battle. The most notable instance, of course, is the long shot that connects all the Avengers and their individual fights into a greater whole. Its trajectory can be precisely placed on a map: it goes up Park Avenue, two blocks down West 42nd Street, almost until the New York Public Library, and then takes a hard right turn to continue up 5th Avenue for another four blocks. This sort of spatial clarity is very rare for a modern blockbuster and it’s a big part of the effectiveness of the sequence.
The problem of many superhero fight sequences, especially those that involve many characters, is that they don’t really evolve. Characters fight, maybe they move from location to location, maybe there is a ticking clock or a maguffin quest that needs to be solved during the fight, but at some point the fight is simply over. For The Avengers, Whedon has famously said that he structured his fight into “five acts, with a prologue” on 15 pages of script so the previz team had something to work with. But this structure also gives the fight an evolution that pulls us along as viewers.
The classic five-act structure, as formulated by Gustav Freytag, divides a drama into five parts that, if you diagram them, form a sort of pyramid shape. The first act (exposition) serves as an introduction to the characters and the situation. The second act (rising action) then sees these characters get deep into a conflict, with the third act (climax) showing this conflict at its peak. Then follows a reversal of what we have learned so far (falling action) with the final act (denouement) resolving the conflict either in a hopeful or tragic way.
When you look closely at the Battle of New York, the stretch between minutes 102 and 130 of the movie’s runtime, it’s actually amazing how easily it falls apart and into this structure.
The prologue to the battle starts as soon as the portal opens after Iron Man’s time-buying dialogue scene with Loki. The first Chitauri enter through the portal and wreak havoc. People hide. Loki and Thor fight on top of Stark tower. Finally, the Quinjet crashes on Park Avenue. Now, everyone (except for Bruce Banner) is on the scene.
The real threat, the first of the Chitauri Leviathans, is introduced. Loki leaves Stark Tower and joins the Chitauri. Hawkeye, Black Widow and Cap are trying to decide what to do. Cap talks to the police and establishes the conflict (Civilians might get hurt), the location (set up a perimeter to 39th street) and the role of the Avengers in the fight. Bruce Banner finally shows up, hulks out and kills the first Leviathan with a single well-placed punch. It is now clear that the Avengers have a real chance of winning this battle, if they work together. This is reinforced by a triumphant fanfare of the Avengers theme in the score and the iconic shot of the team assembling in a circle (the header image for this post).
“Send the rest”, Loki snarls, and two more Leviathans come through the portal. Cap now lays out precisely what the goal of the upcoming fight is going to be, and which part every character is supposed to play:
Alright, listen up. Until we can close that portal, our priority’s containment. Barton, I want you on that roof, eyes on everything. Call out patterns and strays. Stark, you got the perimeter. Anything gets more than three blocks out, you turn it back or you turn it to ash. (…) Thor, you gotta try and bottleneck that portal. Slow ’em down. You got the lightning. Light the bastards up. You [Black Widow] and me, we stay here on the ground, keep the fighting here. And Hulk? Smash!
As viewers, we now know exactly what we should be looking out for. Moreover, Cap – who cannot fly, is not indestructible and has no other visible powers – has shown us what his role is: he is the leader the Avengers need if they want to work as a team. With the individual goals set, we see a few successful fights as the battle gets underway, but Cap ultimately has to see that his plan won’t work in the long run. Together with Black Widow, he redefines the goal: the portal must be closed. Black Widow takes off.
At this point of the battle, we get to see our heroes winning. It starts with the long shot mentioned earlier that shows the Avengers working together like a well-oiled machine. It also has the most moments of levity, with Hulk both punching Thor out of frame after they brought down another Leviathan and later giving Loki the headache of a lifetime in the “puny god” scene.
What’s more, Cap finally gets to rescue some civilians from a bank, like he wanted to do the whole time. And Erik Selvig finally wakes up and tells Natasha that he should be able to close the portal. “You know what?”, we’re saying to ourselves, “this might just work!”
Even Avengers have limited stamina. A series of shots shows the toll the battle is taking on our heroes. Iron Man crashes. Hawkeye is out of arrows and has to hide in a building. Hulk is under a constant fire from the Chitauri he can’t escape. Even Cap gets hit. But Whedon really turns the tables by introducing an outside threat nobody saw coming. Nick Fury’s council of secret world leaders wants to nuke New York and nobody can stop them. Not even Fury himself, not even with a bazooka. Now, the Avengers are in a bind. They might close the portal, but that won’t save Manhattan from nuclear destruction. What are they going to do?
In the final act of the Battle of New York, the film recenters the fight on the action of one person. Tony Stark, who has been accused of only thinking about himself most of the time, gets the chance to redeem himself through sacrifice. He catches the missile and transports it into the portal with everyone watching. The nuke explodes and conveniently kills all the Chitauri, who don’t seem to possess a will of their own. Now, Black Widow can close the portal. Tony falls, gets caught by the Hulk and lands on the exact same spot the fight started. “We won.” The final beat shows Loki waking up with the Avengers towering over him. Only after this does the film move on to the actual aftermath of the battle.
Notice how every act slightly shifts the goal of the overall fight. At first, it’s just the Leviathan, then it’s the containment of the battle, then it’s the closing of the portal, and finally it’s getting rid of the nuke, which also serves to end the fight as a whole. Every Avenger gets their chance to shine during this, whether it’s Hawkeye picking off Chitauri chasing Iron Man or Thor calling down lightning to the Chrysler building. However, the metanarrative, which is also the metanarrative of the whole film, stays the same throughout: Avengers. Together. Strong.
Tying all of these qualities together is something that many other superhero battles lack. The airport fight in Civil War is contained to one (rather boring) location and it twists and turns dramatically, but while it should be telling the story of the film in miniature (two factions of superheroes believing in different solutions to the same problem), it is hard to tell who is on which side and why. The final fight scene in Black Panther reinforces the central conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger, but it has to give everyone else something to do as well, so it spreads out the battle to several different locations and several distinct personal conflicts.
When we look to Infinity War, we can at least see that we have a central promising villain in Thanos. There is also a good chance that the metaplot will be similar to the one in The Avengers – heroes have to put aside their differences to vanquish a foe that’s more powerful than each of their factions. But already the trailer and title hint at an actual war, which means a battle fought simultaneously on several geographically separate fronts. So maybe, we will never get another Battle of New York. But now at least we know how it’s done.