The Marvelous Avengers
Superhero heavies assemble for action-packed ensemble.

Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Clint Barton (Hawkeye) in The Avengers (Paramount)


At the end of the 2008 superhero flick Iron Man, audiences were treated to a surprise post-credits scene: Iron Man’s alter-ego, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), arrives home to find a mysterious intruder awaiting him, a one-eyed man who introduces himself as Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Fury tells Stark that he’s come to talk to him about something called the “Avengers Initiative.”

It was a scene designed to titillate fanboys everywhere, for in the Marvel Comics universe, Iron Man is indeed a member of a superhero team known as the Avengers, a group that also boasts such heroic heavyweights as Captain America, Thor, and the Incredible Hulk.

But the Iron Man post-credits scene was more than just a sly in-joke — it was also a bold declaration from fledgling Marvel Studios, a plan that they soon made explicit: They would introduce a variety of Marvel heroes, launching solo franchises for each, before bringing them together in a big-budget Avengers movie. It was a plan designed to replicate the experience of reading the comics, where the characters often team up or face off in each other’s books.

But what works well on the page was a huge and unprecedented gamble as a motion-picture enterprise — a huge cinematic universe spanning multiple franchises, featuring multiple shared characters and story lines. Few thought it could be done well. And yet, film by film, Marvel unfolded its grand design. After Iron Man came The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). Piece by piece, the Marvel Cinematic Universe began to take shape.

And now, after years of planning and set-up movies, the main event has arrived — The Avengers hits theaters on May 4. All the stars of the Marvel solo films reprise their roles — Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, and Chris Evans as Captain America. Also returning are Scarlett Johansson as super-spy Black Widow (until now a mere supporting character in the Iron Man franchise), Jeremy Renner as master sniper Hawkeye, and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, finally getting a chance to shine as head of the ultra-secret security agency S.H.I.E.L.D. And joining the Marvel Universe for the first time, Mark Ruffalo plays the Hulk’s more serene alter ego, Bruce Banner (Edward Norton portrayed Banner in Hulk’s lackluster 2008 solo film).

The Avengers opens with Thor’s fallen brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) swiping a mysterious energy source called the Tesseract from S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters. Loki plans to use the device (which served as the MacGuffin in Captain America) to summon an alien army to Earth as part of his master plan to subjugate the human race. It’s an extraordinary threat that requires an extraordinary response, spurring Fury to activate the long-gestating Avengers Initiative and unleash Earth’s mightiest heroes against Loki’s invaders, waging a war that culminates in a breathtaking battle over the concrete canyons of Manhattan.

Hopes for The Avengers, needless to say, have been high. The Marvel Comics series of the same name has been beloved since writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby first brought the disparate heroes together back in 1963. Some naysayers have argued that an Avengers movie couldn’t be done — there are too many characters, the scope is too epic, they said. Any Avengers movie would either fail to do the comic justice or end up far too crowded and complex.

The skeptics’ case was strengthened when, in 2010, Marvel announced the man who would direct the production — Joss Whedon. It was a choice that baffled many: Whedon had helmed some spectacular TV successes (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but also some notable flops (Dollhouse). And while he has long had a reputation as one of Hollywood’s sharpest writers (he snagged an Oscar nomination for his work on 1995’s Toy Story), Whedon’s single motion-picture directing experience, 2005’s Serenity, was a bomb. Many wondered if his résumé really qualified Whedon to handle a huge tent-pole project like the The Avengers, with an estimated budget of $220 million.