The first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier features one of the best single scenes Marvel has ever put to film as Sam Wilson tries to get a loan to save his family business and home and is denied. Even though he is an Avenger, and famous enough that the banker wants a selfie with him, Sam cannot get a loan. He even mentions that there is a lot of “good will” from the public, that makes people “want to help”, but critically, that good will does not extend to him, a Black man. It’s a brutal scene, swinging between humiliating, cringey awkwardness, and a devastating indictment of racism in America. Not even the Falcon—who helped save the world!—can overcome the inherent biases in the American financial system. And it’s all topped off by Sarah Wilson, Sam’s sister, who projects the kind of exhaustion only someone who has already been repeatedly denied by this system can. From top to bottom, the bank scene, as it is now and forever known, is the kind of humanist filmmaking the superhero genre is often accused of lacking.
There is just one little thing about the bank scene that sticks out like a sore thumb, and it is when Sam answers the question of how the Avengers get paid, which is that they don’t. It’s one thing to imply his status as an Avenger might help him secure a loan, but it is something else entirely to say the Avengers aren’t compensated, and everyone sure did notice how dumb that is as a piece of worldbuilding. It’s a shoe problem, a seemingly inconsequential detail that points at a much bigger failure of basic storytelling. In this case, it turns the Avengers into a bunch of scrubs. While the internet has been arguing whether or not this is all Tony Stark’s fault, I have carried out a highly technical assessment of the Avengers and money and at what point the whole system falls apart, and whether or not Tony is in any way responsible. Here are my extremely scientific findings.
Were the Avengers ever employed?
Yes, in the beginning they were almost all legit citizens with W2s and everything. In 2012, when the Battle of New York occurred, “the Avengers” as a thing doesn’t exist. They are responding to an emergency situation, the response to which is being managed by SHIELD, a government agency. Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton are SHIELD agents, so they are being paid as government employees, and Steve Rogers is living under some kind of SHIELD supervision in New York. Presumably, he is receiving some form of government stipend as he acclimates to 21st century life (a deleted scene shows he has an apartment, and those old man clothes had to come from somewhere). The other Avengers are private citizens—Tony Stark is a billionaire, Thor is a magic space prince who doesn’t live on Earth, and Bruce Banner is on the lam but apparently supporting himself with ad hoc doctor work. So far, the Avengers are paying their bills, except for Thor who doesn’t use Earth things, including, probably, money.
When did the Avengers become a bunch of scrubs?
Through Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Avengers still aren’t a going concern. At this time, Tony Stark is still a billionaire and Thor is still a magic space prince who doesn’t live on Earth, so they’re fine. Tony has taken Bruce in, let’s assume he’s covering all of Bruce’s bills. Meanwhile, Natasha, Clint, and now Steve are all SHIELD agents, so they’re covered. But then SHIELD falls, leaving Natasha, Clint, and Steve unemployed. By Avengers: Age of Ultron, Tony has taken everyone in, and the Avengers are starting to operate as a full-time response team. In this movie, we also have a scene in which Tony explicitly states he is paying for everything. By 2015, the Avengers are straight up freeloading.
Who forgot to hire an accountant?
Captain America: Civil War shows us Avengers living full-time at their compound in upstate New York. They are now a functioning organization unto themselves. At this point, they should have paychecks and healthcare and pension plans, and somehow, NONE OF THAT GOT DONE? And no, I don’t think Tony is responsible for paying them. For one thing, they have already freeloaded enough from him, and for another, I think we can safely assume he kicked in some seed money to build the compound and set up The Avengers™️. Also, if you’re going to blame the billionaire for not paying the Avengers, then you have to equally blame Steve Rogers, the actual person IN CHARGE of the Avengers, for completely forgetting about payroll.
And hold the arguments that the Avengers shouldn’t be paid for whatever reason. Everyone should be paid for their labor, full stop. (A great argument for Universal Basic Income is that it’s a way to compensate stay-at-home parents for their labor.) We pay cops, soldiers, and astronauts, and the Avengers are basically a combination of those three occupations, so yes, they should be paid. A case can be made that their compensation shouldn’t be especially lavish because they get free room and board as part of the package, but there should be a living stipend, at least. Even if all the basics are provided within the compound, at some point an Avenger will need cash money for something and leaving them without resources just makes them vulnerable to stuff like bribery. (Imagine if Sam were less scrupulous, how dangerous the Falcon could be taking questionable gigs for money to make ends meet.) At the point that there are full-time Avengers whose sole occupation is Avenging, they should be receiving a salary.
Aren’t the wizards broke, too?
Parallel to the Avengers, we have a global network of sorcerers providing mystical defense who are also unpaid, as Doctor Strange and Avengers: Infinity War make clear. Also clear is that Stephen Strange is maintaining some amount of money of his own, since he offers to buy a sandwich for Wong, who has like, a buck fifty in his pocket.
Like the Avengers, the sorcerers get free room and board as part of their job, and like the Avengers, the uniqueness of their calling covers a lot of bases (no need to pay for travel when you can open a portal to anywhere in the world). But in this clip, the writers, by way of Stephen, acknowledge you still need money to operate in the world. Detaching from material things is great and all, and part of Stephen’s development is coming to terms with not being rich anymore, but if you want a sandwich from the deli, you’re going to have to pay the deli for it. Sam notes that good will solves a lot of problems, so maybe some delis would give Stephen that sandwich for free, but Stephen is at least prepared to pay for it up front.
Wasn’t Sam a fugitive, though?
And this is where it all breaks down, because there was a very obvious, in-world explanation for Sam having no money. Not only is he dealing with the undoubted bureaucratic nightmare of returning from the dead post-blip—The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is set six months after Endgame—but he spent the last couple years before being dusted as a federal fugitive. Instead of saying, Oh the Avengers don’t get paid, all Sam had to say is that his assets were seized. It is totally believable that following Civil War, Sam and the rest of Team Cap would find themselves cut off from their bank accounts. If he had blamed his brokeness on losing his assets after breaking the Sokovia Accords, I don’t think anyone would have blinked at the bank scene, it’s a plausible consequence of his actions.
Sounds like the Avengers are basically student athletes.
Pretty much! They seem to operate under a similar assumption, that room and board is “enough”. Obviously, it isn’t, as Sam is in financial straits and in the real world, student athletes struggle to make ends meet all the time (how many college sports scandals are down to some kid trying to make money on the side?). I happen to believe that student athletes should be paid, and I think Avengers should be paid, too. And no, it’s not Tony Stark’s responsibility—or Pepper Potts’s, for that matter—to pay them. Maybe, being a former CEO, he should have noticed that Steve never set up a payroll department, but that’s it. Besides, expecting the rich guy to pay for everything is as lazy a piece of worldbuilding as saying they don’t get paid at all—both dodge real consideration of how the world actually works. A stronger piece of writing could tie Sam’s current troubles to his past actions by chalking up his financial state to asset forfeiture following Civil War, but at the very least they could have just said his money was frozen in bureaucratic hell post-blip. The latter option would also jive with Spider-Man: Far From Home, in which Aunt May is raising money to re-home people displaced by the blip. The MCU in 2023 is a nightmare!
Wait a minute, is Scott Lang the most responsible Avenger?
Yes. Scott Lang, adult twelve-year old, is somehow the most responsible Avenger. At least amongst the Avengers who aren’t independently wealthy, that is. Scott co-founded a security company with his friends, and since he made a plea deal with the government following Civil War, he probably got his assets back (dude is maintaining a nice apartment in San Francisco, he must have some resources). He appears to be the only Avenger who realizes he has to pay for things. That said, he should still be paid for his time spent Avenging, at least on a part-time basis. He could also be side-hustling as a party magician for all we know. He IS pretty good at the close-up magic.