The biggest problem with making any movie about the Marvel Universe’s core team of superheroes known as The Avengers is that on screen it’s hard to strike a balance between the disparate personalities of the main characters. It’s a much easier task across a series of 5 to 20 comics, but when you start to think about combining some of the biggest film franchises of the past decade into one package, it’s hard not to fear that someone would get the short end of the stick.
Fanboy icon Joss Whedon has the unenviable task of co-writing and directing the filmed adaptation of The Avengers; bringing together Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Cobie Smulders, and Clark Gregg) for the first time in a film that no matter how hard he tries will still find small nitpicking complaints from fans who have often spent years learning the interactions of these huge powers and egos.
On a filmmaking level, I have some similarly small complaints, but for what it’s worth (and in the end all that really matters) Whedon delivers unequivocally what would be the best possible scenario for an Avengers film. Strengthening some of the weaknesses of previous Marvel Studios entries, Whedon crafts a 149 minute superhero epic that feels about half the length without sacrificing the merits of one character over another.
Watching Thor and Captain America are highly suggested prerequisites before diving head long into the plot of this one. After being banished from Asgard, Thor’s fallen demigod brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has gained the power to coerce people into doing his bidding in hopes of unlocking the full potential of a cosmic cube known as the Tesseract, a naturally occurring energy source from space that S.H.I.E.L.D. and the government have been trying to harness the power of for quite some time. Pissed off that the human race refuses to kneel to him, Loki begins amassing an army of hostile aliens to help him wipe the population off the face of the Earth.
Much to the chagrin of the American government who would prefer a nuclear solution to Loki’s menace, Agent Nick Fury (Jackson) calls into action the risky proposition of activating The Avengers, an abandoned last line of defense against such a global threat. Steve Rogers has been living in a world he’s completely out of touch with. Tony Stark is still seething over not being seen as much of a team player. Bruce Banner is still on the run and prefers being left alone because it helps to control the beast inside him. Thor, who wasn’t ever really suggested for the team, was stuck on Asgard, but he resurfaces when he gets wind that Loki has returned to Earth. As for S.H.I.E.L.D., without giving too much away since there’s a twist that occurs mere minutes into the film, they have their own problems. There’s a lot of finger pointing and shouting and ego involved, but ultimately they all have to band together to protect the world from a potential extinction level event.
Whedon and co-writer Zak Penn definitely do well by the characters, and for the most part they get the balance right, which would admittedly be pretty hard to pull off outside of a six hour, two part film. It never turns into the Robert Downey Jr. show, which feels refreshing since without his take on billionaire playboy Tony Stark, this film probably never would have seen the light of day. But with each beloved character at the heart of the film, they all get their chance to shine in some way.
Downey’s Stark and Hemsworth’s Thor actually take their sweet time even showing up in the film, accounting for the former’s ego and the fact that the other is out in space somewhere. The film starts off strong with Fury turning to Cap for most of his help, but then once everyone else starts getting involved, Evans, who still turns in a great performance here, gets pushed somewhat into the background as he becomes a generic sort of de facto leader and voice of reason on the team.
Mark Ruffalo, taking over as the third actor to play Bruce Banner in ten years, brings an even quieter intensity than Edward Norton or Eric Bana did. If anything, Banner hasn’t become less angry, he’s just developed a sort of ironic detachment to everything that he’s been through. Whedon and Penn do a great job bringing the character back into the fold, and Banner’s relationship to Stark adds some dramatic interest, but when it comes time for the stakes to get raised and Hulk needs to be called upon, Whedon and Penn know its time to pretty much forget about Banner and let the effects department take over.
Dramatically, Hemsworth’s Thor has suffered the most, with the romantic subplot from his previous solo outing dismissed pretty flatly in order to pay lip service to his relationship to the film’s main villain. Whedon makes up for Thor’s flat character, by giving Hemsworth arguably the best fight sequences in the film, so at least his God-like abilities and his trusty hammer are given adequate chance to shine.
Watching a wit like Whedon write for a character like Tony Stark and an actor like Robert Downey Jr. yields quite a bit of joy because Downey’s almost effortless charm and ability to play a smart ass makes Whedon and Penn’s dialog seem natural and unforced. Although, quite oddly, much like with Thor, his romantic relationship to Pepper Potts (a returning Gwyneth Paltrow) seems to have become a plot device only getting trotted out to elicit a reaction or heighten tension. Still, Whedon gives Stark some of the most pleasingly silly pop culture references without making them feel ridiculous.
The biggest and most welcome advancement over the previous films in the Avengers canon comes in the form of Hiddleston’s Loki. Nothing more than a whiny, petulant brat in Thor, Hiddleston and Whedon work quite well together to make Loki an actually credible threat. There’s a ruthless edge that was sorely missing from Hiddleston’s last outing in the role that he bites into with great aplomb here, probably because the script was wise enough to turn the character into someone who has stopped crying and has simply become fully consumed with vengeance.
As for the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., it’s nice to see Jackson finally be able to run with the Nick Fury character outside of his previous cameo appearances, but he still doesn’t really do much. Smulders and Johansson fare somewhat better thanks to Whedon’s talent and insistence on including strong female characters in this mainly male dominated action fantasy. The biggest ball drop in the movie, however, probably goes to Renner’s Hawkeye, who Whedon seems to think the audience already knows everything about despite only a 2 minute cameo in Thor. Hawkeye’s character has a hole dug for him early that Renner, despite being very good, can’t fully recover from.
Previously never seen as a director known for big budgeted spectacle filmmaking (unless one counts the modestly budgeted Serenity), Whedon asserts himself quite well as an action director with a stunning final 30 minutes that makes Michael Bay’s Transformers films look like the shoddy pieces of crass commercialism that they are. Even through scenes of dialogue and exposition, Whedon finds innovative ways to keep a lengthy movie moving at a great pace. He knows what he needs from his actors and from everyone in the technical department from the composers to the stunt department to some of the best cinematography in a film this year.
But most importantly of all, The Avengers is a lot of fun. This isn’t a film crafted and designed to win awards, but it’s firmly rooted in the Spielbergian tradition of making the audience feel like they’re kids again. Aside from a few somewhat forced and unsubtle political asides about nuclear proliferation and the current quagmire the U.S. military finds itself in, Whedon and company band together for a true team effort that sets the bar for the summer movie season almost unreasonably high right out of the gate. Funny, exciting, and not entirely disposable as entertainment, The Avengers lives up to the early hype that it might be the film to beat for this year’s box office crown.