It’s pretty incredible that The Avengers is an actual movie and that it came out in theatres today. How many successful movies have been made by combining two separate franchises, let alone four? Comic books have cross-pollination ingrained in their DNA, particularly Marvel’s, but it was hard to imagine an Avengers movie as being anything other than a cash-in starring a bunch of easily affordable no-names playing some of the biggest names in comics. So when Marvel decided to give each hero their own film so as to set-up the characters ahead of time and actively build towards this one amazing-mega-ultra-team-up, it showed an actual commitment to the idea of turning a super-group of superheroes into the kind of event movie it deserved to be. Getting geek icon Joss Whedon to write and direct the whole thing seemed itself almost too good to be true.
Yet here we are, four years after The Avengers was first teased at the end of Iron Man, with the greatest convergence in cinematic entertainment, pretty much ever, ready to blow audiences away. So, how is it? Well... it’s good, quite good even. That might sound reductive but the fact that The Avengers doesn’t collapse horribly beneath its own ambitions is an achievement unto itself. We have the stars and co-stars of four separate blockbuster franchises all stuffed into one single picture. Robert Downey Jr. is as rakish as ever playing billionaire Tony Stark, who dons the crimson and gold armour of Iron Man once more, but this time he’s joined by supersoldier-turned fish out of water Captain America (Chris Evans), fresh from a nasty plane crash-related hibernation. There’s also Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the warrior prince from another planet who wields Shakespearean verse and a nasty hammer in equal measure, as well as the big green guy himself, The Hulk, being kept in check by Marvel newcomer Mark Ruffalo as the giant’s low-key scientist alter-ego, Bruce Banner.
But wait, there’s more! Increasingly prominent S.H.I.E.L.D director Nick Fury gives Samuel L. Jackson greater opportunity to give grim looks from his one good eye, and has a new assistant (Cobie Smulders) to boot. Superhero scout and franchise connective tissue Agent Phil Coulson continues trying to get his ragtag team of metahumans together, and Thor’s scientist pal Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) is in tow as well. Then there’s the pair of assassin types, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who’ve been promoted from cameos to full-time world savers. Phew. Even at an arguably excessive 140 minutes, there is a lot going on in The Avengers, with no less than a dozen characters to introduce, both to each other, and audiences still a bit foggy on which one’s the time-displaced WWII vet and which one’s the Norse god.
Despite all the necessary groundwork laying that would hamstring the film’s leading up to it, The Avengers still has so much to get viewers up to speed on that it makes for a talky opening hour and a half. All the more reason to be thankful that it’s Whedon filling in the speech bubbles, as while his direction is clean and focussed, it’s his words that the movie really needed. Rather than settling for a glossy, one-shot crossover, great effort is made to develop the relationship each hero has with the others, while simultaneously maintaining the personalities established in each solo ventures before bringing them into the greater world of super-dom as a whole.
Whedon keeps things light, if not always brisk, with his trademark brand of self-aware humour, including more than a few riffs on costuming, which is funnier when coming from a guy wearing stars ‘n stripes pajamas. Getting everyone to play nice together is the story’s real conflict, as such varying powers and personalities create plenty of friction aboard S.H.I.E.L.D.’s fancy new flying helicarrier. So once Thor’s mischievous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) steals the Tesseract, a cosmic MacGuffin that’s been popping up all over the Marvel movie universe, with the intent of leading an extraterrestrial army to earth’s front door, the real threat is whether the heroes be able to survive each other long enough to save anybody else.
It leads to more than a few surprise turns to the established Marvel formula. There’s an emotional and political murkiness throughout, as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s intentions are rarely transparent, and the personal conflicts bear out into much more globally conscious ones. The final act is as action-heavy as ever, with a full-blown intergalactic war ripping apart downtown Manhattan, and these setpiece closers were often the weakest link in the previous efforts, but here, it’s the culmination of 10 hours worth of set-up, so the catharsis is almost unparalleled. It’s a whole lot of CG destruction by monsters whose motives are about as vague as their species name, but it doesn’t matter because holy crap, Hulk just punched a mecha-baleen whale in the face! And wow, Thor just chip-shot an Acura into five aliens! With such a diverse array of badasses, the action beats switch fast but hit hard, even at the 2-hour mark. It’s raw spectacle, pure and simple, but because so much care has been put into making us love who’s putting on the show, it makes for one hell of a pay-off.
And through it all Whedon has, quite improbably, found a way to make every member of the all-star line-up relevant and matter. Hawkeye’s bow and arrow looks pretty measly when compared to the 8-foot tall Hulk, but his accuracy helps out in plenty of situations where smashing can’t. Perhaps most surprising is Johansson as Black Widow, who showed up in Iron Man 2 mostly just as eye candy, but now gets to quip and kick-ass along with everybody else. The team spirit that the Avengers is based on manages to not just survive, but invigorate the big screen translation, and you’ll know it once you see the requisite but charming after-credits sequence (of which there are two, so be sure to stick around). The story itself is simple and occasionally contrived (true to comics, mind-control is a big factor), but it’s built on a foundation of wonderful characters whose interactions within that story are what keep you engaged, be they flashy or funny.
It might seem odd to end talking about another comic franchise but the recently released final trailer for The Dark Knight Rises will likely play before your screening of The Avengers. It gives a stark comparison between what Christopher Nolan is doing with Batman and what Marvel has done with The Avengers. While Nolan wants to create a case for artistic filmmaking within the blockbuster framework, Marvel has once again done what they’ve proven themselves best at; making fun, highly entertaining comic book movies that are effortlessly easy to enjoy. Nolan might be pushing the expectations for the genre, but The Avengers reminds us that just because something’s a spectacle, doesn’t mean it can’t be satisfying. Even better, you can bet there will be plenty of new Avengers fan ready to assemble when the team’s next outing arrives in the (hopefully not too distant) future.
4 out of 5