It’s been a long time coming. After introducing S.H.I.E.L.D and Nick Fury in a post credits sting in Iron Man, Marvel has slowly developed a back story through Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America that comes to fruition in The Avengers (given the unwieldy title Marvel Avengers Assemble in the UK). Essentially what we have here is the movie equivalent of one of those comic crossover events that sucks all your favourite heroes into a mega team-up against a global threat. The Avengers is on every level, bigger, louder, longer and more expensive than the films that have proceeded it. However, it is also more spectacular, funnier and much, much more exciting.
The setup is this. Loki (Hiddleston) the Norse god of mischief, lying and general chaos (actually an inter-dimensional alien, but who’s arguing) steals a McGuffin of unlimited power from Nick Fury’s S.H.I.E.L.D (a super secret cross between NATO and U.N.C.L.E). Armed with this glowing do-hickey cube and the aid of some mysterious allies he plans to subjugate the human race to his will. Fury is determined to use any means necessary to stop him. That means rebooting his Avengers Initiative, a plan for team of super-heroes so secret that its members don’t even know they belong to the club.
Fury despatches agents Coulson (Clark Gregg, a familiar face from all the previous movies given much more to do here) and Romanov, aka The Black Widow (Johansson) to round up the team who he calls The Avengers.
The team is to be comprised of: genius, billionaire, philanthropist and pain-in-the-arse Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Downey Jr.); out of his time WW2 super-soldier Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (Evans); Thor (Hemsworth), the god of thunder and Loki’s half-brother; and reluctant scientist Bruce Banner (Ruffalo) who, due to an unfortunate mishap with some gamma radiation, transforms when enraged into uncontrollable id-monster The Hulk. Fury isn’t after The Hulk, but Banner’s wicked skills with a bunsen burner; he is strictly supposed to be a back-office resource. Already on the team are the Widow herself and brooding assassin Hawkeye (Renner), a man with superhuman archery abilities.
There are complications. Thor is currently in another dimension. Stark is a playboy narcissist who doesn’t play well with others. Captain America is having difficulty adjusting the the 21st century after being frozen in the Arctic ice since the 1940s. Banner is on the run and hiding in India, practising advanced meditation to keep what he ominously calls “the other guy” from going on the rampage. None of them trust Fury or S.H.I.E.L.D, and Loki has turned Hawkeye into a minion with his mind controlling glowing staff of doom (that’s lower-case doom; upper-case Doom is awaiting the Fantastic Four reboot).
Basically, this is a classic team-based mission movie. Get the team together in the first half, and in the second half? Get ready to RUMBLE!!!
So what makes this movie so good? Let’s count the ways.
Characters: given that Whedon has taken on a group of actors inherited from other movies, he has done some amazing work here. It helps, of course, that the casting in pretty rock solid in the first place, but here one would expect the biggest star – Downey Jr – to run away with the film. That doesn’t happen. Unlike the Mission Impossible movies, where what should be a team effort becomes a star vehicle, no one character or actor dominates proceedings. Everyone gets solid character beats, and great moments. This includes characters who ought to be in the background, like Gregg’s Agent Coulson and Cobie Smulders' Agent Hill. In fact, Whedon gives Smulders a kick-ass little action scene at the start of the movie. This is the sort of character who usually sits at a desk on the bridge saying lines like “stabilisers stabilised, captain”. Of the headline cast, everyone is good; the fans of all these characters will not be disappointed. Having said that, where Black Widow seemed a pointless addition in Iron Man 2, here she is given sassy lines and a real backstory. Whedon clearly knows, understands and loves these characters.
Bruce Banner/The Hulk: not since the 70s TV series has there been a live action Hulk as good as this. Ruffalo is terrific as Banner, a twitchy nerd with a sardonic sense of humour, clearly being crushed by guilt over the violent mayhem caused by his bulked up alter-ego. Unlike the two previous film versions, the Hulk himself has been partly achieved through motion capture and actually looks like Ruffalo (although he is voiced by Lou Ferrigno, who played the big green dude on TV). Banner keeps his anger management problem under control until well into the film. Whedon creates such a sense of foreboding in all the characters about this possibility, that when the inevitable freak out happens this Hulk is downright intimidating.
Dialogue: Whedon in full effect. The film often plays like a comedy, so funny is much of the dialogue. Huge team-based movies like this always have a “roundtable” scene – this is the bit where all the characters gather around a table for a chunk of exposition that explains the plot before the action can kick off. Avengers has one of the best roundtable scenes ever staged. Whedon takes a massive chunk of indigestible plot exposition and transforms it into a quick-fire scene of character-based comedy of which Howard Hawkes would have been proud.
The Villain: full credit to Kenneth Branagh for the unlikely casting of (then) relatively unknown thesp Hiddleston as Loki in Thor. It was a brilliant decision. Whedon has the benefit of inheriting the character after his backstory and transformation into moustache-twirling villain has been achieved. Loki in The Avengers is a full-on super-villain, and a great one, able to turn on a dime and go from refined cultured villainy to hurricane force megalomania. Hiddleston has perfected his evil grin, but plays a character who takes such joy in being evil it is quite infectious. Like many of the best villains, Loki’s Achilles heel is loquaciousness; he's so sure of his superiority that he always reveals a bit too much information.
The action: wow, seriously wow. The action scenes in this movie play out in true Jack Kirby-honouring scale. Unlike the odious Michael Bay, you always know what is going on, where everyone is, and what the stakes are. My gripe with the Iron Man movies is that ultimately they descend into big robots hitting each other for 20 minutes. Like JJ Abrams, Whedon is clearly a fan of prime Spielberg, so The Avengers’ action scenes are full of character beats and humour. The film's grand finale, in which Loki’s allies finally reveal themselves and start trashing Manhattan, is a movie in itself.
One criticism that could made of the films leading up to The Avengers is that Marvel was so mindful of its IP, and so in control of the productions, that the films lack a little bit of individuality. The Jon Favreau directed Iron Man suffered least, perhaps because it was the only one built around a real film star (although it elevated Robert Downey Jr further to the top of the A list), and a live wire one at that. But subsequent films have almost conformed to a house style. Thor was efficiently directed by Kenneth Branagh but hardly an auteur workout. Joe Johnston’s Captain America could have been directed by almost anyone. The less said about Iron Man 2, the better.
It is perhaps a surprise then that Marvel has handed the keys of its super-movie to Joss Whedon. Wwhatever you think of him – and Whedon does have his detractors – the creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly comes not only with a legion of diehard fans (full disclosure, I am one), but with a highly idiosyncratic and individual creative voice. On the other hand, Whedon is a self-confessed comic geek who has not only taken his Buffy characters to success in comic form following the end of the TV series, but has written an acclaimed run on Marvel’s X-Men. I have no idea what went on behind closed boardroom doors, but the wit and invention on display in this movie feels very Whedonesque, while at the same time capturing the tone and feel of Marvel’s comic book universe perfectly.
The Avengers is not a film full of subtext, it doesn’t have a deep message about the state of the world in 2012, it isn’t “dark”. What it is is about as much fun as you can cram into 140-odd minutes.
NOTE: the version of the film screened to the press was in 2D, so I can’t comment on the quality of the 3D conversion – although I will say that the 2D was spectacular enough. Also the final post credits sting was still to be shot, so I am as curious as you to see what that is.