A movie five films, years, and a billion dollars in the making there was probably more than a few creative people in Hollywood who bet their careers on The Avengers, Marvel’s great gambit and by far the most exciting film to hit theaters thus far in 2012. Featuring action that none of the film’s predecessors even hinted at and a script that masterfully weaves genuinely inspiring ideals with sparkling wit and seamless integrations of four franchises into one brilliant concoction, this is a thrilling entry into the superhero genre, one matched only in scope and execution by Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008 and Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). Whereas those films succeeded because of their dark flavorings, The Avengers represents the other side of the superhero film, the light, adventurous epic, which until this had only once come close to realizing its full potential with Sam Raimi’s Spiderman 2 (2004).
Indeed, when looking for a comparison for The Avengers, Raimi’s nerdy epic might be the best place to start. Whereas that film is successful in creating the definitive take of both Spiderman and Peter Parker as a character, however, The Avengers is even more impressive, being that for a set of characters as diverse as Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), giving the audience the complete rundown of each of these characters and what is more doing so in a manner that never feels overstuffed, but completely natural to the course of the narrative. The side characters of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Nic Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) feel just as at home in this universe, while Loki (Tom Hiddleston) serves capably if not exactly memorably as the villain who unites them.
While the film as a whole is more fun than most others that I can remember seeing in a theater and will certainly leave its audience on an adrenaline high begging for more, if there is something that brings it down from the rank of an all time great it is its somewhat lackluster storyline, which especially hurts the film on a second viewing. Although certainly massive in scope, the motivations of the antagonists, especially the mysterious powers behind Loki, are limited at best and missing completely at worst. Alien invasions have blotted the cinematic horizon for so long now that in order for them to succeed, they need to offer something new, whether that is the design of the creatures themselves, the weaponry they use, or the reasons for their attack. Simply overtaking the world for domination’s sake is not enough any more. Aliens as bland as those here are not scary and offer nothing more than a way for earth’s mightiest heroes to look cool as they dispatch these would-be invaders.
Also problematic is the character of Loki, who while still given great presence by the talented Tom Hiddleston, is nowhere near as relatable or exciting as he was in Thor (2011). Loki is neither intimidating nor brilliant, making him seem an especially lazy choice of villain to first bring the group together. While it is clear why he would want to take over earth there is no conceivable reason why the group behind him would support him in the first place, given his clear lack of success in prior villainous efforts. Loki can be utilized to great effect, but probably more as a side villain than something meant to represent earth’s doomsday.
Despite these complaints, however, The Avengers is still a first-rate blockbuster and that is mostly due to its characters and especially the hilarious interactions between them. Seeing Captain America and Iron Man argue is great fun and is just what dorks everywhere have imagined while reading comic books or playing with action figures growing up. To see the Hulk fight Thor, putting to rest countless geeky debates over the years, or the gorgeous effects of the Iron Man suit fighting alongside the Hulk is pure nerd nirvana. A true spectacle bringing the joy one feels when first going to the circus, this is the best action movie in many years, at times feeling like the master of action and sci-fi Steven Spielberg might be at the helm.
While not Spielberg, director Joss Whedon, he of the cult successes Firefly, Serenity (2005), and Buffy the Vampire Slayer among others, might be the best choice possible for the material. Just like many of his past efforts, this film is all about the team, how they conflict, how they love, and how they ultimately unite, bringing out both the best and worst of themselves in the process. In this writer and director’s hands, The Avengers are far more intriguing as a unit than they ever were as individual parts. Are they prima donnas, are they heroes, or could they possibly be both? What good exactly are superpowers and who should be blessed or cursed with them? These are just some of the questions that Whedon asks his heroes, forcing them to come to grips with just who they are, in some scenes that are far more dramatically compelling than one would ever expect to come from this material. Almost any of the moments with Bruce Banner dealing with his struggles to overcome his rage, for example, are genuinely touching. While every character gets a chance to shine in action and that is what makes many love this film, it is also true that almost every one of the characters also gets a moment of sincerity or humanity, making them more than toys at the directors disposal, but also an authentic reflection of the film’s audience. We, like the Avengers have weaknesses, but like them, have great strengths and seeing them rise above their circumstances after having so many opportunities to fold and fail is what makes the movie a little more than just a Saturday afternoon entertainment.
As good as Whedon and the action that he has generously poured out onto the screen are, perhaps the film’s true highlight is its tremendously talented ensemble cast. Everyone brings their A-game here, especially Ruffalo as Banner, who finally brings the Hulk that everyone had hoped for to the screen, mixing charisma with pained disgust in perfect measure. Robert Downey Jr. in his third crack at Tony Stark is the best he has ever been in the role, making it impossible to imagine anyone else ever having had a chance at it. His Stark is a true icon in the film landscape, fitting comfortably alongside Han Solo and Jack Sparrow as a wise-ass action extraordinaire that the audience can’t get enough of. Johannson as Black Widow is even better than she was in Iron Man 2 (2010), given far more to do and excelling with it, while Evans and Hemsworth look completely comfortable in the roles of Captain America and Thor. While all of the headliners succeed, perhaps the biggest surprise of the ensemble is Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson, who delivers beautifully in one of the biggest moments of the film, driving the corny material home and sending the film into its thrilling climax where a lesser actor might have halted all prior momentum in the same role.
In all, The Avengers is everything you hope for in a summer blockbuster: fun, humorous, exciting, with wonderful characters and ultimately a great escape. I can’t wait to see more. More Whedon, more cheesy plotlines, and yes even more marvel superhero films. Until this film, that’s something I never thought I would say.