REVIEW: The Avengers

It’s been a long road to The Avengers.  I’m sure the comic fanboys reading this can remember like it was yesterday that initial squee of excitement upon sticking around for the post-credits scene in Iron Man, when Samuel L Jackson showed up as Nick Fury and spoke of “The Avengers Initiative”, but since then we’ve actually had 4 years of build-up leading to this film.  When it was first announced, it was a hugely ambitious project, the kind that previously seemed like it could only exist in geek dreams: establishing numerous superhero film properties, all existing in the same universe and becoming increasingly linked, building to a massive crossover film uniting all these characters in a blockbuster superhero spectacular on a scale unlike anything seen before.  It seemed like The Avengers was going to be the biggest film ever.

But in those intervening 4 years, a lot happened to deflate that initial rabid anticipation.  While Iron Man has held up to multiple repeat viewings and is still highly enjoyable, Thor and Captain America (and even The Incredible Hulk, which came out a mere few weeks after Iron Man when that Avengers buzz was still fresh) were closer to good than great.  And the disappointing Iron Man 2 was heavy on Avengers prelude, but light on making the world of S.H.I.E.L.D. seem particularly engaging.  The mystique of The Avengers had been tarnished a bit.  Behind-the-scenes drama further dampened proceedings, with Ed Norton’s departure from the role of Bruce Banner/The Hulk removing arguably the second biggest name in the crossover ensemble from the table, and rumors of Marvel Studios’ dodgy dealings with talent suggesting that things weren’t too rosy in this shared universe.  More recently, on an admittedly subjective level, I’ve been left underwhelmed by the trailers for The Avengers, which made it seem like pretty generic summer action fluff.  Factor into that the looming shadow of The Dark Knight Rises, and I went into The Avengers (in 3D IMAX!) with moderate expectations.

Well, I can say those moderate expectations were blown out of the water.  The Avengers (which I’ll continue to call it, I refuse to use that lame Avengers Assemble title the movie got here in the UK) is easily the best film to come out of Marvel Studios, and while it doesn’t quite topple the reigning titan of the genre The Dark Knight, it has breezed into that upper echelon of Nolan and Burton’s Batman films, the first couple of Superman movies and X2 to be ranked as among the all-time great superhero movies.  For me, the story of Marvel Studios’ cinematic output has long been amazing potential, not quite realised.  It’s realised here.  And who do we have to thank?  Joss Whedon.

I talked a bit about the various ways Marvel decreased my excitement about The Avengers, but I should mention the one key way they increased it: the announcement that Joss Whedon would be writing and directing the film.  I’m a big Whedon fan, and I was confident that this would prove to be a canny move on Marvel’s part.  I was right.  With a proven knack for impeccable structure, deftly handling large ensembles, snappy dialogue, and the depiction of strong women, Whedon seemed like a tailor-made choice to address some of the nagging flaws often holding back Marvel’s previous films, and he more than delivers with some of his strongest work in ages.  Whedon’s touch is all over this film.  As a director, he handles himself well, with plenty of stylish flourishes and ambitious camera setups, and an increased comfort with framing action sequences that arguably leads to better fight scenes than we’ve seen in any other Marvel film thus far.  But it’s as a writer that Whedon truly shines.  The plot is steeped in reverence for what came before, and everyone’s dialogue is all utterly in-character, but it has that added Whedon sheen fans of Buffy, Firely and the like will instantly recognise.  What everyone loved about these characters in the earlier films is still there, only moreso, amplified and enhanced under Whedon’s pen.  Indeed, when I first left the screening, my initial Facebook post summing up the film was, “All the fun of the other Marvel movies, with the added benefit of a Joss Whedon script.”  And that remains the best way to describe this film’s appeal.

As much as The Avengers succeeds as a culmination of all the previous Marvel Studios films, on another level this also works as a spritual successor to Serenity and even Whedon’s acclaimed TV work.  This is a film where everyone does their job well and their is plenty of credit to go around, but I won’t hesitate in saying that, more than anyone else, it’s Joss Whedon who makes this film soar.  It’s his movie, and after Serenity so sadly and undeservedly tanked, the guaranteed success of The Avengers should hopefully give Whedon some well-overdue glory on a larger scale.

The pace of the film is absolutely relentless.  We start, and are launched into the action and drama almost immediately, with only a bare minimum of setup.  From there, could luck finding a quiet spot for a bathroom break at any point in the 2-hour-plus running time.  But despite the plot rampaging along at breakneck speed, The Avengers is simultaneously a very character-driven film.  And even with the big (some feared overcrowded) cast, every major character has an arc, and is given something substantial to do.

Of course, Robert Downey Jr continues to excel as Iron Man.  Even the flawed Iron Man 2 was kept afloat largely (and at some points solely) by the charm and engaging charisma of his Tony Stark, and remained watchable throughout thanks to his presence elevating every scene.  So imagine how great the character is in a film that matches his performance!  Joss Whedon and Robert Downey Jr was always going to be a match made in heaven, and indeed they fit together like hand-in-glove.  Stark gets to fire out rapid-fire zingers at all the major players – Loki gets called “Reindeer Games”, Thor “Point Break”, etc, etc – and his irreverent treatment of his all-star peers is where the film derives much of its many laughs.  Downey Jr also gets to rekindle his fantastic chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow, with Pepper Potts unexpectedly showing up for a few welcome scenes.  But Tony Stark isn’t just here to serve as a joke machine.  He gets a compelling dramatic arc, based around an accusation from Captain America that he’s not a real hero, that for all his showboating and self-aggrandising, he’s the kind of person who’ll fold when it comes to making the hard, self-sacrificial choices a real hero has to make.  While admittedly, it seems like Tony Stark goes through arcs of learning to be less self-serving and a better, more mature human being almost as often as Jeff Winger on Community, here Downey Jr does a particularly good job at wrestling with his mixture of arrogance and self-doubt, and the journey comes to a satisfying, dramatic conclusion…. while still allowing for some laughs.

I remember in the early stages of the Avengers cast, there was a fear among some (me included), that it could become the Robert Downey Jr show, with him acting everybody else off-screen.  Thankfully, that is far from the case, with Downey Jr’s performance complementing rather than overshadowing his castmates with how he plays off them.  As Steve Rogers, AKA Captain America, Chris Evans works well as the yin to Stark’s yang: earnest where Stark is playing things with a wry smile and a wink.  This leads to the two quite often coming to odds, and at some points nearly coming to blows, though as they find respect for one another they end up making a good team in battle.  A lot of it is left unspoken, but we get the sense that Captain America is more invested in this group than any of the other heavy-hitters, that perhaps he has more need of it.  He’s a man out of time and without a world, and so he throws himself into this new mission.  As he naturally assumes the role of strategic leader, there’s a tangible sense of Captain America finding his new place in the world.  The film does a good job in portraying how Captain America inspires people, both by having Agent Coulson (whose hero worship of Cap leads to some cute, funny moments) outright say it, and showing how people respond to him at various points in the narrative.

Thor doesn’t show up until a little later, but when he does, he makes an impact.  The presence of Loki and Dr. Selvig perhaps makes The Avengers more of a follow-on from Thor than anything else (though the film is skillfully able to feel like a follow-on from all the previous films), and perhaps this is why, more than with any character, Whedon acknowledges the journey Thor went through as a character in his solo film and continues the development from there.  Chris Hemsworth portrays Thor here as a man (or god, if you prefer) who has come from a place of pride and arrogance to increased maturity and nobility, but who at times struggles to keep that old temper and pompousity in check.  At a glance (perhaps because he doesn’t get the same “moving from the solo world of my film universe into the larger Avengers universe” setup scenes as the other major characters), it might seem like Thor has less to do than the “big two” of Captain America and Iron Man, but he actually has some pretty meaty character work, which results in some of my favourite dramatic scenes in the film.  The dynamic established is that Thor is on Earth ostensibly to capture Loki and return him to Asgard to face justice, but in fact wants to bring his brother home and attempt to rehabilitate him.  Thor still loves Loki, and while everyone else sees Loki as pure evil, Thor sees him as essentially good, but lost in a haze of madness that could yet still be temporary, and so he may not be beyond redemption.  The film cleverly teases and goes back-and-forth on whether or not Thor is correct, but we’ll talk more about that later.

It could be easy to view the trinity of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor as the film’s major players, when previously it might have been a four-way split, had Ed Norton returned to his role as Bruce Banner.  Hulk fans be thankful, then, for Mark Ruffalo, the first actor to play both Bruce Banner and (through motion capture magic) The Hulk, who ensures that – despite the recasting – The Hulk remains an equal partner amongst his more tenured co-stars.  I’m not the biggest Hulk fan, and have said as much before.  But this film has done more than anything before to make me a fan.  The character serves as the uber-badass of the group, and is surprisingly hilarious, getting some of the film’s biggest laughs.  Watch out for the Loki VS The Hulk battle, possibly my favourite part of the whole film.  But perhaps the real revelation is Ruffalo as Banner.  Eric Bana and Ed Norton are both great actors in their own right, but as Banner, Bana felt wooden, and Norton felt cold and distant.  Neither were quite able to nail that character and make him click with audiences in a way that Robert Downey Jr did with Tony Stark.  Mark Ruffalo does.  He brings a warmth and likeability to Banner that makes you emotionally invested first in him not losing control and unleashing The Hulk (he’s been “on the wagon”, if you will, for over a year as the film begins), and later in him learning to control this burden, and make it a gift rather than a curse.  In paticular, Ruffalo plays off Downey Jr well, and more than any other two members of the cast you get the sense that Stark and Banner could be good friends.  It’s reportedly unlikely to happen, but I for one would be happy to see Ruffalo’s Hulk get his own solo movie.  Going into the film, people might have been wishing Ed Norton was playing The Hulk in The Avengers.  Going out, I suspect they’ll be left wishing Mark Ruffalo had played The Hulk in The Incredible Hulk.

Another character who fares much better in The Avengers is Scarlett Johannsen’s Black Widow.  Underwritten in Iron Man 2, here Whedon’s penchant for strong, nuanced female characters pays off in spades.  Not only does Natasha kick more ass in her fight scenes, but we are given glimpses of a dark past and sins she is struggling to compensate for.  Much of her role in the film is tied into her complex relationship with Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye.  I can’t say much about Renner’s role in the film without veering into spoilers, but while I was worried the character could have come across as a bit of an unnecessary third wheel, he is in fact given plenty to do, and slips effortlessly into the fabric of the film.  As far as the rest of S.H.I.E.L.D. goes, Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson continues to be the relatable face of the super-intelligence organisation and almost our access character that connects us to each of these disparate universes, while Cobie Smaulder’s Marie Hill gets a couple of cool moments despite having little to do than support Nick Fury.  Speaking of Nick Fury, Samuel L Jackson is more Samuel L Jacksony than ever, which is most certainly pleasing, and the script allows for some of that notorious Nick Fury duplicity to come into play, while still allowing Fury to reside firmly on the side of the angels.

But what of the side of the devils?  A superhero movie is only as good as its villain, and thankfully The Avengers has a cracker in the form of Loki.  Probably my favourite Marvel character, I was more excited to see what Loki would be up to than any of the assembled heroes, and he did not disappointment, probably stealing the show in a film full of worthy performances.  Tom Hiddleston was already the best thing about Thor, and once again he gives us a slick, enigmatic Loki who always keeps us guessing at his true motives.  But Loki is darker now, and we get the sense he has been through the wringer since we last saw him at the end of Thor, that all the resentment and bitterness accumulated in that film has been festering and eating away at him in the intervening time inbetween.  In spite of this, Hiddleston still deftly weaves in flickers of doubt, fleeting glimpses in his eyes that suggest regret, or hesitation, even if they don’t stop him from doing whatever bad thing he’s doing.  It continues to be a mesmerising performance.  My only niggle is that the whole “Loki possessing Dr. Selvig” beat teased at the end of Thor seems to have been dropped and forgotten about, with Loki introduced back into the fold in an unrelated way.  But that’s a forgivable oversight, I’d say.

One aspect that gives Loki plenty of fresh fuel in this film is that he spends it on Earth.  While in Thor Loki was largely confined to Asgard and interacted solely with his fellow Asgardians, here Loki interacts extensively with the people of Midgard, and the result is almost like a twisted mirror image of Thor’s “fish out of water” Broxton scenes in their solo film.  Loki’s initial response is contempt, of course, but as these lowly humans continue to challenge and occasionally even best him, Loki becomes by turns confused, flustered, and ultimately bordering on throwing a childish temper tantrum.  In this respect, Loki seems to channel that classic trait shared by many of Whedon’s “Big Bads”: the increasingly harrassed, put-upon villain, who you almost sympathise with when things start to go wrong for them, because they handle it in a petty, but relatably human way.  I won’t tell you if I was pleased or disappointed, but I was watching The Avengers hoping that Loki would survive to stir up trouble in another film in the coming years.  Tom Hiddleston’s star continues to be on the rise, and he handles himself incredibly well against the star-studded team opposing him.

I’ve said this before, but I think perhaps the biggest lesson to be learned by Marvel Studios from the success of Loki as a villain here is that a performance by a good actor is always going to trump a special effect.  I think the third act problems in the likes of Iron Man, Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk stem partly from the fact that, while the villains are played by great actors, by the end they’ve donned CGI robotic costumes or become CGI monsters, and are uniformly less compelling in this form than they were when giving an actual performance.  Loki is an actual performance, and as such makes for a more tangible, engaging villain.  The same can’t be said for the Chitauri, a rather anonymous alien race who serve as the main threat to be overcome in the film’s climax.  And while this extended end battle is exhilerating, if there’s any criticisms to be made, it’s that the Chitauri themselves feel like a rather nebulous, indistinct threat, and a match for The Avengers only in sheer numbers rather than any real individual formidability.  Indeed, they are so disposable that at points it feels like we’re watching a video game, with our heroes as expert players effortlessly knocking off foes as they progress through a level.  Fortunately, Loki’s presence keeps us invested in the threat.

My excitement for the Marvel film universe may have diminished going into The Avengers, but now I find it expanded once more, perhaps to greater heights than ever before.  Based off this brilliant film, I’m more excited than ever for Iron Man 3, Thor 2, Captain America 2, and after that post-credits scene (stick around for it, folks!), whatever sequel to The Avengers comes down the line.  Marvel Studios has been rejuvenated, and The Avengers have never been more awesome: I was left wishing that the comics could be as rewarding as this.  If you’ve loved Marvel’s films up until now, you’ll love this more.  If you’ve been disappointed in Marvel’s previous films, this will win you over.  The Avengers is the first in a summer of big-time superhero movies.  While I might have thought this was going to be overwhelmed by The Dark Knight Rises, after seeing The Avengers, now I think it’s Christopher Nolan who’s going to be feeling the pressure to deliver.  He’s going to have to work hard to top Joss Whedon.

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