The Avengers is the superhero team movie that many of us have been waiting to see our entire lives. Maybe not specifically “this” superhero team, of course. Some of us are Justice League fans, some of us prefer Nextwave, and I’m sure somewhere out there is a guy who somehow got his hands on a set of Power Pachyderms pajamas, sleeps in them nightly, and dreams of the day when the likes of Trunklops and Electrolux will get a big budget movie of their very own (that poor guy). But whether The Avengers are your superhero team of choice or not, every comic book fan has been awaiting the day when a feature film would embrace the sense of inter-title continuity that made comic books such a compelling, addictive medium in the first place. For once, superheroes don’t have to exist in a vacuum, and a motion picture doesn’t have to pretend that its protagonists are the first and only costumed crime fighters in existence. Be honest… even if you haven’t given it much thought, you were getting tired of that.
The Avengers is a dream come true, quite possibly literally. This is exactly the movie we’ve been waiting for. It’s excellent on almost every damned level. Its flaws – and yes, it has some flaws – are mostly limited to the inherent difficulties in making a film like this in the first place. Although writer/director Joss Whedon does an admirable job of balancing the screen time of the sprawling cast, it was inevitable that some characters got the short shrift. And the actual plot of the film – the very threat that brings The Avengers together in the first place – is a little contrived, as it centers itself around a pretty basic MacGuffin and ultimately amounts to our heroes smashing CGI aliens for the last half hour. Of course if that sounds like a deal-breaker to you, then you probably aren’t in the target demographic (i.e. the known world). Marvel’s done a very good job of making its superhero movies about the title characters more than the villains, which really shouldn’t have been an issue in the first place, but The Avengers is no exception to their obvious mission statement.
There are so many characters, moving parts and expectations involved in The Avengers that the usual, succinct review system no longer applies. We need to look at and judge each aspect of the film in detail - avoiding spoilers, whenever possible - to explain why the film works as well as it works, where it occasionally stumbles, what makes this the first genuine motion picture event in many, many years.
Let’s start with…
The plot of The Avengers has been kept so secret that it may surprise you to discover that there isn’t much of one. We’re barely five minutes into The Avengers (if that) before Loki, played by Tom Hiddleston, steals the Tesseract from SHIELD and escapes for parts unknown. The Tesseract, you’ll remember from Captain America: The First Avenger, is a device of untold power and so it must be retrieved at all costs, forcing Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, to assemble a team of heroes to bring it back. Exactly what Loki, and for that matter Nick Fury, wants the Tesseract for is a matter of some speculation, but as you may have noticed from the trailer, our titular team ends up fighting an army of aliens by the end of the film. So yeah… it has something to do with that.
The exact nature of Loki’s plan isn’t quite Machiavellian, but it’s parceled out over the course of the film and so it’s best left unspoiled. Suffice it to say that Joss Whedon’s screenplay for The Avengers is so teeming with characters, major and supporting, that a more complicated villain plot could have easily made the experience overwhelming. What we have here is a clear threat that places our heroes in one action-packed situation after another, gradually escalating in scale as the film progresses to a seemingly non-stop action-packed finale. (A finale with some striking similarities to Transformers: Dark of the Moon, but I’m willing to write that off as a coincidence; besides, The Avengers does it better.) Throughout the film, the heroes fight each other as often as they fight the bad guys, and Joss Whedon does an excellent job of keeping the disparate personalities of his protagonists in play, whether or not they’re actually trading blows. The character interactions vary from inevitable to unexpected, and everyone carries their own weight. Except Hawkeye. But we’ll get to that.
It’s obvious as the film plays out on screen that The Avengers isn’t so much the period at the end of Marvel Studios’ sentence as it is a semi-colon. The heroes don’t team up for a large portion of the film. Instead, they begrudgingly accept each other’s help, so when the big climax finally arrives, and The Avengers finally work together as a team, it’s impressively satisfying. The point of the film isn’t really to stop Loki, even though, yes, that’s what the actual plot is about. The point is to bring these separate characters together as a team without sacrificing their individuality, and by extension their value as solo franchises. That process takes time, and Joss Whedon does an exemplary job of making that journey entertaining thanks to sparkling dialogue, high stakes and balls-to-the-wall action spectacle. The plot of The Avengers is pretty much everything it needed to be. There could have been a little more to it, but with this many spinning plates adding another one probably have been pushing their luck.
Next: The Characters
Let’s run them down one-by-one, since every character is bound to be somebody’s favorite and, as in the film itself, each of them deserves their moment in the spotlight.
With his last film ending on a cliffhanger, The Avengers plays in many respects like a de facto Captain America sequel. Time has passed between films, and we’re mercifully spared most of the lame fish-out-of-water jokes, but this is our first real look at Captain America, still played by Chris Evans, in a contemporary setting. It is perhaps a little disappointing that more of the film doesn’t play out from his perspective, since he would have been an ideal focal point for the story given his outsider status and unique situation within the cast, but Whedon finds a strong excuse to downplay that by clarifying that he feels at home within the military setting of SHIELD. His old-fashioned pro-America jingoism brings him at odds with Tony Stark in particular, and their interpersonal rivalry becomes one of the more memorable elements of the film.
There’s one issue to be raised, and that’s a late-in-the-game plot development which finds Captain America taking a moral stance that’s probably more in keeping with contemporary liberalism than that of a World War II veteran, but on the whole his place in the team is strongly dramatized. His leadership role within the team is earned, not simply given, and on the whole The Avengers amounts to a fine follow-up for Captain America: The First Avenger, and lays an excellent foundation for Captain America 2.
Robert Downey Jr. continues to enjoy his rebellious interpretation of Tony Stark, and if any character has a full story arc in The Avengers it’s this one. His confrontations with Captain America, in particular, force both him and the audience to admit that even Stark’s most heroic actions in the two Iron Man movies were motivated by self-interest. Okay, yes, he saved that town in the first Iron Man, but that was more about his own redemption than anything else; after all, he didn’t stay there to resolve the entire military conflict, did he?
Anyway, the events of The Avengers challenge Tony Stark to step up to the plate and become the hero he’s actually supposed to be. Fears that The Avengers would feel like an Iron Man film with a very large supporting cast were understandable but didn’t come to pass, although he clearly remains Marvel Studios’ breakout character, and arguably gets the biggest individual subplot. He’s left in a very interesting place for the start of Iron Man 3.
Chris Hemsworth has the most personally invested in the story of The Avengers, since the villain is, once again, his own brother, Loki. Torn between his personal need to redeem Loki and the more pressing need to stop him at almost any cost, you might think that film would revolve more around this inner turmoil, but although Thor’s a constant presence his actual function within the plot – aside from one minor reveal – is to interact on a “human” level with the film’s villain, a vital component of The Avengers but hardly the one that requires the most screen time. An early conflict between Thor and his other teammates also clearly shows that for all the growing up he did in his own movie, Thor still has trouble controlling his frat boy tendency to bluster into action without thinking the situation through, which leads to a fun action sequence but feels like a bit of a reversion for his character’s overall growth. And yet, the fact that he still has room to grow as an individual could go a long way towards keeping Thor 2 as lively as the first one.
If any character has been actively improved by their appearance in The Avengers, it’s Bruce Banner, now played by Mark Ruffalo. He’s the third actor to portray the Hulk on screen, and the only one so far who I think you’ll be excited to see again. Ruffalo always gives the impression of a man barely controlling his emotions, constantly hunched ever so slightly and diffusing every conversation with dismissive, self-effacing humor. By this film he’s developed a fully functional coping mechanism for his “condition” but he’s still actively dealing with his inner demons. Ruffalo has been a respected actor up until this point, but The Avengers makes him a star. And once the Hulk is unleashed, the character’s strength and menace are handled beautifully. Many of the film’s biggest cheer-inducing moments are the direct result of the jade giant, and we get the sincere impression that with Ruffalo in the lead role – and a writer as strong as Whedon at the reins – an actually incredible Hulk movie could be made someday.
Everyone’s got their favorite Avenger, and in the interest of full disclosure, Hawkeye is mine. So perhaps my lament that he gets the least screen time of the entire cast is suspect, but there’s no denying that he’s in the movie less than everyone else, whether you think that’s a travesty or not. An early plot development keeps Jeremy Renner’s character out of the Avengers’ inner circle for much of the film and prevents him from having much of a character arc, and his involvement in the film’s ultimate action sequence is comparatively minimal. Considering that most of the cast of The Avengers already had their own films to establish their characters, it’s a little disappointing that the least familiar superhero in the film doesn’t get enough screen time to establish why he was important enough to include on the roster in the first place. The most frustrating element of this is that given what happens to Hawkeye over the course of the film, which I won’t spoil, there was ample opportunity to at least establish him as an incredible badass worthy of a seat beside actual super-powered individuals, but that never quite comes together. Renner is great with what little he has to work with, but this is the biggest disappointment of the movie. But maybe it’ll only bring you down if you’re a fan like me.
The Black Widow
Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow was introduced in Iron Man 2, but was relatively unexplored. In The Avengers, Joss Whedon (who loves his action heroines) gives her the screen time that Hawkeye apparently didn’t warrant, touching upon her tragic, or at least conflicted backstory while providing Johansson with a rare and successful opportunity to display her comedy chops. It’s clear that Whedon has affection for this version of the character, at least, and for a character with no super powers of her own she has a notably instrumental role to play in the overall plot, establishing strong connections with most of the rest of the cast and pulling her own weight in the big set pieces. That said, she does sometimes seem shoehorned into the film, like they were making room for the character rather than including her because they absolutely had to in order to tell this story. Still, if you thought Johansson was miscast in Iron Man 2, and the odds are good that you did, you just might change your mind after seeing The Avengers.
Tom Hiddleston pulled off an impressive feat in Thor, thanks in no small way to Kenneth Branagh, by making Loki not just a mere supervillain but a fully-fleshed out character whose descent into villainy felt genuine, and even tragic. But in the space between these movies he’s been very busy, and officially made the transition to a larger than life evildoer. Hiddleston remains excellent in the role, embracing the character’s bravado while hinting at moments of pain, regret and even vulnerability, but for the purposes of the plot he’s mostly the supervillain du jour, reduced to spouting curiously fascist rhetoric if for no other reason than to firmly establish that he is a truly bad, bad guy. It’s a little unclear in the film why he’s actually set his sights on Earth in the first place, although our upcoming interview with Hiddleston does explain many of these motivations (stay tuned for that). Still, his interactions with the team – and perhaps Tony Stark in particular – make him an integral member of the cast, and clearly a wise choice for the first film’s villain.
As for the aliens in his army? Yeah, they're the Chitauri. It couldn't matter less. They're just fodder for the final battle. As much as we all loved to speculate on their identity, that's just not what the movie's about.
The supporting cast of The Avengers, besides a few incidental characters and one genuinely unexpected cameo, are all members of SHIELD, the superspy organization that in some respects forms the backbone the Marvel Universe. Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, gets to strut his stuff in this film but mostly he’s just the center of controversy. His motivations and secrets are a major concern throughout the film and although his repeated interludes with a mysterious and apparently all-powerful international counsel seem a little ham-fisted, this interpretation of the character as morally grey feels plausible, and manages to keep the character from feeling like just another hero.
Agent Phil Coulson, played by Clark Gregg, returns and is recast somewhat as a superhero fan boy. In Iron Man 2 he seemed to geek out a bit at the presence of Captain America’s shield (or at least its prototype), and now that he’s in the presence of the real legend he’s charmingly awkward around his childhood icon. Naturally, Whedon is repurposing him as an audience surrogate, but he doesn’t ever step out of character. Gregg is always a welcome addition to any Marvel movie, but I get the impression that we’ll be seeing even more of Maria Hill as the studio’s productions move forward. Cobie Smulders doesn’t have much to do in The Avengers, but she makes her presence felt and clearly has room to grow in the extended franchise as it continues.
Next: Everything Else
The score by Alan Silvestri (Back to the Future, Captain America: The First Avenger) is suitably bombastic but surprisingly forgettable. After two viewings I couldn’t hum you a single bar. I keep trying, but it turns into the theme from the Fantastic Four movie instead (for the record, I only remember that score because I worked on the video game for a few months). That’s not a good sign. It used to be a Hollywood standard that movies with an enormous scope had an iconic score to match, but the strains of Silvestri’s instrumentals for The Avengers tell the story but fail to give the film its own distinct identity. It’s a shame that of all the things Marvel Studios gets right in their superhero films, this one element never seems to come together. Hum the score for any Marvel movie. I dare you. No, “The Star-Spangled Man” doesn’t count. The Avengers is no worse in this regard, but also no different. And the closing credits song by Soundgarden is oddly generic for a film with this much punch behind it. It’s better than Linkin Park, I suppose, but you get the sense that someone’s either a really big Soundgarden fan and was willing to sacrifice the film’s soundtrack just to meet Chris Cornell, or that the music was the one element of The Avengers that was forced to take a knee during production. It’s not overwhelmingly disappointing, but the music is one of the few obvious ways in which the film could have been improved.
All of our fears that Joss Whedon, until now primarily a TV director, would fail to put together a spectacular action sequence were completely unfounded. That said, it’s obviously fair to extend our applause to include the 2nd Unit crews and special effects teams who clearly worked overtime to give us the superhero fights we always wanted. These are knock-down, beat-‘em-up, over-the-top action sequences that should have been a staple of the superhero genre a long time ago. Everyone gets their moments to shine – yes, even Hawkeye – in the film’s bravura climax but even before that Whedon’s script finds involving and creative ways to keep the team challenged within and without. If there’s an exception, it’s a scene in which the mighty Thor finds himself in a sticky predicament in which his escape plan doesn’t seem to place him in any less danger than the situation he was escaping from in the first place, but that’s a minor distraction. Inventive, memorable action beats throughout the entire film, featuring every character at their best. Bravo.
The Avengers is being presented in 3D, and unfortunately, yes, it’s a post-converted film, not shot in “three-dimensions” but digitally altered after the fact to generate the effect. Historically, that’s been an iffy scenario. I’m happy to report – and bear in mind, this is coming from someone who considers even the best 3D a complete waste of time and money – that The Avengers has few, if any distracting problems as a result of the conversion. I took off my glasses after a while and discovered that many shots weren’t converted at all, but they’re interspersed with other footage that definitely tries to make the most of the effect.
What I do advise is that you be careful which theater you choose to see this film. I attended two screenings: one in which the theater appeared to have dimmed their projector bulb, in which the 3D was headache-inducing, and another in which it appeared perfectly bright and immersive. If you have any doubts about your local theater’s set-up, try to see it in 2D if you can. The Avengers would be spectacular in any dimension.
The Post-Credits Tease
There’s a rumor that another brief scene might have been added after any of the critics’ screenings, which would follow the film’s closing credits. I can’t speak to that. But even without that alleged last-minute inclusion, it’s a Marvel movie, so of course we get a tease. And it’s a doozy. I am going to reveal nothing, but suffice it say, you’ll probably have a pretty good idea what Avengers 2 is about. I suspect you’ll cheer.
The Final Verdict
Some nitpicks aside – Hawkeye, you deserved better – The Avengers really is nothing short of a dream come true. The Marvel Universe most of us grew up with, free of arbitrary darkness but rich in character and scope, is unleashed on the screen in all of its glory in a film that respects its characters and treats them as the stars they deserve to be. If you liked any of the other Marvel Studios movies, you’ll love The Avengers. There might be too much build up, and I suspect some folks will leave the theater a little disappointed that The Avengers wasn’t “exactly” the film they had in their heads, but I also predict that multiple viewings will cause that fictional motion picture to fade from their memories, allowing them to appreciate what we have in its place: the first great superhero team movie, and a film that captures the essence of what makes the Marvel Universe great. It’s been worth the wait. I’ve seen it twice, and I can’t wait to see it again.
Movie Rating (Not an Average):