After years of development and no less than five quasi-prequels later – Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America – Marvel’s superhero slumber party The Avengers arrives with expectations no mere mortal could possibly meet. But writer/director Joss Whedon is no mere mortal; he’s the geek deity responsible for TV’s Buffy and Firefly, and not only does his Avengers satisfy expectations, it far, far exceeds them.
Among the most enjoyable superhero movies ever made, Whedon’s epic ensemble delivers first-class action on the back of a witty, well-paced script that strikes tone and serves character in a manner that borders on perfection. The premise – for those of you who have been living under a pop-cultural rock – sees some of Earth’s mightiest heroes team up against the unhinged demi-God Loki (Tom Hiddleston) as he attempts to enslave the planet. These heroes include the wisecracking, robo-suit wearing billionaire Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), recently de-thawed WWII super-solider Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), genius scientist and recovering rage-aholic Bruce Banner/Incredible Hulk, and the mythical God of Thunder Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Loki’s stoic Asgardian brother.
But wait, there’s more!
Also joining the fight are members of the secret government agency S.H.I.E.L.D, namely the nimble and cunning Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), the deadly and accurate Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and the man responsible for bringing the Avengers team together, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).
While no film’s success can be laid at the feet of a single individual, it’s probably no exaggeration to say that the appointment of Joss Whedon as this film’s writer and director is probably the best decision Marvel Studios has made since it cast Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man back in 2008. Having worked in television and comics for most of his career, Whedon is a writer who knows how to balance a large ensemble of bold, eccentric character, and here, he does so with panache. Much of the first act is dedicated to putting the Avengers together, with Whedon successfully skirting the line between over-explaining things to fans of the Marvel cinematic universe, and introducing the characters for those not caught up on all the intermediary films. Naturally, with all the big personalities going around, the getting-to-know you phase doesn’t exactly run smoothly, with the film’s awesome early action beats often focused around the Avengers fighting each other rather than their enemies.
The A-list cast fires on all cylinders, each of them feeding off one another’s natural charisma. The dynamic between Evan’s selfless Captain American and Downey’s antagonising Iron Man is particularly effective, while Mark Ruffalo (taking over from Edward Norton and Eric Bana) brings a sense of weary humanity to The Hulk that was missing from previous incarnations. Chris Hemsworth again imbues Thor with a grand theatricality, and despite still feeling somewhat like eye-candy, Scarlett Johansen is given far more to work with than she was in Iron Man 2 – chalk it up to Whedon’s particular predilection for butt-kicking heroines. Perhaps the one wasted talent on the team is Jeremy Renner, who, after a great cameo as the bow-and-arrow wielding sharp-shooter in Thor, gets to spend the first two acts of this film as Loki’s mind-controlled henchman. Still, Renner is plenty fun when he’s given the chance, and I’m sure we can look forward to a Hawkeye spin-off film at some point in the not too distant future.
As one might expect for a movie that combines Norse gods with a fella who turns green when he gets angry, the plot is more than a little bit silly. The reason the Avengers are assembled in the first place is recover the Tesseract, a glowing blue cube and mystical energy source (last seen in Captain America) which Loki plans to use to conjure his army. How Loki arrives on earth and steals the Tesseract to begin with is the first of many plot-holes that the narrative is riddled with, while phlebotinous science-speak is also in plentiful supply. But because it’s delivered at such a cracking pace by actors like Ruffalo and Downey, it suddenly becomes frightfully easy to forgive. The Avengers never falls into the trap of taking itself too seriously – indeed, Whedon injecting a huge dose of his typically wry humour into the script. The other big asset is Tom Hiddleston, reprising his villainous role from Thor. Delightfully malicious and just the right amount of crazy, even when Loki’s schemes don’t make much sense, the performance is totally compelling.
The Avengers culminates – as modern blockbusters inevitably seem to do – with an all out assault by alien forces on the unsuspecting city of New York. Loaded with all the special effects a Hollywood studio can buy, it’s a final battle as big and long as anything out of a Michael Bay Transformers movie. But unlike Bay or his many contemporaries, Whedon ensures that his action is shot and edited with pace, steadiness and clarity. The result is utterly exhilarating, chock-full of more “wow!” moments than the last five Marvel movies combined. And yet as impressive as the action is, it’s the elements that Hollywood usually neglects – the characters, the dialogue and the humour – that makes The Avengers such an unadulterated pleasure.