In baseball, mangers are more than willing to endure the frustration of a few strikeouts from a power hitter who tears the seams off the ball and sends it flying into the bleachers. For fans of comic book films, the mash up of a handful of favorite superheroes from individual franchises offers the same small price to pay for big time excitement. Enter The Avengers, the culmination of a four-year, four-franchise plan from Marvel Studios that proves to be a genuine slugger. The first true “team up” film in the genre’s history swings for the fences and while a few shots stop at the warning track, most sail clear over the fence.
Fanboy darling Joss Whedon jumps feet first into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, directing the picture that brings together the studio/publisher’s most popular superheroes aside from Spider-Man, a character to which Sony Pictures still holds the movie rights. Wrangling a cast of icons is a monumental task, but Whedon has the benefit of the five films that preceded The Avengers and the director does not hesitate to use the cinematic history of each character to its full advantage.
When the megalomaniacal Loki (Tom Hiddleston) threatens to wage war on all of Earth using a mysterious alien army and a weapon of limitless energy, the Tesseract, S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) does his best to defy his governmental superiors and carry out the “Avengers Initiative.” The program apparently fell apart after we initially learned about it in the Iron Manfilms. Captain America (Chris Evans) is already in house, having just awoken from a 70-year cryogenic nap. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is asked to don his Iron Man armor while Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) is brought in when a need for his intelligence outweighs the fear that he will Hulk out. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) joins in to help track down his evil adoptive brother, Loki, as Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) expand on their small roles in the previous films.
It is, unquestionably, a massive undertaking for Whedon, but the director who also wrote the script allows the story to develop naturally through the interactions of the characters so that no moment feels too forced. Even the in-fighting between members of the team makes sense because, well, they’re not really a team in the early going, much to Fury’s disappointment. A valid criticism can be levied against the film for not offering a strong, individual character arc, but that is compensated for by the injection of the collective character arc that comes from the initial storming and eventual forming of the team. Whedon wins big in this area.
Humor plays a key role in the script and comes through so organically that the levity rarely interrupts the action or drama being shown on screen. Downey’s Tony Stark is, as expected, the class clown, but everyone gets their chance to crack wise and they all succeed, including the giant, green, computer-generated Hulk. Marvel Cinematic Universe veteran and devoted S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) is a delight yet again, managing to steal a few scenes.
The jokes are over-played in a couple of spots during times when it just does not feel as though it is the right time for humor. One example is the abrupt transition away from the moment that serves as the emotional linchpin of the film, which felt more like an unnecessary reminder to jumpstart the plot than a sincere progression of the conversation. It doesn’t kill the scene by any stretch, but chalk this one up as one of those missed opportunities that stopped just short of going out of the ballpark.
Under the Whedon’s direction, almost every member of the cast outshines their previous work in this universe, especially Johansson as Black Widow, who makes the biggest leap from her arguably inconsequential presence in Iron Man 2. Downey is ridiculously charismatic, but also forces a humbling upon his Tony Stark in order to function as a member of a team. Evans’ Captain America is much more of a leader here than he was in his own film in 2011 and the actor is convincing in the role. The Hulk’s human counterpart, Bruce Banner, has his best live-action outing yet thanks to the subtle yet sturdy presence leant to him by Ruffalo. Chris Hemsworth is the only actor who did not have his best outing in this picture, which is not his fault in the least. The performance is great; Thor just does not have as much to do or as much to learn in this team film as he did in his solo effort.
Enough about the heroes, though, because the breakout star of this film is Tom Hiddleston, the man who stole the show in last year’s Thor. Two films in, only Heather Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn as The Joker in The Dark Knight surpasses Hiddleston’s Loki, and the race is much closer than anyone could have expected. There is a genuine menace in Loki’s eyes that gives way only for brief moments of shame and regret. Loki is a villain capable of teasing a sympathetic note, before blasting the audience away with a despicable riff. If the Academy turns its gaze upon this film, it should and hopefully will find Hiddleston.
The rest of the bad guys are fairly anonymous and their actual identity does little in serving the purposes of this film, but the source of Loki’s army undoubtedly holds the key to the sequel. CGI aliens were never going to hold a candle to Hiddleston anyway, so their lack of identity does little harm to the film.
In spite of its rare misses, The Avengers is a game-changing film that validates Marvel Studios’ unprecedented plan. The Avengers is everything that it could have been and offers an infinitely entertaining adventure that audiences will love to experience again and again. This is not the only way to make a superhero film, but it is a damn good one. -Sean Gerber