The Avengers (2012) is the culmination of an ambitious project that was carefully planned over several years and spans several films utilizing characters, both major and minor, from each. While the notion of a shared universe with characters from one franchise appearing in another is a relatively novel idea in film, it is nothing new in comic books where costumed superheroes cross-pollinate all the time and even contribute to a larger story (see Secret Wars II). With Iron Man (2008), Marvel Comics decided to do in film what they’ve been doing in comic books for decades. Its commercial success paved the way for subsequent adaptations of The Incredible Hulk (2008), Thor (2011) and Captain America (2011), each one featuring a scene that hinted at something bigger and it has finally arrived with The Avengers, which features heroes from all of these films banding together to form a super team of sorts.
The challenge that Marvel faced was to find a director that could successfully bring all of these wildly different heroes together and also handle the movie stars playing them. Up to that point, Marvel had employed journeymen studio directors like Jon Favreau (Iron Man 1 & 2), Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk) and Joe Johnston (Captain America). But with Kenneth Branagh directing Thor, it was the first time the company had hired someone with auteurist sensibilities since Ang Lee and his fascinatingly flawed yet ultimately ill fated take on the Hulk in 2003. And so the hiring of Joss Whedon to direct The Avengers surprised some. With only one feature film on his resume – the cult film darling Serenity (2005), and known mostly for his television work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, its spin-off Angel and sci-fi western Firefly, there was some question if he could handle a $200+ million blockbluster populated with movie stars.
Whedon got his start as a screenwriter and honed his chops over the years on T.V. sitcoms and as a prolific and often uncredited script doctor (Speed, Twister, etc.), but more importantly were his hardcore comic book fan credentials, having actually written a brief run for The X-Men, so he knew how they worked in terms of dialogue, plotting and depicting visual action – perhaps the most important criteria for The Avengers gig. It was a calculated risk that appears to have paid off as the film is racking in impressive box office results and receiving strong critical response.
The Tesseract, a powerful energy source that was featured prominently in both Thor and Captain America, has activated itself and appears to be trying to open a portal to outer space. Sure enough, exiled Norse god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) arrives with the intention of using it to take control of Earth and enslave its inhabitants. To this end, he brainwashes brilliant physicist Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and S.H.I.E.L.D. (a top secret government organization) operative Clint Barton a.k.a. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to help him do his bidding. This doesn’t sit too well with S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and he decides to enlist Earth’s mightiest heroes to stop Loki.
This includes Russian super spy Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) who quickly finishes her “interrogation” of Russian gangsters to approach Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a philanthropic scientist now staying “off the grid” by working in the slums of India and trying hard not to unleash his Hulk persona, a being with superhuman strength that is off the charts. Captain America (Chris Evans) has been thawed out since being trapped in ice at the end of World War II and is still trying to sort things out with Fury’s help. S.H.I.E.L.D. also approaches Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), interrupting his work on a clean energy source. Norse god of thunder Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Loki’s adoptive brother, is the wild card, arriving out of no where to intervene when Iron Man and Captain America attempt to capture him resulting in an impressive skirmish. This all builds up to a spectacular climactic battle between Loki and an alien army that comes swarming out of the portal created by the Tesseract and the Avengers.
With the unfortunate exception of Jeremy Renner, the entire cast gets a chance to flex their acting chops the best they can between massive action set pieces. Mark Ruffalo, the third person to play Banner after Eric Bana and Edward Norton, really nails the human side of his character, playing him as slightly twitchy and paranoid drifter. He appears confident (because, hey, he can turn into the Hulk) yet distracted – a jumble of emotions. This is easily the best representation of the Hulk on film, both visually in terms of CGI and also how he’s portrayed – as a rampaging monster – the Mr. Hyde to Banner’s Dr. Jekyll. Not surprisingly, Robert Downey Jr. gets the lion’s share of the funny quips – he was born to spout Whedon’s witty dialogue. It is a nice return to form after the cluttered rush job that was Iron Man 2 (2010). Based on Whedon’s perchance for having prominent strong-willed female characters in his projects, Scarlett Johannson’s Black Widow gets a beefed up role and proves to be an integral part of the team. Not only does she show off a considerable physical prowess but she also holds her own against the likes of Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo. Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth carry on with their characters from their respective films without missing a beat, each adding their own unique flavor to the team. In particular, Evans does a good job when Captain America steps up and takes tactical control during the war in New York while Hemsworth has some nice moments with Tom Hiddleston as warring brothers who just happen to be gods.
The Avengers is chock full of eye candy for comic book fans, from the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier to actually seeing superheroes fight each other – something, oddly enough, you don’t see in most films but that happens all the time in the comics. It is pretty cool to see the likes of Thor, Iron Man and Captain America duke it out while engaging in playful superhero banter. Unlike the other Marvel films starting with and including Iron Man, Whedon creates a real sense of danger for our heroes. There’s a feeling that they might fail and this tension is thrilling because it is so rare in these kinds of films, except maybe The Dark Knight (2008). It also raises the stakes when Whedon’s film needs it because there is a real sense that the Avengers are fighting for something tangible. He gives them something personal to fight for than just the usual let’s save the world goal. This culminates in the climactic battle in New York City between Loki and his alien army and the Avengers in one thrilling sequence after another, each filled with large-scale slugfests. The choreography during this massive battle is top notch. There is never any confusion as to what is happening and where, which is quite refreshing. The end result is pure, unfiltered comic book geek nirvana.
The Avengers falls rather nicely within Whedon’s wheelhouse as it is all about a group of misfits that band together to save the world from a great evil, just like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and so on. It doesn’t get any more disparate than a Norse god, a billionaire playboy, a World War II super soldier, a brilliant scientist, and two spies. Like much of the aforementioned work, the heroes in The Avengers bicker and fight amongst themselves but when the need to step up for the greater good arises, they put their differences aside and make a stand together. Loki continues in the tradition of eloquent Whedon villains who are incredibly confident because, well, in his case he wields great power and knows it. However, Loki isn’t just out to rule the world. For him, there is a personal component – he seeks vengeance for the slights he feels were incurred in Thor. This film is a great way to kick off the summer blockbuster season and is a potent reminder of what a filmmaker who knows how comic book works can do if given the chance. The result is a smart, witty film that is a throwback to entertaining, crowd-pleasing comic book adaptations like Superman (1978) and Batman (1989).