The quintessential summer blockbuster, The Avengers is simple, boisterous, and a whole lot of fun (8.5/10)
With the second Avengers movie right around the corner, now seems as good a time as any to take a look back at what would become the third highest grossing movie of all time. Building off of a series of prior films, but ultimately beings its own creature, leaves Joss Whedon’s second ever directorial effort, The Avengers, with a handy set of tools to work with. It is blessed with a reasonably talented but incredibly well-known cast, an enormous, pre-existing fan-base and a truly enviable place in the ever uncertain pop-culture hive-mind. Yet, each of these gifts come with their own challenges: screen time must carefully distributed amongst the ensemble cast; large fan-bases, especially comic book fan-bases, come with daunting, arguably insatiable, expectations and the hive-mind’s perfect memory will ensure that a flop here will result in Whedon’s exile from Hollywood. Whedon, with his thoroughly respectable resume, is no naïve newcomer, trying to cut his teeth on his first big movie but even with his experience, The Avengers with its $220 million budget was surely a very different animal from Serenity and its comparatively paltry $39 million. With the benefit for hindsight, we could have told him that he had nothing to fear – not only would The Avengers strike gold financially but it would also become synonymous with the perfect summer blockbuster.
One of the movie’s surprising strengths is in just how cohesively Whedon was able to combine to various heroes’ universes. Of course, one might argue that the idea behind rebooting these various franchises was for the express purpose of creating this very Avengers movie but consider that each of the individual Avengers’ movies had pretty different tones. They weren’t drastically different of course, but considering that each had different directors behind them, Whedon does deserve some credit for cobbling it all together into a palatable whole. At no point does the movie feel like it is centred on Hero A and Sidekicks – of course, some of the more popular heroes, like Iron Man, do get marginally more screen time and development but on the whole the distribution of screen-time is equitable enough that some leeway can be easily overlooked, especially considering that the Avengers are in no way equally interesting characters. An ensemble of heroes like the Avengers needs a suitably sizable threat to justify their existence and the movie’s primary antagonist, Loki, obliges by plotting to bring an alien army to slaughter humanity. Or perhaps he has some other agenda, it isn’t really clear but neither does it matter – the movie’s plot is fairly one-dimensional but that’s not the criticism that it would be in other contexts. The plot has a simple narrative structure – we are introduced to our heroes, but they can’t work together and things get worse and worse until the heroes unite to overcome all odds and save the day. If any part of that surprises you, I apologize, because clearly The Avengers would clearly have blown your mid. However, everyone else who was alive in the twentieth century has seen this plot often enough that they could have written the summary before the movie was announced. Writing a complex, nuanced plot for a movie like The Avengers is no mean feat but neither is it likely that Whedon didn’t foresee that a stale plot could be a problem. He dodges the bullet in two fairly clever ways. First, he sets up a bigger, overarching plot which puts the events of the movie in perspective: sure, they won this fight, but there’s this bigger, undoubtedly more ominous threat lurking in the background, can they beat that threat though? (Yes, probably) Now that Whedon got his hands firmly on the steering wheel of the franchise, he can take the audience on his own little cinematic road-trip, which means that he is at liberty to create an overarching plot that will tie the various movies together. Secondly, he is also able to get the audience invested in the primary characters and gives them enough of a challenge and a tough time that their inevitable victory doesn’t feel cheap and disappointing; there’s an unexpectedly strong sense of satisfaction at the movie’s end, even though it meant that at one point there were exactly six people defending Earth from an alien invasion. There is probably an argument to be made that several elements of the plot seemed forced and on one occasion, even blatantly emotionally manipulative, but it seems clear that Whedon knew from the get go that he didn’t need a particularly compelling plot and focused instead on the characters and visuals which is where the franchise’s attraction lies anyway.
The characters themselves supply no surprises and neither does the cast – we all knew, heading into the theatres, exactly what to expect from the wise-cracking Iron Man, or the super straight-laced Captain America just as we knew, more or less, just what Robert Downey Junior’s and Chris Evans’ portrayal of them would be like. The entertainment value lies in watching them clash and bond with each other and seeing Whedon’s take on how he would expect the different dynamics within that super-powered team to play out. Whedon does an admirable job of giving each of the main characters sometime in the spotlight but just as the characters are not equally interesting, neither are the actors playing them equally talented. Try as he might, there is just no way for Whedon to make the emotionless Hawkeye any less boring and underwhelming and Scarlet Johansson’s barely restrained sex appeal isn’t enough to give her stony faced Scarlett Widow more of a personality. Sure, both characters have plenty of sarcastic one-liners but that feels more like a throw-back to the cringe-worthy dialogue of comic book yore than it does an attempt to flesh out the characters. In contrast, Mark Ruffalo and even Chris Hemsworth are able to display more of their respective characters’ personalities. Other characters like Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Cobie Smulders’ Maria Hill barely got enough screen time to make an impression at all, but they are acceptable sacrifices in the bigger scheme of things.
The real star of the movie, of course, was the action. Whedon has understood the power and the joy of a visual spectacle. The Avengers has a great sense of scale, size and perspective – there are scenes in the movie that will remind you of what it could feel like to be in the presence of such ridiculous over-powered people, to be thoroughly overwhelmed. There are plenty of seriously impressive scenes, most featuring either Iron Man’s suit, Thor and his hammer or Shield’s Flying Fortress. There is an unadulterated liberty to some of these scenes, as though Whedon knows that he can get away with some extreme visual trickery because who’s going to question the limits of Tony Stark’s suit when just feet away a green radioactively enhanced man is beating up a mythical Norse demi-god?
The Avengers is the kind of movie that walk away from confident that the director, cast and crew had as much fun making as you did watching it. For most of the movie, it felt like Whedon took serious pleasure in playing out the destructive potential of his primary characters to its fullest and not only was it glorious to watch, but it was refreshing as well, because it was a sign that he has really taken these characters made them his own. There’s plenty of the quirky dialogue that fans have come to associate with his writing but for the most part it all falls safely within the spectrum of the characters’ spirits. More the characters however, it feels that he is leaving his mark on this iteration of the Marvel universe and now that he has the budget, the cast and the reins, it will be absolutely fascinating to see where he goes with The Avengers 2.
Chris Evans – Captain America
Robert Downey Jr. – Iron Man
Chris Hemsworth – Thor
Mark Ruffalo – The Hulk
Scarlett Johansson – Black Widow
Jeremy Renner – Hawkeye
Tom Hiddleston – Loki