I have to admit, despite the bubbling geyser of geeky joy that the sheer possibility of an Avengers film elicited, and despite the somewhat awkward and consuming love I have for Joss Whedon, I was nervous about this film.
I did my best to avoid news, clips, and spoilers of any kind in preparation for this review, so it wasn’t the product itself that had my hackles up, it was the idea of the movie. It was due to years of conditioned responses. As a comics fan, I couldn’t not watch all the superhero films over the last few decades, despite the pain. So for my fear, you can thank Hollywood. And by thank, I mean blame.
After a while I became resigned to living in a world of subpar superhero films, churned out by studio heads that earned their stereotypical image as greedy, soulless automatons that could care less for the properties that so many of us loved.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century. The comics industry began to mature, and the film industry began to understand that audiences’ tastes were changing. The studios started to realize that treating these properties with respect could be wildly successful and attract an already dedicated fanbase, while also appealing to a more traditional mainstream group. That is a lesson still being learned, despite a few bumps in the road. The highly respected and acclaimed Dark Knight cleared a billion dollars, while the rage-inducing and badly received Green Lantern barely made back its $200 mil budget.
The evolution of this shocking idea of making good superhero films arguably reached its zenith with the formation of Marvel Studios under Disney’s umbrella. Beginning with Iron Man, Marvel had a vision. A big, sprawling, multi-year vision, that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and culminate with what is arguably one of the biggest gambles in entertainment history. There were so many moving parts to deal with, and anyone of them could have ruined the The Avengers. Egos could explode, the characters could step on each other, the plot could fail to surpass the lead-in movies, and a dozen other problems could arise.
Somehow, despite all the potential pitfalls, Joss Whedon and Marvel Studios nailed it and created what may be the best superhero film yet.
The Avengers is also a movie that expects you to have watched the previous films. It is a sequel to Iron Man 1&2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger, not a standalone story that uses the same characters. If you haven’t seen even one of these four films, you are going to be at a slight disadvantage (seeing the 2008 The Incredible Hulk wouldn’t hurt either, but it’s narrative isn’t as directly tied into The Avengers, and the change from Ed Norton to Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner somewhat isolates that film anyway). Characters from the previous films pick up stories on the fly. There is no time spent explaining the backstory of anyone or anything, and it is a given that you understand the characters, their motivations, and their unique abilities. Fans will appreciate that, while virgins to the Marvel films may be a bit lost but should still enjoy the film for what it is.
By the way, this review will be entirely spoiler free. The plot is solid, and works well within the framework created in the previous Marvel films. Knowing the machinations of the villain Loki won’t make anyone go see The Avengers or skip it. The explanation for bringing the characters together is sound, and each of their reactions to the situation makes sense. The plot is actually fairly simple, but in a good way. Perhaps a better word for it would be streamlined.
From the first moment, the movie jumps right into the action. It then gives the necessary time for the team to feel each other out, and logically that is where the film should drag. That’s why they hired Joss Whedon.
Whedon is a comic book fan, and it shows. He understands the archetype these characters represent, and how they should rub against each other. Whedon, who wrote the screenplay and co-wrote the story along with Zak Penn, also knows how to twist dialog to make even a dull conversation interesting. It is a staple of his career, and The Avengers is no exception.
With The Avengers, Whedon is free to write to his strengths, and create both dialog and moments that could only exist in this medium. Several times throughout the movie, moments pop up that could only come from the mind of a comics fan—stuff nobody else would think of. For example, there are two moments during the final battle that had the audience in rapture, and both are moments that are utterly unexpected–and yet make total sense in the predetermined boundaries of this universe. You’ll know them when you see them.
This Whedon kid has potential. He keeps the film—which is actually a fairly straightforward tale of good guys versus bad guys—continually feeling fresh and surprising. If you are a fan of the man, then rest assured that you will be delighted with the results. Plus, it means that from here he can go off to do anything he wants. Perhaps he will bring back Firefly just to watch fans’ heads explode in shock.
The biggest and most obvious fear surrounding The Avengers was always the very real possibility that the screen simply could not contain that much ego. No fewer than seven of this film’s stars are leading men and women, and that isn’t counting the supporting cast. But even beyond that, the characters themselves are at risk of overshadowing one another, or even letting the beloved character they portray drift into the shadows.
For this film to succeed, a balance needed to be struck, and it was. Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man/Tony Stark does garner a bit more screen time and his character has the most significant story arc of any, but each character has his or her moments. Of all the stars, the weakest is probably Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, but it is by degrees.
The two most surprising performances belong to Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/Hulk, and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. Raffalo’s Banner is deliberately and appropriately muted—after all, how much can you hope to get out of a guy who’s life ambition is not to get mad—but the Hulk repeatedly steals the show, again and again. Every scene with the Hulk is memorable.
But the lynchpin of the movie is Hiddleston, who adds layers and depth to what could have been a traditional villain. He is likable in all his scenes, and yet arrogant enough that you enjoy rooting for Loki to get what’s coming to him. While all the actors do a good job, Hiddleston is the one whose career I am most interested to see in the future.
And then there are the special effects. They are as good as any, in any movie. They set the new bar, and are seamless enough that you don’t realize how good they are until you stop to think about it later. The final battle especially just wows. There is so much going on during that fight, that it will take multiple viewings to catch it all.
It all just comes together and works. If you want to nitpick, there are things you can focus on: the music was forgettable, a bit more epilogue would have been nice, and some might think the start of the film drags (I am not among those), but The Avengers is the movie comic book fans have been dreaming about since they first heard of Marvel’s gloriously mad plan.
The moment of desperation and terror at Marvel has passed, and one of the biggest gambles in entertainment history is poised to make all the doubters change their tune, and all the supporters look like geniuses. The Avengers is here, and it is good. It is also probably going to make a billion dollars, and that is good news for all of us.
The Avengers isn’t the best film of the year, but it may be the most enjoyable. It feels like a reward to fans that survived all the bad superhero films, and those same fans will get the most out of this one. My inner child that grew up reading The Avengers comics highly recommends this film, and the adult version completely agrees.