The Avengers have assembled! Indeed, 2012 might just be the greatest year ever for comic book geeks all around the world. Three comic book adaptations of some of the biggest properties ever in the comic books world are set to hit the screens over a span of just three months. First in the row is the long-awaited adaptation of Marvel’s The Avengers, followed by Mark Webb’s reboot The Amazing Spider-Man in July only to peak with Christopher Nolan’s last installment in his Batman saga - The Dark Knight Rises. It is hard to imagine any other year topping that in terms of pure geekgasms. There is a ton of expectations riding in particular on The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. With The Avengers being first out of the gate, can it live up to years or build-up by Marvel and Paramount and decades of fanbase craving? All in all, it can.
Ironically enough, it was in the very same year that the basis for the huge anticipation for The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers began. In 2008, Iron Man kicked off the summer movie season, not only with great financial results, but also having won over the masses. It was mostly for Robert Downey Jr.’s suave and charismatic turn as Tony Stark and the film’s well-done origins story that the movie was lauded. The audiences loved it and craved more as Robert Downey Jr.’s career experienced an incredible renaissance making him one of the biggest current stars in Hollywood. The post-credits scene, featuring Samuel L. Jackson as the eye-patched Nick Fury approaching Stark about the Avengers Initiative set the foundation for The Avengers. From that moment on, it was clear that the path was set and the Avengers would assemble sooner than later. Just a few months later, The Dark Knight broke all box-office records and achieved critical acclaim unheard of for a comic book adaptation until then. Ever since then, despite many well-liked (and some less so) comic book adaptations in the meantime, the fans have been mainly looking forward to what these movies have promised for the future. While Nolan took his time to develop a (hopefully) worthy conclusion for the Dark Knight series, Paramount and Marvel haven’t been slouches. They carefully laid out the entire path filled with movies to introduce several superheroes that would eventually appear together in The Avengers. The same year as Iron Man was released, The Incredible Hulk featured an appearance by Tony Stark. In 2010, Iron Man 2 heavily featured Nick Fury as well as the S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division) agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). It also introduced us to the future Avenger Natasha Romanoff (a.k.a. Black Widow), played by Scarlett Johansson and the post-credits scene hinted at Thor. In the final round of the Avengers introduction, 2011 gave us Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger which both directly led up to the events of The Avengers.
Obviously, The Avengers was a grand and challenging undertaking. All the Marvel films leading up to it have been well-received by critics and audiences alike, even though some noted that some of these films, in particular Iron Man 2, felt just like a transition to The Avengers and less like standalone films. Either way, Marvel has presented us with well-crafted and greatly cast characters and a fully developed universe. The challenge was to bring them together without sacrificing each individual character or putting the focus too heavily on someone. Who is the better man for the job than one of the king comic book geeks himself – Joss Whedon. While very much beloved in fan circles and successful with his work on Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Whedon hasn’t landed a big cinematic hit thus far. Therefore, trusting him with a project of such magnitude and importance as The Avengers was a great leap for Marvel. It wouldn’t be the first time Marvel tried something like this as they handed the adaptation of Thor to Kenneth Branagh and Iron Man to Jon Favreau who wasn’t known for directing blockbuster movies until then either. The inspired choices were parts of the reasons why these Marvel films ended up successful in many regards. Luckily for everyone, their gamble on Whedon paid off as well. I is thanks to his sensibilities for a large cast and for individual characters that The Avengers works as an ensemble piece from start to finish.
The movie starts off with Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s step-brother and his arch-villain attacking one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s labs and stealing the Tesseract (Cosmic Cube) with the help of Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and Clint Barton a.k.a. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) whom Loki put under his spell. Loki wants to use the Tesseract to open a portal between the Earth and the other Realms and to lead the army of an alien race called the Chitauri in a war against humans. Nick Fury, the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. sees the Avengers Initiative as the only way to stop Loki and retrieve the Tesseract before it is too late. Unfortunately, the Initiative has been put on ice with its supposed members scattered all over the world (or the universe). Now it is up to Fury, Black Widow and the rest of the S.H.I.E.L.D. team to not just get the heroes together, but also to convince them to fight along one another in order to save the planet. Given the individual egos and backstories of the character, that’s easier said than done.
The first hour of the movie is devoted to the team getting together and Loki going ahead with his schemes. Whedon doesn’t rush things, leaving enough room for each and every character to breathe and to develop. When the Avengers started to take shape, many assumed that Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark would be the front and center of the film simply due to the Iron Man movies being by far the most successful ones of the batch. However, Whedon was clever enough to avoid that. Every single character gets his/her moment to shine here and deserves a spot in the ensemble. No one is just there as filler as each one plays a specific and important role in order to get things rolling. Prior to the film’s release Whedon noted that The Avengers would be told from Captain America’s (Chris Evans) point-of-view, while he is adjusting to the life in a world he is unfamiliar with. While I can confirm that he does, at the end, assume his rightful position as the leader of the Avengers, the movie doesn’t focus on him any more than on the others. The downside to this huge ensemble is that the movie does feel long at its 142 minutes running time. It is a necessity in order to treat each character with the respect they deserve, but it does drag a bit here and there.
Some might be surprised by how much the film also concentrates on Johansson’s Black Widow who hasn’t even had her own movie leading up to this. Deemed by most fans as one of the dullest Avengers, Johansson actually does a pretty good job with her mostly one-dimensional role, bringing far more to it than just being a pretty ass-kicking chick that she was in Iron Man 2. There wasn’t much to work with, but with Whedon always known for good female characters, he got the most out of her, getting to her to show vulnerability, but also a set of skills that goes beyond the usual fighting abilities. That said, she still gets a lot of fighting to do as she is one of the few Avengers not endowed with any superpowers or great gadgets. She jumps, she hits, she kicks and she shoots her way through the action scenes. The other movie-less Avenger, Hawkeye, who doesn’t join the team until fairly late into the film, probably gets the short end of the stick here with the least character development. Nevertheless, he still displays sufficient badass archery skills to deserve his spot in the battle. Here’s hoping that the follow-up will give some more meat to the characters as an actor of Jeremy Renner’s caliber deserves that.
As for the main heroes, they all deliver. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is still cocky, somewhat ignorant and foolishly idealistic, torn in a conflict between helping the Avengers and dealing with his step-brother whom he still believes to have lost his path. Thor also comes in later in the film, his return to Earth (which seemed impossible by the end of the movie Thor with Bifrost destroyed) quickly explained in a throwaway sentence by Loki. Chris Evans portrays his All-American do-gooder boy quite well, though you can feel that a lot of his stuff landed on the floor of the editing room. The promised struggle of him in the modern world (after having been frozen for almost 70 years) plays a very minor role here and is done away with a few witty comments. Still, Evans is portrayal is spot-on for Captain America as the man far away from modern cynicism and still believing in the morals and ideals of the past. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is his usual snarky arrogant self who does reveal a softer side later in the movie. He also gets to don yet another updated version of his armor.
That all bring us to one of the characters fans are most interested about – Hulk. Mark Ruffalo is the third actor in nine years to portray Hulk after negotiations with Edward Norton to reprise his part from The Incredible Hulk broke down). I had initial reservations about Ruffalo in the role, but he really convinced me and might just be the best Bruce Banner yet. His Banner is no longer afraid of what he is and suffers under it. Ruffalo’s Banner has accepted his second nature and is pretty humorous about it, while mostly having learned to control it. Ruffalo’s interplay with Downey Jr. (the two scientists on the team) is great.
Opposing this terrific band of heroes, there is one main villain – Loki. Initially it seemed like an unusual choice to the Avengers fans for Loki to be the first big bad in an Avengers movie (even though he was also the one who brought the Avengers together for the first time in the comic books as well). He just didn’t seem up to the task. Having seen the movie, I can gladly confirm that he certainly is. Tom Hiddleston was solid in Thor, but he really shines here, bringing Loki to a new level (as well as giving him a new outfit). A menace in the fight scenes, Loki’s true power comes from is ability of deception and causing mischief, something that is fully played out here. Hiddleston knocks it out of the ballpark, standing his own as he has a personal confrontation with each and every one of the Avengers team.
As for the rest of the cast, Agent Coulson once again provides some nice comic relief, while Jackson’s Fury gets more to do than ever here and shows a darker and more manipulative side to his character. Cobie Smulders as his sidekick Maria Hill gets little more to do than some shooting and driving, but you can’t give everyone enough screentime. Overall, it is miracle how Whedon manages to combine all these characters with all of them working perfectly as a team (once they actually do assemble), but also each standing out individually in several scenes. Whedon pays respects to the entire universe created here by Marvel which can be noticed by some details, such as Tony Stark mentioning his father to Captain America, a short reference to Natalie Portman’s love interest to Thor, Jane Foster and a short appearance by Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark’s romantic interest Pepper Potts. One almost wishes for a short notion of Betty Ross (Banner’s squeeze) in order to make things complete. It’s this plentiful of details that show Whedon to be the right man for the job.
However, those craving bombastic action scenes won’t be disappointed either. The marketing department behind the film was smart enough to show a lot of action from the film’s prolonged NYC-set showdown, but to leave out a lot of action that happens inbetween. The Avengers has by far the biggest amount of action of all the individual Avenger-movies. Before the huge showdown when the Avengers act as a team, each character gets his/her own stab at action. That includes a threeway showdown between Thor, Iron Man and Captain America as well as Loki’s attack on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Helicarrier (a hugely impressive visual effects creation). But of course, it is the huge finale that everyone will remember in the end when Loki’s army finds its way to New York and it is up to the Avengers to stop them. This showdown poses a stark contrast to that of Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Both have in common that they feature large-scale battles that leave a huge city destroyed. However, whereas the finale Michael Bay’s movie just becomes plodding and exhausting after a while of its sensory assault, The Avengers’ finale is an exciting climax to the fun movie. At that point it also becomes somewhat inconsistent as far as the powers of our heroes are concerned with the mortal and less superpowered ones apparently still being able to take as much heat as a man in iron armor or a God. But hardly anyone will think about that as we race through the streets of New York, switching from one character to another as they beat up Loki’s minions and destroys their warships in creative ways. It’s an absolutely exhilarating finale that might be a tad too long, but never feels boring. Hulk truly gets some moments to shine here and his confrontation with Loki will definitely be remembered as one of the movie’s best scenes. If anything could ever justify yet another stab at a standalone Hulk movie, it would be the final 30 minutes of The Avengers.
Some might be interested in the quality of 3D in this movie. Well, there is not much to be said about it. It is your typical high-end post-production 3D conversion meaning that it doesn’t hurt the movie at all and enhances a few scenes, but is still unnecessary on the whole.
On the whole The Avengers is up there with the first Iron Man movie as the best Avengers-related movie to date. For those who haven’t seen the movies leading up to it, it might present somewhat of a challenge, though as it jumps right into the main plot that the preceding films built up to. Those not in the know will still enjoy a blockbuster action flick, but won't get many of the reference or some plot turns. As mentioned above, it does feel a bit too long and while the final battle is fun, the Chitauri just seem as too easy of enemies for the Avengers to defeat. There is never any real danger in the air. The movie is just pure fun, without any pretense to be more than that. It is not an artistic achievement akin to Nolan’s The Dark Knight, but Whedon really makes a lot out of what could become a jumbled mess. He spices it with his ingredients, including strong characters, quirky humor and a Whedon-typical surprise death.
I also strongly recommend staying for the end credits as they feature a scene hinting at the potential villain in the next Avengers movie.