The formulation of The Avengers represents one of the greatest undertakings in the history of the industry, that being the tying together of five films and four separate franchises into one, cohesive, behemoth of a movie that combines elements from all of the previous entries. It was a risky formula but one that has clearly been proven worthwhile and could (read: “will”) change the landscape of how studios approach their tentpole franchises while forcing critics and would-be critics like me to reevaluate what the term “summer blockbuster” really means.
We begin shortly after the events of Captain America at a secret facility operated by SHIELD, a government agency tasked with preserving the world’s safety from otherworldly attacks. Enter Loki (Tom Hiddleston), a Nordic demi-god cast out of his home in Asgard, who uses an ultra-powerful device to transport himself from the depths of space in order to exact his revenge upon the earth. Sensing a need for greater allies, SHIELD leader Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) implements “The Avengers Initiative” which calls the universe’s greatest heroes to action. Fury assembles a team that includes Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Loki’s brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and tasks them with bringing down Loki before his evil plans can come to fruition. But with Stark and Thor clashing and Banner and Rogers unsure of their gifts, the question becomes whether or not anyone can put a stop to the lurking menace that Loki would bring into our world.
The amount of nerdy awesomeness contained within The Avengers is almost too much for me to handle. Like a good film adaptation of a beloved book, The Avengers works in concert with the preceding films of the Marvel universe while providing enough information to keep anyone unfortunate enough to have missed out on the other films from being left completely in the dark. Our reintroductions to Stark, Thor, and the rest are concise, providing a catch-up with where our heroes have been since last we saw them and laying the groundwork for the challenges ahead. But while character development is a key to why this movie works (more on this in a bit), I greatly appreciate the fact that writer/director Joss Whedon (and his writing partner Zak Penn) doesn’t spoon feed the audience with an hour of lead-up to establish the characters. Instead, he starts us where each character left-off and trusts that anyone who hasn’t seen the previous films is smart enough to pick up on their various personalities and abilities. As a result, The Avengers is able to get right down to business and spend 140 minutes rocking the audiences’ collective face off.
Basically from the word go, this movie is a rapid-fire thrill-ride that wastes no time in jumping right into the fray and mixing it up with Marvel’s biggest names. We jump from place to place as Loki wreaks havoc and the Avengers come together and quickly come to the big question at the center of the film: can all of these guys come together as one or are their combined powers simply too volatile to be put together? As pointed out by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg in his near-iconic role), they need a rallying cry, a unifying event, which they receive when Loki attacks the SHIELD headquarters and nearly destroys the team before they can ever come together. From that point on, The Avengers turns into a smorgasbord of rip-roaring action sequences that would make Michael Bay salivate but is peppered with the witty, genuinely hilarious dialogue that keeps the laughs coming almost as frequently as the CGI explosions.
The thing that really sets The Avengers apart from virtually any other lighthearted popcorn flick that has come down the chute is the near-perfect script that Whedon and Penn put together. All of the previous Marvel films (the Iron Man films in particular) have featured comedy as a major part of their respective make-up but Whedon takes that to all new level. He never misses a chance to insert a joke and his cast delivers them in such a way that even the would-be cheesy one-liners come across as inspired. As King of the Nerds, it’s obvious that Whedon not only understands the universe in which his film takes place but also the psychology of each of his characters and maybe more importantly, the mind of the nerd, his constituent. Even still, instead of relying on the fanboys to be the sole source of support and gearing his film entirely towards that audience, Whedon crafts a beautifully paced, highly entertaining film that should appeal to just about anyone who isn’t AO Scott. Likewise, the cast of The Avengers appear to be completely invested in their characters and the film as a whole. Each actor is fully on-board for the ensemble-like approach to creating this film which is absolutely vital to its success. All of them (and I really do mean every single player in the main cast) give performances that are worth noting individually.
I had two big question marks concerning the cast and characters coming into The Avengers. For one, I wondered about the addition of Mark Ruffalo. I’ve never been a big fan of Ruffalo and The Hulk almost seemed like a cursed character coming in. But from the outset, Whedon and Ruffalo work in conjunction to turn Banner/Hulk into a much deeper, more impressive character than I could have ever imagined. In truth, for me The Hulk is probably this film’s most bankable player, a shocking statement considering how highly I think of RDJ and Tony Stark. The Avengers almost represents a story of redemption for a beloved comic book hero who’s never had much luck on the big screen. Second, I was genuinely concerned about whether or not Loki was up to the task of hanging with this team. In 2011’s Thor, I thought Hiddleston gave a good performance but that his character was weak and as we all know, a great superhero is only as good as the villain who opposes him. With a remarkable group of heroes like this one, you need a compelling villain and while Loki isn’t up to par with the best of the best, he is more than capable of holding his own in this setting. I give Whedon a great deal of credit for taking a lackluster character and making him substantially more relevant and menacing and this stands as just another example of how impressive Whedon’s work here really and truly is.
Any way you slice it, The Avengers is a massive achievement that will have a decisive impact on the culture of Hollywood in the years to come. Like Inception and The Dark Knight before it, this is a film that seems to suggest that it’s no longer enough for a film like Transformers to provide a bunch of explosions and grab a chunk of cash while drawing the wrath of critics and audience members alike and still be deemed a legitimate blockbuster. The Avengers is an absurdly entertaining film that forcefully lays claim to its spot among the elite summer blockbusters, along with the aforementioned Nolan films, Jaws, Star Wars, and Jurassic Park.