Back in 2008, a small post-credits scene at the end of Iron Man saw Tony Stark walking into a darkened room of his penthouse, only to be greeted by SHIELD director Nick Fury. The superspy cryptically asks, “You think you’re the only superhero in the world?” and adds, “I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger initiative.” After four long years of rampant speculation and skyrocketing hype, that brief, lone scene has finally been paid off.
In an unprecedented move, Marvel Studios has united several of its comic book heroes for The Avengers, the highly-anticipated summer opener that’s generated a tremendous amount of excitement in fan communities and based on the eponymous team-up comic created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Marvel has long been plugging the film as their magnum opus, the one film that will bring their carefully laid plans full circle and dictate where they go next. If the film itself is any indication, that can only mean great things for Marvel fans.
At a secret SHIELD base, testing on the mysterious cubical power source known as the Tesseract is underway. Suddenly, the cube summons Thor’s evil half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who quickly disarms the room and takes control of several agents, among them Hawkeye the archer (Jeremy Renner), and steals away the cube. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) are forced to begin recruiting a superhero team called the Avengers, including the World War II-serving, recently unfrozen Captain America (Chris Evans), gamma ray expert and part-time Hulk Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), the wise-cracking, technology-mastering Iron Man himself, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and the god of thunder and heir to the Asgardian throne, Thor (Chris Hemsworth). Soon, however, Loki conjures an alien army of Chitauri to fight the newly formed, frequently quarreling team. The Avengers must learn to work together before the planet suffers under Loki’s villainous reign.
I’m pleased to say that The Avengers does indeed live up to the hype. Cult writer/director Joss Whedon (Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) has written and doctored many scripts over his career, but The Avengers is truly his first time in the limelight. It’s about time – Whedon has had a long history with failed comic book adaptations, and now he’s finally gotten a chance to prove his skill at constructing a fun, heartfelt, and entertaining superhero movie.
Writing and directing The Avengers, Whedon manages a tough balancing act in getting these characters together and giving them all equitable time to shine, on top of paying off the five previous Marvel Studios films and still ensuring this film’s ability to stand alone. Approaching the film with an eye for its source material, Whedon crafts a very comic book-y experience, making for far more pulp-quality than one might expect. Dialogue sounds as if it’s been read right off the page, and visually, Whedon fills the frame like he’s visually recreating the panels of a comic book.
While that approach can be appealing at times, the director’s skillset is largely a double-edged sword – having written several comics himself, Whedon doesn’t quite grasp cinematic convention over that of the funny books. And as someone who’s worked more in comics and TV than behind the camera of a major Hollywood film, Whedon’s inexperience lends the film less visual dimension than others who’ve tacked this subgenre. Whedon lacks the strong directorial presence of, say, Thor director Kenneth Branagh, which keeps The Avengers from being as intimate and gratifying as the latter director’s work.
For example, the entire first act of The Avengers is overly loud and chaotic. With very little exposition to start, we’re thrown right into the action without being allowed to get properly invested, or even formally introduced to the characters. This kind of thing is typical in comics, but crafting film requires a bit more thoughtfulness than your average Tales of Suspense.
While these flaws aren’t nearly enough to derail the film, there’s obviously room for improvement-through-experience in Whedon the director. Whedon the writer, on the other hand, fares much better. The film’s sense of humor is very effective, the action sequences are original and thrilling…this is the work of a solid screenwriter really flexing his creative muscles, and it’s hard not to admire Whedon’s no doubt herculean efforts at getting it all to work. Complemented by a great Alan Silvestri score, which sounds even more iconic than the composer’s work on last summer’s First Avenger, The Avengers is a film Whedon has every reason to be proud of.
The real meat-and-potatoes of the film is, again, in its characters. Whedon is careful to treat them all reverently, carving memorable icons of them through dialogue and imagery. He sets the stage by taking each Avenger and recreating his/her respective ordinary world, then slowly weaving it all together into one satisfying, cohesive universe for them to occupy. From then on, it’s all about the iconography, the thrill of seeing these heroes fighting side-by-side.
And still, Whedon never loses sight of just how deep each and every one of these characters is. Every bit of dialogue, every moment of character interaction, every bit of humor or conflict, all perfectly reflects these characters’ contrasting personalities and backgrounds. While the film is still clearly more concerned with epic, expensive battle sequences than the internal growth of its characters, Whedon nonetheless builds strong relationships between the heroes – Steve Rogers sympathizes with Bruce Banner after witnessing his transformations, resulting from his attempts to replicate the Super Soldier Serum that made Rogers Captain America, Black Widow and Hawkeye share subtle romantic tension, Thor sees Loki as both an enemy and a lost brother in need, etc.
You get a sense that these actors have literally disappeared into their characters. Among the standouts are Mark Ruffalo’s controlled, self-aware Bruce Banner, and Chris Evans’ lost, yet leader-like Steve Rogers (and yes, the character is finally done justice this time around, proving my suspicious that Whedon wasn’t heavily involved in First Avenger). Refreshingly, Whedon writes and presents these two far better than the people behind their respective solo outings, and I very much hope he’s able to leave his mark on their next solo films.
Fans of Whedon’s past works will know that the writer pays particular attention to female characters, and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is no exception. Regulated the the sidelines in Iron Man 2, here she receives significantly more screentime. Whedon hints at an unseen backstory of brainwashing and assassin work, giving her intriguing prospects for a spin-off flick of her own.
Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is positively devilish, an unsettling oversized grin spread across his face in his first appearance. There’s an overall sense of black humor about him; a man earnest in his motives, yet twisted in his actions. It’s a much stronger, more refined character and performance than Thor’s more sympathetic portrayal. Whedon writes Loki as a shadowy reflection of each of the Avengers – Tony Stark sees a similar level of vanity and showmanship in himself when plotting Loki’s next move, Cap faces off with the demigod in Germany in a scene paralleling the soldier’s fight against Hitler’s regime, etc. Loki is able to pinpoint their weaknesses and keep them all under his influence, which, without revealing anything, makes for some very interesting conflict.
The surprising weak link among the cast is actually Samuel L. Jackson, showing little passion for a role he was obviously tailor-made for. He really phones it in with the occasional poor line delivery and general “been there, done this” attitude, seemingly more concerned with his paycheck than making this one of his more career-defining roles, which could’ve easily been the case.
I’m rambling on, but I can’t neglect to mention Whedon’s use of SHIELD agent Hawkeye. Ever faithful to the character’s origins as a reformed criminal, Whedon writes a similarly morally ambiguous hero, possessed by Loki and manipulated into fighting his own team. After being freed, the agent expresses deep remorse and atones for his betrayal by again fighting for justice. It’s yet another example proving that Whedon’s done his homework, and the movie is all the better for it.
I could talk for hours about these characters, but suffice to say, The Avengers is one of the most satisfying character experiences Marvel has ever put out, and they’d do well to hire similar writers and directors to follow Whedon’s example in the future.
Talk of an Iron Man-centric agenda from the studio is overblown, but not entirely unfounded. The character is just a few inches closer to center stage than the rest of the cast, and unfairly so, considering Captain America has always been the team’s leader in the comics and has much greater an arc here to attend to. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is a great character, but he’s only given that attention because his solo films have been the most popular and profitable of all Marvel Studios’ films. Even the alien technology and overall tech-based design of SHIELD looks far too grounded in the reality of Stark’s technology-driven universe to inspire the same level of awe as, say, Thor’s more fantastical imagery.
Flaws aside, The Avengers is a thrilling, well-made blockbuster and a strong-character driven experience. This is a living, breathing, true-blue Marvel movie if there ever was one, and stands as one of the best films from the studio to date. Its box office success is well deserved, and I look forward to seeing where the company takes its characters next. Here’s to four more years of rampant speculation for the sequel.