This is it: the culmination of Marvel’s plans for literally half a decade, and the movie that acts as keystone for a whole series, including Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America. There’s a lot riding on The Avengers, and it appears that writer/director Joss Whedon has pulled it off. By now you know all the opening weekend box office records that were set — the finale of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy has the bar set pretty high — but let’s be honest: money doesn’t tell you whether a film was any good. And while it is indeed good, The Avengers never really transcends its genre the way that The Dark Knight did. There’s so much going on — so much that has to go on — in this jawbreaker of a movie that Whedon can barely get it all into his mouth, let alone bite down on it.
We open on a government research lab where Nick Fury, Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Samuel L. Jackson), oversees Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) working with the Cosmic Cube, herein referred to as the “Tesseract”. As befits the name, the cube we see is one three-dimensional face of a four-dimensional construct; the other end is somewhere else in the universe. And someone on that other end has some very dark plans indeed. The Asgardian Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is sent through to open a portal for an invading army in exchange for his rule over the Earth. On his arrival he hypnotizes Selvig, along with Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Jeremy Renner) while driving off Fury, his chief of staff, Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), and everyone’s favorite agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg).
In response, Fury seeks to assemble a team of superheroes who can fight back against Loki and his army. He sends Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) to recruit Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) — who you’ll remember turns into The Hulk — for his expertise in tracking down the Tesseract’s radiation signature; Coulson is sent after Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr.); Fury himself pulls in Steve “Captain America” Rogers. And joining them later is Loki’s brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth). At first they don’t really get along, but of course we all know they’ll learn to work together as a team.
Now there are two essential problems with supergroups, be they musical or comic-book. The first is that everyone has to be a lead, and so the whole thing expands. Where previous Marvel films have hovered around the two-hour mark, this one clocks in at a whopping two and a half, and it still feels awkwardly cramped at times. Whedon is also a thoughtful writer, so he wants to stick in a bunch of ideas that he doesn’t remotely have the time to unpack properly. Besides which, when he gets going on the character relationships and the commentary all at once the whole thing grinds to a halt. Don’t get me wrong, I like the talky bits, and they provide for some great narrative and great acting, but it’s obvious that a lot of the audience — especially the younger members — don’t have it in them to pay that much attention and they start to ruin the experience for everyone.
The other problem is the flip-side of the first: there’s always some filler. Blind Faith was Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, Steve Winwood, and… the other guy (Ric Greich). In our Frosted Avengers Charms we’ve got red Starks, yellow Thors, green Hulks, blue Caps, and Hawkeye and the Black Widow are the oaty bits you put up with to get to the sugar lumps. They have no real “powers” on display beyond their athleticism; they barely even get referred to by their monikers. This isn’t new to the movie, either; every single incarnation of The Avengers — and their D.C. counterparts the Justice League of America — has its share of padding.
It comes across in the writing, too. Whedon does a great job drawing very strong, distinctive characters, and the cast rise to the material. Downey is an old pro by now at Stark’s arrogant insouciance; Evans nails Rogers’ dedication and belief in fighting for a cause; Hemsworth is a perfect big dumb guy with a hammer; and Ruffalo shines as the fundamentally broken Banner, even in the relatively little time he has. But for all Whedon’s past progressivism, Johansson’s Romanoff is plainly here for T-and-A. She has little time to develop any sort of character, and Renner has even less.
But again, when you have seven major superhero names sharing one screen, something is bound to get squeezed out. Whedon and the cast do they best they can within the confines imposed by the nature of the story. Which story is, after all, an action movie.
And as an action movie it’s plenty satisfying. As a director, Whedon handles the 3-D adeptly, though never in a way that couldn’t be done without. The action scenes are chaotic, which I suppose we’re just going to have to accept by now, but it’s an unusually smooth form of chaos. Many sequences are a barrage of clips unmoored from any real spatial reference or relationship, but they transition from one to the next as if they’re a long tracking shot. The camera turns as it follows a side view of two combatants careening down an indistinct urban canyon when suddenly another two rise into the frame and we’re dollying back to follow them in a head-on view. This approach does manage to balance everyone’s involvement in the fight without feeling as jumpy as it might have otherwise, and it does take some skill to pull it off.
Overall the movie isn’t bad, and it certainly seems to resonate with audiences. But by its nature it was never going to come out truly great. Given the choice, I’d rather see seven separate stories, each one playing to a character’s — and an actor’s — strengths. I want to see an hour and a half of Ruffalo as a troubled, introspective Bruce Banner. I want to see what made Natasha Romanoff into the Black Widow. I’d be willing to see anything at all about Hawkeye. And I most definitely want to see the adventures of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.