And here it sits, after four years of official build-up and an equal number of franchises created largely with this outcome in mind. The Avengers feels unprecedented in its ambition, but the very fact that it exists at all is a minor miracle. What if Thor had tanked or Downey quibbled about his price or Disney’s purchase of Marvel ruined the whole deal? What if they handed the project to some studio hack instead of a director with both talent and respect for the characters? What if fate had simply rendered it a cacophonous bore? What if any of those things had happened and dashed all our fanboy hopes to pieces?
Everybody breathe. They didn’t.
The Avengers fulfills all of those promises handed down since Sam Jackson broke into Tony Stark’s pad: a superhero mash-up that merges seven different good guys and five movies’ worth of backstory into a throwdown for the ages. They do this kind of thing on the comics page all the time, and a few movies have tried it before (notably Universal’s later “classic” monster flicks like House of Frankenstein). But to see those possibilities rendered so well on this scale leaves one a little bit in awe. It expertly captures the magic that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created with their original comics, pulled from numerous disparate sources to create a hugely satisfying whole.
Credit goes primarily to director Joss Whedon, a man who I have been less than kind to in the past but whose talents are uniquely suited to this project. He works exceptionally well with ensembles – giving every character their due and creating balance where cacophony may have reigned – and his abiding wit brings lightness to the film’s epic scope. He also knows how to temper his ambitions with realistic goals. The Avengers doesn’t attempt to make profound points or attain a deeper resonance the way, say, The Dark Knight did. Instead, it aims for popcorn fun at its finest: sprinkled with liberal character development but making blockbuster entertainment its top priority.
We also have to give props to Tom Hiddleston – one of many standouts in the cast – whose sinister Loki sets the straightforward plot in motion. In that sense, The Avengers most closely resembles a sequel to Thor, picking up where that film left off and following the trickster god’s plans for revenge. So grand are his schemes – involving a race of invading aliens and the all-powerful Tesseract Cube – that one hero alone cannot stop him. So SHIELD Director Nick Fury Jackson calls upon a whole six-pack to shut him down: wise-cracking Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), stoic Thor (Chris Hemsworth), earnest Captain America (Chris Evans) and volatile Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), as well as SHIELD agents Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to round out the team.
Naturally, they struggle to get along, even in the face of Armageddon. Whedon wisely frames their bickering within the context of Loki’s schemes, bringing substance to the mayhem and emphasizing the villain’s status as a fermenter of chaos. Even so, it takes Hiddleston’s force of personality to stand as a viable threat in the face of all those heroes, and the actor does a masterful job. Loki’s smarter than the lot of them, and even in those moments when he seems to be down – like a brief imprisonment on SHIELD’s nerdgasm-inducing helicarrier – we get the sense that he has them all right where he wants them.
The good guys, of course, need to put their fussin’ and feudin’ behind them if they want to stop him. It forms an agreeable arc upon which Whedon can trick out all of his mayhem, but it also allows for the sorts of little moments that endear us to the characters. Here, Marvel honcho Kevin Feige’s evil genius really bears fruit. All those earlier Marvel movies gave every principle the time and respect to develop their own personality. Whedon simply finds interesting ways to let them clash, interact and grow. The Captain’s straight-laced honesty, for instance, initially bugs Stark to no end, but as time goes on, he comes to understand it and even emulate it after a fashion.
With the confidence of their pervious performances, the cast emerges with flying colors. Only Hawkeye and the Widow feel a little short-changed, not through any fault of the actors but because we haven’t had nearly enough time to get to know them. Ruffalo’s Hulk, on the other hand, almost steals the show. His Bruce Banner has attained a quiet Zen state: wary of what he calls “the other guy” but accepting that reality as a part of his life. He easily makes The Avengers the best Hulk movie we’ve yet seen, with a trio of brilliant moments that stand out amid the highlights.
And as for said highlights… they’re enough to send the most hardened fan into arias of joy. Whedon invests the various throwdowns – Thor vs. Hulk! Hulk v s. Widow! Cap vs. Thor vs. Iron Man! – with the enthusiastic glee of a true aficionado. Individual frames look like they were pulled straight out of Kirby’s sketchbook, from Loki standing atop a skyscraper while his army decimates New York to the Hulk’s spectacular mid-air catch of his plummeting teammate. Whedon’s gift for dialogue and the increasingly iconic visages of the actors keep the characters in the forefront. Even smaller figures like Clark Gregg’s Agent Coleson get their due, a testament to the director’s outstanding juggling act on display.
It was long road to this spot, but the results speak for themselves. The Avengers mines the collective goodwill of the Marvel nation to impressive effect, starting the summer off with a proper flourish and rewarding our patience in the most satisfying manner possible. Nolan will have his chance to bring some gravitas to comic-dom in July. For now, it’s a chance kick up our heels and celebrate, thanks to this first-rate example of what a Hollywood blockbuster can do.