I don’t know how we ever thought it was possible that The Avengers would work. It’s an impossible task: Take characters who’ve been featured in six different films to date, all of varying star power; a director with a modestly sized but fierce fan base, who has exactly one feature film under his belt, a film based on a wonderful but failed television show; too many characters, too many stars, too many different fans to cater to; too many threads to tie together in a cinematic undertaking that is literally unlike any other, by a studio who has made a habit of trying to make films that seem big, but with smaller than sometimes necessary budgets, films that even the best of sometimes feel hollow in parts. It’s simply not possible.
To which Joss Whedon has basically said, well, the hell with that.
The Avengers really is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. It somehow manages to have a massive, sprawling plot that involves gods, monsters, aliens, robots, superheroes, and pretty much everything else you can think of. The story, by Whedon himself and Zak Penn, is one that somehow manages to pull threads from every franchise leading up to this one and make a (mostly) coherent thread out of it. Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the nefarious and conniving brother of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), seeks the mysterious energy source known as The Tesseract (or the Cosmic Cube for you comic afficionados) so that he may rule our world. It’s pretty much as simple as that — except that he’s enlisted the aid of a malevolent alien race, as well as brainwashed a few key humans to help his cause. The Avengers assemble. Chaos ensues.
Of course, it’s not quite that simple, and what makes The Avengers so absolutely remarkable is not the stunning battle scenes (and they are goddamn stunning), but that Whedon and company somehow managed to weave a separate but equally important and intriguing story about each and every character into the skein of this interstellar conflagration. The film is not Iron Man and his amazing friends. Unlike films like X-Men, where there was a team but the focus really was on only a couple of players, The Avengers gives each of them their time to shine, and they shine blindingly well. Every member of the party brings their own particular pathos to the story. Bruce Banner’s (Mark Ruffalo) staggering intellect is crippled by his monstrous alter ego. Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey, Jr.) fragile ego and solitary arrogance creates discord at every turn. Thor’s haughtiness is only subdued by the realization that, indirectly, he brought this problem to earth in the form of the brother he lost but still loves. Steve Rogers is a man out of time, a living anachronism with a near-extinct value set who doesn’t know how to communicate with the modern world. Clint Barton, better known as Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are adrift as they come in from the cold world of espionage and assassination to try to become heroes. And Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is the Machiavellian schemer, the brilliant strategist, and the keeper of secrets who must somehow bring these disparate, ridiculously powerful personalities to bear and form them into a cohesive unit while the world is threatened with ruination.
What makes the film so enjoyable is the surprising amount of character development and interaction that occurs in the midst of all this chaos. The film starts off explosively and rarely lets up the pace, and yet the story is never lost and the characters never neglected. Whedon uses the backdrop of chaos to create opportunities for his characters to fight with each other and themselves, to grow and learn and come to grips with their new responsibilities. There are crises of faith left and right, but it’s done with a deftness that is wonderfully Whedonesque. There’s no frustrating oversimplified inner conflicts, no Emo-Spidey (or God forbid, dancing Iron Man) to be found anywhere. Their issues with themselves and each other seem genuine, and their interplay is fascinating. Bolstering the cast is a group of superb supporting players, including the ever reliable Clark Gregg as the deliciously wry Agent Phil Coulson and Cobie Smulders as SHIELD Agent Maria Hill.
If anything, the story itself is the film’s weakness, though it’s not much of one. It’s grossly oversimplified in parts, and there are a couple of moments that make very little sense (starting with Loki willingly allowing himself to be captured so that his troops can storm the SHIELD facility — I couldn’t quite figure out why he didn’t just, you know, storm the facility). Yet the few flaws are ultimately forgivable because the film barrels along so briskly and relentlessly that you get swept up in the spectacle of it all.
And there is spectacle galore. While The Avengers is populated with some truly great characters, it’s still a summer tentpole film and the action is rather breathtaking. Any concerns we may have had about Whedon’s ability to handle a film of this scale are quickly relieved. It helps, of course, that Marvel took off the chains when it came to budget, and the $220 million is spent wisely. From the brutally intense battle between three of the heroes to a wild, harrowing assault on the SHIELD helicarrier (a sort of giant flying aircraft carrier that is just so fucking cool), to the final, balls-out war with a vast and bizarre alien force that takes place throughout Manhattan, The Avengers delivers brilliantly. Unlike other major whiz-bang effects films like Transformers the action is actually coherent. The setpieces are enjoyably familiar, the destruction is vast and jaw-dropping, but the battles are gripping and intense because, at the risk of oversimplifying, you can actually tell what’s happening. Sure, at times Whedon appears to be a graduate of the JJ Abrams School Of Lens Flares, but there’s mercifully little slow-motion, and the editing doesn’t make you want to vomit. Instead, it’s crafted meticulously to give you a more immersive experience, with clever little techniques to somehow humanize the widespread kaboomapalooza. Little touches like shots of worn out heroes reflected in cracked car side mirrors or quick, quiet moments in the middle of the raging storm of violence make it feel more like you’re watching people, and not effects. It makes an excellent contrast to the wild action, action that manages to feel perfectly comic booky at times, but also succeeds in leaving most (but not all) of the inherent cheesiness inside.
But the best part is that The Avengers is fun. It’s genuinely enjoyable, engaging and frequently wickedly funny. Whedon’s stamp is all over it — sarcasm reigns, giggle-worthy peanut gallery commentary, and a couple of scenes which bordered on outright hysterical (featuring, surprisingly, the Hulk, who seems the least funny character) are spread generously throughout, to lighten up the gloom and doom of this pending apocalyptic invasion. It’s got all the highs (and lows) of a Whedon project, but feels tighter and more focused, even in the wake of its inherent absurdity, than many of his previous endeavors. It’s helped by the fact that each actor nails their roles, coming together to create a real sense of camaraderie. Even Johansson succeeds in showing more than pursed lips and cleavage, and gets her equal share of quips. More importantly, Whedon has clearly grown since his “Buffy” days, something we learned with “Firefly” and Serenity, but something that’s on full display here. The humor is mature, fitting with the complexity of the interwoven characters, and one-liners are few, but when they’re spoken, they don’t feel artificial.
Am I gushing with praise over The Avengers? Yes, I suppose I am, and I’ll willingly admit that my opinion is in large part colored by the fact that I’m a massive fan of the source material. It’s also affected by the occasionally middling efforts of the origin films — I think we can all agree that Iron Man was terrific, but it’s been a mixed bag since then. Thor was solid, Captain America a little silly, and the Hulk films are all over the place. Yet The Avengers feels like it takes the best pieces of each to create a new entity, discarding all of the junk and excess baggage along the way. Perhaps I’ll need to watch it again, but for me at least, the comic book fan as well as the movie fan found the whole messy endeavor to be absolutely delightful.