The biggest surprise of Marvel's long-awaited "The Avengers" project isn't that it works spectacularly well, rather it's that it works at all. It was around five years ago that the first serious inroads were made with this ambitious plan to team up several separate superhero franchise characters into one big epic feature. A risky gamble to be sure but an ambitious one that even us non-comic fanboys could get excited about, especially after the critical and commercial success of the first "Iron Man".
Yet that film's disheartening sequel, though let down by numerous issues, was most crippled by its forced 'Avengers' tie-ins. While not as undercut, both "Thor" and the "Captain America" similarly suffered from the awkward and uncomfortable insertion of 'Avengers' world building into their own respective franchise launchers - ultimately detracting from films that simply would have worked better as stand alones.
This cultivation process may have been awkward and sometimes painful, but the fruits of that labor have proven unexpectedly ripe. "The Avengers" really is far greater than the sum of its parts - a rollicking sci-fi adventure epic with plenty of character, humour and heart that delivers on practically every front.
Much of the credit must go to writer/director Joss Whedon whose signature is all over this work. Through the likes of "Buffy," "Angel" and "Firefly" we've been witness to his deft skill at balancing large character ensembles, emotionally resonant themes, gripping end of the world scenarios and plenty of self-deprecating character-based humour. All of that is brought to the table here.
Not only does Whedon have an innate understanding of both this material and its audience, but even by his standards there's an unexpected amount of fearlessness on display - he takes chances with gags and character beats here even some master filmmakers wouldn't dare, and most of them pay off handsomely.
If there is a real surprise though it's that 'Avengers' really marks his arrival as a tentpole director the same way the "Star Trek" reboot did for J.J. Abrams. Both were acclaimed TV show runners with deft writing and small screen directing skills, yet their first onscreen forays (M:I-3, Serenity) were solid if indistinctive action films that lacked the originality and drive that usually made their work so distinct.
With 'Avengers' though Whedon doesn't have to worry about establishing backstory or budget restrictions, while his sense of pacing has been refined to a diamond sharp point. Even at 142 minutes there's really no fat that could be trimmed here aside from maybe a few scant random shots of destruction. That's mostly because he never forgets that the characters and their interactions come first and it's the little human details that make us care.
That is why the massive scenes of epic destruction here are so much more engaging and exciting than anything involving Shia LaBeouf and those CG cars. It's a proper group of distinct characters we care about working together as a team, each making full use of their own unique talents. While Whedon's approach lacks the luscious photography of some other tentpoles, he's still able to get all of the film's $200 million up on screen along with giving the film an impressive sense of scale without overdoing it.
Tonally and story-wise it remains in step with the other Marvel movies, specifically the first "Iron Man". It never forgets that it is a big, brassy crowd-pleasing blockbuster and a comic book movie first and foremost. This means it fully embraces its pulpy source material, never getting too serious but never crossing that line into high camp either. It's dramatic when necessary and laid back where possible so the plot is on the thin side and it's not a particularly deep film (to say the least), even if it is often deeply satisfying.
The cast is uniformly strong, every character not only getting their time to shine but each sharing distinctive moments and relationships with the other members of this ragtag group. Even though it's frankly about as well-balanced as it can be, some naturally stand out more than others and everyone will have their personal favourites.
Robert Downey Jr.'s work here beats everything he did in "Iron Man 2" by a country mile - gone is that arrogant and irritating edge we saw last time and back is the warm fun cocky swagger of our first visit with Tony Stark. Yes he steals his scenes, especially those with Gwyneth Paltrow and Mark Ruffalo whom he both shares such a great rapport with. Yet he also knows when to step back and let others shine.
Ruffalo's the real gem here. Not because of his acting skill, which has always been strong, but rather it seems Marvel has finally found the perfect wavelength for Hulk. Gone is Eric Bana's repressed meekish geek with daddy issues or Edward Norton's jumpy, self-flagellating, lovelorn loner. Ruffalo's charming relatable techie works because of his resigned acceptance of the beast within and healthy respect of its true nature, similarly the Hulk side is shown to be an unpredictable and impossibly destructive force albeit one with much more of a distinct personality than we've seen before.
Similarly seeing great improvements on their previous outings are Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow and Tom Hiddleston's Loki. Serving as mere eye candy in "Iron Man 2", Johansson's character gets far more exploration this time out while also reminding us of her surprising acting abilities - this is a career best for her, right up there with her "Lost in Translation" work. Before this I had zero interest in her character, now though I am actually interested in seeing where her character could go.
Hiddleston's villainous turn in "Thor" was one of that film's highlights, but his take here is even more delicious. His motivations remain somewhat under explored and at a few points the scenery chewing could be dialled back a touch, but Hiddleston nails the performance. Like in "Thor", this could easily have been a quite flat character on the page, but he turns it into one with a lot brewing under the surface. From the chilling interrogation scene with Black Widow to his interactions with Hemsworth and Downey, when he's given the floor he really shines.
Thor remains a bit flat and enigmatic in his scenes either on his own or with the SHIELD characters. Yet when interacting with his fellow heroes the character's distinctness really clicks - Chris Hemsworth giving us glimpses of that warmth and charm that made him a soap star here in Australia and then a movie star on the global stage. There's even a good sense of humour here that was missing from his take on the character in the "Thor" standalone, and the blond muscular giant handles his action scenes with aplomb.
With such big personalities on offer it's the more human characters that fade into the background. Much like in his stand alone movie, Captain America remains frustratingly bland and one-note even if he has more to do here. Though designed as an audience entry point into this crazy world, he ends up being something of a dead weight. Kudos to Chris Evans for visibly working hard to do what he can with the character, but even Whedon struggles to make him interesting beyond acting as either a comic relief sounding board or a foil for Tony Stark.
Similarly S.H.I.E.L.D. remains a indistinct and unremarkable organisation. The flashy helicarrier, where pretty much all the second act is set, is impressively rendered but it is mostly populated by anonymous cyphers be it the oddly bland Cobie Smulders or the still underserved Samuel L. Jackson.
Jeremy Renner's work as Hawkeye pales compared to his "Mission Impossible" turn a few months back, mostly because Renner spends much of the film in a literal trance so there's no time to give him any real development. Of these relatively 'normal' characters it's really Clark Gregg's adorably geeky Agent Coulson who still generates warmth and humour. "The Avengers" is the opposite of other Marvel Studio movies in one way - its structural weaknesses. Almost all of the earlier Marvel films got worse as they went along, whereas 'Avengers' starts with its most unsure foot forward and a surprisingly dull opening set piece. However it gets better by the minute as these separate characters come together and start interacting with each other.
There's a lot of attention to detail here, including pay-offs of threads from the previous films. It also throws in unexpected but welcome tangents such as the character suspicions of their employer's motivations. That said some of the 45 minutes that Whedon has cut out has resulted in a few sketchy plot elements - the Chitauri aliens are fairly indistinct, their motivations glossed over, and Loki's connection with them never given enough detail to properly justify it.
Thor's arrival strikes with an air of convenient timing, and some technobabble about the Tesseract macguffin (a cube that can open a wormhole) will make little sense to even hardcore sci-fi and comic geeks. These are all nitpicks yes, but again it's quite possible some of the sketchier elements of the plot were actually fleshed out and filmed but didn't make the final cut. As is there is certainly nothing in here that doesn't feel either out of character or detractive to the unfolding action.
I'm someone who isn't much of a superhero comic fan (I simply don't understand the whole DC vs. Marvel war) but I have enjoyed the Marvel Studios films so far to varying degrees. It is certainly fair and easy to say though that this is the best of that bunch and a stellar example of blockbuster filmmaking - one of the best movies of this kind in months, perhaps years. It certainly knows what kind of movie it is, what its fan base wants and where it should aim. There may be weightier, deeper or richer films this year - but there probably won't be any that are as much fun.