The Avengers is a toybox come to life, and Joss Whedon is the precocious, imaginative, quick-witted scamp entrusted by Marvel to pose their action figures in ways pleasing to our eager eyes. Hulk fights Thor. Captain America fights Thor. Iron Man fights Captain America. And Hulk, Thor, Captain America and Iron Man all get their chance to beat up the snivelling villain Loki. Our seven-year-old selves couldn’t have conjured it any better.
They are joined by Nick Fury, Black Widow, Agent Coulson, and Hawkeye, who, despite not having had a film yet dedicated solely in their honour, popped up in the previous flicks to lend a hand, deploy a jibe, or deliver some exposition. Here, everyone gets their fair share of screen time; everyone gets their hero shot; everyone gets their killer Whedonesque joke. Without knowing any more of the plot, you surely recognise whether or not this is for you. Frankly, if you are the kind of person who is not excited by these characters occupying the same cinematic space, then I just do not know what to say to you. Perhaps you’d be interested in this review of Romantics Anonymous instead?
It would be easy to accuse The Avengers of laziness; for relying on the goodwill established by the earlier instalments and expecting fanboy satisfaction this time around by merely having multiple costumed crusaders share the frame. But, despite them playing Gods and superheroes, it bears repeating that the actors are just human, and their charming, nuanced performances are a big reason for the picture’s success. It’s not just that we find comfort in seeing Tony Stark trade jabs with Steve Rogers; it’s that we’re seeing characters richly developed by Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans antagonise one another, reveal different shades of one another, and compel one another to evolve accordingly. The actors, and writer-director Whedon, have all put in the work, rather then thoughtlessly reciting their lines, throwing money at the screen, and telling us to swallow what’s shoved down our throat.
For the past five years, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Coulson (Clark Gregg) have been recruiting the gifted and talented and freakish for a secret military force known as the Avengers Initiative. Well, that proved to be a bust, so they wind up without much of a defence against the vindictive Loki (Tom Hiddleston) when he abandons his intergalactic home of Asgard to take up residency as King of Earth. With an alien army of creepy crawlies at his disposal and the fabled, power-generating Tesseract cube, he seeks to enslave the human race, and then rub it in his brother Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) face. Will those two just trade noogies and leave us out of it?
Fury has no choice but to appeal to the egomaniacal Stark, time-displaced Rogers, and the Hulk-hiding Bruce Banner (franchise newcomer Mark Ruffalo, welcome!) to join them in what could be the last battle for humanity. But super-spy Fury isn’t telling his rag-tag soldiers everything, and the revelation of these secrets threaten to ruin their tenuous bonds. Meanwhile, underling Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) might betray her stoic, interrogation-adept veneer when her unrequited love, archer Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), is brainwashed into backstabbing them. Then Thor turns up to defeat Loki on his own, and they all have trouble getting along, and even though Fury fails to address their personality clashes in a constructive manner, they eventually learn to help one another, and, well, you’ve seen a team-up pic before. You forgive the clichés when it builds to as spectacular a final melee as seen in the extended climax.
What few issues there are with The Avengers are issues inherent to its genre. Like many superhero vehicles before it, proceedings kick off with an impenetrable diatribe about geek minutiae that will likely fly over the head of most audience members (this one included). And, as seen in countless team-building movies, many a moment is devoted to bringing the band back together, and having the same exposition about the same glowing cube relayed over and over again. Also, for all its hedonistic pleasures, stunning action sequences, and preposterously appealing central performances, can we truly consider The Avengers a great stand-alone feature when it relies – in a narrative sense, and in a character establishing sense – so much on what we’ve already seen? These are quibbles of a minor nature, however; in fact, I’d rather you consider them conversation-revitalisers should you find yourself in an endless loop of praise with your buddies.
The Avengers is an experiment, both artistic and financial: the culmination of multiple projects released over a number of years, for which anticipation had reached fever pitch, but, expectations would stand unreasonably high. Astoundingly, it’s a success. Not only is it the best of the series, it even enriches the others (especially Thor, which had always been the weak link; Loki is a much more interesting adversary now, and he’s given plenty to chew on). Considering Whedon is making a follow-up to the final products of numerous directors and screenwriters, it’s a marvel – pun intended – that he can maintain their comic tone whilst still showcasing his inimitable voice and style. This will likely be the closest we ever get to his big screen Buffy (no, we don’t count the Kristy Swanson film as canon).
There will no doubt be a sequel, and there will be Iron Man 3, and Thor 2, and, perhaps now with the ferociously improved CGI Hulk and an appropriately hirsute actor portraying him, we’ll get Hulk’d or Keep On Hulking or something. A continued run of quality can’t be guaranteed, but all involved in The Avengers experiment should be proud they took on the challenge of redefining some significant pop culture icons, and, from 2008-2012, actually enhanced them.
The Avengers opens in Australian cinemas April 25, 2012.