The AvengersMay 3, 2012
There have been loud murmurs of discontent amongst cinemagoers regarding the amount of superhero films that have recently been sprayed on the viewing public and, to the extent that most of these films haven’t been of the best quality, these complaints can be said to be justified. The fault likely lies in the poor ratio of good to bad here. For every single over-achieving, runaway success like Iron Man or The Dark Knight, there have been several titles that are either mediocre, at best, or downright terrible. There have also been trilogy franchises like Spiderman and X-Men that needed an initial film to establish their respective origin stories before really hitting their stride and peaking in the second film, only for their third outings to be woeful shit that tainted the entire series retroactively (Spiderman 3 is, to quote the hooker-assassin in Munich, “such a fucking waste of talent”). Superhero-flick fatigue is only to be expected at this stage, but it also frames this as precisely the right time for a truly great superhero movie to come along and remind us of how much fun they can be and, thankfully, that is exactly where The Avengers comes in.
Here Loki, the principal antagonist from Thor, returns to menace mankind as he snatches the Tesseract, the cosmic cube artifact of unlimited power first seen in Captain America, on behalf of mysterious alien beings offering him dominion over the Earth in return. In response to this emergency, S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) assembles his team of erstwhile superheroes to defeat Loki and save the world, but not before they have to overcome their own flaws and character defects (like being a rich, selfish asshole or a potentially super-destructive, raging monster) and learn to work as a team to fight for the greater good and what have you. There’s no great mystery to the plot structure, but what this film is really about is how the Avengers are brought together and how much fun it is to have all these characters, ahem, assembled as such on the screen. It’s the ambitious cinematic adaptation of the wider Marvel Universe, as opposed to individual characters alone, and it appears to be an experiment and gamble that has overwhelmingly paid off.
The triumph of this film lies in the mastery of the tone. It’s a perfect blend of humour and action reminiscent of what made the first Iron Man film so successful but which goes further in also delivering grand-scale action set pieces and allowing the ensemble of characters to share in the jokes, exude their own charisma, and display some dazzling onscreen chemistry. The brilliantly entertaining screenplay of writer/director Joss Whedon is complimented by a great cast whose performances capture the iconic comic characters and, more importantly, deliver engaging and energetic group scenes of charming vivacity. The humour of Iron Man was largely confined to, and dominated by, Robert Downey Jr.’s central performance and many feared that The Avengers would amount to little more than “Iron Man & Friends”, especially given the comparative weakness of the other Marvel films building up to this big crossover realization. However, Whedon seems to have skillfully avoided this potential pitfall simply by spreading the humour throughout the script and largely eschewing the now-tired tendency of injecting too much angst and po-faced drama into superhero stories. Not every mask has to be Batman or Wolverine. After the long period of grim and gritty comic book anti-heroes that began in the 1980s, comic fans and creators have largely acknowledged this, and now The Avengers has overwhelmingly proven it in cinemas. Whedon understands the properties he’s been entrusted with here, that’s plainly obvious from how well he wields them, and the result is a pitch perfect superhero movie that manages to display his strengths whilst delivering all the audience payoffs and respectful nods to the source material and canon that are required. It’s an impressive achievement from a writer/director somewhat untested on this large a stage.
As the culmination of the prior five films that built to it, The Avengers is also a vast improvement on each. Iron Man was already well established with twice the screen time of the other principal characters although here he remains consistently entertaining without stealing the show. Thor, Captain America, and Black Widow are all better than before and, as the real treat, we are given the best movie Hulk yet. This film has the dynamic of the most beloved Saturday morning cartoons without playing as too cartoony. It’s a welcome rebuke to the notion that a superhero film has to be dark, gritty and “realistic” to be truly great. Chris Nolan’s Batman works very well in its own right but it is not without significant limitations and flaws, some of which stem from the overall approach of distancing the films from their pulpy, comic book roots in pursuit of the oxymoron of the realistic superhero film. This is understandable, especially in light of the Batman franchise being reduced to the horrific camp shite of Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin but, where Nolan wrenched Batman admirably into a more mature and serious place, The Avengers represents what can be achieved by adhering to a more traditional comic book tone, provided the film is in the hands of people who have an obvious passion and thorough understanding of the language thereof. Joss Whedon has that, and he’s given us one of the best superhero movies ever made.