Following four years of films establishing the majority of its protagonists, Marvel Studios’ superhero ensemble film finally arrives. The Avengers teams up Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and the Hulk, all established cinematic leads, as well as some agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., fronted by Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, who have made teasing appearances in the previous five films. Despite some appealing moments and casting, none of the previous lead-in features proved particularly exceptional, with Kenneth Branagh’s Thor perhaps being the best thanks to some Shakespearian motifs and genuinely funny comedic leanings. Additionally, the first Iron Man and the awful The Incredible Hulk aside, most of the films have felt hindered by their content specifically designed to link into the big team-up, lending them an unsatisfactory feel as stand-alone stories in their own right. A huge step forward quality-wise, the final result of The Avengers doesn’t retroactively make Iron Man 2 any better, but Joss Whedon’s film compellingly weaves characters and narrative elements from this cinematic universe to great effect, and, crucially, both compliments the other films and stands alone as an accessible, hugely entertaining blockbuster with a distinct personality.
The film admittedly doesn’t start off particularly well. Opening in a S.H.I.E.L.D. base, chief antagonist Loki (Tom Hiddleston), estranged brother of Thor, arrives via the Tesseract device established with the villain’s last appearance and in Captain America. While brimming with appealing menace courtesy of the actor, the extended action set-piece concerning Loki’s subsequent decimation of the place, and enslaving of various agents, feels curiously stilted and lacking in much cinematic flare. Furthermore, much of the first twenty five minutes or so is built upon an abundance of awkward Samuel L. Exposition, not helped by a performance from the man that feels surprisingly phoned in. That said, all of the various character (re-)introductions go smoothly and the film swiftly jells together a lot better once the heroes come into contact with one another. Much of the film’s success can be attributed to many of these characters operating a lot better in the context of an ensemble, rather than in their own stand-alone features. Joss Whedon, an arguable master of band of misfits fiction, gets fine performances out of his stars, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Mark Ruffalo’s (new) Hulk receiving notably improved realisation. If there’s one complaint to be had in this regard, it’s that Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye feels a little under-developed. Renner is entertaining, but is sidelined for much of the narrative due to a plot contrivance. While Chris Hemsworth’s Thor feels like he has a slightly less prominent role due to not appearing until roughly 45 minutes in, he at least had an entire film to define him; Hawkeye’s prior cinematic appearance was in cameo form, so his small amount of screen time is problematic for viewer attachment.
Just as he was the highlight of the Thor film, so too is Loki that of The Avengers. The piercing-voiced Hiddleston is stellar in the part, proving a delight with his malicious but also petulant and often amusing little devil. While his alien allies ultimately prove the bigger physical threat, Loki is a glorious scene-stealer and worthy antagonist. He is served well by Whedon’s screenplay, as are most of the other players, one that is generally full of electric banter and instances of uproarious wit in terms of both dialogue and visual humour. As a director, Whedon makes up for that first action sequence with thrilling and thankfully coherent set-pieces, even if there’s little of the inspired visual execution of his much lower budget Serenity, aside from a swooping single shot showcasing his heroes’ exploits in a big battle. Additionally, the alien adversaries prove underwhelming generic on a design level. The spectacle is aided by the character dynamics, creating a sense of threat for the various Avengers despite the all-but-assured likelihood of their survival. The humorous leanings – and this is an extremely funny film in places – also compliment the threat rather than nullifying it; the sheer glee induced by the Hulk’s various roles in the final battle is extraordinary.
As previously said, this is a massive leap forward in quality for the Marvel films despite those few issues, with much of its success being attributable to its writer-director, who frees the canon of blandness and gives it charismatic charm. Operating on an epic scale but also immersive, The Avengers is an excellent blockbuster and quite easily the best adaptation of this comic company’s material from any studio.