Let’s face it: you’re going to go and see The Avengers no matter what I say about it; some of you are probably settling in for a midnight screening as I type. Writer-director Joss Whedon’s superhero extravaganza has already broken box office records around the world, making it the first true blockbuster of 2012. With successful films based on each of The Avengers four primary superheroes (not to mention the legions of long-time fans of the comics), the film is a preordained hit for Marvel & Disney, regardless of what the critics say. Sometimes it’s hard to write about movies of this sort because fan and critical responses can be so divergent. Thankfully, The Avengers is one of those rare films that finds a way to please all of the people some of the time. It’s not perfect and I didn’t love it, but The Avengers is a superhero movie for the books, if only because of its scale, and the relative success with which Whedon and company manage that scale.
The film hits the ground running, with demi-god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) stepping through a portal into a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility and stealing a power source with unlimited potential. In response, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) summons Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr., as handsome and quippy as ever), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and puts the Avengers Initiative into action. The rest of the film answers two questions: will these superheroes manage to save the world from Loki and his invading alien army, and will they manage to do it without killing each other?
The Avengers gets a lot right, and much of the credit must go to Joss Whedon. Not since Iron Man has a Marvel film focused so much on character and crackled with such strong wit. Dull and flat in last summer’s Thor, the demi-god brothers come to life in The Avengers script: both characters are far more complex and interesting here. As Loki, Hiddleston revels in his increased profile, bringing a playfulness to the character we haven’t seen before and delivering Whedon’s trademark sassy dialogue with skill and aplomb.
Refreshed and greatly improved since his last big screen appearance too is Bruce Banner, the Hulk who audiences never seemed to connect with. By focusing on the man rather than the monster, Whedon reminds us of the link Banner shares with Tony Stark – the pair are scientists first and superheroes second – again adding depth to a character who has been reduced to two dimensions in past outings. Ruffalo, always steady yet somehow vulnerable, was the perfect actor to cast as Banner. With a rumoured Hulk film in the works, this depth and vulnerability was essential to cultivate.
No choice comes without consequence, and in The Avengers some of what Whedon gains in character development he loses in pacing and storytelling. On one level, this comes as a surprise – much of Whedon’s previous work features ensemble casts, so he’s well-versed in juggling character and story – but the requirements of The Avengers are significantly more restrictive than Buffy or Firefly. Unlike a television series, where character arcs ebb and flow across seasons, a feature film demands that all the proverbial balls stay up in the air all the time. While Whedon’s script manages this deftly, the result is often uneven pacing and a narrative that doesn’t so much flow as jerk resolutely ahead. It’s a treat to see Banner and Stark bonding and the film is better for it, but scenes of this sort slow the story, making The Avengers seem significantly longer than its 144 minute running time.
That being said, I’m well aware that sublime narrative pacing isn’t the reason people flock to summer blockbusters. If the storytelling in The Avengers slows at points, the all-out ass-kicking action sequences more than make up for an occasionally sluggish pace. The special effects and visual effects teams do astonishing work in these sequences, and though Alan Silvestri’s three chord score is tired and derivative it nonetheless does its job of revving the audience’s collective engine. We’ve all seen what Iron Man can do on his own, so it’s easy to imagine how exponentially more hardcore these sequences are when Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Hawkeye and the Black Widow join him and help beat the baddies. I challenge anyone to say they wouldn’t want to eat shawarma with these guys after watching them kick some alien ass.
The Avengers may be neither a perfect nor a perfectly satisfying movie, but in this age of sequels, prequels, and reboots, can we ever be perfectly satisfied? Knowing that the final moments of The Avengers anticipate the inevitable sequel, the film’s focus on character development over pacing makes sense: this is a foundational text, a very expensive set-up if you will. The Avengers is more than worthwhile in it’s own right, but I for one am excited to see where they go from here. Here’s hoping Joss Whedon stays on the team for game two.