It’s always odd to know a movie is coming years in advance and then finally reach the day when the damn thing finally comes out. This is true to some extent of even moderate sized Hollywood productions, but the feeling especially prevails in the case of “tentpole” blockbusters. Even amongst the biggest of blockbusters, I don’t know that there’s ever been a movie that had a longer and more intense buildup than The Avengers. Audiences have been anticipating this movie since 2007, when the surprise mega-hit Iron Man ended with a surprise post-credit sequence with Samuel L. Jackson as S.H.I.E.L.D agent Nick Fury. Since then we’ve gotten not one, not two, not three, but four big budget feature length films to build up to this film were Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, and Captain America would all team up to defeat a common threat. That sounds like a sure thing but it really isn’t. The movie needs to reintroduce each character, introduce a common threat, form the team, establish personal conflict within the team, and then solve said conflict in time for a finale, all the while being an effects extravaganza on a level that would justify all the hype. That’s a tall order, but somehow the filmmakers actually do pull this off to a certain extent.
Threatening the world this time is Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who was the main threat to Thor in his film last year. That wouldn’t seem like a threat that would need the combined efforts of four major superheroes to defeat, but he’s allied himself with a group of aliens that are looking to invade and take over earth, and that’s the larger threat here. After Loki steals the Tesseract (the glowing magical cube thing from the Captain America movie) Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) decides to put the “Avengers” initiative into effect. Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) are reluctantly brought together and put to work in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s base (which is a flying air-craft carrier!). Given that it’s his brother causing all the trouble, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) shows up shortly, and the team is also assisted by two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents: The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, who was featured in Iron Man 2) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner, who made a very brief cameo in Thor).
The man chosen to bring all these characters and elements together was Joss Whedon, creator of the cult T.V. series “Firefly” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Whedon is something of a geek icon, but people familiar with my tastes will know that I’m not the biggest fan of the guy. My problem with Whedon is his tendency to insert his own sort of snarky voice into his characters mouths, a trick that does tend to make his work fun but which undercuts any legitimate storytelling that he’s trying to do. I was really worried that he’d hijack this movie and turn into another Whedon snark-fest, but fortunately that really isn’t the case. There are some Whedon one-liners and asides to be found here, but they actually seem to lend themselves pretty well to Marvel’s established world (specifically the Tony Stark character) and he doesn’t over-do it to the degree that he often does.
Of course one wonders just how much it really matters who directs these Marvel movies. Jon Favreau, Louis Leterrier, Kenneth Branagh, and Joe Johnston might have brought a little bit extra to their respective movies, but for the most part the movies feel like they kind of came off the same assembly line. It’s almost more like a T.V. series in which a bunch of anonymous directors helm each episode rather than a movie series where each film is a unique directorial vision, and The Avengers is no exception for the most part. Whedon did show some clear affinity for visual effects in Serenity but he doesn’t have much of a signature visual style and he doesn’t develop much of one here either.
Instead he’s more or less picked up where the Iron Man series left off and simply made everything bigger, which is no easy task when you consider that the preceding films were all sizable productions to begin with. Make no mistake, this movie is BIG. There are a bunch of action set-pieces and they clearly spent a sizable amount of money on the visual effects. In fact there are so many effects shots here that one wonders how Whedon and company were able to keep track of them all. There’s a set-piece mid-way through the film which easily could have served as the finale of one of the earlier Marvel films, and that is itself eclipsed by the film’s actual finale, which is an excellent battle scene in the middle of New York. The film never quite reaches the size and scope of a James Cameron or Peter Jackson epic, but it gets close at times.
If the film is lacking in anything, it’s a real sense of threat. Loki is simply not a big enough threat to really justify the combined efforts of all four of these characters, and frankly I didn’t love the guy in Thor and I don’t particularly like him here. On top of that, Marvel has so much invested in these characters that there’s really no suspense that any of them are going to die in this thing. One could argue that this is true of pretty much any superhero movie, but it’s a bit more jarring when the film focuses on a team of heroes rather than one solitary hero. The X-Men, for example, are a lot more expendable than The Avengers. Sure, we know they’re not going to kill off Wolverine any time soon, but there is a sense that everyone else is fair game and that tends to add a lot more suspense to the proceedings. In this movie, when a “good guy” is finally killed it’s such a throw-away character that it almost feels like a cop-out.
This all speaks to the core problem that generally holds this movie back from greatness: and aggressive lack of weight. While Christopher Nolan, Bryan Singer, and Ang Lee have all tried, with varying degrees of success, to make superhero films that aspire to be more than a mere “comic book blockbuster” these Marvel movies have all been more or less comfortable being disposable entertainment. That might be even more true of The Avengers than of the films that preceded it. Still, it does what it does very effectively. In short, if you liked the earlier Marvel movies (as I did) you’ll really like this one and if you didn’t like them you won’t like this one either. It’s exactly the movie you think it will be and I suspect that’s exactly what most audiences will be looking for.
***1/2 out of Four