A time-displaced soldier. A Norse god. A playboy billionaire genius. A brilliant scientist who turns into a raging monster when angry. A former Russian spy. An expert marksman. On paper, a team comprised of six individuals this vastly different shouldn’t work. There are egos to deal with, competitive urges, the occasional extinction-level event. Since 1963, the Avengers have walked the very fine line between being Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and Earth’s Largest Screw-Ups. All it took back then was an assortment of popular comic book characters and the retrospectively brilliant idea of bringing a World War II era hero back from the publishing grave. In 2012, to get The Avengers together under the auspices of one movie took a more herculean effort: Five good-to-great movies serving as pretense, an assemblage of the right actors playing the right characters, and the right director at the helm of so much potential chaos.
And The Avengers could have been chaotic. Not only does it meld four established film franchises, but it also must find time for the characters who’ve appeared in the margins of those films, all while pushing forward each franchise and providing a platform from which other films can be spun off. In terms of sheer ambition, tentpole movies like The Avengers aren’t just rare—they’re an aberration. As the creator of many ensemble television shows that are remembered both for their general quality cultish adoration that follows them, Joss Whedon may have been the only practical choice for the film, a director capable of the gigantic action set-pieces required of the genre and the small character moments required of source material built around flawed characters.
The Avengers are called together to protect the planet from threats larger than any single superhero, and, as threats go, an alien invasion led by a demented Norse god is a pretty big one. Loki (Tom Hiddleston), if you remember, was hurled into an abyss by his brother Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and emerged none too happy about the ordeal. Driven by revenge (Thor’s ladylove happens to live on the planet, so conquering it works as revenge), Loki forges an alliance with an alien army and goes about moving his pieces into position. He steals a tesseract—a cube of boundless, potentially destructive energy—from a SHIELD base, in the process enslaving both a brilliant scientist (Stellan Skarsgård, reprising his role from Thor), and SHIELD agent Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), who is freakishly good with a bow and arrow. This puts the world, and, more importantly, SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) on notice. War is coming, and few things can save the planet.
The Avengers‘ job as a film then is to get the gang together. Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson)—the former Russian spy Black Widow—and Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans) are the easiest to convince, as Widow already works for SHIELD and Captain America isn’t the kind of guy who’d shy away from saving the world. The other members of the Avengers need more persuading. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), for example, has been told over the course of two films that he’s not team material. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), last seen destroying most of Harlem, is uninterested in reentering society. And it’s debatable that Thor would have come back to Earth were the threat against it something less than a personal grudge. Against a guy as powerful and well-connected as Loki, one could be forgiven for thinking that Nick Fury’s gambit is in vain. But the stakes are ultimately too high for the group to not gel, and off they go to the traditional comic book battleground of Manhattan to wage war with a god and his extraterrestrial organic machines.
Whedon keeps things snappy throughout The Avengers, which is no mean feat for a two hour, twenty-two minute movie. Where lead-in movies like The Incredible Hulk, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Thor offered glimpses and beats of what make those characters work and why they’ve remained popular for over forty years, The Avengers somehow magnifies the qualities of those films, taking characters who maybe aren’t as popular or well-known as Spider-Man and the X-Men and establishing them as icons in their own right. Captain America, now a man undefined and lost in time, finds his heart here, where he’s more a team leader than cocky, jingoistic propaganda device. Thor remains the indolent thunder god of his film, though his paper thin pulpiness is muted out by the presence of a team. He and Hawkeye are given the lightest touch by the film, but they are also the two characters so well-defined by their genre that The Avengers would be needlessly wringing its hands trying to give Thor a bigger problem than his brother, or Hawkeye something more significant to chew on than being a steel-eyed normal guy amongst walking atomic bombs.
The Hulk, surprisingly, is the star of the show, and that’s even before poor Bruce Banner loses control on SHIELD’s invisible aircraft-carrying hovercraft. As played by Mark Ruffalo, Banner appears to have finally come to terms with “the other guy,” and is a volunteer doctor worlds away from the aggravation of life in America. He plays Banner with a hint of slacker charm, the sort of guy who is, on one hand, worth hanging out with but, on the other, keeps weirdly alluding to this dark, shady past. When brought back into the fold, he falls in with Tony Stark over a mutual love of science and admiration of what each is capable of within the field. It’s Banner who lends much gravitas to this film, giving Stark a new means of recklessness, being something of a lynchpin to Loki’s plot to destroy the team before it properly forms. Upon transformation, The Hulk sets about stealing every scene he’s in. He also looks better than in previous Hulk films, not necessarily more realistic—though being on screen with flesh-and-blood humans as opposed to other hulking masses of pixels makes the shortcomings of CGI character models less evident—but truer to Jack Kirby’s vision of the character, slouching slightly due to his impossible musculature.
The film’s third act, Manhattan-destroying invasion sequence is also something of an underdog in that it’s coming along after so many Michael Bay, Roland Emmerich, and Hasbro toy line-based movies made a cottage industry of artlessly razing iconic city skylines. Unlike Transformers, G.I. Joe, or 2012—movies that hope you’re somewhat aroused by the falling skyscrapers—The Avengers keeps its focus squarely on the characters involved in the battle and what they do to help those around them. So many modern action movies act as if there is no consequence to their alarmingly high body count—good wins, evil loses, both teams pack up their things and go home until the next city-destroying sequel—The Avengers are actually driven not just by their thirst for revenge or need to conquer evil, but also by their desire to help people who are ill-equipped for the brave new world they had no idea existed. Also nice: The sequence is a rare one in that it doesn’t also function as a thinly veiled advertisement for the United States Army, who’ve gotten much traction in the field of emptying clip after clip of ammo into nondescript, faceless evil.
I can see an argument that The Avengers is a paper thin entertainment. The heroes gather, they battle a villain, they disperse, returning to their own franchises until all involved gather to once again make hundreds of millions of dollars. The villain pays lip service to the idea of free will, the heroes stand for immutable good, and all goes according to plan. But that’s always been Marvel Comics’ modus operandi, distinguishing itself from the moralizing Superman or brooding Batman mythos by gazing into their particular abyss with a wry smile. The plot and its point may be more arch than The Dark Knight or any number of grim-and-gritty comic book counterparts, but The Avengers succeeds on a level those films do not, playing to its campy four-color roots and those who appreciate them while also placating those who just came for a good time, free from the weight of so many longboxes. The Avengers succeeds where many other superhero movies fail, convincing potentially apathetic audiences to care about characters who, to this point, have been non-essential. In short, what’s assembled here is a fun movie that’s long on what many other fun movies so obviously lack: Actual fun.
The Avengers. Directed by Joss Whedon. With Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark/Iron Man), Chris Evans (Steve Rogers/Captain America), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner/The Hulk), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow), Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton/Hawkeye), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Clark Gregg (Agent Phil Coulson), Cobie Smulders (Agent Maria Hill), Stellan Skarsgård (Selvig), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts) and Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury). Released May 4, 2012, by Paramount Pictures.