– Summary –
Director : Joss Whedon
Year Of Release : 2012
Principal Cast : Robert Downey Jr, Samuel L Jackson, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Cobie Smulders, Clark Gregg, Stellan Skarsgard, Gwyneth Paltrow.
Approx Running Time : 140 Minutes
Synopsis: Loki, half-brother to Asgardian hero Thor, comes to Earth with plans of overrunning it with an army-for-hire and setting up shop as our ruler. Using a power source known as the Tesseract, Loki plans on opening a wormhole to the other side of the Galaxy for the invaders to use as a portal to our world. To combat this threat, SHIELD agent Nick Fury recruits a gang of heroes to stop them – and they would, if only they weren’t too busy fighting each other.
Ask any casual comic fan which stable of stars they are fans of, and you’ll always get one of two possible responses: Marvel, or DC. DC, of which I was an ardent fan until I got myself hitched and forsook all geeky product henceforth, had Superman, Batman, and the Martian Manhunter. Marvel Comics, a younger and more teen-centric company, had Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and most importantly, The Avengers. Where DC had the Justice League, Marvel had their own form of superhero gang, consisting of Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor and whichever B-list support character needed to be killed off in any given issue. The Avengers was, and remains, the pinnacle of Marvel’s publication efforts: it put their top-tier heroes on the same page battling a common enemy, usually one hell-bent on world domination. The formula was the same most of the time: Bad Guys arrive with plans to dominate the world (as usual) with some kind of cosmic power or unstoppable force, and the Avengers (or, if you read DC, the Justice League) would step up and save the day, putting aside their petty differences to thwart the larger enemy. In the last 5 years, Marvel has set about building their cinematic world much like they did their literary one, piece by piece with each new film slowly piecing together the jigsaw of a much grander plan. It really kicked off with Iron Man, starring Robert Downey Jr and released in 2008, settled in with the Edward Norton-starring Incredible Hulk, and continued through iterations of Captain America, Thor, Iron Man 2 and now, The Avengers. The films previous to Iron Man, namely efforts such as Daredevil, Elektra, and the Fantastic Four saga, were all pretty much stand alone efforts with little cohesive linkage between them – post Iron Man, however, Marvel Studios (the cinematic arm of the Marvel Entertainment Empire) have sought to set up the characters and events which would lead into the mother of all comic book films, the Joss Whedon helmed Avengers. Now, after all these years of planning, the hopes and dreams of nerdy little comic book geeks the world over lie with the 2 hours or so that Whedon has crafted under the headline acts of Iron Man, Hulk, Thor and Captain America, desiring nothing more than the ultimate comic book spectacle writ large on the big screen. Has all that planning, all that effort, paid off? Is The Avengers the ultimate comic book film?
Has it really only been 5 years? Five years since Iron Man kicked off the possibility that there could be more beneath a single film than we initially thought possible. The seeds to The Avengers film were sown at the back end of that film, with Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury essentially calling on Tony Stark to take part in some kind of “for the common good” project off the radar of public knowledge. What was interesting to me at the time, was the potential for that hint to backfire should future Marvel films fail to gain traction in the public arena. The Incredible Hulk, which featured Ed Norton, didn’t really touch on the involvement in the group which would become SHIELD, even though it was still set within the same cinematic Universe as Iron Man. Iron Man 2, as well as the following Marvel films, Thor, and Captain America, really put into place all the characters for the ultimate hero team-up, with secondary characters like The Black Widow and Hawkeye (the former debuting in Iron Man 2 and the latter in Thor) introduced to audiences in subtle, non-assuming ways. Marvel’s grand plan, it seemed, was to ready the world for something bigger. The fact that Clark Gregg, as Agent Coulson from the formative SHIELD organization, appeared in each of the films to add a sense of continuity helped establish a larger plan within audiences as each film played itself out. It’s hard to believe, but it’s only been five years since the journey to The Avengers actually began, and now here we are, witnessing the culmination of the Marvel dream factory’s efforts.
Warning: Minor Plot Spoilers Ahead!
Deep in a military installation in the desert, secret agency SHIELD, led by Agent Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), are trying to unlock the secrets to the power source known as the Tesseract, which was buried with the now-revived Captain America (Chris Evans) after his battle with the Red Skull. The Tesseract opens a doorway for Loki (Tom Hiddleston), former king of Asgard and half-brother to Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who proceeds to destroy the installation and taking the Tesseract with him. He uses mind-control to take SHIELD Agent Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Dr Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) for his own purposes, leaving Nick Fury with no other choice than to reinstate the recently disbanded Avengers initiative – he summons each of the heroes to a meeting on board SHIELD’s massive flying aircraft carrier. Tony Stark, aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), The Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), scientist Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America and Thor initially find reasons to dislike each other, and through their lack of concentration on the Loki problem, allow the ship to come under attack and one of their friends to be killed, before eventually banding together as a team and taking the fight to Loki and his invading army, culminating in an enormous battle in the middle of Manhattan, New York City.
It struck me as I watched The Avengers that the film had one key element working in its favor right from the outset. It was a given that the central heroes of the Avengers gang were already known to audiences who’d followed them over the journey to this point, but in a twist for a major superhero film of this size, the central villain was also one we’d been introduced to previously. Quite often, superhero films can be bogged down in excessive origin back-story, usually setting up the villain’s tragic tale (see any Tim Burton Batman film for how to do that right, and any Sam Raimi Spider-Man on how to screw it up) but The Avengers’ major selling point to me was that I already knew who the major players were in the film. Free of a large portion of set-up, Joss Whedon is able to get right to the action almost immediately. He’s been freed of the need to tell audiences who everyone is and why they are who they are, so he can just bring the rain (to use a Michal Bay-ism) to audiences salivating at the prospect of seeing The Hulk and Thor in the same frame of film. On the flipside to this, anybody going into The Avengers without seeing the previous Marvel films where each character is introduced is going to be completely confused as to what’s going on, but then, that’s your problem, not mine.
If you’re going to look for the film’s major positive, the big selling point, then you simply have to look at the cast in this beast. With each of the original cast returning to essay their roles – sans Edward Norton as The Hulk, more of which I’ll discuss in a moment – each actor brings a sense of comfort with their part. They know these roles, and as such can slip straight into the film with relative ease, and the same applies to the viewer as well. You know their story, so being reintroduced to them is a lot less difficult had they needed to be explained from the get-go. Robert Downey Jr steals every second he’s on the screen (seriously, though, when doesn’t he?), while Chris’s Evans and Hemsworth do solid jobs backing him up as Cap and Thor respectively. Previously second-tier characters Hawkeye and Black Widow get a lot more to do here, with Scarlett looking simply drop-dead amazing, and Jeremy Renner doing even more for his resume as Hawkeye – I admit, his introduction in Thor was a little ordinary, so I’m glad to see he has a beefier part in this. Sam Jackson mouths off as he normally does, trying to make every line he has into a pop-culture classic like his Tarantino work – never fear, gentle reader, he doesn’t get into Snakes On A Plane territory at all – but the most interesting role of the lot went to newcomer Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner.
This film marks the third actor to play the role of the angry green giant in as many cinematic outings – Aussie Eric Bana essayed the part in Ang Lee’s turgid misfire on the character, while Ed Norton decided not to go around again after executing the character brilliantly in Louis Leterrier’s underrated 2008 outing – and I have to say, Ruffalo’s the closest I’ve seen to an actor achieving what I’d only imagined in my mind’s eye. His Banner is pretty much spot on to what I’d imagined from reading the comics, at least moreso than Bana and even Norton, if I was honest. And the end result of his rage, the Hulk, is manifested brilliantly. While Banner spends a great deal of the films’ first half confined to a laboratory, when the Hulk comes to play – or rather, smash – the film kicks up a gear. The CGI Hulk is indeed an impressive sight: Whedon handles the Hulk with ease, and of all the characters in this film, he was by far my favorite. It’s the Hulk who gets a fair amount of the fun to do in the final act, as a figure of unbridled rage and destruction let loose upon the advancing alien army. I know who I’d be putting money on!
The backup cast, including Clark Gregg reprising Agent Coulson, as well as Tom Hiddleston revisiting the Loki character, are solid enough, with Hiddleston having the lion’s share of fun as the central villain of the film. He’s the archetypal foe – powerful, in his own right, and yet still insistent on having an army do all his dirty work. Hiddleston brings a sense of unhinged, almost Joker-ish, nothing-to-lose instability to the role, taking what was begun in Thor and sending it to the next level. Loki might not hold his own in one-on-one combat with the more powerful of our Avengers team (especially the Hulk), he spends the film using his sneaky-sneaky ways to get under the skin of our heroes. Hiddleston nails the part perfectly, and while he’s no Heath Ledger, he personifies the fractured, emotionally fragile creation so very well. Also keep an eye out for How I Met Your Mother star Cobie Smulders as Fury’s second-in-command SHIELD agent, Maria Hill; she’s not a stand-out character, but Smulders does well as the only other major female character aside from the Widow. Previous film characters are referenced throughout – Thor’s Earthbound love interest, Jane (Natalia Portman) is shown to be safe somewhere isolated, Stark’s romantic interest, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) has an extended cameo at the beginning and end of the film, and Paul Bettany once more returns as the voice of Jarvis. There was no mention of Bruce Banner’s love interest or franchise related characters, however, and this was a tad disappointing from a fan perspective.
The potential for this film to come undone as a story is huge, since the sheer volume of characters, plot points and scope of the destruction threatens to overwhelm audiences; thankfully, both the script (by comic fan Zak Penn and director Whedon) and the direction itself straddle the massive scale this franchise has to deal with quite well. The sly humor and wit comic books have is replicated exceptionally well here, with each character having several moments which make viewers laugh out loud. Each character, from good to bad, have their time in the spotlight – no, this isn’t the Robert Downey Jr show entirely – for both moments of character development and simple, well-made humor. Even in the most desperate moments of battle, the heat of conflict, Whedon and his crew still find a way of keeping it fairly light; for the coming apocalypse, The Avengers has a sweet sense of humor. While the film moves at an extraordinary pace, the story does tend to get bogged down in one particular place for a prolonged period – aboard SHIELD’s massive flying ship. Once the Avengers… er… assemble on this massive headquarters, the film stays there for pretty much an hour or so, as our heroes fight amongst themselves, and the attacking enemy, before it’s on to New York and the battle to save Earth. While this prolonged period on board the ship allows for plenty of character development and plotting, I think that repeated viewings of this film might just allow the col-hard-light-of-day feeling that this entire sequence could have been tightened up just a smidge… but this is a most minor of weaknesses in an otherwise exemplary film.
Story and plot aside (and really, in a film where Thor and the Hulk co-exist, who’s asking for plot, right?) this film is all about the gigantic visual effects and massive battles. And it delivers. Big. The Avengers is a comic-book film for the ages, particularly the frenetic battle for the SHIELD Mothership (that’s what I’m calling it, okay) and the ensuing battle in the midst of New York. This film is, to use the phrase one of my co-audience members used, epic. It truly is. Take what Michael Bay achieved in the Chicago sequence during Transformers: Dark Of The Moon and multiply that by at least ten. The Avengers, through the alien army and the Avengers’ response, lays waste to vast swathes of New York City, with our heroes pushed to the limit both emotionally and physically as they battle to save the day. Massive alien worm-things fly through, between and around the iconic New York skyline, causing destruction and carnage wherever they go; it’s not a simple effort by our heroes to stop these things – they are massively hard to bring them down. Whedon’s inserted jaw-dropping moment after jaw-dropping moment, and in between those he’s added a few more jaw-dropping moments, just to make sure we get the point that this is indeed a massive spectacle. A massive, epic spectacle. The film’s major through-line, that the Avengers are a band of disparate heroes all lacking focus and a common purpose, leading to their eventual getting over themselves and saving the day, is handled exceptionally well. Robert Downey Jr’s friction with Fury, Banner and Cap is delicious to watch, as is the Widow’s sequence with Loki when the latter is captured and imprisoned for a short period. Subtle plot threads are developed, showing us that hidden beneath this film is a larger world waiting to bubble up, and you get the sense that even our heroes aren’t always in charge of their own destiny. Oh, and an aside: stick around after the initial credits for a post-film stinger – man, it’s a doozy!
I’m still sitting here trying to come up with a reason to dock a few points off my final score for The Avengers, but I can’t. The script is witty, sharp and balances all the characters and stories really, really well. The acting is first rate from the entire cast: from Downey Jr down to the minor roles, nobody puts a foot wrong. The visual effects are impressive to say the least – that final New York battle sequence must be seen to be believed – and the sound is astonishing. Alan Silvestri’s score isn’t what I’d call iconic, and it does get a little lost amongst the explosions and laughs, but when required, the music pumps along nicely. The controller of all this mayhem, Joss Whedon, skillfully maneuvers between storylines and set-pieces with consummate ease, keeping the pacing razor sharp and never letting us pause for breath, and it’s this that makes The Avengers such a compelling film. I know, I’m starting to sound like a rabid fanboy (I’m not, you know) but this truly is a mind-blowing time at the cinema. I can’t speak more highly of a film, truth be told. This one will go down as a genuine classic of the genre.
The Avengers is a massive film in virtually every way – production value, cast, story and visual effects are all enormously epic, and while the potential for a director to get lost in the hubbub of such a massive movie as this is high, Joss Whedon’s capable hands are more than steady enough to mould an amazingly entertaining showpiece of cinema. Undeniably exciting, filled with more “wow!” moments than George Lucas could even fantasize about, and still retaining the respect for the source material – something a lot of comic-book based films seem to fail at time and again – The Avengers
might just be is one of the best comic book films of all time. And I say that with the utmost respect for what Chris Nolan has accomplished with his Batman trilogy. If it’s not the best, then it’s certainly one of the most entertaining spectacle films you’re likely to see – ever. Definitely assemble for this one!