While I enjoyed the run-up of Marvel solo movies, for me the characters involved — especially Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor — were Avengers first and individual heroes second. Finally, The Avengers (2012) brings them all together, and better, they’re brought together by Joss Whedon, who handles superhero group dynamics as well, if not better, than anybody. The result is laugh-out-loud funny, visually stunning, and wildly entertaining. Two and half hours has never blazed past so quickly.
The plot is a typical Marvel universe kludge of threats from other dimensions, pseudoscience run amok, and larger-than-life characters exchanging blows and banter. The spy organization SHIELD, led by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), is investigating an artifact called the Tesseract — which, it is believed, could be a source of limitless clean energy. The Tesseract is stolen by the trickster god Loki (Tom Hiddleston), whose plan is to unleash an alien army on the Earth and take over. To counter the threat, Fury convinces the World Security Council to re-start the abandoned Avengers Initiative, bringing together a team of extraordinary individuals to combat the threat. Not that they assemble all that cooperatively; only the duty-driven Captain America (Chris Evans) joins without complaint. A reluctant Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) is recruited by SHIELD superspy Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to help track the Tesseract. Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) reports, but deeply suspicious of SHIELD’s hidden agenda, and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) only shows up to settle a score with his brother Loki. From these scattered beginnings, this disorganized band of individuals must come together as a team to hold off the invading alien army and defeat Loki.
Of course, you don’t really see Marvel films for the plots. You see them for the eyeball kicks, the witty quips and intense action sequences. And while The Avengers has these attributes in spades, it also has Joss Whedon, who’s a master of created family ensemble dynamics, and he manages to throw his iconic arsenal of heroes together in endlessly entertaining combinations. On the character level — especially for those of us steeped in Marvel lore, watching familiar figures leap to life on the screen — The Avengers is a smashing success. In the flesh, Cap, Thor, and Iron Man are much more likeable than my impressions of them from my comic book days. Mark Ruffalo frequently steals the show with his amusing performance as Bruce Banner, while The Hulk’s rampages have never been realized quite so effectively on screen. Whedon also gives plenty of heroic moments to his SHIELD roster: Fury, Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), and especially Black Widow, whose deviousness and acrobatics are nicely realized. My only real disappointment on this score was Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who — primarily for reasons of plot — didn’t quite capture the smiling, brash wiseass of my memory. Which isn’t to say Renner isn’t the right man for the job, but I think my standards are higher for this character, who’s pretty much always been my favorite Avenger. (At any rate, I came away from this one hoping that the quietly rumored Agents of SHIELD film comes to pass. Although frankly, if another solo movie comes out of The Avengers, I hope it goes to Black Widow.)
On the downside, there are some sketchy story transitions — hmm, why did this or that character suddenly start cooperating? — but for the most part I think Whedon does a great job drawing all the threads together from the various lead-in films. In a sense, the script — like the production, I expect — is a triumph of logistics, cramming in so many characters and subplots in a limited space, meanwhile mining the lore to make it ring true for old-timers. But ultimately this isn’t a film that begs critical deconstruction…it’s mainly just a vastly entertaining romp, and probably moreso for folks who are already fans of The Avengers or Joss Whedon. For a fan of both, like me, this film almost sounds to good to be true. But hey, here it is!