Ever since the success of Iron Man in 2008, the Marvel Universe movies have been building to a point: The Avengers. With each individual character movie finding massive success, the idea of combining the characters into a team became even more of an enigma: how do you take four characters who have triumphed in their own pictures (as well as two supporting players) and combine them into an ensemble picture with any sort of balance? The Avengers miraculously finds a way and sets a high bar for any other blockbusters this summer.
The premise of The Avengers, both in the comic book world and the movie, is that a team of “Earth’s mightiest heroes” comes together when a foe appears who is bigger than any one of them can handle. In the cinematic world it’s a project that Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Samuel L. Jackson) has been working on for five movies, appearing in the shadows of end-credit sequences with exposition leading to this movie. The impetus finally comes for the heroes to come together when Loki (Tom Hiddleston) gets his hands on the tesseract used by the Red Skull in Captain America. With the Asgardian trickster planning on using the device to open a portal to let in an extraterrestrial army, it’s up to Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to team up and save the day.
The best move that could have been made as far as creating The Avengers was to bring Joss Whedon on board to co-write and direct. Whedon has proven his ability to work with ensembles for most of his career (Bufy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly are all strong team-led productions). He brings that talent to The Avengers, combining all of the former frontmen into a strong ensemble but still giving each individual character the chance to shine – even minor characters from previous films like Johansson’s Black Widow and Renner’s Hawkeye or Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson get the spotlight, making them equals in this production instead of just supporting players.
Despite The Avengers being a team, nothing feels sacrificed by bringing these characters together. Every portrayal feels true to the characters we’ve seen in previous films. Tony Stark is still an egotistical asshole who has to be reminded why he took up the mantle of a hero, while Steve Rodgers is still an idealist boy scout – a personality that doesn’t quite fit in with modern times. Whedon and co-writer Zak Penn use those ideological differences to create conflict within the team as its members come together, creating some sensational moments and sequences that pit hero against hero in fights most fanboys dream of. Ever wondered what a fight between Hulk and Thor would look like? How about when Captain American and Iron Man clash? It’s all in here delivered in a very satisfying style. At the same time, some unusual friendships begin to develop over the course of the movie, laying a strong foundation that makes me want to see another Avengers story sooner rather than later, or at least for more crossover within each individual hero’s story.
Don’t take my description and references to previous chapters to mean there’s a requirement that you’re familiar with the five lead-in movies, however. While I’ve seen the previous films, I found the references to them were fully explained here and really didn’t require previous knowledge. My wife, who had only seen Iron Man and Thor, also found the film fully enjoyable and easy to follow. In fact, one of the film’s highlights – Mark Ruffalo’s take on Bruce Banner and the Incredible Hulk – has never been seen in a previous film, yet Ruffalo feels just as comfortable and in place as any of the other players.
Whedon not only makes sure the characters feel true to the previous stories we’ve seen, but he also does an amazing job of continually giving them something to do. No character is sidelined for very long and the film balances each of them perfectly. In the action sequences we are constantly rotated through what the heroes are doing and where other action movies sometimes marginalizes a character in order to move forward, Whedon uses the various characters’ talents and skills to amp up the action at every opportunity. Each action sequence feels elevated from the previous one, with larger stakes and conflicts, leading to the safety of the entire planet – truly a struggle worthy of bringing together these heroes.
Where The Avengers ranks on your personal list of super-hero movies is going to be up to your individual tastes, but it is certain to rank high because Whedon gives it everything it needs to be a success, both as a character-driven piece and as a summer action blockbuster. The characters are strong and the action is intense – and (most importantly) completely followable. The Avengers is the kind of blockbuster we expect from the summer and other films angling for the next few months are going to have one hell of a challenge to beat what this film accomplishes on screen.