What’s a little antagonism between friends? In the case of The Avengers, it’s everything, and provides the motor for Joss Whedon’s enormously entertaining movie, the first Marvel film to group Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Captain America (Chris Evans) together.
Each superhero is flying high from the success of their respective franchises, and the quality has proven surprisingly consistent. Things started on a high point with the first Iron Man in 2008 and even the lesser pictures (Louis Leterrier’s Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton) had their entertaining moments.
The Avengers is a culmination of the past four years (not to mention four years’ worth of sly credit teasers), and Whedon has been expected to shoulder a massive amount of pressure. After all, one superhero per film is one thing; to deal with several in one feature requires a very steady hand indeed, with each respective character demanding an equal amount of screen time. The film’s great achievement is how it takes the character driven principles of the previous Marvel movies and extends them through a wider array of personalities.
But of course, Whedon is the ideal man for the job, given his skill with a large ensemble as seen in the likes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. Things kick off with a figure seen fleetingly in the earlier movies: Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury. Part of the top secret SHIELD agency, Fury is called into action when the magical cube called the Tesseract (last seen in Captain America) allows the exiled Norse God Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to pass onto Earth.
Seeking to harness the power of the Tesseract for his own ends (namely, to bring the evil Chitauri into our world), Loki has transformed from the insidious manipulator seen in Thor to full-blown pantomime villain, and Hiddleston wonderfully plays it to the hilt.
Fury realises the only way to stop him is to group together the disparate heroes we’ve come to know and love: the playboy, the demi-god, the super soldier, and the giant. They also have help from Scarlett Johansson’s ass-kicking Black Widow, transformed under Whedon’s direction into a compelling character battling her own demons after realising that Loki has corrupted the mind of fellow SHIELD agent Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).
Curiously, the villain’s scheme, which provides the main framework of the movie, is its least interesting aspect. Whedon normally specialises in the demonic and frightful (see the recent Cabin in the Woods) and it’s a shame that this aspect of the plot wasn’t given more heft, although as mentioned, Hiddleston’s performance is terrific (and as a mark of Whedon’s confident writing, he even gets as many belly laughs as the heroes). No, what really matters is the interaction between The Avengers themselves, and how each of their respective destinies fleshes out the otherwise threadbare plot.
It’s a delicious clash of egos and personalities and Whedon, ever the enthusiastic fanboy, exploits it for maximum effect. Downey Jr’s Stark dismisses Hemsworth’s olde English-speaking Thor as ‘Shakespeare in the Park’, and also clashes with Evans’ high-minded idealism as Captain America. Meanwhile, Ruffalo makes for the most engaging incarnation of Bruce Banner so far. Picking up where Eric Bana and Norton left off, he adopts the shuffling, shambolic persona seen in The Kids are Alright and makes for an enjoyably reluctant hero who just wants to stay out of everyone’s way, lest ‘the other guy’ makes an appearance (it’s also telling that the Hulk himself is most effective when part of a wider ensemble, as opposed to his own film).
One special shout out must go to the brilliant Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson (whose name alone sparks one of the movie’s funniest gags). A mainstay throughout all of the previous films, Gregg’s deadpan wit anchors the audience in a wonderful humanity, even while things are going skyward.
But although the movie is uproariously funny, it’s also dramatically engaging, respecting each of the character’s respective mythologies even whilst sending up their amusing foibles. Assembling on Fury’s floating helicarrier (making more of an impact in two minutes than the whole of Battleship), Stark must learn that endless flippancy alone won’t save the day, while Thor’s battle with his villainous adopted brother means his fight is personal. Meanwhile, cast adrift in the modern world, Captain America struggles to come to terms with the apparent naivety of his idealistic outlook, while Banner’s struggle is with himself. As for Loki, he doesn’t simply crave power but subjugation: the people of Earth need to recognise him as ruler or his plan fails, something which, refreshingly, causes a degree of self-doubt.
Whedon does a tremendous job in balancing the characters: everyone gets their moment to shine (although we’re still waiting for Jackson to do more) and no-one feels short-changed. It’s this dramatic meat that makes the final, lavishly staged showdown in New York City such a gripping experience. Whedon realises it’s not the explosions that matter but the people who cause them, so consequently the final battle becomes a master class in juggling individual character crises while building to that vital moment when they all learn to work together.
However, he never loses his sense of humour or flair with snappy, pop-culture dialogue -this is in the end, popcorn entertainment, not philosophical entertainment in the manner of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. But when it’s done with as much wit, charm and sophistication as here, there’s no problem with that whatsoever. A $220 million franchise movie propelled entirely on the strength of its characters -who would have thought it?