It shouldn’t work. On a basic structural level, “The Avengers” has too many characters, too many expectations, too much backstory, too much stuff to make a credible film, let alone a multimillion-dollar cinematic event. But by building a cinematic universe with five introductory films to serve as tent poles, not only did Marvel Studios make “The Avengers” possible, but they managed to pull off one hell of an entertaining film.
Assembling “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) as well as the not-super-powered-but-super-capable agents Black Widow and Hawkeye, director Joss Whedon unleashes them with the glee of a kid playing with his action figures. Things blow up , tempers flare, egos clash, and yes, Hulk smashes. The best thing is that Whedon seems to realize that the entertainment doesn’t come from watching our favorite heroes beat up the scum of the galaxy but from watching them beat up each other, both literally and figuratively. As it turns out, Earth’s mightiest also happen to be a mighty bunch of nutcases.
So why do these fractured heroes have any business being in the same room? They’re called together by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the director of a peacekeeping agency called S.H.I.E.L.D., to help defeat Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s damaged adoptive brother, and his extraterrestrial army, the Chitauri. Loki comes to Earth to get his hands on the Tesseract, a cosmic blue cube that could be an endless source of energy or a weapon of mass destruction. Loki wants to take over Earth mostly because he’s the god of mischief and also because he didn’t take the news of his lineage very well. The plot is just a thing the film is required to have so that all these guys end up in one place, and once they do, after an exposition-heavy thirty minutes, it becomes one of the most fun spring blockbusters in recent memory.
It’s harder to decide which aspect of the film ranks higher: Whedon’s razor-sharp, self-aware dialogue or the performances from his A-list cast.
Downey is enjoyable as ever as the iron-clad playboy, able to help deliver the film’s sharpest punchlines and its quietest dramatic moments. Each hero gives commanding performances. Hemsworth improves upon his already-decent performance as the god of thunder by bringing a beautiful sense of fury to his fight scenes. Evans nails the earnest good nature of Steve Rogers, who could easily get lost in the cracks between the already popular Iron Man and the two guys strong enough to level buildings. Captain America shakes out to be the leader of the team by calling the shots, and Evans sells the position with heart. Scarlett Johansson’s role as the shady Natasha Romanoff is a vast improvement from her first appearance in “Iron Man 2,” and her “very specific skill set” is put to good use during one electrifying interrogation scene between her and Loki.
Unfortunately, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye has somewhat less to do, due to the demands of the plot, but Renner still manages to infuse the part with an enjoyable brooding cool. Hiddleston is clearly having the time of his life playing Loki, who is aptly described as a “bag of cats” — wonderfully droll at one moment and terrifyingly crazed the next.
Surprisingly enough, it’s the newcomer that manages to steal the scenes from underneath all the admirable aforementioned, and the casting of Ruffalo as Bruce Banner and his verdant alter-ego may be one of the smartest decisions made for the film. The Hulk as a character has been nigh-impossible to adapt to the screen, as any frustrated Marvel fan will tell you, and Whedon seems to have found the perfect balance by using “the other guy,” as Banner repeatedly calls his transformed persona, sparingly. Banner makes his first green appearance almost 80 minutes into the film, but Ruffalo manages to pull off in about 30 minutes of screen time what his predecessors (Eric Bana, Edward Norton) only sort of managed in their own feature films.
Ruffalo’s Banner is appealingly self-deprecating, easing the tension of his condition by making quiet, weary jokes about it. In contrast to all the ripped, towering specimens around him, he’s disheveled with a twitchy demeanor and ill-fitting clothes, and he ends up being the most interesting to watch. It’s only further in his performance that you can see some real bitterness and anger right beneath the surface of his calm demeanor.
“I’m exposed like a nerve. It’s a nightmare,” he admits to Stark. (Their relationship is one of the highlights of the film.) And the big guy? The Hulk has never been this entertaining, and the use of motion capture technology manages to put Ruffalo’s real performance beneath that impressive mass of green, computer-generated muscle.
But for all its fun, “The Avengers” never strives to be anything but a really good popcorn movie. The final 30 minutes of the film, an all-out war with Loki’s alien army, is a well-orchestrated but blissfully mad set piece that never gets confused. Whedon makes sure you know where everyone is at all times and what everyone’s purpose in the battle is, which is rare in modern action films.
The fight scene is not self-indulgent, which is weird, considering the glee with which a row of NYC taxis and traffic is carpet-bombed into oblivion. The 3D conversion goes well with the film’s bright tone and cinematography. Is there anything bad about this film? Well, to be fair, half the plot is just a series of MacGuffins to get our heroes and our villain into place. The attacking alien army is merely cannon fodder to be hammered and smashed. The script is only able to offer so much character development for the screen time allotted, so this film is certainly not “deep,” even though Whedon does manage to slip in a few quiet moments and philosophical discussions. But overall, “The Avengers” is so busy entertaining that most of these slights only hit you after the fact.
For anyone who knows anything about Marvel Studios’ business plan, you’ll know that “The Avengers” was too big to fail. Luckily, “The Avengers” not only succeeds in its goals, but it makes you wonder, “What’s next?”
Oh, as always, stay after the credits. Yes, all the way after them. U.S. audiences are lucky enough to get two scenes, so don’t leave prematurely.