(Joss Whedon, 2012)
I've long wondered how they could possibly make an Avengers movie work. How to contain all those big, mythic icons? How to give each character enough room and time to do them justice? How could any blockbuster possibly be Epic enough, huge enough to replicate the storylines the Avengers characters feature in in their Marvel comics adventures? And beyond that, how to stop it looking just a little bit silly when Thor, Captain America, the Hulk and Iron Man are all onscreen at the same time?
Joss Whedon has found answers to all those questions, and in doing so, he's fashioned one of the best summer blockbusters of the last few years, a massive spectacle shot through with wit, lots of action and the fun that should be present in any good Super-Hero film.
Part of the miracle of The Avengers is that it exists at all. Marvel Studios' ambitious long-range planning - using the Iron Man films, Thor, the Incredible Hulk and Captain America as prequels, each containing elements that linked in to the overall tapestry of the Marvel Universe - looked like folly from a distance, but it pays off handsomely here, as fans of those films will find deeper resonances in this one, with character arcs maintaining consistency with each of the stories of these heroes.
The plot involves Loki (Tom Hiddleston), vengeful brother of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his plan to use the Tesseract (last seen in Captain America) an ancient energy source, to bring an Alien Army to Earth in order to take over the planet. Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) Director of Super Intelligence-Espionage organisation SHIELD, reactivates an old plan to gather together various super-powered "freaks" to form a Strike Force in defence. Only these heroes are a volatile mixture; from the tension between man-out-of-time Captain America (Chris Evans) and flippant playboy Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) to the very existence of Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Thor's links with Loki, they are, as Hulks human form Banner puts it, "A time bomb".
A film this big, with so many important characters and plot elements to line-up, needs a strong hand orchestrating it, and Whedon proves to be just that. He keeps the exposition short and snappy, sprinkles the first hour with solid action beats which also function as character development - the first meeting between Thor, Captain America and Iron Man establishes their differing approaches nicely - and gives everybody something to do. Nobody is lost in this ensemble. Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye and Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow may be the only two Avengers without powers, but they each get big scenes and moments to shine.
Hiddleston has a great time as Loki, playing him as a ripe old pantomime villain, fond of the sound of his own voice, in love with his own arrogance and so blinded by a vividly-suggested hatred he will stop at nothing to get what he thinks he wants. His explosions of brattish temper are nicely played.
Evans, Hemsworth and Downey Jr all have confident handles on their characters, giving their scenes - especially together - a pleasingly natural spark. Downey Jr gets most of the gags, and delivers them with aplomb, while Evans' Captain America is all about principal and old-fashioned heroism. He has one action beat at the climax which is beautifully done, giving some sense of what his character is meant to mean. Hemsworth's scenes play a little like scenes from Thor, but he communicates his character's bemused affection for humans and his horror at his brothers actions. Ruffalo is the only newcomer, and his Banner is subtly wary of everything, especially himself, but also dryly funny and fearful of nothing.
Team dynamics has long been a Whedon specialty, present in his work for tv on Buffy and Firefly, and that means that the scenes of all these characters standing around together, bickering and wise-cracking are justnas entertaining as the big action sequences. This may be the funniest action film vie seen in a while, with some beautifully timed one-liners to alleviate the mounting tension as the colossal finale looms.
And it is colossal; the final half hour or so shows alien army invading and their fight with the Avengers in the streets and skies and on the rooftops of Manhattan. This is everything a little boy or girl reading super-hero comics wants from a super-hero film. It is Epic, absolutely immense in scale and yet filled with character detail and brilliantly satisfying action beats. Super-hero films often struggle with endings, many devolving into vague, incoherent lightshows, others resorting to simple, brutal fisticuffs. Whedon seems to understand this, and his approach - treating this like a War film - really works. Seamus McGarvey's cinematography is key here; visceral and immersive, it ensures that this story is grittily human throughout, no matter how fantastic its treatment of gods and monsters may be. The sense of peril and involvement makes it more rousing than the climax of any other Marvel movie, and it contains so many rich geekbait moments it's dizzying. This is the Hulk done right, cutting loose in some awesome scenes of destruction while all the other heroes do too. The mix of tremendous spectacle and comedy - those gags never stop - is exhilarating.
There are weaknesses here; it is too long, the first hour slightly disjointed, the soundtrack is utterly forgettable, the cosmic stuff rings badly against the rest, and its all patently ludicrous. And yet, against all odds, it works. It really works.