Since X-Men reignited the super hero genre in the year 2000 after the ill-received Batman and Robin, Marvel Comics (and their film production entity) has been a forerunner in the comic industry, producing at least one adaptation of its significant catalogue in time for blockbuster season every year. Starting with the X-Men franchise and then with adaptations of Daredevil, Fantastic Four, Ang Lee’s Hulk (plus their assorted sequels and spin offs), they moved on to a new, seemingly unconnected series of films beginning with Iron Man. Continuing on with The Incredible Hulk (a revision of the Lee version), Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, we were re-introduced to a host of super heroes. In each installment we met various supporting characters (played suspiciously by big league actors like Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson) and were given tantalizing glimpses of what might come next. And now, after four years and five films of set up, The Avengers have finally arrived in one huge film, and they are awesome.
The film continues the great summer blockbuster tradition of disregarding a fully developed, coherent plot in favor of computer generated spectacle. Most films fail with this because they make a serious and (frankly) regretful attempt at an engaging narrative. The Avengers works however, as it blissfully focuses on its characters, all of which are interesting and enjoyable presences; and the action without seeming too concerned about the storyline. Indeed, the times the film stops for exposition are the few dull moments on offer. The film uses several pre-established devices from the earlier films (which would reward a revision) to set up the basic plot of Thor’s brother Loki trying to take over the Earth. To counter his attack, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) assembles the titular ensemble. It covers the normal beats for an ensemble feature (assembling the crew, infighting, planning etc. – think Ocean’s Eleven) but it covers them quickly enough so that we understand what’s happening in between set pieces, of which there are many; beginning with the ‘infighting’ squabbles (the showdown between Hulk and Thor is the highlight), the film moves breathlessly from one to the next. The final act features an enormous showdown in the streets of New York, that although potentially insensitive in a post 9/11 world (the imagery purposefully recalls those events), is absolutely spectacular. Surprises and revelations (which again, would reward watching the earlier films first) punctuate the action along the way.
The look of the film clearly justifies the millions of dollars spent on it. The CGI is stunning, the costume and production design are incredible and the cinematography is breathtaking. It’s depiction of the Hulk is the screen’s best yet and one noteworthy shot in the final showdown spectacularly crisscrosses all of New York to find each Avenger individually fight off Loki’s army (it will surely join the list of greatest ‘oners’ in cinema history). The film’s use of 3D though, is unexceptional. It doesn’t use the format in any revelatory or interesting way like James Cameron did with Avatar or Scorsese with Hugo, but it isn’t necessarily detrimental either, it just puts it in the ‘pointless’ category where most 3D movies tend to sit.
Performances across the board are excellent. Mark Ruffalo is perfectly cast as the withdrawn Bruce Banner, Robert Downey Jnr does his usual satisfying oddball routine as Tony Stark, and Scarlett Johansson shares some good dramatic moments with Jeremy Renner. The performance of the piece however, belongs to Tom Hiddleston as Loki. He has a field day as the prodigal son hell bent on taking over the Earth and is absolutely spell binding to watch in every moment he’s on screen. Series bit player Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson is also exceptional in a significantly expanded role.
The Avengers achieves exactly what it sets out to do: it’s fun and more than anything else, extremely entertaining. Only occasionally getting bogged down when it tries too hard to form a coherent narrative, it easily makes up for any shortcomings in the sheer spectacle on display.