Everything that works in “The Avengers” really works, but not everything works in “The Avengers.” A virtuoso collection of action set pieces framed by an uninspiring “getting the team together” narrative which should have been accomplished in all of those post-credits sequences in earlier Marvel movies, Joss Whedon’s stab at superheroes delivers plenty of what makes both him and his subject matter appealing, as well as an abundance of mythological set-up that’s somehow simultaneously redundant and contradictory. But as the best (or perhaps most consistently engaging) Marvel movie since the original “Iron Man,” “The Avengers” is a winning piece of popcorn entertainment that does better with characters in an ensemble setting than many ever did when they starred in their own vehicles.
The film stars a depressingly inactive Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. who tracks down Earth’s mightiest heroes after Norse god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) attacks a government facility, steals an extraterrestrial artifact called the Tesseract, and enslaves a handful of folks we think of as “the good guys,” including Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Fury enlists Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to approach fugitive physician Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and then contacts Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) to join the team. But when Thor (Chris Hemsworth) shows up to shepherd Loki back to Asgard without regard for his mortal counterparts’ plans, Fury finds the superheroes at odds with one another. Boarding S.H.I.E.L.D.’s airship, the members of the burgeoning supergroup strike a tenuous truce, but each faces his own moral quandary even as they’re forced to band together and fight off a literal army of extraterrestrial attackers Loki unleashes upon the planet.
First and foremost, “The Avengers” is unequivocally the best “Hulk” movie ever made; as much as I admire Ang Lee’s artsy take on the character, Whedon gets both Hulk and Banner in a way that no one else has, lending a light touch to the doctor’s melancholy, and a serious, scary edge to the monster’s rambunctious destruction. (It certainly helps that Ruffalo offers a performance as Banner that’s the most sympathetic and endearing since Bill Bixby.) But Whedon gets the superhero stuff right across the board, creating versions of Captain America, Iron Man and Thor that are faithful to their origins (much less previous film appearances) but which are also adeptly contextualized in a new environment where those personalities would create terrific, interesting conflicts. Tony Stark and Steve Rogers seem like natural opposites, but their animosity comes from Rogers’ line-towing loyalty and Stark’s self-serving bravado, and Whedon maximizes that as both a subplot and one of the film’s prime directives: to assemble a team from some unwieldy candidates.
That said, the movie’s first hour is devoted to rounding up these characters, telling us where they’ve been, and giving us a sense of how well (or poorly) they might jell with the rest of the team. And that would be fine, if (1) every Marvel movie since 2008 hadn’t featured an easter-egg sequence where Nick Fury said, “come join the Avengers initiative,” and (2) there was any consistent or sensible reason for everyone to be doing what they are, where they are. In particular, Thor and Loki’s respective introductions are the most problematic from a canon standpoint, since at the end of his film, Thor was stranded on Asgard and Loki was banished to some galactic abyss; while Whedon isn’t to blame for the poor choices of his predecessors, the decision to abandon that film’s ending – not to mention a coda that indicated Loki was controlling Dr. Erik Brevig (Stellan Skarsgård), who’s pointedly free at the beginning of “The Avengers” – comes as a disappointment to fans who were expecting all of these individual films to merge together in some seamless, intricate tapestry. This film more or less abandons any detail about the characters that isn’t generally well-known or accepted, begging the question why other filmmakers bothered to throw in those final-scene idiosyncrasies in the first place.
The other, perhaps more significant problem is that Loki simply isn’t a formidable villain, not the least of which because his plans are pretty stupid. Hiddleston is a terrific actor, and he certainly makes Loki an interesting adversary for any one or two of the superheroes, but there’s almost nothing about him except for an entitled sense of superiority that indicates he couldn’t be taken out fairly easily if just a couple of the good guys teamed up. The beginning of the film reveals that one of his powers is controlling other people’s minds, but that’s largely abandoned by the time he’s essentially allowed himself to be taken prisoner; consequently, his plan to bring his enemies together and have them destroy one another feels unmotivated on their part and half-considered on his. It’s not even clear where S.H.I.E.L.D.’s airship is going in the first place, but that Loki has the presence of mind to unite his foes on it and then somehow manipulating them – without actually talking to them – into fighting one another is farfetched and illogical, even for the god of trickery.
But the truth is that little of this matters once the third act kicks in, in which the Avengers arrive in New York just in time to see an alien army pour out of a wormhole in the sky and start attacking civilians. Better than any filmmaker of a Marvel movie thus far, Whedon understands and executes large-scale action that utilizes all of the characters involved and creates palpable drama, even when our heroes’ victory is all but completely assured. And those scenes are funny, scary and exciting – true epic storytelling – without undermining the seriousness of the possibility of the world ending, or more identifiably, the deaths of thousands of New York citizens. Again, Hulk manages to be the movie’s biggest surprise as Whedon perfectly captures his irreverent rage, in one moment destroying a giant alien beast and in the next bashing a single adversary to a pulp with delicious glee. Each hero’s skill set is thoroughly well-utilized, both from a strategic standpoint and a narrative one, and Whedon effectively makes even the less flashy characters – Black Widow and Hawkeye – feel essential to the team’s overall efforts.
Ultimately, even though the film acquiesces to contemporary blockbuster architecture and builds its scenes around its locations rather than the other way around, “The Avengers” feels expansive, operatic, and immersive, which are essential qualities that all superhero movies should possess. But Whedon has certainly earned his commercial bona fides with this film, whose final scenes alone place him among the top tier of Hollywood’s purveyors of big (in every sense of the word) thrills, after his previous work established his aptitude for marrying smarts and spectacle. Because even if the film as a whole isn’t perfect, his additions to the parts that aren’t – be it an idea, a flourish, or even just a sensibility – doesn’t always make them succeed or impress, but it distinguishes them. And quite frankly, if there’s one thing that makes imperfection tolerable, it’s personality, which “The Avengers” has even before its charismatic cast assembles. [B]