How to even begin? The Avengers is destined to be one of the standout pictures of 2012, and it easily ranks among the best films in the genre. With a story that is simple enough to be easily understandable but complex enough to be thought-provoking, Joss Whedon does an astounding job of essentially telling half a dozen superhero stories at once.
The film boasts an amazing cast that features names such as Robert Downey, Jr. and Scarlett Johansson, and many of those familiar faces have already headlined big-budget films of their own. Deciding the best of the lot is a difficult task; the fantastic acting, supported by dialogue that never feels silly regardless of the mood, serves as an example for any future entries in the series (and in the genre). The character interactions call to mind, in more ways than one, the totally believable dialogue sequences in films such as Inglourious Basterds. The patriotic and usually straight-laced Captain America and the laid-back but singularly focused Iron Man (Tony Stark) are a joy to watch as they bicker back and forth at one another and with an external humanizing element and mediator–the mighty Thor, of all people, a much more mature individual than he was at the beginning of his own film. Thor plays opposite his power-hungry brother Loki, and the acting performance for the latter role has undergone quite the improvement. Viewers who were interested in seeing Loki because they felt sympathy for his experiences in Thor, however, may be somewhat disappointed–Loki does nothing in this film to appear remotely sympathetic, remaining bent on domination from start to finish, and that’s really the extent of his character development throughout the story as he prepares to unleash a massive army to subjugate mankind.
Scarlett Johansson turns in an unexpectedly marvelous performance as she reprises her Black Widow role from Iron Man 2. (This was “unexpected” not because of any lack of acting ability on her part, but because I personally thought her role was useless to the plot in Iron Man 2, through no fault of her own.) After putting up an impressive fight against interrogators at the beginning of the film, she later changes roles and becomes a humanizing element to the also well-done Bruce Banner, otherwise known as the Incredible Hulk. The Black Widow’s empathy toward the Hulk’s compelling internal struggles is very poignant, and it serves to make her character noteworthy for more than just delivering effective fight scenes.
Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury doesn’t have much character development for such a (literal) leading role, but Jackson turns in the sort of bold performance he’s generally known for, as he struggles to convince a team of heroes who don’t always get along, to stop fighting with each other and focus on the bigger problems at hand. It is here that The Avengers becomes what Watchmen (both the book and the movie) should have been–a compelling look at “superheroes” who have character flaws and who make mistakes (in some cases, including having blood on their hands, an irony that doesn’t go unnoticed by others) but who are ultimately enjoyable to watch and are willing to put aside their personal interests for the sake of serving others. It’s the cliched lesson of the superhero film, but it works excellently here. The character Hawkeye seems somewhat isolated overall, in that he doesn’t seem to get a whole lot of interaction with the other superheroes until the end of the film. He performs well enough with his arrows, but the movie doesn’t seem to say much about him.
The story setting all of this personal drama and conflict in motion is fairly simple, basically a fight for a tesseract, a device that can serve as a gateway to clean, sustainable energy–or, instead, as a literal gateway allowing for Loki’s minions to invade Earth. For those who saw Thor’s film, without giving spoilers, Thor’s presence here might come across as somewhat jarring, and the implications of this aren’t really given a whole lot of detail. Thankfully the film’s commitment to getting through its numerous character subplots comes without a lot of downtime. None of the events on display in The Avengers feel wasted or unimportant, and the film sometimes feels like a distilled version of its parts: Thor’s character interactions are just as fun to watch here as they were in his own movie, though this film doesn’t really have time to indulge in some of the former’s goofier humor; and Iron Man’s Tony Stark still comes across as sarcastic and colorful as he ever was, even though the film thankfully doesn’t give him the time to waste by being the sort of womanizer as he was for portions of Iron Man 2. The story as a whole is probably accessible enough for those who haven’t seen these heroes’ own movies, though Captain America, whose film I’ve not gotten to see, gets some helpful flashbacks to move the early plot along.
The action scenes and special effects are generally done exceptionally well, and while the second act of the film can feel somewhat quiet (in terms of literal explosions, not so much of metaphorical ones), the story itself begins with a bang as Loki arrives and begins wreaking excessive amounts of havoc. The action is distributed somewhat more evenly throughout the story than in the nonetheless wonderful Thor, with small skirmishes here and there to help keep things interesting, as well as perhaps surprising. The environmental destruction is very believable (I feel like that poor city just gets hammered in movies), the explosions are awesome and plentiful, and the enemy designs toward the end of the film are fantastic. Other than making computer monitors and foreground objects fun to look at, the 3D effects are basically useless for this film, which is a shame simply because the rest of the film’s visuals work so well, even if they’re sometimes a bit too dimly lit.
The story overall shines near the top its genre without necessarily redefining it, and the numerous character stories just “work” better together than they perhaps should, both inside the context of the story and outside of it, without ever becoming so complicated that they bog down the plot or become difficult to understand. Superhero fans will have plenty to cheer about with a film that kicks off the summer movie season so well; as with many of its characters, The Avengers‘ few and minor flaws never come close to tainting the overwhelming number of things the movie does wonderfully. And please, remember to stay through the entire credits!
(Oh, and I really should have mentioned that one character gets stabbed in the eye–the audience doesn’t actually see this, but it’s clear what is going on–with a sharp weapon at one point in the film. Other than this, language and sex are minimal, while explosions are plenty.)