I’ve enjoyed the Marvel films. They’ve been, with the exception of the plodding Iron Man 2, dependable, enjoyable popcorn flicks. The appealing presence of Robert Downey Jr. helped make an A-list character out of Iron Man, I have a soft spot for The Incredible Hulk, Captain America was a little forgettable but bolstered by a great cast and Thor, despite my initial scepticism, turned out to be my favourite of the lot. There was never anything in this line-up likely to challenge the more cerebral and serious The Dark Knight but that’s ok; Marvel comics have always had a lighter tone than DC, and it’s a testament to Marvel that they resisted the urge to Nolanify most of their properties.
For a long time I was more interested in the idea of The Avengers than I was the film itself, because I couldn’t think of anything comparable in film history. A consistent fantasy universe seen through multiple films, all with A-list stars and directors. Each film had to stand alone yet also contain enough references to the others — and be tonally consistent — to form a convincing whole.
Essentially then, the films had to be a TV series, every film standing as a single episode with The Avengers as the explosive season finale. This is why Joss Whedon, though inexperienced in actual film-making — Serenity is his only other theatrical release as director and was a box-office failure — was such a great choice to manage this; wrangling ensemble casts without letting a single character overwhelm the others is what he’s been doing since the ’90s. The Avengers plays out like a masterclass in this, and you only have to watch Spider-Man 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand to see how it’s harder than it might seem.
Most of Whedon’s previous work is very obviously a Whedon product, which can turn some people off. His influence here is more subtle; The Avengers isn’t full of his trademark dialogue, snarky pop culture referencing or genre trope inverting, but there’s a lot of humour in the script that all feels very natural and the interplay between characters, plus the intertwining arcs around not just the main heroes but secondary human characters is practically virtuoso. Everything feels right; these characters have never felt so well-drawn.
Despite there not being much room for character development — and in fairness, this film is probably not the place for it — everyone gets a little, even if it’s just in the form of hints at what’s to come in their own respective series; Steve Roger’s thrill at finally picking up on a cultural reference was a nice gag, but also foreshadows the ‘man out of time’ theme that will probably run through Captain America 2. Stark gets his own noble-hero arc yet still manages to end up a team player, Ruffalo’s interpretation of Banner/Hulk was exciting and multi-dimensional and Johansson’s Black Widow is perhaps her most interesting and well-played role yet. Thor is probably given the shortest shrift, but I imagine that developing the character of a character who doesn’t have much character is tricky business.
Faults? Very few. Hiddleston is as good here as Loki as he was in Thor, if not better now the character has the desperate air of a man on the run, hungry for the power he’s been denied and conscious of how far he’s fallen. However, although he remains the most interesting Marvel antagonist yet seen — I’d say that Hulk‘s General Ross is a close second — the film runs out of things to do with him far short of the ending, leaving him standing at the top of Stark tower taunting the various heroes as they come to him in turn. Not that there aren’t some memorable scenes around that, but he feels wasted, and the race he’s partnered with is anonymous and generic; without much in the way of obvious motivation or personality, they don’t bring much sense of threat.
But then, perhaps that was by design. The Avengers isn’t really about the threat, it’s about the building of the team from these individual ‘lost creatures’, few of whom want anything to do with the concept, some being more of a danger to themselves and others than the opponents they face. But by the end, the team is assembled, believably and wonderfully. The Marvel experiment, then, a success.