I've been holding off on my review of The Avengers until a second viewing (and to give everyone in the world a chance to see it before I discussed spoilers - and it looks like everyone has, many more than once!) but now I can finally say that not only is this movie everything I hoped for when I first heard Nick Fury discuss The Avengers Initiative at the end of Iron Man four years ago, but it also proves to the doubters what his fans have known for years - that Joss Whedon is the King of all geeks.
The movie starts fairly slow (if you can call an attack on SHIELD by Loki that destroys an entire base "slow") but after just getting glimpses of the organisation in the other films I liked seeing a closer look at their day to day James Bond activities. Dr. Selvig, who we last saw working on the tesseract under Loki’s influence, helpfully identifies the Asgardian as “brother of Thor” for those who haven’t been paying attention.
Hawkeye, after his brief cameo in Thor, gets turned evil by Loki's glowstick of destiny almost as soon as he appears, which is an odd way to introduce one of your heroes (although it is a nice nod to the character's original villainous role in the comics). This sequence also establishes Loki's power and disregard for human life, which is important since the villain becomes the butt of many jokes later on in the film, while still retaining his menace. There's an amusing cut from Fury and the surviving SHIELD agents wondering what they're going to go after Loki steals their blue MacGuffin to the title "Marvel's The Avengers" appearing big and bold on the screen.
One by one, we are introduced to the heroes from previous Marvel movies as SHIELD begins recruiting its response team to deal with the threat of Loki and his cosmic cube. Black Widows get a nice Buffyesque scene where she turns the tables on her Russian interrogators (watch for her taking out one goon with a flip of her hair!) before meeting “the big guy” aka Bruce Banner. Though I was one of the many upset that continuity was being abandoned when Edward Norton was replaced, Mark Ruffalo won me over from his first scene, combining his usual scruffy charm with the warmth that TV’s Bill Bixby brought to the role. Steve Roger’s introduction shows his anger at the strange new world he has been forced to live in while briefly recapping the Captain America movie for those who missed it. Tony Stark’s intro could have been lifted from either of his Iron Man movies, though it’s an amusing scene that features a never lovelier Gwyneth Paltrow. By the time Banner and Rogers meet on the Helicarrier I was in full-on geek mode (as is Agent Coulson, who obviously has a huge man-crush on Cap).
The first confrontation between the still-forming team and Loki is a perfunctory action scene (including some clumsy holocaust allegory from the old German guy who stands up to Loki) but it does demonstrate the different approach Cap and Iron Man take to the mission.
We’re about 40 minutes into the movie before Thor finally makes an appearance, stealing his captured brother away from the other heroes. This leads to a pretty cool showdown between Iron Man and Thor and the definitive answer to whether Cap’s shield can withstand a strike from Mjölnir. Mythology buffs will also be pleased by the cameo from Odin’s avian spies Huginn and Muninn
during the brotherly chat between Loki and Thor. The team are finally assembled and we get a hilarious, if slightly out of character, response from Thor when he’s told his brother has killed 80 people in two days (“He’s adopted”).
Though the plot takes a back seat while the team is on the Helicarrier it is never less than entertaining thanks to the snappy dialogue, including a Silence of the Lambs style scene between Black Widow and the imprisoned in a glass cage Loki. While the team argue (thanks to the influence of Loki’s staff which apparently can do anything) evil Hawkeye and random minions launch an attack and all hell breaks loose. The Hulk is finally unleashed and we get a tense, Aliens inspired scene where he stalks Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson does a good job of showing how terrified she is of the green monster). Then we get Whedoned with the shocking death of fanboy surrogate Agent Coulson (surprisingly it was Marvel’s idea to kill him off, but Whedon gives it an emotional kick). Loki escapes and the heroes are scattered to the winds.
From there it’s only a short build-up to the most epic showdown in comic book movie history. From the scene where Tony Stark gets thrown out a window by Loki (after mocking his “performance” issues when his glowstick fails to hypnotize the Avenger) it’s pretty much non-stop thrills, spectacle and laughs for the last half hour. While some have compared the ending to a Transformers movie, there’s really no comparison to Michael Bay because you actually give a damn about the characters, the humour works and you can follow the action clearly. The admittedly generic alien army crash through Loki’s portal and wreck New York in scenes that manage to just stay on the tasteful side of referencing 9/11. We get some impressive aerial battle scenes with Iron Man and a funny scene where Cap gives orders to some skeptical cops, but the fun really kicks in once Bruce Banner turns up on a motorcycle and reveals his secret (he’s always angry, i.e. he can control the Hulk). Hulk punching out a giant alien leviathan and the six Avengers assembling in a circle are the kind of iconic comic book images we’ve never really seen on screen before. It only gets better from there with a sweeping continuous shot showing all the Avengers fighting that ends with the gag of Hulk punching out Thor (revenge for the uppercut the Thunder God gave him earlier on the Helicarrier). All these moments drew cheers or laughter from the midnight crowd, but they’re all topped by perhaps the most crowd-pleasing moment in film history. Hulk’s treatment of Loki always draws such riotous laughter that many people miss Hulk’s one line in the movie (“Puny God”). The resolution of the battle is a little clichéd (shadowy government organization decides to nuke the city, Iron Man aims nuke at the mothership instead and for some reason all the aliens drop dead like battledroids) but satisfying none the less. The ending blatantly promises a sequel but we’ve had so much fun by that point it’s hard to begrudge. Come for the entertainment, stay for the Thanos and Shawarma in the end credits.
Everyone involved should be proud of their work on this movie. While storywise this is a lot more conventional than anything else Whedon has done, his voice shines through in the humour and character interaction (he gives every character a chance to shine, even using Cap’s straight-laced persona to provide humour, such as when he responds to Black Widow telling him that Thor and Loki are Gods with “There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that”). It’s great to see him taking all the elements that made his TV shows such a joy to watch and showcasing it to a broader audience without selling out. He handles the big action like a pro (this may be the first time his direction actually surpasses his writing).
Robert Downey, Jr. is great as usual and he’s matched by Ruffalo (the two have the best bromance in the movie). Chris Evans keeps the charm he showed in The First Avenger and has more action than in his own movie. Chris Hemsworth is underused but Thor still gets some epic moments. Johnasson and Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye) have their work cut out for them as the least super Avengers, but are convincing in the action scenes and have a subtle relationship that provides more depth to Black Widow. Tom Hiddleston is even better than in Thor, effortlessly mixing charm, humour, menace and buffoonery (his delivery of the line “mewling quim” has led millions to google the latter word). Sam Jackson is the man as usual and Clark Gregg gets to go out with a bang. The only performance I didn’t really care for was Cobie Smulders, though she isn’t give much to do except look hot in her Shield uniform.
The special effects are great (Hulk has never looked better) and Alan Silvestri provides a rousing heroic theme. It’s easy to see why this has become the most successful non-James Cameron movie of all time. While it may not be the greatest blockbuster ever, it’s definitely one of the most fun. And if they keep Whedon on board, the sequel will only be better.