People never know when they’re living in a golden age, goes a commonplace bit of wisdom, but that can’t be true for fans of superhero movies. Since 2000, when Bryan Singer debuted an X-Men film that stayed true to the themes and characters of the best X-Men comics while satisfying all the requirements of a big summer blockbuster, good-to-great superhero adaptations—and, yes, some truly lamentable ones—have arrived at a regular clip. It’s not that worthy superhero films didn’t exist before then. But even the most striking, like Richard Donner’s Superman and Tim Burton’s Batman films, either winked at or took outrageous liberties with the source material, or both. (To put things in perspective, X-Men arrived just three years after this.) In recent years, Marvel Studios has gone one step further, trying to bring to the big screen not just the company’s superhero stories, but also the idea of a shared universe in which Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and others could team up. Built on the groundwork of The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, Thor, and two Iron Man films, The Avengers is the logical culmination of that work, adapting Marvel’s long-running, oft-changing team comic book, in which the company’s biggest heroes share space with colorful second-stringers as they save the world.
Since making an Avengers movie requires lining up so many moving pieces in an orderly row, it’s something of an accomplishment that The Avengers even exists. But beyond that logistical nightmare is the double agenda the film has to serve, advancing the stories of the individual characters as begun in previous films while telling a coherent, self-contained story. Factor in another wave of Marvel movies and an inevitable sequel, and that agenda gets even more complicated. All of which raises the question: Is there room for any movie within this Avengers movie?
Decidedly, yes. Written and directed by Buffy The Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon, The Avengers is big but graceful, carefully balancing small character moments with action scenes that stretch from the New York pavement to the sky and beyond. The film finds drama in the reluctant cooperation of teammates yoked together by the threat of a common enemy, as well as in the terrifying shadows cast by giant space monsters as they descend from the heavens. Tasked with meeting the many requirements necessary for any Avengers movie to work, Whedon checks off all the boxes, then sets about creating new expectations for what a big superhero movie ought to be.
In essence a getting-the-band-together story, The Avengers opens by establishing a threat big enough to warrant the attention of the heaviest hitters of the superhero world. Still unhappy about falling into an abyss at the end of Thor, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has conspired with a group of aliens to take over the world with some help from The Tesseract, the mysterious energy-producing cube that’s been bouncing around the last few Marvel films. In the process of making his intentions clear, he destroys a S.H.I.E.L.D. base and takes over the minds of two of its key operatives: a scientific genius (Stellan Skarsgard, reprising his Thor role) and freakishly gifted archer Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner).
Understandably upset, S.H.I.E.L.D. head Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) sets about putting together a superteam, first bringing in the espionage expert Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), then some less eager recruits: Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), and, eventually, super-scientist Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo)—who’s laying low in order to keep his monstrous alter-ego The Hulk in check—and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who would like to save Earth, sure, but also has a personal grudge with Loki.
Remarkably, given that sprawling cast of characters, everyone gets their due. Whedon picks up the action where Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America left off, continuing to develop the stories of each of those films’ heroes. Downey’s Tony Stark remains driven by ego and genius, always on the verge of overreaching, while Hemsworth continues to navigate between two worlds. As a man out of time, unsure of how he fits into the modern world, or if he even wants to, Evans shoulders even more of the drama, becoming the heart of a film that’s filled with heroics, but also, if sometimes too fleetingly, concerned with the meaning of heroism.
Fitting right in: Ruffalo’s laidback Banner, a characterization with echoes of the easy-living California dude he played in The Kids Are All Right, Johansson’s haunted superspy, and Renner, whose steely intensity alone makes it easy to forget the unlikelihood of an archer, no matter how good, being able to hold his own among superhumans. Not to mention major supporting roles played by Jackson, Cobie Smulders as Jackson’s chief lieutenant, and Clark Gregg, who steps into the spotlight after lurking in the shadows as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in previous Marvel films.
Yet compelling as each character is in his or her own right, the real pleasure comes from the unstable chemistry of putting them together. While Downey and Ruffalo bond immediately and unnervingly over their shared love of science’s outer limits, others get along less immediately, and less well. That’s partly because, as in the comics, they have no real business sharing space with one another. Characters created to star in disparate adventure tales about espionage, science, warfare, monsters, and mythology don’t really belong in the same story. And yet, also as in the comics, they exist in a larger-than-life universe in which their stories can be joined together in service of the clashes between good and evil that overwhelm them individually.
The Avengers makes the evil side of the equation seem suitably overwhelming. In action scenes that include a long setpiece aboard S.H.I.E.L.D.’s airborne fortress and a Manhattan showdown that bounces from city streets to the tops of skyscrapers and back again (and features more shattered glass than a chandelier store run by Jerry Lewis), The Avengers throws at its heroes opponents who outnumber and outgun a team still learning the meaning of teamwork. The film also gives the bad guys an insidious agenda. The action looks impressive—even with the unnecessary addition of post-production 3D—but they’re made all the more chilling by early Hiddleston dialogue, delivered with Shakespearean intensity, about using humanity’s innate distrust of its own freedom as a tool for his own purposes.
Always skilled at mixing melees and metaphors, Whedon turns Hiddleston’s Norse trickster god into another in a line of Big Bads whose origins can be traced to the worst human impulses, and he’s made all the more effective by the glints of vulnerability and sympathy beneath the schemes and horns. Some of Whedon’s other creative impulses get pushed aside by the scale on which he has to work. Downey gets the lion’s share of the witty banter, and anyone expecting the self-awareness and zigzag plotting of the director’s other work might be disappointed by The Avengers’ heads-down forward charge. (Where The Cabin In The Woods offers a straight shot of Whedon, The Avengers adds a mixer and garnish to make it go down easy.) But other recognizable Whedonisms arrive intact, including a distrust of authority that extends to the ostensible good guys and an unfailing ability to switch between effervescent lightness and wrenching emotion.
In other words, The Avengers delivers and then some. Even the weakest of Marvel Studios’ films have felt like competent, well-polished pieces of product. The Avengers is that, yes, but also a heartfelt, exciting, and thematically resonant piece of big-screen mythmaking likely to please superhero geeks and general audiences alike. Though, just as Star Wars helped bring the dreams of science-fiction fans into the world at large in the ’70s, in the years since X-Men, the distinction between fans and general audiences has gotten thinner and thinner. Maybe that’s what happens in a golden age.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit The Avengers' Spoiler Space.