Much will be made of the challenges involved in uniting six super-heroes from five different movies, but it strikes me most of the heavy lifting took place before the actual mash-up. The creative minds behind Iron Man (2008), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) have already introduced the characters and created a consistent cinematic language to tell their stories. Those behind The Avengers need only follow the pattern and make sure everyone gets enough playtime.
This is no small task, mind you, and I’m pleased with the producers picking Joss Whedon to helm the project. Having cut his teeth in television, the writer-director knows how to expand a universe while adhering to a predefined “house style”. The man has also got a wicked sense of humour, and his screenplay captures all the joy and zaniness of old school Marvel Comics. Several throwaway gags had me laughing out loud, and only one kicked me out of the story per se. It involves a classic video game and, to be fair, proves hilarious.
To accommodate his large cast, Whedon keeps the plot light and simple. The first half of The Avengers plucks Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Captain America (Chris Evans) from their respective status quos and gathers them aboard the SHIELD Helicarrier, where Colonel Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson) tells them of an oncoming invasion by Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Norse god of lies and mischief. Used to working solo, our heroes proceed to bicker like school children caught in a passionate game of Risk. Add some mind-altering magic, and you’ve got yourself a good old-fashioned pre-team-up brawl, the sort so prevalent in Chris Claremont’s X-Men run.
This results in somewhat unflattering characterization, but I dig the approach, which allows lots of interaction between the heroes (that’s what we paid for, isn’t it?) without the cumbersome mechanics of tying their arcs together. Besides, we catch on early that something’s amiss because prior entries in the franchise have taken good care of setting up the different personalities concerned. You see, The Avengers requires its audience to have watched and memorised every Marvel movie released in the past five years. If it didn’t address hardcore comic book fans, I might have considered this a flaw.
Even Whedon’s prerequisite Very Important Death relies on our recognising the sacrificial lamb from previous adventures. The plot device is meant to remind us that the stakes are very high indeed, but the director has used it so often of late that I immediately spotted who would die and when from the character’s introduction in the film. In fairness, the demise does propel the story into its next act, though one can’t help but wonder why this particular person’s passing matters more to our heroes than the dozens of SHIELD casualties a few minutes before.
Anyway, the second half of The Avengers, otherwise known as the climactic battle, turns out a bit less interesting, partly because it involves people swinging endlessly at digital effects and partly because the alien threat feels arbitrary given the Chitauri only get two scenes before crossing over to our dimension to act as cannon fodder. Still, I admire the way Whedon coordinates the big fight, giving each player his or her moment to shine without it feeling like a fan-service checklist. Also, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) wears purple and shoots exploding arrows. That makes him awesome.
Most of all, though, I’m grateful each Avenger has retained the subtle attributes that set him or her apart from other heroes. Consider Thor’s continuous attempts to rehabilitate his brother Loki or the way Bruce Banner (a.k.a. Hulk) and Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man) bond over the latter’s refreshing flippancy and their superior intellect. Granted, one could argue these touches merely confirm the established character arcs instead of progressing them, but maybe that’s all we can reasonably expect from a large-scale super-hero mash-up. The Avengers is shallow (not stupid) popcorn entertainment, sure, but haven’t you always wanted to see Captain America face off against the god of thunder?
Note: The movie features two post-credit Easter eggs. The first functions as a teaser for the next big bad. The second is just plain funny.