After four years of teasing, Marvel Productions' big-budget superhero crossover jubilee has finally hit the screens. First hinted at in a short post-credits scene in 2008's Iron Man, the notion of a film starring all of the fledgling studio's pulp heroes in a giant free-for-all sounded audacious, unprecedented, and like a potential disaster. How does one create a film comprised almost solely of main characters, all of whom have been previous, uncontested stars of their own films, without the sheer weight of it all strangling the proceedings with a uncontrollable case of way-too-much?
Well, like this, apparently.
With so much to juggle, the film leaps right into things with the arrival of its primary villain, the treacherous Loki, brother of Thor, who's looking for a new kingdom to establish. Perpetual cameo player Nick Fury puts out the call to bring in the team, whether they like it, or, as the case seems largely to be, not. The notion that the story would be loath to hold so many dominant personalities must have occurred to the writers and director, as the assembling of the Avengers does not go smoothly. Tony Stark/Iron Man and Thor are both used to being king of the ring. Steve Rogers/Captain America is used to leading a team, but a team that actually is willing to be lead. And Bruce Banner/the Hulk simply wants to be left alone, lest he lose control and wreak havoc. Natasha Romonov/Black Widow, freed from the constraints of being a side player, emerges this time around as a properly realized character with more to offer the story than just great looks and fighting skills, though both are used to their fullest. Loki waits to spring his trap, using his skills to first sow discord amongst earth's defenders, who may have a greater challenge in gelling as a unit than in combating their true adversary. Loki himself, one of the more nuanced baddies from Marvel's celluloid canon, is a man with a fundamentally weak character who desperately needs to be seen as the big man, alternating between desperate and put upon to self-aggrandizing and unexpectedly vicious.
Director Joss Whedon, with only one prior film credit to his name (the enjoyable but box-office underperformer Serenity) was perhaps well-picked for such a project, coming as he does from a background of both comic book geekery and creating stories with large ensemble casts; for possibly the first time in blockbuster film history, a movie has appeared with no obvious central character, which does not also seem to possess a yawning vacuum of focus. Tone is well-balanced, maintaining the humor which has run throughout the Marvel film series while convincingly maintaining the sense that the world is a serious place with serious consequences, despite the realistically ludicrous trappings of alien god-beings and a man who transforms into "an enormous green rage monster." That said, The Avengers aspires ultimately to be nothing more than pure audience entertainment, making no attempts in the vein of such recent comic-inspired films as Watchmen or The Dark Knight, to attempt any sort of subtextual commentary on the real world. However, it thankfully also avoids the formulaic feel of previous Marvel efforts, where every hero eventually battles his evil equivalent. Compared to its predecessors, The Avengers emerges with the most satisfying plot of the bunch, as well as some of the best gags.
I do feel a sense of pity for any audience member who has not seen the previous five Marvel comic adaptations (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America) at least once if not twice each, as all of them feed into the plot of this sixth film, which only cursorily catches up those not in the know. There's a danger here, albeit on a far lesser scale, of these movies falling into the same tar pit as their source material: that of creating such an interwoven and mythology-dependent overarching continuity that it scares off would-be new fans of the material. For the moment, at least, though, such a danger is purely theoretical, as Americans have solidly proven that they have no compunction about enjoying the exploits of comic-book characters, so long as they do not have to actually open a comic book. It's no wonder that Marvel has moved into the moviemaking business.
When all's said and done, the plots of any of these Marvel superhero films are practically arbitrary-they exists to get the hero and villain into an expensive third-act slugfest. What's made the difference so far has been an emphasis on character; Michael Bay might want to take the note that it's perfectly all right to spend half an hour showing skyscrapers falling over if there's the remotest chance one might land on someone we care about, or at least find amusing. It's much more entertaining to watch personalities in conflict than muscles or guns in conflict. Provide that with a decent measure of success, and then we'll gleefully watch any amount of flaming debris plummeting earthwards. And Scarlett Johansson doing acrobatics in a spray-painted on outfit. That too. Seriously, if the Marvel execs don't greenlight an "all Black Widow, all the time" movie within the next few months, they're squandering a potential fortune.
-review by Matt Murray