In a film like The Avengers, which brings together strands of several prior pictures into a mostly cohesive whole, it is arguably inevitable that individual pieces will end up working better than the sum of its parts. That the film works at all is almost a miracle, and it's so purely entertaining and contains so much that works like gangbusters that it's tempting to ignore what doesn't work and merely salute the enterprise. It is a relentlessly engaging and confident motion picture, boasting a cast that in a more respected genre would make it an Oscar-bait film. But the film comes so close to out-and-out greatness that it's almost disheartening to point out the core issues at fault, both because it feels petty and because it's almost a genre masterpiece. Still, there is much to like and quite a bit to love about Joss Whedon's The Avengers. On a pure popcorn spectacle scale I can't imagine anyone feeling that they didn't get their money's worth. As a piece of art however, it's a trickier proposition.
I'm forgoing a plot synopsis because I can't imagine anyone reading this who doesn't have a general idea of the film and its characters. First of all, the initial twelve-minute pre-credits sequence is absolutely terrible. It's a poorly written, stiltedly-performed set-piece that artlessly reintroduces Tom Hiddleston's Loki (Thor's turncoat brother) and establishes the McGuffin (the rediscovered 'tesseract' from Captain America). It's by-far the worst sequence in the film, so it's mostly uphill from there. Anyway, the rest of the first act is spent reintroducing our favorite Marvel heroes and reestablishing relationships. Captain America-himself, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) gets somewhat less to do in this early chunk, as the film makes it clear that he is a supporting character in this superhero team-up (it's no secret that a scene involving Rogers trying to reconnect with his old life didn't make the cut). For continuity junkies like myself, it is a thrill to see Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) in a mutually beneficial romantic relationship, and Stark's 'recruitment' moments with SHIELD agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) crackle with familiarity and genuine friendship among all three of them. The introductory bits for Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) are filled with intelligence and wit while the somewhat delayed entrance for Thor (Chris Hemsworth) provides one of the most emotionally compelling moments in the film. The genuine brotherly love that Thor and Loki share gives the hero/villain relationship a deeper shading and Hiddleston once again refuses to play a purely stock villain (his confidence and certainty is a bluff).
This first act ends with most of the heroes introduced to each other and co-existing as they attempt to decipher Loki's master plan. It's this middle 45-minute chunk where the picture soars the highest. The dialogue is vintage Whedon even while every character speaks in a voice uniquely their own. Tony Stark is genuinely thrilled to be conversing with a scientist of Banner's capabilities, and Banner warmly embraces at least one person who cares more about the scientist than the monster inside of him. Downey Jr. gives a better all-around performance here than he did in Iron Man 2, while Mark Ruffalo once again proves how effortlessly he elevates every film he appears in. Johansson gets several enjoyable moments, including an interrogation sequence that both reveals backstory and establishes character. With all the talk about how noted-feminist Joss Whedon would handle a bro-fest like The Avengers, the answer is simple. Neither Natasha Romanoff (IE -- Black Widow) or SHIELD agent Maria Hill (Colbie Smulders) are remotely sexualized and their skills are completely taken for granted. Moreover, if you look around the SHIELD aircraft, about half of the onscreen SHIELD agents just happen to be women.
Anyway, this second act is where the picture shines, perfectly balancing character interaction with token plot advancement, while climaxing with a spectacular action set-piece that is both viscerally exciting and emotionally engaging. Hemsworth gets surprisingly little screen-time overall, considering that the film is most closely connected to Thor, but he gets far more of an opportunity to 'bring the thunder' than he did in his debut picture (at least the picture bothers to explain why Natalie Portman isn't around). Clark Gregg basically operates as the cool-headed professional amid the carnage and occasionally as the audience surrogate -- thrilled to see these guys all in the same room as we theoretically would be. Smulders is basically an exposition device while Jeremy Renner's Barton (IE -- Hawkeye) spends so much time under the brainwashing control of Loki that he doesn't really get to do more than cut loose in the action climax. Still, pretty much everyone enjoys interacting with everyone else, and the fun is supremely contagious.
Truth be told, the second-act 'conflict' doesn't make sense in hindsight. We're told that these super-powered heroes can't get along, yet they only come to blows when SHIELD head Nick Fury's (a frankly slumming Samuel L. Jackson) subterfuge is revealed. They seem to work together just fine except when SHIELD gets in the way. Still, the second-act climax pushes a token emotional button, and the film even acknowledges that the would-be hero's journey is somewhat fabricated for the sake of uniting these damaged souls. And the whole concept of 'these grand heroes coming together to solve a problem' seems unnecessary. Point being, if aliens invaded the Earth, would it not be expected that Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and the fellow agents of SHIELD would make a choice to at least pitch in and prevent widespread carnage? The idea that Nick Fury has a grand idea to unite these heroes and that these heroes have to put aside their differences to work as a team seems like an attempt to graft an overriding theme to a story that really doesn't have one. It's a minor quibble, but the whole 'Avengers Initiative' that Nick Fury endlessly babbles about seems like a solution to a non-existent problem.
Furthermore, like so many would-be event pictures, the film's storytelling basically ceases at the 2/3 mark so that the big climactic battle scene can begin. If you've seen any of the marketing, you know that the film ends with an alien invasion in downtown Manhattan. The action itself is fluidly shot, creatively staged, and coherently edited. And while it avoids repetition because it has enough recognizable combatants to always have someone different to cut to, the climax is a purely visceral exercise with just enough crowd-pleasing moments to overcome its familiarity to last summer's Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Unlike last summer's Michael Bay FX demo-reel, the invading aliens seem to go out of their way to not vaporize civilians and bystanders onscreen, to the point where their 'shoot to miss' strategy becomes noticeable. And while Alan Silvestri's score is serviceable, it's badly missing some kind of unifying theme and/or emotional chorus that would give the pyrotechnics a jolt when required (Steve Jablonsky may have cribbed the Zeck Hemsy Inception trailer music for the Transformers 3 climax, but it damn-well worked). And the logistics of Loki's plan call into question the basic intelligence of our heroes, as we ask ourselves why they didn't realize where Loki's attack point was going to be right from the start and/or why that specific building doesn't seem to have even basic security measures. Still, the film does right by each of its heroes, giving them each multiple chances to shine (yes, the Hulk does indeed smash and it is pretty terrific when he does).
The climax also highlights the inherent danger of having a shared universe, as you have to somewhat explain why EVERY capable hero doesn't pitch in when the chips are down. As we see human 'Avengers' like Black Widow and Hawkeye doing a perfectly fine job fending off the invaders, we have to stop and wonder why other equally capable reinforcements didn't show up to help. Why are none of the other SHIELD agents defending the city? Why didn't Stark call in Rhodes to man the War Machine battle-suit? Why doesn't Odin conjure up some dark magic and send Asgardian warriors, since it's his son that's causing this chaos in the first place? And without a super-powered villain to fight/destroy in the finale (Loki is around, but he's basically watching his handiwork and sneering) or any kind of status-quo changing moment to end on, the film lacks an emotional climax of any kind (SPOILER -- the film needs to end with the heartbreak of Thor killing Loki, but Marvel doesn't have the courage for that kind of finality). It's all about watching people in candy-colored suits blowing up a vaguely-robotic army. Considering Joss Whedon is known for his unabashedly operatic season finales for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, it is borderline shocking that the film lacks any kind of story or character-driven climax to go along with its large-scale action beats (the film further annoys in this regard by threatening to kill the one character who you most-certainly know isn't going to die).
So if the film lacks the heart and narrative discipline of Joe Johnston's Captain America, it is easily better, smarter, and just-plain more entertaining than any Marvel Studios production not set in the 1940s. The dialogue is generally whip-smart and laugh-out-loud clever at the same time. All of the principle performers are in peak form, and the picture has a scale that does its four-color origins proud. And while I may have desired more than just fireworks during the third act, those fireworks are quite impressive and are truly cinematic in nature. But the plot is a bit confused, with much of the film spent jogging in place for the inevitable climactic smack-down promised in the trailers. The film opens and ends pretty terribly, with an epilogue that has a bunch of news footage praising and criticizing the newly revealed heroes plus Fury babbling yet again about how the heroes will return when they are needed while brushing off the shocking real-world implications of what just happened (both the invasion and the response).
But the middle two-hours are rock-solid entertainment through-and-through. Tony Stark is allowed genuine character progression while Mark Ruffalo is such a fun Bruce Banner that I'd gladly watch a solo Hulk film where he never actually 'Hulked-out.' When The Avengers highlights the character interaction that makes up the soap opera-ish world of comic books, with great actors digging into genuinely meaty characters, it's firing on all cylinders. And the action sequences, even when they are purely about the action choreography and special effects, are top-notch (even the 3D looks great). Long-story short, I wish The Avengers was a truly terrific film, but I'll have to settle for it merely being a darn-good movie.
Prior Marvel reviews -
Iron Man 2