There were an untold number things that could have gone wrong with The Avengers, Marvel’s epic team-up of its big-screen superheroes — Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Black Widow and Nick Fury. Mashing them all up into a single cohesive film that balanced each character’s personal story without tilting too far in any one hero’s direction had to be at the top of the list. (Not to mention keeping the actors who play them all happy in the process.) That’s why Marvel was smart to hire Buffy/Firefly guru Joss Whedon, who excels at exploiting group dynamic for good drama, to be the one to figure out how to fit all these jagged pieces into one unified puzzle. For the most part, the result is a raging success, as it’s a joy to see Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth and the rest of the gang play superbly-written versions of characters they’re obviously getting very used to sliding into.
That’s not to say The Avengers is a perfect movie, or even a perfect superhero movie. It’s not. For starters, it’s heavily front-loaded with exposition, which means it’s slower to get going than you’d expect from a film that basically had five prequels preceding it. (There is an early action sequence — an attack on a S.H.I.E.L.D. research facility — but it didn’t do much for me.) More problematic, the threat that Whedon has concocted to bring our heroes together — something about Thor’s brother Loki creating a portal so that he can effectively swap the Tesseract cube from Captain America for an alien army that will allow him to conquer Earth — is vague at best and nonsensical at worst. (Seriously, can anyone describe for me exactly what Loki’s plan was? Was it just to royally screw with Earth’s mightiest heroes so they’d all be distracted while Loki’s mind-controlled minions went about their business with the portal? Why did he need the Hulk in particular? I’m honestly not sure any of these questions have answers. Good ones, anyway.)
But the plot becomes secondary when you consider how well Whedon nails the interplay between The Avengers‘ multiple leads. I particularly enjoyed the early bonding between Tony Stark and Bruce Banner (the latter played by Mark Ruffalo, moving into an oft recast role that he essentially owns now). They’re the two resident science geniuses; of course they’d want to hang out. If only Marvel could get the Fantastic Four rights back from FOX so Reed Richards could tag along too! Even better is what goes down between the characters who don’t see eye to eye. Once the heavy infighting starts, both of the verbal and punching varieties, the movie really starts to lift-off from all the early exposition.
Then, a tragedy brings our heroes together and blasts the movie into a final act that’s one of the most thrilling in recent memory. No one has done large-scale comic-book mayhem on the big screen like this before, and it may be a while before someone pulls it off this well again. Watching the Avengers work together to protect Manhattan from an all-out alien invasion is nerd nirvana, and there’s no better surprise than the fact that it’s the Hulk who gets the heartiest laughs and the loudest applause for his big moments near the film’s end.*
Now the question is: Will Marvel be able to keep audiences happy with these characters returning to their solo franchises for a while? That might be a pretty tall order after everyone’s seen the last 40 minutes of this flick, as well as the Marvel-fanboy-friendly, sequel-teasing tag that pops up during the closing credits. Working together as a team, Tony Stark finally put others above himself. Steve Rogers blossomed into the leader he was born to be. And Hulk done smashed. So … can they do it all again, please? And soon?!
*Although I do feel like there’s a scene missing in regards to Banner. One minute, the Hulk is chasing Black Widow through the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier, apparently intent on doing her bodily harm. The next, he’s playing nicely by Avengers team rules (one hilarious stray punch aside). It’s like a magical switch was flipped off-screen, as opposed to the film explaining how Banner learned to focus his rage into a positive outcome.