The Avengers (2012)
Admit it. You thought this film was going to be a self-indulgent Robert Downey Jr vehicle. I was certain that Downey, being the most bankable star in the group would get all the limelight with some obligatory Scarlett Johansson cleavage and 30 seconds for everybody else. I expected bloated egos, one-upmanship between the A-listers, unnecessarily messy action sequences and a surfeit of CGI. Ensemble casts can be tricky, especially when everybody in the ensemble has already had a taste of the top billing pie. Either the actors stick around just long enough to pick up their cheques or they’re fighting each other for our attention. Fortunately, this IS Joss Whedon we’re dealing with. A man who understand superheroes (The Astonishing X-Men) and how to bring it (Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
After five films’ worth of teasers, The Avengers film puts together the biggest and badassiest of Marvel’s superheroes. The covert organisation S.H.I.E.L.D. is attempting to harness energy from a mysterious object, the tesseract. The tesseract opens a doorway to Loki, Thor’s evil brother who arrives on Earth, bent on wreaking destruction with the help of his mindlessly evil alien army. In the face of certain destruction of the planet, Nick Fury, the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. decides to restart a once-abandoned scheme: The Avengers Initiative. Abandoning that scheme was possibly the only sensible thing ever done by S.H.I.E.L.D.: I mean, who in their right minds would put an angry/ strong green giant, a demigod of Asgard, a genetically engineered man from the 40s, a megalomaniac who hates playing by the rules and a couple of sexy assassin-spies in the same room and expect them to play nice? Fortunately for us, S.H.I.E.L.D. values mega-awesome Iron Man v. Thor v. Captain America fight sequences over logic and prudence.
The best thing about this film is that there was none of that tedious origin stuff which is so popular these days because even superhero movies now have a chance at the Oscars. Every single motif in the film: the heroes, the villain, the plot helper-alongers and the Macguffin are from previous films. So they basically had to fill two hours with superhero banter, well choreographed fight sequences and mind-blowing alien ship explosions. Check, check and CHECK! But action scenes aside, Joss Whedon and his screenwriters’ homework has paid off: they really understood their characters and their origins. That said, the comic book references never became excessive or irritating. This film also managed to give far, far more depth to The Hulk than the two previous Hulk films combined. With all due respect to Edward Norton’s formidable acting prowess, Mark Ruffalo brought a Jekyll-Hyde facet to The Hulk which was never sufficiently believable in the 2008 film. The allusion to the Black Widow and Hawkeye’s evil past gave their friendship depth without having to resort to exposition or flashbacks. Little touches like these ensured that no character (with however little screen time) went under-appreciated or underused. Except for Maria Hill (played by Cobie Smulders): Give that woman an ass-kicking role already!
I also can’t get over how excellent the chemistry between the characters was: Everybody brought a different sort of energy to the group and managed to stand out without trying too hard. Doubtlessly, Iron Man was the fulcrum on which the group turned and he got some very funny lines but most of them wouldn’t have worked if it wasn’t for his co-stars’ prowess. The group dynamics evolved so naturally: Captain America slipped into a leadership role which would never suit Tony Stark, who works better as that unbearably cool guy who regularly pisses everybody off. The Hulk is the quiet guy in the background that everybody’s just a little bit wary of while Thor was largely relegated as the butt of all Tony Stark’s jokes but he got some sweet Mjolnir smashing scenes to make up for it.
My only not-quite-a-quibble-quibble is that Tom Hiddleston as Loki just didn’t pack enough punch, especially in comparison to the superb development of the Avengers. That said, I can see why they used Loki as villain and why it worked in this film. Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) was among the first films to realize the importance of villains. Few comic book villains on screen have been as lovingly portrayed as Danny DeVito’s Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. The Dark Knight was almost entirely carried by Heath Ledger’s dramatic and terrifying performance. But The Avengers didn’t necessarily need a deep and interesting villain because this film is not about that complex relationship between superheroes and villains. A non-charismatic villain worked perfectly in this film because it wasn’t so much about who the villain was, but how a bunch of alpha dogs and lone wolves set aside their differences and came together to overcome their common foe.
Did Christopher Reeve and Adam West ever imagine that just a few decades after their campy, Good-versus-Evil films, this genre would evolve into something that would be taken seriously by critics? I doubt it, but the re-imagining of superheroes and the gritty realism that now defines this genre became inevitable after Alan Moore’s Watchmen was published and Tim Burton’s Batman films hit the theatres in the 80s.
Many have prophesied that the superhero genre is in its dying throes and Christopher Nolan’s upcoming film The Dark Knight Rises will be its swan song, but Marvel’s latest offering has proved that this genre still has a few rabbits in the hat. Besides, if they made an Avengers sequel with Wolverine and Spider-Man joining in the fray, we’d have to come up with new words to describe the sheer levels of superbificenticity it would reach.