At long last, Marvel have pulled it off. Four years after Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk entered cinemas to signal the beginning of an effort to establish a connected cinematic universe of Marvel superheroes, The Avengers - the ultimate endpoint that Marvel was working towards all along - is finally upon us. It arrived with the burden of a number of excellent movies signposting its eventual arrival on top of the decades of comic book history, yet the film was in safe hands with self-professed geek Joss Whedon serving as writer-director. Bringing his unparalleled talent for witty dialogue and character dynamics to the project, Whedon has defied the odds and delivered the ultimate summer spectacle. With more smarts than the Transformers franchise and some of the most breathtaking action sequences in years, fanboys can rest assured that The Avengers is worth both the wait and the hype.
When Thor's wicked brother Loki (Hiddleston) arrives on Earth, he steals a powerful cosmic cube known as the Tesseract with plans to summon an alien army to conquer humankind. Faced with an unprecedented threat, S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Jackson) works to bring together the only ones capable of saving the planet from total annihilation: genius billionaire Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey Jr.), WWII super-soldier Steve Rogers/Captain America (Evans), brilliant scientist Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Ruffalo), demigod Thor (Hemsworth), and master assassins Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Johansson) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Initially told that they're only required to find the Tesseract, it fast becomes clear that large-scale combat is inevitable to defend the Earth.
Joss Whedon had a lot of baggage to handle when he signed on to helm The Avengers. On top of the need to weave a self-contained central story, the filmmaker also had to advance the individual stories of each of the characters and balance the enormous congregation of iconic heroes...and all without making the flick seem bloated. It could have been an utter mess, but Whedon has actually pulled it off. Admittedly, the first half has a tendency to keep us at arm's length due to the narrative's complex machinations, but the second half is pitch-perfect beat-by-beat. Everything works perfectly from the midpoint onwards; the drama, the one-liners, the ensemble dynamics, the narrative goings-on and the action sequences are all spot-on. Furthermore, Whedon permitted each character adequate screen-time to allow for their respective arcs to grow and percolate. None of the heroes are short-changed, as they all play meaningful roles in the story. Best of all, Whedon has managed to leave logical room for both another Avengers movie as well as solo movies for all of the characters.
Unlike less skilful blockbusters, The Avengers is not marred by any plot holes or bewildering story elements, and, despite its plot involving intergalactic flights of fantasy and extraordinary advances in technology, the story's internal logic never collapses in on itself. Plus, unlike The Dark Knight, Whedon felt no need to make a joyless superhero experience - instead, The Avengers is enlivened by a good-feeling atmosphere similar to films like The Dirty Dozen, where fun is as much derived from snappy banter as it is from action scenes. Anyone familiar with Whedon's writing (Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) should not find it surprising that the dialogue sparkles as vibrantly as the CGI. On top of the witticisms, there are a number of genuine laugh-out-loud moments scattered throughout the picture. Luckily, though, the dramatic elements are still taken seriously, and we always feel that there's a lot at stake.
Blockbuster filmmakers focusing on mass destruction too often rely on disorientating rapid-fire editing and shaky camerawork to generate the faux illusion of excitement. But Joss Whedon is too skilful for lazy shortcuts like this; his large-scale action sequences are truly exciting thanks to their elegant, sturdy, comprehensible framing and Alan Silvestri's exhilarating musical score (the main Avengers theme is brilliantly memorable). Most impressive is a single tracking shot that moves through the climactic devastation shifting from one Avenger to the next, showing us the awesomeness that these guys are capable of. Moreover, during the climax, Whedon focuses more on the interactions between the heroes as they banter and plan strategies, and time is spent observing the innocents who get caught up in the mayhem. This generates a much-needed sense of humanity. Additionally, the special effects and production values are consistently immaculate. Indeed, every cent of the reported $220 million budget was put to good use. The Avengers delivers the goods time and time again, leaving you in utter awe. For the record, the film is available in post-converted 3-D, and, while the conversion is pretty solid, the film is just as good in 2-D.
The Avengers boasts a cast of unbelievable enormity, yet the ensemble share wonderful chemistry and work exceptionally well together. Leading the pack is Robert Downey Jr., who has retained the razor-sharp comedic timing and irresistible charm which made him such a great choice for the role of Tony Stark/Iron Man in the first place. Downey Jr. provides most of the comic relief, and it's terrific to have such a personality-laden character to latch onto amid the drama. Meanwhile, Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth continue to impress as Steve Rogers/Captain America and Thor (respectively), and Jeremy Renner makes for a solid Hawkeye. Reprising her role from Iron Man 2, Scarlett Johansson is a complete delight as Black Widow - she's incredibly sexy and believable, and she kicks some serious butt here. The last Avenger is the Hulk, who steals the show. After two Hulk pictures of middling quality, a film has finally done the character justice. Mark Ruffalo is an appealing Bruce Banner and the digital effects bringing the Hulk to life are spectacular. Plus, yes, the Hulk smashes stuff real good and, yes, it's fucking awesome.
Luckily, the supporting actors are just as assured as the main players. Samuel L. Jackson was born to play Nick Fury; he oozes cool and charisma, and looks intrinsically badass with an eye-patch. Equally remarkable is Tom Hiddleston, who reprised his role of Loki from 2011's Thor. Due to the way Hiddleston can be both charming and sinister, he's one of the greatest villains in recent memory. Rounding out the cast are a few more carryovers from prior films, including Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson, Stellan Skarsgård as Dr. Selvig, and Gwyneth Paltrow as Tony Stark's reliable Pepper Potts.
The Avengers is both a superlative Marvel film and an outstanding Joss Whedon film. It's refreshing to see a blockbuster which provides popcorn-munching delights without insulting one's intelligence, and it's equally refreshing to see a superhero movie which does not go for a "dark, gloomy and gritty" approach. The benefits of Whedon's involvement cannot be overstated; without his talent for handling ensembles or writing snappy dialogue, The Avengers could have been an incredible disappointment. Let's be thankful that the end result is an incredible success, instead. It's destined to inspire complete ecstasy in comic book enthusiasts, and, thankfully, casual viewers should also find The Avengers to be a deliriously enjoyable blockbuster. Be sure to stick around for both a mid-credits scene and an end credits scene.