Film Review: The Avengers (2012)

Writer/direcor Joss Whedon’s first film was a modest affair – the 2005 sci-fi Serenity, based on his cancelled 2002 TV series Firefly. It had a relatively low-budget for a studio action film (around $40 million) and only made its money back years later through home video sales. For his second feature film, Whedon took on a mighty challenge: a $220 million blockbuster that had to satisfy casual viewers and hardcore fanboys & fangirls alike. In that regard, I think he has succeeded. But is it a great film in its own right?

The Avengers is the culmination of years of character cross-overs and tantalising glimpses in previous Marvel films, usually in the post-credits tags. It brings together established characters like The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Captain America (Chris Evans), and adds a couple of relatively new ones to the mix, including Scarlett Johannson’s Black Widow (who appeared in Iron Man 2) and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye (who had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo in Thor). The team is united by recurring character Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). The plot is kind of irrelevant; all you need to know (and probably want to see) is that they all band together to fight EVIL. And bicker a lot along the way, in true Whedon fashion.

The opening scene is not promising. It takes place on one of those planets that appeared in Thor – you know, the ones with goofy-looking creatures who all speak like they are trying to replace Christian Bale in the Batman films. They say a bunch of dull things that are supposed to be terribly dramatic and do something relating to a very CGI-looking blue effect. As you can tell, I was seriously struggling to pay attention. Things pick up when we return to Earth, although we are bombarded with a whole lot more nonsensical babble about portals and energy and there are some more unconvincing effects. So far, so blah.

I should probably mention at this point that I have extremely little patience for other-worldly silliness in comic-book films. I adore Sam Raimi’s first two Spiderman films because they are firmly grounded in reality, and because Peter Parker is a fully-formed, complex character. In Spiderman 2, when Doc Oc creates a giant ball of energy, the fact that it doesn’t really make sense doesn’t bother me in the slightest because everything else in the film feels genuine. I would have preferred that The Avengers established something tangible to hang on to before plunging us into the effects-heavy supernatural stuff.

The first half of the film is quite patchy; the character (re)introductions are quite time-consuming, and feel a little redundant since most of the audience is by now familiar with all of these characters. There are some great scenes, like the introduction of Black Widow, which features 2012’s second great tied-to-a-chair fight sequence (the other being one of the better moments of Killer Elite). When the characters do finally unite, the sheer amount of bickering is exhausting. Whedon has done the ‘fractured ensemble’ stuff much better on Buffy, Angel and Firefly. Here, it feels like we are killing time, and it doesn’t help that a huge amount of Whedon’s ‘snappy’ one-liners fall very flat. But when the bickering stops and the action kicks in, the film truly excels.

Whedon handles the action really well; it is always clear where the characters are in relation to the space around them. There is a major set-piece halfway through, and at that point I finally became truly invested in the film. Without going into plot-details, I will say that the final battle is exceptionally exciting. There is one bravura single-take sequence that moves seamlessly between the major characters, each fighting their own part of the battle. I found this shot to be almost heart-stoppingly exciting; here, Whedon had achieved exactly what the film demanded – he had united these disparate characters and formed them into a team.

The acting is strong on all fronts, with Ruffalo and Downey Jr particular highlights (or maybe I was just enjoying the unofficial Zodiac reunion). I haven’t been a Johannson fan since the early 2000s, but I really liked her performance here; Whedon plays well to her  alluring charisma and her vulnerability. I enjoyed the subtle, underplayed chemistry between her and Renner (who does a great job with minimal material). Tom Hiddleston is great, returning here as Loki, brother of Thor. I also liked the addition of Cobie Smulders as Agent Hill (Nick Fury’s second in command), perhaps because you can sense Whedon’s attempt to inject some more oestrogen into the testosterone-fest.

In interviews, Whedon discussed how he didn’t want to give any character short thrift, and this intent really comes across. I love that each character gets their own hero moment, including Fury and Hill, who are sidelined for most of the action. Whedon is also careful not to sideline the two superheroes who have no superpowers of their own – Black Widow and Hawkeye. They are both vital to the final battle, and Whedon ensures that they don’t come across as second-class members of the gang. It reminded me of the Xander character in Buffy; he had no powers, but they couldn’t have won their battles without him.

I have written this review to reflect, in sequence, my mixed experience with The Avengers. I really didn’t connect with it until halfway through, although there are certainly some great scenes prior to that point. I absolutely loved the action-packed second half, which takes off and never slows down. It left me giddy with excitement, although that response has certainly dulled since I saw it yesterday. Ultimately, I think that The Avengers is a patchy but hugely entertaining blockbuster, and that Whedon has successfully wrangled the various characters into an exciting team. Personally, I am never going to care as much about these guys as I do about the infinitely more human Peter Parker / Spiderman, but I eagerly await their next mission together, especially since the assembly part of the process is now out of the way. Hopefully Whedon will still be at the helm.

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