This film was a big deal to comic fans everywhere. Many people waited years to see these characters on the big screen, and the effort had high expectations to meet. It could easily have fallen victim to camp, plot overload, and cliches, but it didn't. Instead, it thrilled viewers and made a definitive statement: The superhero genre is here to stay.
The story saw iconic characters Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and lesser-known allies Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) brought together by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), in order to stop evil god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) from unleashing an alien invasion upon the world. It's a fairly run-of-the-mill plot; the development and execution of it are anything but.
While I originally thought, in a review of Captain America: The First Avenger, that the lack of character depth in that film was a symptom of poor writing/directing, I now realize that it was partially due to a lackluster performance by Evans, which can be seen again in Avengers. Evans' portrayal sufficed, but was not at the level it could have been for such a beloved character. In fact, one of the little tragedies of this film was how Captain America was pushed to the background, both in terms of complexity and backstory.
But director Whedon worked magic with what he was given, and knew what he was doing: Given the shortcomings of that portrayal, Iron Man seemed to be made the de facto leader of the group rather than the Captain - and, hell, Downey's stellar performance practically demanded such.
Clearly the film's best actor, Downey delivered great one-liners, his quips and sarcasm carrying viewers through the story with unavoidable grins. The actor's character served as the glue that held this dream team together. And it was plain to see that Downey, wearing a Black Sabbath shirt (obvious shout-out to their song "Iron Man"), was really having fun.
As for Hemsworth, I found his portrayal of Thor extremely satisfactory. He captured a combination of naivety and nobility that really defined his character. Plus, Thor seems to be the most likable of the bunch.
Black Widow didn't add much to the story, aside from being the pretty face with a punch. I preferred the brainy role of Jane Foster (supporting character in Thor).
Hawkeye seemed to be a particularly bland character, easily bent to the will of the antagonist early on in the film, and overall little more than a walking plot device.
Hulk - who, honestly, I've never been a fan of - was the pleasant surprise of the movie; Ruffalo's portrayal of him as a simultaneously charismatic and troubled individual was subtle and effective.
Finally, Hiddleston's Loki returned from Thor to wreak havoc as the main villain, which I found a puzzling choice, mostly because he seemed a lot less menacing this time around, and more like an embittered child. The acting here was sharp nonetheless - it's just that the character is starting to seem repetitive.
The tone and setting of Avengers was so colorful and straightforward that it almost became its own paradigm. Even the sharpest criticisms of those elements seem to be moot points, because Whedon didn't bother trying to get the audience to suspend their disbelief; he knew better, and he wasn't going to insult their intelligence.
With a vortex opening up in the sky over New York City, an alien invasion led by a Norse god, and - oh look! - a giant, intergalactic metal snake tearing apart Manhattan, things got so outrageous that you had to laugh; you just couldn't dislike it. The inner comic fan awakened and realized this all adds up to a fist-pumping good time.
Avengers took the humor-tinged mech-action of Iron Man, the Shakespearean epicness of Thor, and threw in a little political correctness for good measure (see Captain America's comparison of Loki to a fascist). The result was a whole new animal that pretty much roared, "This is how you do a superhero film."
Action scenes and explosion upon explosion eventually began to overtake the story, a flaw that these kinds of films often suffer from. But then, even the big showdowns, at least, actually led up to the beginnings of another plot.
Normally, films with tons of sequels are a ploy to bring in the big bucks for the film industry. And I'm not saying that in this case, the circumstances are any different (in fact, comic movies are one of the biggest cash cows now).
But in having a good, dedicated cast and director, something surprising - and yes, risky - happens: the opportunity arises to really make this an ongoing tale with yearly installments. As long as the quality of this film is maintained in its sequels, I see no reason why fans won't flock to see Iron Man 3, Thor 2, Captain America 2, and Avengers 2 (all coming within the next two years, and leading up to another cosmic battle royale).
If the big brains at Marvel are going to move forward with this, they had better take this movie's stylistic framework and use it as a template for future endeavors. Certain qualitative formulas need to be retained (like the capturing of emotional elements people can relate to), to prevent further stories from becoming convoluted.
The cynics can say what they will; the stories have come very far. This film could have easily been done the wrong way. It wasn't. And that alone speaks volumes about the work that went into making The Avengers a satisfying and rewarding experience.
Here's hoping Part Two does the same.
Directed by Joss Whedon
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hiddleston, Gwyneth Paltrow
2012, 143 minutes, PG-13
Photo: A scene from The Avengers. Zade Rosenthal/AP