“The idea was to bring together a group of remarkable people to see if they could become something more.” Not a bad idea after all. The Avengers was the culmination of Marvel’s long-gestating Phase One and perhaps their most ambitious risk by far. It wasn’t a question of should they, but could they? Could Marvel weave these individual characters into a larger narrative without compromising who they are? More importantly, could you keep them grounded once the high-flying spectacle kicked into overdrive? Director Joss Whedon had a lot to live up to, and he rose to the occasion. An event film for the ages, The Avengers delivered on the promise Marvel made in back in 2006 and left us desperately wanting more.
The only major fault in an otherwise stellar film is the convoluted opening sequence. It juggles the positions of Nick Fury, Agent Coulson, and Maria Hill, but we have no idea where they are in relation to one another. Coulson is our focal point on the surface, but since both Fury and Hill keep heading further down this massive research facility, once the action starts, it’s difficult to gauge how either of them can get out in time. We don’t feel the suspense either. This car chase that balloons into an all-out natural disaster only succeeds in building up Loki as the villain. Other than that, it’s just something we have to sit through.
After a rocky opening, the film finds its footing through Bruce Banner. In just one scene, Mark Ruffalo already establishes himself as the best iteration of the character. And he did it without turning into the Hulk. We know the “other guy” lurks beneath the surface, but Ruffalo shows us that we can still be entertained by the man, not the beast. He’s funny, brilliant, and anxious, and we get all of this about him before he even steps on the Helicarrier.
From there, we are introduced to the rest of the team in suitable fashions. We find Cap wrestling with the world he’s found himself in, taking his frustrations out on a poor little punching bag. Then, as Nick Fury questions him about the tesseract, he responds by saying it should have been left in the ocean. What follows is my favorite transition in the film, where we cut to Stark in the ocean of all places! Cap’s dismissive comment and its indirect connection to Stark already hints at the undercurrent of tension that’ll come between the two.
There’s plenty of tension to go around. Almost immediately, the Avengers bump heads with one another. Thor and Iron Man go at it in a battle of excess manliness, while Cap and Iron Man go head-to-head over their differing ideals. Nearly everybody has a bone to pick with Nick Fury, and altogether they’re uneasy about being in the same room as Banner. Such goes on to define the essence of these characters: they do not belong in a room together, but they need each other all the same. It’s the very definition of a family.
Credit goes to Whedon as an ingenious writer because I don’t think any of us would have taken the story in that direction. Most of us would go for all the punching and explosions, but Whedon has more restraint than that, and a lot more in mind. He’s more enamored with their individual charm, and flushes out some truly hilarious moments. Whether Cap is geeking out over a pop culture reference, or Tony Stark just being Tony Stark; Whedon first and foremost cares about making us laugh, even in the middle of the action.
The Battle of New York is the film’s crowning achievement, but not because of the pyrotechnics on display. It’s because we’ve come to feel for these characters and their struggles. So it’s rewarding for us to finally see them coalesce in the midst of this giant set-piece. Now, Whedon doesn’t just give us an action-packed climax because the film is obligated to have one. Whedon raises the stakes and gets us to see that the situation requires a team effort. He shows it to us literally in the film’s brilliant continuous take, where we go from Iron Man and Cap teaming up on the streets, to Thor and Hulk taking down a Leviathan (after which Thor receives a proper fist bump). It’s breathtaking and thrilling to see these sequences come alive on screen. You don’t even mind the fact that Fury doesn’t send additional assistance their way. Like him, you just sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.
I’ll never forget when I saw this movie for the first time. The crowd cheering when Banner says “I’m always angry,” to the hair-raising 360 degree shot of the Avengers. Let’s not forget the waves of laughter when Hulk smashes Loki to smithereens. This is a film full of crowd-pleasing moments, which is a feat in of itself because it could’ve been so easy for Whedon to appeal to the lowest common denominator and plainly give us what we want. No, he gives us what we didn’t know we’d want. Like that guy playing Galaga. Or the post-credits scene of our heroes enjoying a plate of Schawarma. Whedon inhabited this world and made it an experience for all of us. He rewarded us for our commitment thus far, whether we’ve been with Marvel the whole way through or jumping in for the first time. You just can’t resist the talent or quality involved, and we can easily see why Whedon couldn’t resist coming back for round two.
Thus, we’ve reached the end of Phase One in a truly marvelous fashion. It set a tall order for Phase Two, or more specifically, Age of Ultron. Where will we find our heroes then? What will become of them? I guess we’ll find out on Friday.
Up next: a look back on the films in Phase Two and later, my review of Age of Ultron.