With the release of Avengers: Infinity War approaching, we at SBM have decided to do a Marvel Cinematic Universe retrospective. Let us now look back to when the MCU’s main goal was not to expand itself to the gargantuan size of its comic counterpart but to gather up some of Earth’s mightiest heroes. More importantly, let us talk about the time it reached that goal. I am, of course, referring to the MCU Phase One finale: The Avengers.
To say that The Avengers was one of 2012’s most anticipated movies is a massive understatement. The prospect of seeing several iconic Marvel superheroes together sparked huge interest among fans and general audiences. More crucially, it would serve as the “make or break” moment for Marvel Studios. From the beginning, its films established a future key member of the Avengers and contained references to an emerging universe, often involving cameos from S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). That means if The Avengers was a flop, the effort to make Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger would have been all for nothing.
Fortunately, things worked out in the movie’s favor. Not only is it the highest grossing film of 2012, it has also received universal acclaim. Furthermore, it laid the groundwork for the likes of Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and the Guardians of the Galaxy to be incorporated in the MCU, of which their movies also garnered critical and commercial success. With other studios such as Warner Bros. and Universal trying to create cinematic universes of their own, The Avengers solidified Marvel Studios as a big influence on mainstream entertainment in the 2010s.
Now that the dust has settled on whether it excels as a pop culture event, we must answer the big question: how does The Avengers hold up on its own merits? As the title suggests, it is primarily an ensemble piece. If previous MCU entries expand upon ideas like Captain America’s heroism or Iron Man’s impact on the weapons industry, this one tackles the idea of what would it be like if those characters were put in the same physical space. In short, the film must live and breathe on the ability for director Joss Whedon’s screenplay to have upbeat characters and balanced character dynamics.
I am delighted to report that the script impressively handles these elements. Whedon has always been one to balance out a large ensemble and inject his own snarky personality into it, and his work in The Avengers is a terrific showcase of that. At no point does it feel like any member is given greater significance than another, even for those like Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) who get less screentime with the group. Furthermore, each character has a few moments in which he or she gets to speak in witticisms, from Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) stating how his god surely does not dress like a Norse god to Hawkeye talking about how easy it is to infiltrate the Helicarrier with a distraction and an eyeball. Others like Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) embody Whedon’s love for witty banter as most of their dialogue consists of sardonic, funny lines.
Most of the characters only go through the “X learns to be in a team with Y and Z” arc, but that is to be expected with a franchise that developed them in solo outings. In particular, the God of Thunder himself, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), ends up as roughly the same person he was when he first appears around the 45-minute mark. Iron Man and Captain America also do not evolve substantially, but Downey Jr. and Evans provide enough humanity in their roles to compensate. Make no mistake, these characters are still engaging here, but that is due to the actors and character work done in previous films. Ultimately, this is more of an observation since the story by Whedon and Zak Penn is primarily interested in developing each Avenger as a team player.
By contrast, we have Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) as a truly dynamic character. In Iron Man 2, Black Widow was depicted as a one-dimensional seductive fighter. Here, she is depicted as someone who does anything possible to forget her unpleasant past while still having her moments of seduction and fighting. This added layer is undoubtedly thanks to Whedon’s tradition of including strong female characters in his work, but Johansson deserves credit too for making the character far more emotive in her second appearance in the MCU. Her blunt line deliveries alone provide more insight into the character than anything she did in Iron Man 2.
The standout character, however, is Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Banner’s presence is noteworthy due to the fact that Ruffalo plays him instead of Edward Norton, who played him in The Incredible Hulk. Fortunately, like the recasting of James Rhodes/War Machine in Iron Man 2, the shift to Ruffalo as the scientist that can turn into a not-so-jolly green giant is a short distraction. It helps that he gives the film’s most nuanced performance – his Banner comes off as simultaneously calm and annoyed, resulting in a character that feels unpredictable. Furthermore, this version of the Hulk is easily the most joyous and comic-accurate of all his media incarnations – unlike The Incredible Hulk, this one resembles the actor portraying him and unlike Ang Lee’s Hulk, the CGI rendering actually gives the impression he is in the shot and not on top of it.
It must be noted that the side effect of the film being an ensemble piece is a momentum more deliberate than the average summer blockbuster. This is apparent in how the opening act re-introduces the protagonists. With the exception of Hawkeye, each has a lengthy first scene in which he or she is the central focus. For example, we are re-introduced to Captain America in a wonderful scene where he reminisces about the events of Captain America: The First Avenger as he takes out his anger by punching a bag across a gym. This storytelling choice works because it re-establishes their traits set up in previous movies, allowing viewers less familiar with the universe to quickly understand each of them.
Best of all, the slower pacing culminates in one of the most iconic and effective climaxes to ever grace the MCU: the New York battle. The MCU movies have tried to make their final action sequence bombastic but very few have managed to retain their personality by the end like this one does. Several moments during this sequence have the same balance of light-hearted humor and impactful drama as the rest of the film whether that be Captain America’s interaction with a police officer or Iron Man maneuvering a missile towards the enemy mothership or Hulk’s rather fun encounter with the God of Mischief, Loki (Tom Hiddleston). This is such a great finale that I would even say that the film is worth watching entirely for the final act.
Based on the previous paragraphs, I have described a superb popcorn movie that does right by its characters and tone. However, there are two major caveats that limit the film from being as strong as it could be. As much as one can praise Whedon for his writing ability, his direction is a bit underwhelming. Given his work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, it is not surprising his directorial presence is more akin to a big-budget television episode than a big-budget blockbuster. What is surprising is that he has done little to adapt his visual sensibilities for a movie-sized canvas. Most dialogue scenes are blandly shot and overlit, often using medium-to-tight close-ups that rarely increase dramatic impact. Most egregiously, Whedon and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey use a desaturated, low contrast aesthetic that makes the final product seem as if the final color correction tweaks were not made. Maybe this was done to add a sense of realism to the story, but in practice, it makes the sets and costumes look much cheaper than its $220 million budget would suggest.
This is not to say that Whedon’s directing lacks high points. Only the most incompetent filmmakers can make the climactic New York battle a bore, and while I may have issues with him as a visual storyteller, his work is never less than functional. In fact, he seems to be a much stronger director during action scenes, as these give him the chance to frame shots in ways that benefit the drama and improve visual clarity. By far the pinnacle of this is a forty-second tracking shot in the final act that shows each of the Avengers in action. In addition to computer-assisted camerawork zipping around the city landscape, the shot lasts long enough to sell the idea that these characters really are “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes”. For those forty seconds, The Avengers is popcorn movie perfection, and it is a shame nothing else is as rousing from a visual standpoint.
What else is problematic besides Whedon’s direction? On repeat viewings, I have come to realize that saying “it is character-driven” is a nice way of saying the story is too thin for its own good. In addition to making the film feel bloated – the ten-minute opening could be summarized in one minute – it does detrimental things to the characterization of Loki. In Thor, he was written as someone who wanted to do things his way and only worked alongside the heroes if it benefited him. But in this film, he is written as a typical power-hungry dictator aiming to put everyone under his control. This extends to the fact that he carries around a staff with the Mind Infinity Stone at the tip. While this character shift is briefly explained in the mid-credits scene where it is revealed he was controlled by the mysterious Thanos, we are still left with an antagonist that is fairly one-note throughout.
Thank goodness for Hiddleston reprising the role as the God of Mischief. If Loki seems to be a generic villain at first glance, Hiddleston is fantastic at giving him a menacing presence. As with his performance in Thor, much of his acting consists of speaking lines quietly and angrily, which makes sense given the character’s troubled history. This is a simple approach for portraying Loki, and it is a delight that it is just as effective here as it was before. Perhaps the character’s best moment is the scene with him and Black Widow, where he makes a long speech about how her efforts to hide her true identity will amount to nothing. In addition to Whedon writing him to be intense as possible, Hiddleston does whatever he can to make the emotions of the scene extremely palpable.
The Avengers is not quite the best possible version of itself since its visuals and narrative leave something to be desired. Thankfully, it gets enough right with these iconic characters sharing the screen either through heated arguments or entertaining action scenes that it remains an enjoyable romp regardless. At its best, it exudes a charm that you would only find in the most delightful popcorn movies, and it is always nice to see a film that gets better as it goes along. As much as I wish that a more visually oriented director helmed this project, I cannot deny either its high fun factor or the shadow it has cast on summer blockbusters of the past few years.
GRADE – 7.5/10
What is your opinion on The Avengers in addition to Phase One and the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole? Be sure to tweet your thoughts at @superbromovies.
– Mark Tan
The Avengers is available on Blu-ray and Digital HD.
The Avengers – Earth’s mightiest heroes must come together and learn to fight as a team if they are going to stop the mischievous Loki and his alien army from enslaving humanity.
Directed by Joss Whedon, The Avengers stars Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, and Samuel L. Jackson.