Looking at all of the superhero movie franchises that have cropped up in the past decade, it seems like the Marvel Studios productions are the most disposable. The origin stories for Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man, for instance, cannot compete with the first two films in the Spider-Man, X-Men, or Dark Knight series. The Marvel films range from entertaining, but uninspired (Iron Man and Captain America) to misdirected and dull (The Incredible Hulk and Thor).
Therefore the task given to unite the various Marvel Studios heroes into one film was at the same time a simple one and a monumental one for writer/director Joss Whedon. Creating an ensemble action movie that bests its predecessors in the franchise would not be exceedingly difficult, but creating a film that would have its own voice and something meaningful to contribute to the medium seemed like an altogether impossible task. Luckily, Whedon and his brilliantly talented creative team were more than up for the task. The finished product that is The Avengers is funny, balanced, and ambitious movie that at least attempts to leave the viewer with something more to contemplate upon exiting the cinema than a refined appreciation for explosions.
While it was difficult for these characters to each sustain their own films, put together in an ensemble they surprisingly work. Each of the various egos is involved is allowed to take control for only a necessary amount of time before pulled back into the ensemble to maintain balance in the Marvel universe. As much as Whedon deserves credit (and don’t get me wrong, he deserves much), the primary reason for the success of the movie is thanks in large part to three individuals: cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, Mark Ruffalo, and Samuel L. Jackson.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let us delve into the plot. The Avengers opens with an unfortunate thud; a scene that introduces us to the film’s main villain Loki (Tom Hiddleston) with a drab sense of obligation. All of the characters are shot from below at angles that appear to only be used to give some depth to the 3-D. Thankfully, the action quickly moves to a series of vignettes wherein the various heroes are assembled. Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is one of the first to assemble along with her estranged love interest Clint Barton aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). That pair along with S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) go about collecting Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Bruce Banner aka The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).
Together the team must use their respective powers to protect the world from Loki, who seeks to conquer humankind with the help of an army from outer space that he summons with a magical cube called the Tesseract (we’ll call it the “Macguffin cube”). Proving to be an even more formidable foe than Loki are the egos of the Avengers who are unaccustomed to the teamwork atmosphere. Well beyond the point of being uncomfortable with their own powers, the characters have reached the point in every superheroes’ journey where they have to realize the fight for Earth is not theirs alone.
This heavily dominant series of subplots leads to a series of fights between “good guys” that are more successful the less powers they have. Thor and Iron Man push each other around in a rather uninspired scene where the camera shakes too much and the amount of CGI employed made it feel like gravity never existed. Contrarily, the fights between Hawkeye and Black Widow were among the best scenes in the film. The camera pulled back to give us a complete glimpse of the impressive stunt work that looked like two people actually fighting. What a concept.
Any of the flaws in the film’s earlier moments, however, are more than redeemed in the climactic, city sprawling action piece. Director of Photography Seamus McGarvey shoots the action from a distance, which was one of the smartest decisions to be made in this or any action-heavy motion picture. Not only does it set up a brilliantly fun, uninterrupted shot that captures every Avenger in action, but it also allows for the CGI to feel more realistic and necessary.
On the performances side of the fence Robert Downey, Jr. charms with predictably perfect wit in each sarcastic line of dialogue. Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans are unable to keep pace with the veteran actors and their characters are given less interesting arcs in the ensemble. The real standouts are Mark Ruffalo and Samuel L. Jackson as Bruce Banner and Nick Fury, respectively. Ruffalo is hyper-aware of his surroundings, constantly searching for any unpredictable factors that will launch him into an “episode.” He subtly shows us that there is a lot going on under the surface and this inner conflict actually elevates the performances of the players around him. It feels like Downey, Jr. has to prove himself and cannot simply rely on his wit.
Marvel regular Samuel L. Jackson, who was reduced to a cameo in each of the previous films, finally gets a chance to shine in his biggest role yet. As the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Jackson assumes a lot of the responsibilities of Whedon himself or any other director attempting to pull off a project of this magnitude. Just as Nick Fury has to answer to the bureaucrats, the public, and the egos of the heroes, Whedon was tasked with making a project that satisfies the studio, appeals to the fanboys, and elevates the performances of his stars. Both Fury and Whedon took their scrapes, but came out on top when the dust finally settled.
Bottom Line: The Avengers is a funny, balanced, and ambitious movie that at least attempts to leave the viewer with something more.