Joss Whedon is a superhero.
His powers include an uncanny ear for characterisation, a razor-sharp but jocular wit, and the ability to carry enormous, sometimes baggage-laden properties then juggle them all effortlessly. That last quality is specifically what Marvel Studios sought in him to marshall their biggest, most ambitious project to the silver screen. Both the director and the project were considered by many to be a serious gamble, yet Marvel’s decision has paid off astoundingly well. “The Avengers” is one of the best superhero movies ever made, and might even end up on many critics’ Best-Of 2012 lists. It has some noticeable flaws, but those are relatively minor in the face of its sheer entertainment value.
Whedon’s perceived weakness — his TV roots — has turned out to be his 2nd greatest asset. Television is the ideal medium for a writer/director to really hone character nuances and figure out the unavoidable plot complexities that come with ensemble casts. And they don’t get any more complex than a film like this, the coming together of 9 key characters from 4 major franchises, all carefully interlinked with one another. Everything Marvel has done since the first “Iron Man” in 2008 has led to this point. Even the most confident, accomplished director would find it a highly daunting challenge to bring the ultimate crossover to life. The danger is either you have a film that is one hugely convoluted, boring mess of people explaining stuff with not enough action, or you have a film that is just all action without any meaning or context because the audience doesn’t know and doesn’t care about what’s going on. In other words, either too much tell or too much show. So I can’t give Whedon enough credit for striking almost the perfect balance between show & tell. I said almost, because he’s chosen to err a little on the side of the latter.
In the film’s first act, there’s just a bit too much establishment and set-up going on. I suppose it’s inevitable considering all the disparate elements that needed to be brought in and tied together for a team story. So it’s a testament to Whedon’s writing skills that he manages to condense what is essentially reams and reams of exposition into a span of 40-odd minutes. Still, for all the snappy dialogue and elegant characterisational shorthand on display, the film does begin to strain under all that talky stuff.
Sometimes it isn’t even the right talky stuff, for example Tony Stark’s romantic interlude with Pepper Potts. Scenes like these should’ve made way for the development of other characters. One is Steve Rogers, aka Captain America. His is perhaps the most compelling, and tragic, backstory of the group. Having woken up after a 70-year deep freeze, everyone Cap ever cared about is long dead. Playing up this poignant aspect of Cap would really inform the audience as to why he is such a driven soldier and little else. It’s because he has nothing else left in this world. As it is, we only get that he’s a by-the-rules boy scout and it makes Cap less interesting than he could’ve been.
The other character that suffers a missed opportunity is Loki. What I loved so much in “Thor” was that he was never quite a black & white villain. In fact, I never saw him as a villain per se, just a misguided, jealous brother and son. Here however, Loki is painted pretty much as a straight-laced antagonist, whose ambitions are cut & dried. It seems like a step backwards from all they’d established before. There is still that sense of sibling resentment and petty vengefulness, but it isn’t taken any further. To be fair, in the larger scheme of things it was simply more practical and expedient to use Loki as the Big Bad. So I can grudgingly accept what they did to the character. Besides, Tom Hiddleston is excellent as usual. He imbues his God of Mischief with some beautifully subtle shades of gray that were probably not on the page.
What is on the page however, is remarkably well-judged. Whedon simply GETS each and every character. Stark’s flamboyant narcissism that occasionally obscures his noble heart. Cap’s unwaveringly wholesome, old-school sense of decency. Thor’s regal bravado. Bruce Banner’s weary acceptance of living with “the other guy”. Whedon even gives Black Widow and Agent Coulson a previously-unseen dimension and depth of emotion. There’s a scene between Widow and Loki that reminds me of the asylum interrogation in “The Silence Of The Lambs”, only this time the mind games don’t turn out as expected. That’s another specialty of this filmmaker: toying with our expectations. Quite a number of moments have that refreshing element of surprise.
It’s evident even in Whedon’s No.1 greatest asset. His sense of humour. “The Avengers” is a very funny flick. The main reason why the laughs are so effective is that they often come out of nowhere. It’s almost shocking how explosively and unexpectedly hilarious the movie can be! I’m talking both verbal witticisms as well as physical comedy. There were times where I could barely make out the dialogue because the crowd was just roaring with laughter. I haven’t come across anything quite like this in a long while.
More than any other character, Whedon gets the Hulk. He understands exactly what makes him so appealing. The Hulk is pure, uncensored, unrestrained emotional release. And we get to witness that to full and glorious effect here. Whether Hulk is delivering copious amounts of ‘Hulk Smash!’ on friend or foe, it is a true joy to behold. He’s responsible for the best bits of comedy and action. Simply put, Hulk steals the show. Before this film, Marvel had no intention of giving the jade giant another standalone outing, a decision they would be wise to stick to (but will now be unlikely given the tremendous response towards him). This is how Hulk should be used. Sparingly, in small doses, and with other superheroes to bounce off.
Speaking of that, Whedon also knows what makes these comic book crossovers so much fun. It’s the geeky, childlike pleasure of seeing our favourite characters go at each other. “Versus” movies are popular for this very reason. And he doesn’t disappoint. Everyone fights pretty much everyone in this movie, and they’re given just enough justification so that it never comes off feeling gratuitous. Not that you’d care. My only complaint here is that most of the showdowns end in a stalemate. A slight cop-out, but at the end of the day we know for all their petty family squabbles, they have to stand on the same side against a common threat.
Which brings us to the film’s standout sequence, the end battle with Loki’s alien army. Frankly, these baddies are the textbook definition of cannon fodder, and at no point do you ever really feel like any of our heroes are in mortal danger. Even with the death of a key character, there is zero doubt that the core group is going to live to see their respective standalone sequels. And Whedon knows that we know this, so he smartly focuses not on whether The Avengers will win, but on how they go about achieving that victory. To that end, he’s crafted an impressive cross-cutting sequence where each member of the team has something important to do. It’s not the Iron Man & Friends Show as some have feared. All of them are allowed to shine, and here Cap gets to display his super-soldier fighting prowess in a way that was never fully exploited in his own movie. There’s loads of spectacle to savour in this finale. The entire 3rd act is dedicated to action, as if to make up for the talkiness of the first act. Lucidly-staged and very well played out action it is, too.
What about the cast? Well, there isn’t much to report simply because they’re status quo in the acting department. Which isn’t a bad thing at all. Robert Downey Jr still brings the same smarmy charm to Stark, although the character goes through the most significant arc. It’ll be interesting to see how it affects “Iron Man 3″. Devoid of the powerful context I mentioned earlier, Chris Evans has little to do beyond the same earnest portrayal he gave before. Clark Gregg continues to be a welcome presence in the franchise, and this round he gets to be a pivotal part of the plot. Samuel L. Jackson relishes his beefed-up screen time, yet his Nick Fury doesn’t bring much to the mix other than glower and scold more often, like a pissed off basketball coach. Of the newcomers, Jeremy Renner makes the least impression, no thanks to the way the plot treats his character Hawkeye. Better luck next time, dude. Mark Ruffalo on the other hand, is the highlight of the whole ensemble. While I enjoyed Eric Bana and Edward Norton as previous iterations of Banner, Ruffalo is the one who genuinely nails the heart of this brilliant but conflicted man. It says a lot when the puny human guy is nearly as good to watch as the big green guy.
Ultimately, the real star of the show is Joss Whedon. Now, the guy’s no master filmmaker. At least not yet. He occasionally over-indulges his penchant for verbosity, and on a technical level he still very much needs the services of a top-notch director of photography and action/stunt choreographer to make him look good. The kind that a blockbuster production like this has fortunately afforded him. There’s no denying however, that the man is a talented storyteller. Whedon excels at weaving surprises, laughter, and heartfelt emotion into complex yet highly engaging stories. While “The Avengers” is not a perfect film, it is a rare example of how so many things that could’ve gone so wrong have instead turned out so right.
And with the foregone conclusion of an absolutely massive Box Office, he is now officially Marvel’s favourite superhero.
Note: Stay tuned til midway through the end credits. It reveals the villain for the sequel. The Avengers are so screwed… Oh, and latest reports say that there is another scene right at the end, but it’s only available in the US version as a compensation for them getting it a week later than the rest of the world. What’s the scene about? One word: Shawarma.