The few drawbacks and criticisms aren't enough to stop The Avengers from delivering a fun and satisfying time at the movies.
Marvel's The Avengers is not just a film - it's a cinematic event. The culmination of half a decade of movie-making, five different films introducing us to characters, stories and worlds of Marvel's shared movie universe - not to mention, the life-long hopes of fanboys and fangirls all over the world, who have been dreaming to see their favorite superheroes onscreen together long before Marvel Studios began making it a reality.
Now that the Avengers is here, the question is: Does writer/director Joss Whedon (Serenity) deliver a film that lives up to fans' massive expectations and functions as a great summer blockbuster for causal moviegoers?
Short answer: while not perfect, Avengers delivers the goods on all fronts, and then some.
We are thrust right into the story at the point where the respective lead-in films - Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America - left off, by learning just what has befallen Thor's brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) after his plunge into the abyss at the end of Thor. We find Loki holed up in a strange netherworld (or "realm"), hosted by a dark and mysterious "ally" who promises him re-entry to Earth and an alien army in exchange for securing the "Tesseract" (the cosmic cube seen in Captain America) from the humans who have claimed it (i.e., the covert peacekeeping organization, S.H.I.E.L.D.). Armed with a new weapon that can fire energy and brainwash unwilling subjects, Loki heads for Earth.
The only thing standing in the trickster god's way? S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and the various superheroes included in his "Avengers Initiative." Fury manages to gather Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and super spies Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Through otherworldly machinations, even Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is able to return to Earth, charged with capturing his sibling and the Tesseract for return to Asgard.
But Loki isn't called "the god of mischief" for nothing. Before Fury's new super team can find its balance, Loki is in their heads sewing seeds of doubt, distrust, anger and conflict. Can earth's mightiest heroes put their differences aside in time to protect the planet - or is their coming together an even bigger threat than Loki himself?
The Avengers is very much a Joss Whedon product - and is much better off for being so. If you're not familiar with the geek-centric writer/filmmaker, he was the mind behind the '90s Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series, the short-lived (but much-loved) sci-fi show Firefly, its movie spinoff, Serenity, famous Internet musicals (Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog) and even some acclaimed comic book series (Astonishing X-Men).
Whedon was chosen to head this project primarily for his love of comic book culture and its characters. Speaking as a comic book fan, it's clear from watching Avengers that Whedon is in tune with every single one of the superheroes (and villains) in Marvel's stables, and knows how to arrange those personalities into a well-balanced ensemble - like a perfectly assembled puzzle (no pun). He also accomplishes the impressive feat of tying all of the plot-threads of the solo films together into a (semi-)coherent story, while briefly acknowledging various dangling threads (whereabouts of certain supporting characters, etc.) without allowing them to strangle this team-based story.
Through those various solo films we've gotten to know smarmy Tony Stark, old-fashioned idealist Captain America, arrogant Thor, sultry Black Widow and the uncontrollable Hulk. Avengers takes things a step further by showing us how these characters are growing and evolving - and better yet, growing and evolving because of their interactions with one another.
For all of the impressive action (more on that later), the best moments in Avengers are arguably the slower, character-driven scenes. Whedon's penchant for snappy dialogue is on full display, and it's a great experience to see, (for example) Tony Stark and Dr. Banner talking in high-science dialect no one else in the room understands - or debating the value of the traumas that made them both into tragic heroes. Small touches, but moments that feel true, interesting, and rewarding in a way that few people (fan or non-fan) will likely expect.
Equally unexpected (but just as rewarding) is the humor in the film. We get the usual smattering of one-liners and overly-dramatic monologues and dialogue that can only come from a comic book - but there is also sharp wit and total self-awareness woven into Whedon's script. Avengers strikes a tonal balance similar to that of Iron Man - i.e., light and fun for the most part, understatedly serious in the heavy moments (and Avengers does have some heavy moments, rest assured).
The best humor comes out of well-timed tongue-in-cheek winks - i.e., how strong certain characters are, how these characters behave, the context in which we find them (ex: Cap and Thor being fish-out-of-water types in the modern world), acknowledgement of how the 'real world' is juxtaposed to the concept of superheroes - and other great insights that work as sly winks to comic book fans and generally fun moments for casual viewers to enjoy in between action sequences.
Speaking of action: Avengers has some pretty impressive sequences - especially the climatic final battle against Loki's invading army, which is definitely the best "boss battle" that has been featured in any Marvel movie since Incredible Hulk. Those worried about Marvel's track record for underwhelming climaxes need not: by the time the battle is won, you will have been exhausted by the combination of iconic comic book imagery (The Avengers Assembled or working together in battle) and impressive big-screen eye-candy. The film has about four big set pieces (it's still somewhat rigid and obvious in its structuring), but all of them deliver the goods and keep the movie exciting from start to finish.
As far as characters go, Avengers is the best rendering of Marvel superheroes on the big screen since RDJ let his charisma carry Iron Man to success. What's surprising about the film is who ends up standing out the most: Black Widow and Hulk are the characters best served by Avengers, and audiences will almost certainly walk away with greater appreciation for both. (Johansson even gets a few chances to mock her detractors.) Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark schtick is as entertaining as ever (if not overly familiar by now) and he handles the difficult task of keeping things fun whenever they threaten to get too serious or comic book silly; without that cog in the machine (no pun), Avengers wouldn't function nearly as well. Captain America and Thor are given moments to shine, but their presence is much more reserved and understated in this film - though we do finally get to see the power that makes Thor worthy of being called a god.
Supporting players like Nick Fury and his assistants Agent Coulson (Gregg) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) are just that: support. Jackson and Gregg are well-experienced with making the most out of a little in these Marvel films, but Smulders is mostly just window dressing. Hawkeye (Renner) is the one member of the actual Avengers team who is somewhat underserved - though that is something of a necessary evil, given how he factors into the story. As a villain, Tom Hiddleston makes Loki even more compelling than he was in Thor, this time infusing him with psychotic rage hidden behind a veneer of charm, smooth words and dimpled smiles (think Hannibal Lector with super villain aspirations). Of course, as a physical threat Loki isn't that intimidating - hence the endless leagues of indistinguishable aliens who are thrown into the third act for The Avengers to beat on.
The special effects in the movie are pretty great - especially the much-improved Hulk, who (through motion capture technology) finally looks like the actor playing him and the classic version of the character first created by artist Jack Kirby. The aliens, S.H.I.E.L.D's flying "Helicarrier" base, Iron Man, Thor's hammer and the rest all look great. Visually, the movie is the most impressive work that Marvel has done, but as for the 3D format: it's totally unnecessary. It's not a bad conversion and doesn't detract from the viewing experience - but it rarely adds anything, either. If you're debating which way to see the film: go 2D. [UPDATE: Ok, so 3D IMAX is a pretty awesome way to see it, as well.]
Now for the downsides (because there are a few): the story is very flimsy and predictable in terms of its overarching plot, and the big "reveals" in the film are likely to confuse those who haven't read a ton of comic books (NOTE: there are two extra scenes during and after the credits - make sure to stay for both). For all the satisfying action, Avengers demonstrates that Whedon still has something to learn about space and angles when it comes to movie direction. A lot of the sequences still have a very "TV" feel to them - and on the whole, Avengers plays like several episodes of a very well-built TV series, rather than a feature film that has truly "cinematic" moments in it. There are a few, but only a few.
However, the few drawbacks and criticisms aren't enough to stop The Avengers from delivering a fun and satisfying time at the movies. Whedon leaves the characters in some great places for their upcoming second (or third) round of solo adventures - with the door to the larger Marvel movie universe left wide open for some interesting (and risky) developments down the road. I'm sure fans will be debating those points all along the way.
In the end, was Marvel's ambitious dream for a shared cinematic universe truly worth it? In my opinion: Most definitely.
The Avengers is now playing in theaters everywhere. It is Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, and a mild drug reference.
For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant team check out our Avengers episode of the SR Underground podcast.
The Avengers is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, and a mild drug reference
If you want to discuss the film in detail, please head over to our Avengers Spoilers Discussion to avoid ruining the movie for those who haven't seen it.