Wednesday, May 2, 2012 | 5:19 p.m.
It may not have a number in its title, but The Avengers is still the most anticipated sequel of the summer. Marvel has built its entire movie strategy on the idea that this will be the culmination of efforts going back to Iron Man in 2008, and movies like Thor and Iron Man 2 often seemed like they were working as hard at setting up The Avengers as they were at telling their own stories. If The Avengers failed to deliver, it could retroactively taint the movies that came before it.
Luckily, then, The Avengers doesn’t fail. In terms of character, action, special effects, dialogue and humor, The Avengers delivers pretty handily. Writer-director Joss Whedon does such a good job of throwing together these various superheroes and supporting characters and having them interact with and/or punch each other that it takes a long time to notice that the plot is completely uninteresting. The movie’s villain is a familiar face, Asgardian trickster Loki (Tom Hiddleston), half-brother of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and main antagonist of last year’s Thor movie. Hiddleston is good at being devious, but having the villain who was bested by one hero show up to take on six heroes seems a little anticlimactic.
Loki is the harbinger of an alien invasion that drives the movie’s big action climax, but the aliens are vaguely defined characters led by a shadowy figure who’s only revealed in the post-credits scene that sets up the next Avengers movie (the folks at Marvel are never content to let a story actually end). The plot may not be compelling, but as long as it puts the world in peril, it does its job, since that requires S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to gather the world’s greatest heroes, including Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, ably stepping in for Edward Norton) and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Thor doesn’t even show up until about 40 minutes into the movie, but he too ends up a member of the team, as does Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), although he spends more than half the movie as Loki’s mind-controlled slave.
With all those big personalities in the mix, not to mention Iron Man’s secretary/love interest Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and perpetually put-upon Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), it’d be easy for some of them to get lost, but Whedon manages to throw in significant character development for most of the main players, and characters like Thor and the Hulk, who had trouble carrying their own movies in the past, fare much better in an ensemble setting. Whedon understands that one of the core appeals of the Avengers is the way that the team members don’t quite fit together or get along, and the squabbling is as enjoyable to watch as the action (plus it allows for a variety of hero-on-hero beatdowns).
Whedon has always been fond of genre deconstructionism, in works like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and the recent The Cabin in the Woods, but here he plays things completely straight, and while he does it very well, it’s also a little disappointing. Whedon’s personal style shines through in the snappy dialogue, but otherwise he’s just another cog in the Marvel machine, directing with no more distinction than Jon Favreau or Joe Johnston. The Avengers is rousing blockbuster entertainment that goes down easy, but like all of Marvel’s recent efforts, its main function seems to be to string audiences along for the next episode.