The first of 2012's behemoth blockbusters arrives with the weight of four years' build-up on its shoulders and rabid fan expectations to live up to. Despite none of the movies leading up to this point being particularly special - Robert Downey Jr's revelatory performance brought the first Iron Man closest - Avengers shows Marvel capable of rising to the occasion when it really matters. Many of the same problems from previous movies persist, but the excitement of seeing these characters share a screen is enough to reduce such concerns to minor footnotes.
Despite my dread after apparently being the only person on the planet to not have enjoyed Cabin In The Woods, Joss Whedon's script does a superb job with the challenging task of not only giving all the heroes something relevant to do, but finding something approaching a human heart at the centre of this fantastical escapade.
The plot is negligible at its deepest, with its single permutation - Loki's extradimensional army arriving and tearing Manhattan a new one - evident from the trailer. While this does make the movie's first two acts feel like they're running on the spot, delaying the bombastic climax through vague motivations and narrative machinations (the reasons for Loki allowing himself to get captured on the SHIELD helicarrier are brittle at best), there's enough character work being done that there's still plenty of fun to be had in the clashes of superegoes, setting up a robust dynamic between the heroes - with Tony Stark unsurprisingly at the centre of most conflicts - for when they finally have to come together.
The movie is assisted by not having to do much legwork in defining each of its main players, opting instead of offer brief recaps for anyone who might have missed Thor, Captain America or Nick Fury and Natascha Romanoff's appearances in Iron Man 2 (the key texts underpinning most of the plot). Whedon gives each of them a clear voice from the get-go and doesn't hold from creating factions - Stark's respect for Bruce Banner's accomplishments creates an 'opposites attract' vibe between Downey Jr's energetic sarcasm and Ruffalo's laid-back scruffiness - and fights, with Steve Rogers unimpressed by Stark's egotism and uncomfortable with an Asgardian conflict being brought to Earth.
Only Romanoff and Hawkeye feel thin on the ground in terms of characterisation, despite dedicated performances from a game Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner. Though they both see plenty of action, their backstory is entirely between themselves and has no immediate relevance to the plot, although it would make for an interesting spin-off. This separates them from the others, leaving them feeling more like support than part of the core team. Romanoff - referred to only in passing as Black Widow - does better thanks to her pre-established affiliation with Nick Fury (a disappointingly inert Sam Jackson), with Hawkeye more involved when operating outside the group, reduced in the climax to firing arrows from a distant rooftop.
On the other side, Loki is a strong villain, played with vindictive pettiness by Tom Hiddlestone. His motives for creating an invasion of Earth are not exactly deep - he's still annoyed at Thor for kicking him out of Asgard, basically - but Hiddlestone makes him into a fascinating mess of childish insecurities, regularly flashing his cheesy evil grin and ranting about the meaninglessness of freedom (an instance where a presumed WW2 veteran stands up to his is a painful slip into cliché, though) as a cover for him really being nothing more than a spiteful little brother.
More might have been made out of his familial connection to Thor, which is only mentioned as a recap and changes little about how they react to one another. He's as much a punchline as he is a threat, with some of the movie's many strong gags coming at his expense, particularly Thor's line about him being adopted, and the hysterical result of an ill-advised stand-off with Hulk. A shame the Chitauri themselves are so faceless, existing solely as an army and showing none of their shape-shifting or double-crossing tendencies from the comics.
If the movie is fun but meandering whilst sorting out the Avengers leadership, the final showdown is worth every second of the wait. In terms of location and events, it isn't all that far removed from the godawful Transformers: Dark Of The Moon, yet in establishing a vividly distinctive and likeable set of characters, some sense of the battle being fought as much on a tactical level (with Captain America's natural leadership countering the brute force and numberical advantage of the Chitauri strikeforce) as an explodey one, and reasonably clear sequence of events, it succeeds in being the thrilling, extended geek-wank extravaganza that Bay lacked the focus to execute.
Whedon's love of the material comes through as much in his visual flair as his writing. He embraces the bouncy, colourful fun of a world which could have this group of characters in it, let alone operating as part of a team. Though the seriousness of the central threat is played with a straight face - even hitting a powerful tragic note around the midpoint - flourishes which might otherwise have been directorial crimes (slow-mo should only be used to emphasize 'cool' moments when you've got Thor delivering a Mjolnir blow across Hulk's chin) are escalated to giddy delights, and touches like the endearingly daft humour (perfected with a Galaga joke) and background glimpses of clips from the preceding movies only add to an abundant sense of fun.
Though a series of persistent annoyances prevent it from quite living up to the gargantuan hype - aside from the previously mentioned issues, the heroes (in particular Iron Man) seem too overpowered to ever be in real danger - Joss Whedon deserves enormous credit for creating a movie worthy of its stars and giving each of them myriad opportunities to shine. Everyone will have their favourites - toss up between Captain America and Hulk for me - and very good reasons to back their choices up. If you're a longstanding Marvel nerd, the spectacular climactic smackdown alone is probably worth another five points on top of the score below, but this is a party where even the noobiest newcomers will find much to enjoy, even if the mid-credits teaser will be as baffling as always. A more original plot would be nice for the inevitable reassembly, but Whedon and his Avengers have put down one hell of a challenge to Batman's claim on this summer's blockbuster throne.
Matthew Razak - This review was written fully in my head at the moment I left the theater. WOOOOOOOOOOOO! That was awesome! I have to remember to tell people to stay until after the credits. WOOOOOOOOO! What the hell was I supposed to remember? - 89 - Exceptional