This is the film no one ever thought we were going to get; the one that comic fans dreamed of, but never expected. We’d had lots of superhero films, but they were all self-contained, apart from a few jokes (e.g. Bruce Wayne referencing Metropolis in Batman Forever, or an allusion to Doctor Strange in Spider-Man 2). The idea of a film series imitating the world of the comics was something that seemed unworkable; films are just so complex and difficult to make, involving so many different people, that the level of coordination that would be required to approximate a single, interconnected world just seemed out of the question.
Then, of course, we had Iron Man, with its ending allusion to “The Avenger initiative.” It was cool, but not many people seriously thought they’d do it. Then Tony Stark showed up at the end of The Incredible Hulk and Agent Coulson went from Stark’s mansion to finding Thor’s hammer, and it was firmly established they were trying to link all these different films together. But the real test was the big team-up: could you stick four different superhero protagonists in a single story and make it work? Would one or two overshadow all the others? Would you be able to maintain a credible threat level with that many incredibly powerful people running around? Would the plot make sense and maintain continuity with the earlier films?
The film opens with an ominous voice describing the plot of an unseen alien overlord to recover the Tesseract from its location on Earth, offering rule of the planet to their ‘ally’ in exchange for his services. “And the humans, what can they do but burn?”
We then cut to a SHIELD base where Dr. Eric Selvig is studying the Tesseract under the watchful eye of Nick Fury, Agent Coulson, and Agent Barton AKA Hawkeye. So, right there we have a supporting character from Thor studying the McGuffin from Captain America under the authority of supporting characters from the Iron Man films, while giving us a clearer introduction to the hero who, thus far, has only had a cameo.
The Tesseract suddenly surges and opens a portal, out of which steps Loki, armed with a magic scepter with which he slaughters the SHIELD guards and takes control of Barton and Selvig before stealing the cube and fleeing just before the portal collapses, swallowing the entire base and what appears to be several square miles of landscape, thus dramatically letting us know just how powerful this thing is. This sequence includes an underground car chase and a helicopter crash that probably could have served as the climax for another film, but are merely the introduction here.
This crisis leads Fury to start the ‘Avengers Initiative:’ a response team of superhuman individuals. Agent Coulson is sent to fetch Tony Stark (interrupting his date night with Pepper to celebrate the completion of Stark Tower, a new skyscraper in New York powered by its own arc reactor), while Agent Romanov, AKA Black Widow is sent to recruit Bruce Banner (currently hiding and giving free medical care to the poor in Cambodia), ostensibly to help them find the Tesseract due to its faint gamma radiation. Fury himself goes to ask the recently-thawed Steve Rogers, currently trying to process the knowledge that he’d been asleep for seventy years, to join the team.
The film does a very good job of pacing itself here, avoiding the potential issue of throwing too much at the audience at once. The characters are introduced one at a time, shown briefly in their own element before they encounter each other: Tony Stark is perfecting his latest invention and bantering with Pepper; Bruce Banner is hiding out while trying to help people; Natasha Romanov is conducting a dangerous spy mission; Steve Rogers is taking out his frustrations on a punching bag. Then when they start to meet, it’s in sequence, one or two at a time. Bruce Banner meets Natasha Romanov when she comes to collect him, then Steve Rogers is flown out to the carrier where he meets Banner, before being sent on a mission where he encounters Tony Stark. This allows them to feel each other out, develop their own relationships and impressions of one another before they’re thrown together as a team, and helps us to re-connect to them all in turn as we meet them.
From there, the film is mostly a matter of watching these disparate, alpha personalities jostling, fighting, feeling each other out, and finally coming together as a team. And you know that? That’s really all it needs to be. It’s a pure spectacle anchored by great characters expertly portrayed by the both the writers and actors; it doesn’t need a complex story full of twists and convolutions. You really could just have the six Avengers locked in a room for an hour and talking and it would be worth watching; they’re that interesting. And parts of the film are just the characters in a room talking, comparing notes, or challenging each other. There’s a bit where Tony Stark and Bruce Banner discuss their respective experiences, where Tony tries to get Banner to see that he’s lucky to be alive (fitting nicely with his own experiences in both the first and second films), or one where Black Widow and a newly-restored Hawkeye support each other after their respective traumatic experiences with Loki, or when Cap and Tony talk over Coulson’s death, each reacting in their own ways (Tony is torn up and blames Coulson for putting himself in that position; Cap argues he did what he thought was right and accepts it as another lost soldier).
On that note, I really like the dynamic between Steve and Tony; how they can go from snarling at each other to working smoothly together as soon as the need arises (I was reminded of a similar dynamic among the three leads in Jaws). Cap, of course, finds Tony frivolous and arrogant, especially compared to the real heroes he went to war with, while Tony had to grow up hearing his father talk non-stop about how great Cap was and is clearly getting his resentment out. The way these two grow to respect each and become friends is nicely conceived without ever being too on-the-nose; they never, for instance, apologize or explain themselves to each other, they simply adjust their attitudes. Tony goes from blowing off Steve’s attempt to restrain him to deferring to his leadership, while Steve goes from dismissing Stark’s heroics to addressing him as a fellow soldier and following his suggestion for dealing with the incoming missile.
I’m also impressed by how well they maintained the established character traits of the team from their original films, like Tony’s rapid-fire banter and the way he has difficulty processing hard realities, or the way Cap calls Black Widow ‘ma’am’ upon first meeting her and instinctively shields her from an explosion during the final battle. The writers and actors really put in the effort to match how the characters were played in the original films for their crossover, no doubt realizing that half the fun is simply seeing how these characters would interact with each other.
Cap and Tony are, as much as can be, the stars of the show and the heart of the film, but everyone gets a chance to shine and even to grow as characters. Thor finally gets to have the conversation with Loki that they were too busy to have in his own film about why he’s doing all this, accompanied by a bit where he tells Loki that he “misses the truth of ruling”, neatly recalling the lesson he himself learned in the previous film (while also serving as a nice bit of comedy as Loki answers the question “You think yourself above them?” with, “Well, yes,” as if he’s confused that Thor even has to ask). He’s further shown coming to terms with the fact that, even though he’s grown past his glory-hogging attitude, the consequences of his actions are still affecting the people he cares about. I also like how, even up to the end battle, Thor is still trying to reason with Loki, to convince him to give up his mad dreams (I also like how Loki claims that Thor “threw him into an abyss,” when, of course, he actually let go while Thor was screaming for him not to, reminding us of how self-serving and unreliable his mind is) .
As for Banner, Edward Norton has been gracefully replaced by Mark Ruffalo, who makes a much stronger impression in the role (but who can still be accepted as the same character). Banner, since we saw him last, has apparently given up all hope of being rid of the Hulk, but also appears much more confident in his ability to control it. Indeed, he’s become rather alarmingly unconcerned about any possible danger, calmly warning off any potential threats without showing the slightest fear, and even pretending to lose his temper just to test what the other person will do. He’s a man who knows that he holds the trump card in any confrontation, that he’s never in any serious danger, and who only asks to be left alone. Nevertheless under his affable, calm exterior, he is full of resentment for the way he’s been hunted down like an animal…and doubt of whether that’s not what he now is. As he tells Cap in one of the film’s best moments, “I’m always angry.”
This new version of Banner takes the character to a new level, while also tacitly explaining the odd final shot of The Incredible Hulk. He also establishes a new rule: when Banner loses control, the Hulk is a menace and a monster. When Banner transforms willingly, the Hulk is a hero and ally. His interactions with Romanov also continue the ‘beauty and the beast’ imagery associated with the character, though in a rather different direction for the moment.
Perhaps the most impressive bit of character development in the film, however, is Black Widow’s. After her cool, but rather shallow portrayal in Iron Man 2, The Avengers reveals just how interesting this character can be. She’s introduced tied to a chair, being interrogated by a Russian arms dealer…only, as we discover, she is actually the one interrogating him, using her own apparent weakness to encourage him to get cocky and say too much. Later she does the same thing with Loki, though at the cost of him dredging up the horrible things she’s done in her past, which, as she admits to Hawkeye later, genuinely unsettles her. Romanov is deceitful (casually lying to Banner’s face when she goes to pick him up), dangerous, and apparently has done some truly monstrous things in the past, but she feels her past deeds very strongly and cares a great deal for Hawkeye (whom, we learn, was the one to bring her over to the right side). She also, as shown when she goes up against an out-of-control Hulk, is perfectly capable of being frightened into near catatonia, but even then is willing to get back up and do her job when she has to. We never quite know where we stand with her at this point; she’s a strange mixture of skill, vulnerability, deceit, and honor.
What is more, she’s able to bring a unique set of skills to the Avengers team; she’s a fighter, yes, though only human and nowhere near the league of, say, Cap or Iron Man. But her real talent lies in her ability to gather information and slip into places others can’t, to do the jobs that don’t require strength, all of which are well utilized throughout the film all the way up to the climax.
The only member of the team who remains underdeveloped is Hawkeye, mostly because he spends much of the film being mind-controlled into working for Loki (this control is left purposefully ambiguous, by the way; the characters seem to retain much of their personality, only directed in service to Loki. It’s a convenience, and an argument could be made too much of one, but the film moves too fast for it to really matter much). Though this device does allow us to see that he is indeed a very dangerous opponent, for all that his only power is preternatural skill with a bow-and-arrow, and the film makes a lot of creative use of his trick-arrows, ranging from explosives to shrapnel to a rappelling line and even a hacking tool. Once he snaps out of it, Hawkeye serves as the team sniper, and his character is mostly developed in relation to his friendship with Black Widow, but he gets plenty of opportunity to showcase the deadpan, sarcastic personality hinted at back in Thor (“You and I remember Budapest very differently”). He’s cool, but we’ll have to wait to really get a fully rounded character out of him.
Speaking of which, that is another thing the film does well; every character is given their own role to play utilizing their own unique abilities. No one feels like a dead-weight on the team, or like they could have been left out. When Cap hands out his orders near the end, they all make sense and make the best use of everyone’s skills, and he adjusts the plan as the battle progresses and new opportunities arise. That, of course, is the crucial point of any team movie, and this one is among the few that handles it perfectly.
Then, of course, there’s the villain: Loki may not get as much chance to show his complexity this time, but he’s still a worthy adversary for the team, able to physically match Cap and Thor, while proving an intellectual challenge for Black Widow and Stark, and equipped with a weapon that alternatingly lets him blast helicopters out of the sky and turn others to his will. Perhaps alone he wouldn’t be much of a match for the team as a whole, but he also comes at the head of an invading alien force, giving them plenty to occupy themselves with. Loki is thus enough of a physical threat that they can’t just take him out, and more importantly a strategic and intellectual enemy who can potentially out-think and out-plan them.
The film also keeps the threat level (and hence the tension) high despite the incredible power of the protagonists by first knocking each of them about a little in the early and middle stages (e.g. Cap is overmatched by Loki, Iron Man is slammed around in a turbine, Thor narrowly escapes a death trap, and so on), thus letting us know that they can be killed, and second by the fact that in the final battle, along with the triumphant scenes of them trashing the invading army, we also see them growing tired, taking hits, getting swarmed, and so on, signaling that even the Avengers can’t fight forever, and it’s really a race against the clock to close the portal before they’re inevitably overwhelmed. This was, again, a very canny move; the writers obviously knew that one of the chief dangers in having a team of superheroes was that any threat they might face could seem puny by comparison, and so they made sure to keep reinforcing the idea that the heroes could lose in this scenario.
Most of the film is, as noted, pure spectacle, which it does extremely well. There are a lot of great comic-book-style images, like Thor landing on the roof of a jet, framed by lightning, or the helicarrier lifting off from the ocean, or the Hulk pursuing Black Widow down a corridor, or, of course, the great moment where all six stand back to back, facing off against the invading army. This is followed by some truly jaw-dropping action, most notably a long, continuous take flying around the city from Avenger to Avenger, showcasing each of them in action.
As part of this are the unabashed fan-service style match ups: Thor versus Iron Man, Thor versus the Hulk, Black Widow versus Hawkeye, and so on. Or things like Thor bringing his hammer crashing down on Cap’s shield, with dramatic results. Likewise, every one of the team gets to face-off against Loki one-on-one, whether physically or in conversation (the latter of which is often more interesting than a fight would have been), all of which turn out differently.
Yet even amidst all the flashy comic-book-style action, the film never loses sight of the human element. I don’t just mean how the Avengers, and particularly Cap, take time during the final battle to try to rescue civilians (though that certainly helps, as do the briefly-seen shots of people mourning the dead during the epilogue), but also things like Thor being assured of Jane Foster’s safety, or Banner admitting that he once attempted suicide, or Tony trying to call Pepper one last time as he’s about to fly into the portal on what could be a one-way trip, or the old man in Germany standing up to Loki, telling him that he won’t kneel to “men like you.”
This brings us to the film’s main theme, which is simply heroism. Cap begins the movie wondering whether his brand of heroics – represented by the Stars and Stripes – isn’t a little “old fashioned.” Coulson tells him that, the way the world is going, they could use a little old fashioned. The heroes then have their resolve continually shaken, whether by Loki deconstructing them one by one (e.g. sneering at Banner as a “wild beast makes play he’s still a man” or laughing at Thor’s claim to be protecting the earth when the humans still kill each other in wars) or by revelations of SHIELD and Nick Fury’s dishonesty. It is, in part, Black Widow’s deceitfulness that leads to Banner’s first transformation (or at least means that she can’t talk him down once it starts), while both Cap and Tony deny that the other is really a hero.
Indeed, Loki’s whole plan was to defuse the Avengers as a force by working on their weaknesses and imperfections, breaking their spirits, and turning them on each other. Only, he naturally misjudged them, being a cynic trying to avoid facing the truth of his own actions. He didn’t count on the idea that they could work past their differences, resentments, and individual flaws to focus their energies on their real enemy, which is him.
Meanwhile, heroics abound, not only from the Avengers, but even from the extras and supporting cast. The old man in Germany who stands up to Loki; the janitor who kindheartedly gives Bruce new clothes when he falls through the roof; the police and other emergency workers we see doing their best to participate in the battle and save civilians; and, of course, Agent Coulson taking on Loki single-handedly, and defying him practically with his dying breath.
If the film has a thesis, it’s that it doesn’t matter whether you can deconstruct them, or show them to be flawed, or even if you can show that the people they work with and for are as guilty as the bad guys, heroes are still real and still admirable, and the world still needs them.
This is neatly summed up in an interview with one of the survivors shown at the end of the film; a waitress dismisses the idea that the Avengers should be blamed for the carnage, pointing out that she’s there because Captain America saved her life. You can talk about causations and big pictures and so on all you like, but at the end of the day, there are people who put their lives on the line for the sake of others, and there is no denying the value of that.
In a word, The Avengers works across the board, when it so easily could have been a disaster (one only needs to consider the Justice League film for an example of how badly it could have gone wrong). More than that, it is a landmark in cinema history. Very few films ever even attempted anything like this before (the closest parallels are Universal’s ‘monster mash up’ films back in the 1940s); a movie that brings four previously established franchises and six characters together into a single, coherent story, that not only brings them together but serves as a legitimate continuation of all their stories, and which works spectacularly well as a film in its own right. Yes there are flaws, moments where you question how exactly this part works or whether that plot point really follows, but the film is too satisfying and the characters too strong for that really to make much difference. The Avengers is almost unparalleled as pure entertainment, yet with a solid story structure and anchored by some great characters. Whatever else happens in this series, the fact that they pulled this off is a testimony to the talent, care, and work from everyone involved.