Thinking about it, it’s amazing The Avengers even exists. In 2008, the world was gearing up to have its collective mind blown by Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Nolan had taken Batman, and by extension the very idea of comic book movies, into a serious dramatic arena. What people didn’t expect is that Marvel Comics intended to go in an entirely different direction. At the end of the first Iron Man, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr. is now his defining role) stumbles home from the climactic fight to encounter a mysterious man with an eye-patch. Introducing himself as Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D., this man, impressively played by Samuel L. Jackson, then drops the words “Avengers Initiative.” And cut to black.
Any comic fan will remember seeing that scene for the first time. It was just a small, thirty-second clip after the end credits, but that thirty seconds changed the course of comic book filmmaking. For decades, comic book publishers had been happy to have their proprietary characters appear in each other’s stories, and even team up on a permanent basis. However, in film, either due to rights issues or sheer corporate incompetence, this trend never got off the drawing board. Until Samuel L. Jackson dropped those two words: “Avengers Initiative.” Then all bets were off.
Since Iron Man, we’ve gotten a slew of Marvel movies designed to lead up to The Avengers. The Incredible Hulk, the not entirely a reboot of the unfairly derided Ang Lee film, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America each had seeds of what would blossom into this one picture, the first time in cinema history that such a superhero team ever graced the screen.
As the film opens, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Asgardian god and adopted brother of the mighty Thor (Chris Hemsworth), pops in to S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters and makes off with “the tesseract,” a cube of seemingly unlimited energy. Loki intends to use the tesseract to transport an army of aliens from across the galaxy to gain dominion over the earth. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), realizing the severity of the situation, calls in the only people who can help: Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor, and Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).
Additionally, two of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s operatives, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) are on hand to assist the team. But in order to defeat Loki, the group has to first learn how to work together, a not so small task when dealing with extraordinary and dynamic individuals.
Joss Whedon was an inspired choice to serve as writer and director for The Avengers. Already a legend in television for shows such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly, Whedon has had a less than sparkling experience in film. While he’s written drafts of many films, including Toy Story and X-Men, other writers reworked most of them and his material was either misused or discarded entirely. His sole big screen directorial credit, 2005’s Serenity, was a box office disappointment, despite a vocal fanbase for Firefly, the show on which the film was based. Choosing Whedon was a gutsy move for Marvel, but it makes sense. With his TV credentials, Whedon knows how to handle ensemble casts. And the man is as much of, if not more of a geek than anyone sitting in the audience. But, most importantly, Whedon has worked with Marvel before as a comic book writer himself (check out his run on Astonishing X-Men for the best X-Men writing since the early 90’s).
Whedon’s direction here is rock solid. Heck, it’s better than rock solid; it’s downright excellent. He clearly has a rapport with all the actors and brings out better work than they gave in their solo movies. Scarlett Johansson in particular gets an upgrade, going from the do-nothing character in Iron Man 2 to a fleshed out person in The Avengers. Of course, knowing Whedon’s penchant for writing for women, that’s no surprise. But he manages to give everyone their moment, making sure no one hogs the spotlight for too long (although Downey Jr, as the highest profile actor and character of the group, does get more of the movie than the others). His writing is sharp, balancing drama with humor deftly, and offering some classic lines that will surely become quote fodder for eager nerds around the world. Whedon’s eye for action is sure and true, not resorting to fast cut or shaky cam gimmickry, allowing the audience to soak it all in and not miss a second.
You can tell the cast is as excited to be in this movie as we are to watch it. They clearly have fun playing off one another, taking this movie as seriously as any in their respective catalogues. Mark Ruffalo, the only recast actor (previously Edward Norton was set to portray Bruce Banner, until creative differences in the editing of The Incredible Hulk led him to leave the fold), fits in like a glove and actually steals the film right out from under the nose of Downey Jr. Whedon finally figures out how to use the Hulk, allowing Banner to harness the inner turmoil inside of him instead of burying it. Whedon also realizes how funny a massive, invulnerable green Hulk is and uses him for some fantastic comedic moments, including one that will also have you cheering.
The Avengers is a movie that shouldn’t exist. The logistics of it alone are mind-boggling, but when you throw in the story challenges, it seemed like an insurmountable task. It’s amazing that the movie exists at all, but what’s really incredible is that it’s so much fun and so well made. Even more impossibly, Joss Whedon did it all while making it feel completely effortless. The Avengers is the new standard against which all subsequent action films should be judged. It’s really that good.