"And then Shawarma after."
There is a juncture about 90 minutes into Joss Whedon's superhero extravaganza "The Avengers" that states my feelings towards the film better than any words could. Mark Ruffalo's newly tuned Bruce Banner awakens in a pile of rubble to the company of a janitor played by none other than Harry Dean Stanton. It's a short scene played almost entirely for humor, with the hilarious delivery of the words, "I think you have a condition". That may very well be my absolute favorite moment of the film's two hour and twenty minute running time, filled enterprisingly with bombastic action, interpersonal conflict, and character articulation. A random cameo talking to a nude guy who just got busy breaking apart an air fortress.
It's that moment where I realize that this could easily have never happened, just as this film could have gone awry at any juncture. They had five films to build up to this one, and if one of them had been entirely horrible, this one would have fallen apart entirely. Against any possibility, this geek pipe dream has become a reality, and for nearly everyone else who sees it, it will be received as miraculous. Indeed, ignoring the film entirely, we have to spend a moment to acknowledge just how difficult it has been to bring us to this point, where a film like this is not only possible, but absolutely fluent. But if I'm building it up as a disappointment, it surely isn't.
As a matter of fact, the fact that I'd give "The Avengers" such a grade as B is left as massive encouragement. It's worth noting that I've given "Bridesmaids", "21 Jump Street", "Thor", "Take Shelter", and "The Ides of March" that same grade, and it's no mistake for this film to be just as good as those. Joss Whedon isn't exactly a skilled filmmaker, having only directed one theatrical feature in his past, but having filled up his resume with a handsome history in television. That history is exactly why he's the ideal choice for this property, because the Marvel brand has been pretty much a loose knit television series. "The Avengers" amounts to a grand action finale for this first season.
The film finds a reason to bring all these characters across to one another. Loki has come to Earth to harness the Tesseract and enslave the planet. Tony Stark has a powerful intellect and vast resources. Steve Rogers has experience with the Tesseract, and is a genuine soldier and American hero. Bruce Banner's experience with gamma radiation requires his presence, though his "condition" does make him something of a liability. Black Widow is set after her accomplice Cliff Barton, who is enslaved by Loki early on in the film. And Thor is coming around to retrieve his brother, the Tesseract, and return to Asgard with both.
But these people have no reason to be in the same room. It's a God from myth and legend, a guy in a metal suit, and propagandic soldier, and drug-addict scientist trying to come together to solve a problem. They get at each others' throats, hurt each others' feelings, and have wildly conflicting views of the world. All that brought together towards a guy who has a plan, and is more than ready to enact it. That's pretty much all the plot there needs to be for the film, is that the world's in danger. The characters have already been set up with their own issues coming from different places. It's Whedon's job to bring them together to say something about each other.
It's not a film of character development, but articulation of who these people are. Robert Downey Jr. has a lock on it as always, filled with charisma and a prevailing optimism that the film very much needs. Chris Hemsworth is constantly devoted to his performance of such a wild representation, but an emotionally invested one. Chris Evans continues to prove himself strong in a solemn character, but is given areas for the cheeky 40's style dialogue Joss loves to write. Scarlett Johansson proves absolutely revelatory as Black Widow, more than just a hollow pretty face now, and riding the line between chilly and explosive. She's the real live-wire of the team. Clark Gregg has a few choice moments as Phil Coulson as well.
Tom Hiddleston may still be the best of all of them, with a seething sensitivity running beneath his portrayal of Loki. He's no less of a protagonist, put into heavy position and reacting selfishly, but still, as he puts it, "burdened with glorious purpose". The beings responsible for his newfound power are also capable of doing something rather unfavorable to him. There also two newcomers to the film. Cobie Smulders, who actually finds an interesting leg into this world, and one that could offer her opportunities in each of Marvel's films. And finally there's Mark Ruffalo, who is more than simply likable as usual, but he's got a fire in him. He may be the guy who really sticks the job of Banner and Hulk, also doing motion capture performance for the latter.
Whedon writes very quotable dialogue, which is likely to be repeated in geek culture for years to come. He brings a lot of humor to the table, but he also knows what points to hit between these characters. The overlap is noticed, and tapped to the core. As for the action, he writes it very well and ambitiously, but it's on the directing front that he may not be quite so perfect. Though I may very well get flack for this position, but he's not as skilled at constructing thorough and complexly gorgeous visuals as somebody like Michael Bay. That's not to say that size doesn't translate, but it is just slightly clunky in execution. This film is all about the insanity, and it looks insane.
I do have some complaints about the film's look, however, mostly due to the aspect ratio of the film. It's mainly the fact that the theater I was in wasn't tuned to it, and therefore it had a boxed in feel. Past the first five rows, it simply did not work. Perhaps that's just something to learn by. If you want to be immersed in a film, you have to sit up close. Seamus McGarvey's cinematography was rather interesting at moments, and quite bright and precise in emphasizing details, but as is the problem with most superhero films, there isn't the integrity you want. But this isn't a film of integrity. Alan Silvestri's bombastic score rarely gives one a chance to breathe. It's about the experience, and in this case, it works rather well.