Four disparate main characters, all with specific personalities, abilities and back stories that need to be wrangled into a cohesive fighting force. It's a job that only Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury, with the backing of S. H. I. E. L. D., is suited to, but it's the one that Buffy creator Joss Whedon has taken on in bringing Marvel's Avengers together at last. You don't envy him the task at hand, but then, it's not every day that a writer-director is handed what is essentially a massive comic franchise toy box and told to go have some fun. And fun is certainly had here.
For Whedon has taken the various threads of the Marvel universe and weaved an impressive tapestry filled with action, humour, charm and heart. There was always the danger that this could become The Tony Stark Hour (Featuring His Costumed Chums), but Whedon is canny enough to realise that he's got a well-balanced cast, and everyone shoulders their respective portion of the storyline with ease. It's not really surprising coming from the man who handled a large, charismatic set of characters in the undervalued Serenity, and it's even more satisfying to see him pull off the same trick twice. Chris Evans' Steve "Captain America" Rogers is the conflicted hero, adrift in a world he doesn't quite truly comprehend (though he understands it a lot better than he thinks). Chris Hemsworth's Thor is still full of his Asgardian swagger, but even he manages to find a way to fit in with everyone else when truly called upon, while working out more of his sibling issues. Mark Ruffalo is a superb Bruce Banner, bringing a subtlety and sweetness to the role that counterpoints well with the rage-fuelled big, green roaring machine. When he does go ballistic, the motion-captured Hulk features great work from ILM, even if it's not quite as revelatory a step forward from the creature in the 2008 film. And, of course, there is ol' Shellhead. Robert Downey Jr.'s trademark dry wit and easy magnetism is on full display, and there's a real joy to Stark's comic undercutting of the more OTT elements. Witness him describing Thor as "Shakespeare In The Park" or "Point Break". Still, when the stakes are raised and the emotions run a little deeper, even he steps up and delivers. The leads are handed some cracking interplay, bolstered by set-pieces that combine both the comedy and the drama. It's long been a Whedon hallmark to spice up the danger with laughs, and the actors clearly had a blast getting to grips with his script.
The S. H. I. E. L. D. agents are largely treated well, too. Jackson's Fury gets to do more than show up, look tough and talk about the initiative. While he may not be as much a part of the big battles as the fab four, he's still very much a kick-ass mofo, even in the face of a truly dangerous threat. Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow is the beneficiary of Whedon's love for tough, smart female characters, resulting in a much more nuanced take on the character than we've seen before. In particular, her conflicted, deep friendship with Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye is put to serious test, especially since he's part of a darker plotline.
It's a smaller piece of the overall puzzle, but there's more than enough to be worthy of Renner's talents. The Marvel movies' secret weapon, Clark Gregg's Agent Phil Coulson ("Phil? His first name is 'Agent'," cracks Stark) steals many of the scenes he's in, whether it's hero- worshipping Steve Rogers or providing his usual cool, calm, collected reaction to the sort of peril that would reduce most mortal men to blubbering wrecks. In fact, if anyone from the assembled ranks could complain about being short-changed, it's probably only Cobie Smulders' Maria Hill, who largely fills the role Sigourney Weaver's Gwen DeMarco complains about in Galaxy Quest. Translation: lots of time carrying out Nick Fury's orders. But then, even she gets a moment to shine early on during a frenetic car chase.
Moments that feel as though they might be clichéd are upended with grace and style, either through dialogue or action. Witness a captive Loki's (Tom Hiddleston) glimpse into the dark heart of Black Widow, full of apparent perception and old wound-opening menace, which suddenly turns into something quite different. It's a fine flourish and one that Whedon uses sparingly so it never loses its impact, except for one crucial beat where he gives in to one of his more infamous impulses. The various plotlines stitch together nearly seamlessly, adding layers to our heroes' interactions and finally hinting at much deeper, darker depths to S. H. I. E. L. D., ones that even Fury isn't as comfortable with as he might first appear. If what we've been shown in the various origin films (and Iron Man 2) so far is the tip of the iceberg, this is much more of a glance under the water. And it opens the doorway to plenty of potential conflicts in the future.
With Earth's Mightiest Heroes™ gathered, they needed a good villain to fight, and Loki certainly fills that void. He's even more devious and devilish than his introduction in Thor and Hiddleston thoroughly owns the role, imbuing it with pure, malicious delight. Not only does he get one or two distinctly Whedonesque lines, he also provides one of the film's biggest comic moments during an unfortunate run in with The Hulk.
If there's a complaint about the Big Evil Plan, it's that a) the alien army our favourite evil demi-god has allied himself with are very throwaway, bland types who serve as little more than intergalactic cannon-fodder. Yes, they're from the Marvel universe (we won't name them, but they're not who has been rumoured), but they display very little in the way of unique abilities. And b) the whole thing hinges on a mundane version of the old MacGuffin narrative trick.
This might not match the pyrotechnic power or CG clout of, say, the Transformers films. Yet there is something much more valuable - real human interaction and more of a brain on display. Whedon opens up the canvas and offers something that, with so many characters in play, feels epic and yet never loses sight of the real reason we've come to enjoy this particular dysfunctional super-family forced to play nicely together for the first time. In a few brief moments, the pace seems to sag, and the exposition needle pushes a little into the red zone once or twice, but even that is usually wrapped up with swift aplomb. Total newcomers won't be completely lost, but this really is one for the fans. There's probably no way any movie could quite live up to the expectations put upon this long-awaited Marvel mash-up, but The Avengers gets very, very close to pulling off the trick. Assuming someone else tackles the next team-up, whoever catches the Cosmic Cube next has big shoes to fill.
The Avengers have been assembled and, for the most part, they fit together superbly. A joyous blend of heroism and humour that raises the stakes even as it maintains a firm grip on what makes the individual heroes tick.