Let's face it, until very recently, Marvel's track record of comic book movies hasn't exactly been super. After the success of DC's Batman back in the 90's, Marvel tried in vain to take their comic book franchises to the big screen but the results were both disastrous and low budget and they either went direct to home video i.e. Captain America with Matt Salinger and The Punisher with Dolph Lundgren, or never saw the light of day and were hastily buried and forgotten, i.e. the 1994 Fantastic Four whose feature film debut was, believe it or not, far worse than the two ridiculous films FOX bequeathed upon us just a few years ago.
I must admit I was not initially excited about the prospects of The Avengers movie because it had the potential for another such disaster. Fortunately that proves not to be the case with Joss Whedon's Avengers which is surprisingly the perfect big budget summer blockbuster that entertains and satisfies on so many key levels, yet, is still problematic and disappointing on several others. It's not the perfect superhero movie that many comic book nerds might be quick to proclaim it to be but it is still a damn fun comic book fantasy film and pure escapist fun.
The chemistry between Earth's mightiest heroes is handled competently and exceptionally well. Each of the four main Avengers (i.e. The REAL Fantastic Four) work well as an ensemble after appearing in their respective solo adventures. The Avengers is the real Clash of the Titans between the biggest superheroes of the Marvel universe. This is the lalapalooza of comic book movies and does what The Expendables did to the action film genre by reinvigorating it with a bravado and intensity that raises the bar for audience appetites and expectations.
Robert Downey Jr. is in particularly top form here as Tony Stark bringing his personalized comedic wit, humor and charm to the party. Downey delivers an even better performance in the Avengers than he did in the disappointing Iron Man 2. There's more for him to work with and also against as he plays off the other team members without overtaking or upstaging their performances and stealing the spotlight. You could easily say that he is the glue that holds both the team and the film together by his performance alone. The improvisational dialogue as well as the script is intelligent and snappy and Downey is the real star of the show with reserved modesty. Robert Downey Jr. IS Iron Man.
Chris Evans is the proverbial fish-out-of-water as Captain America who struggles to adjust to modern civilization after awakening from his icy stasis for 70 years. He's wound just a little too tight and takes his job as captain of the team a little too seriously and doesn't like it when the others like Tony Stark, for example, aren't taking their jobs as seriously as him. He's the perfect counterbalance to Tony Stark's irresponsible playboy recklessness and the reality check for the other members of the team.
To me Chris Hemsworth just works better here as the Mighty Thor than he did in his campy solo outing. By contrast his "adopted" brother Loki however comes off an even weaker adversary for the Avengers. He's the trickster who pulls the strings and manipulates the Avengers to turn against each other while he casually sits back and watches the mayhem with gleeful delight like the stereotypical token villain that he is. He's a god whose only agenda is to rule the Earth by way of an alien invasion from the Chitauri who are about the most generically unmemorable alien nemesis I've seen put on film in recent years. There's a moment when Thor is pleading with his brother Loki to come back and just for a moment you think that there is the possibility of his redemption to join forces and help them fight against the invasion he unleashed and it's perhaps the best moment between Thor and Loki in either film. Not once though do I feel that there is any real imminent danger or threat presented against Earth's mightiest heroes when the indestructable Hulk can simply throw a so-called deity like Loki around like a rag doll and walk away growling "Puny god" surrendering with the line "I'd like to have that drink now." Really? A god conceding defeat to the Hulk? It may gets some appreciable laughs from the crowd but the notion of it all is completely ludicrous.
Mark Ruffalo takes over the role of Bruce Banner/The Hulk from Ed Norton. Apparently Norton did not want to participate because he felt there wasn't much material for him to work with in the ensemble script and for the most part he's absolutely right. While I won't outright dismiss Ruffalo who does his best to sufficiently handle the material he has been given, I do not feel like he fits the role of Bruce Banner as well as Norton did. He feels like a mild-mannered everyman delivering his lines with an unenthusiastic boredom and I never feel that he is truly holding himself back and containing the permeating rage and anger inside of him. He seems completely subdued and unconflicted as Banner. The Hulk, on the other hand, is handled exceptionally well. Ironically as the Hulk, he nearly steals the show in some very exciting and comedic sequences that are entirely computer animated.
And then we have the two throwaway Avengers, Hawkeye and Black Widow. While Scarlett Johannson's character is utilized much more effectively with a bigger role than she had in Iron Man 2, I never really feel like she measures up to the big boys as an Avenger and neither does Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye who is compromised early on by Loki and his trust as a member of the team I feel is never fully redeemed. Aside from being a master archer with a bow that would make both Legolas and Katniss proud, he brings nothing useful to the party as a mere mortal whose job as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. is to supposedly keep the other team members in line when neither he nor Black Widow seem to possess superpowers of any kind other than their technical expertise with weapons and martial arts which begs the question; just what exactly is the criteria to become an Avenger?
Tony Stark has superhuman abilities only when he wears the invincible Iron Man armor, Captain America is a genetically engineered supersoldier with a shield made of the strongest alloy on Earth that is so indestructible that it can apparently withstand an impact from the Thor's hammer Mjolnir. That being the case it completely defeats the point of Thor's hammer in a paper-wraps-stone kind of way. Thor, like his brother and adversary Loki is a deity invincible to all mortals. How then do you kill a god? The Hulk seems every bit as indestructible as they are as he can apparently withstand a barrage of artillery, can leap tall buildings in a single bound, and smash even the gods themselves with his bare hands without destroying them. What are his limitations? In the Marvel universe logic and science apparently have no applications or limitations. In other words, try not to think about such things and just go with it (wink-nod).
Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury as commander and chief is also pretty unspectacular. Aside from trying to take out a jet with a rocket launcher, Fury's role is pretty much relegated behind the scenes from aboard S.H.I.E.L.D.'s mammoth heli-carrier giving orders and answering to the big military general types in charge of S.H.I.E.L.D. operations. I'd really like to have seen Fury given a more active role on the front lines. His assistant Cobie Smulders is also a pretty worthless and disposable character. She's the first person I'd kill off followed by Hawkeye and Black Widow when the need for collateral damage cannon fodder is necessitated.
Clark Gregg returns as Agent Phil Coulson. He has made an appearance in almost every Marvel film leading up to the Avengers and is given a deservedly expanded part in the Avengers. He is the perfect agent for S.H.I.E.L.D and is far more likable a character who is essential to both the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D than Cobie Smulders or Hawkeye or even Black Widow. Coulson rocks.
In spite of the nitpicks and nuances, The Avengers still delivers on all essential levels. Joss Whedon has accomplished an insurmountable feat by juggling the complexities of several unique characters and handling them in very humanly relatable situations. The plot is superfluous to the superhuman performances and abilities of the ensemble cast members. You don't watch professional wrestling because it's real. All that really matters is that this is a team that kicks butt and takes no prisoners. They are indeed Earth's mightiest heroes.
Who cares if the Dark Knight Rises. Avengers Assemble!