NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
So, five films to set up – Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America – and this extra-length team-up spectacular from writer-director Joss Whedon (from a story by co-scripter Zak Penn) to pay off? It’s always been a drag in superhero movies that they couldn’t get into the fun stuff of team-ups and face-offs that comics have been doing since the Justice Society and the All-Winners Squad in the 1940s, so Marvel have shepherded the properties they control as opposed to the ones they licensed – X-Men, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Elektra, Blade, the Fantastic Four, etc – into a coherent universe. This even makes the Avengers movie an equivalent of the first Avengers comic, which combined a bunch of not-yet-iconic characters who mostly couldn’t even sustain their own titles (Hulk cancelled!) in an uncomfortable, edgy Marvel 1960s version of the Justice League without the rationales that gave conceived-as-a-team characters the FF (a fractious family) and the X-Men (a social minority) a distinctive point.
This is the busiest, most populous superhero film since X2 (another Penn screen story, but so were Last Action Hero, Inspector Gadget and Elektra) and has the mighty task of welding technology (Iron Man), magic (Thor), anachronistic superpatriot (Captain America), pop culture monster (the Hulk) and superspy conspirator (Nick Fury) into one mostly coherent story (yoking in selected supporting cast members from hitherto-distinct sagas), whereby Asgardian malcontent Loki (Tom Hiddleston) comes to Earth with an army of alien cannon fodder (the Chitauri, a less interesting iteration of the Skrulls last seen in the Avengers animated movies) at the behest of a Big Bad seen in profile only in the inevitable set-up-for-a-sequel tag which frankly sticks any AA2 with another space god supermenace. Actually, despite the thread (snipped here) of Clark Gregg’s SHIELD agent Coulson (who has always seemed to be a version of Jasper Sitwell from the ‘60s Iron Man/SHIELD comics), the Marvel Movie Universe isn’t yet populated enough even for this. With the Red Skull in limbo and Iron Man’s enemies dead, all it’s got is Loki (Nolan’s Bat-films manage an entire rogues’ gallery with far less strain) and the tesseract (ie: cosmic cube). In Hiddleston’s smirking, value-for-money reading that’s more or less enough to bring the heroes together.
Given that the Avengers can’t afford to gazump in-the-works sequels, we don’t have much more of Chris Evans’ Cap’s man-out-of-time act (though his delight in getting a Wizard of Oz reference when so many of Whedon’s pop culture tossaways whizz over his frozen-in-1943 head), top-billed Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark’s growing mature relationship with Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) or Chris Hemsworth’s Thor’s family problems (why doesn’t he bristle more at being manipulated by yet another one-eyed patriarch in Nick Fury?) since that good stuff is being saved. The Hulk, dead in the water as a movie property, benefits from this: Mark Ruffalo makes an interesting Bruce Banner, more or less in control of when he loses control and useful for his gamma expertise as well as the hulk-outs. Ruffalo is also the first mo-cap CGI Hulk to do his own posing and face-pulling, which gives the character more weight than the Bana or Norton versions: Hulk is finally allowed to be fun, battering the arrogant Loki in a hilarious bit (‘puny God!’) and casually thumping Thor after a victory (an odd parallel with one of the best gags of John Carter), as well as insanely destructive and heroic (‘I have an army,’ brags Loki, ‘we have a Hulk,’ responds Stark).
Set up in earlier films, Natasha Romanova/Black Widow (Scarlett Johnansson, more womanly than the stick-thin Uma Thurman/Anne Hathaway types who usually get catsuit roles) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) get a lot of the cool stuff here. Whedon geeks out at recreating the relationship they had way back when they first showed up in Iron Man, making Hawk a mind-controlled baddie for a stretch of film, and giving the Widow her own super-power in a manipulative ability to get monologuing villains (Jerzy Skolimowski!) to reveal their plans to her (Loki calls her a ‘quim’, which Whedon probably didn’t explain to the MPAA). As in the comics, a lot of time is spent on the heroes beating each other up before they get together (assemble) to avenge someone – Coulson, owner of a set of Captain America trading cards which Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) tosses on the table covered in blood in a manipulative move.
The set-pieces, which are both enormous, feature the SHIELD helicarrier in peril from faceless goons led by a turncoat and the Chitauri attack on New York – aside from Loki, the villains are generic, so we get spot-gags about acrobatic heroism or mighty smiting, most of which get the appropriate cheers. This is an enormously entertaining movie, but it’s comic book in the old sense – X2, which has subtext and emotional content, is still more satisfying. That seems a niggling complaint, since this is all about a cynical spy who unleashes against-the-odds nobility – a harmless fantasy of decency and minor redemption (the bad stuff happened in earlier films or bacsktory) that ought to win over twelve-year-old audiences everywhere. With Powers Boothe, Jenny Agutter, Stellan Skarsgard, the voice of Paul Bettany, a still of Natalie Portman, Cobie Smulders (as Maria Hill), the growls of Lou Ferrigno and Stan Lee. A bunch of comics creators get credits, but there’s a dark edge to the Marvel/Disney attempt at consolidating ownership by minimising the efforts of the many (mostly, Jack Kirby) who created these characters and made them seaworthy over decades – though almost all the pro-Jack postings I’ve read lately seem to ascribe major characters created by Don Heck and Larry Lieber to him.
The coda (which made most critics scratch their heads and go ‘who?’) features Thanos, not a character who has crossed over into general pop culture (though he did start out in Iron Man whereas the other cosmic candidates like Galactus or Annihilus tend to be FF foes or thrown up by the tangle of Captains Marvel who’ve been riding the skies to protect a brand name since the ‘60s). Of course, the Marvel villains who are almost up there in recognition factor with the Joker or Moriarty, who got introduced in the tags of Batman Begins and Sherlock Holmes, are all assigned elsewhere – Dr Doom, Magneto, the Green Goblin. Even so, Marvel might have done better with Dracula (Marvel’s distinctive Count isn’t the one seen in Blade Trinity), Dormammu, Kang the Conqueror or some iteration of the Masters of Evil. And, even if they turn out sequels on an assembly line, Marvel still won’t build up the years of continuity be allow a Thunderbolts or an Avengers Academy film(more’s the pity).