Four years ago today, “Iron Man” arrived in theaters and kicked off a bold, long-term plan (by Hollywood standards, at least) that would see four different Marvel superheroes appear in their own solo movies, then unite in a single film featuring not just all of the previous films’ stars, but many of their supporting cast, too.
It was a plan that seemed to disregard the inevitable clash of egos and all of the other behind-the-scenes elements that often doom a franchise before it gets started. And because of that, it was a plan everyone wanted to succeed, but quietly expected to become another ambitious failure.
Yet here we are, four years to the day after Robert Downey Jr. became the living embodiment of armored superhero Tony Stark, and “The Avengers” is riding a wave of positive buzz as it approaches the finish line and its long-awaited premiere.
Even more unbelievable, though, is that despite all of the odds against it and the stratospheric expectations heaped upon it, “The Avengers” still manages to not only live up to those expectations, but to exceed them with an epic adventure that’s just as impressive as its larger-than-life characters.
For a film that required so many prologues to get to this point, it’s surprising how little up-front exposition is required to bring newcomers up to speed with “The Avengers” universe. While the film clearly assumes some familiarity with the main characters and a few basic plot points of the preceding films (“Iron Man,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “Thor,” “Iron Man 2,” and “Captain America: The First Avenger”), co-writers Joss Whedon and Zak Penn have done a great job of weaving any necessary information into the early portions of the film and making the exposition feel organic.
The premise of “The Avengers” is this: Thor’s evil brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has returned, and he plans to use the Tesseract (the powerful, glowing blue cube last seen in “Captain America”) to take over Earth. When Loki proves too powerful for Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and S.H.I.E.L.D. to take down on their own, all of the characters from the previous Marvel Studios films team up to defeat Loki and the alien horde helping him.
It’s a plot that seems laughably old-school in its simplicity, but its genius lies in how this bare-bones narrative foundation allows the film’s talented cast and creative team the room to do what they do best.
From start to finish, “The Avengers” is a film that draws heavily from classic comic-book tropes. An early misunderstanding has the heroes fighting each other before they eventually realize that they’re on the same side, and the combination of personalities on the team has the expected oil-and-water chemistry. As in all good crossovers, they eventually put aside their differences and cooperate for the common good (in this case, saving the Earth).
It’s the sort of adventure that comic fans are accustomed to seeing in print, but just like the best comics, “The Avengers” truly shines in how it fills out its narrative skeleton and the area around these tropes with vibrant storytelling, compelling character development, and moments filled with so much heart – and humor – that the entire package stands on its own.
Initially, what’s most surprising (though in hindsight, not very surprising at all) is how well director Joss Whedon’s focus on dialogue, humor, and character development drive the film forward and make the moments without action just as enjoyable and interesting as the action sequences. At times, it’s hard to tell where Downey’s clever repartee as Tony Stark ends and Whedon’s influence on the character begins, but it’s easy to see the writer/director’s signature all over Mark Ruffalo’s version of Bruce Banner and – more noticeably – his green alter ego, Hulk.
With Hulk, Whedon somehow manages to find the sweet spot between the raging, uncontrollable behemoth of the 2008 film and a new side of the character that makes him the source of some of the film’s funniest moments. This new dynamic is presented as a natural evolution of Bruce Banner’s relationship with the beast inside of him, and Whedon finds a humor-rich vein to mine in the creature’s lack of impulse control and primitive take on the events transpiring around him.
Marvel’s wise decision to bring back Tom Hiddleston as Loki also pays off in a big way, and the British actor not only holds his own against the film’s cast of heavy-hitters, but draws your attention every moment he’s on screen, oozing with all of the charisma you’d expect from the god of mischief. At times, he’s almost too good, as his scenes with Chris Evans make Captain America seem, well… a little bland in comparison.
Thankfully, for every scene featuring Loki and Captain America, there’s another that puts Loki and Tony Stark in the same room and lets Hiddleston and Downey put on a two-man show as trickster god and narcissistic genius, respectively.
It’s worth noting that “The Avengers” doesn’t fail to appease on the fan-service side, either. Over the course of the film, nearly every permutation of hero and villain finds its way to the screen at one point or another, and Whedon masterfully balances the roles each character plays in the big-picture story. Much was made of the dynamic between Captain America and Iron Man in the run-up to the film, with fans wondering how the two characters could possibly share the same screen. “The Avengers” director makes it seem easy, though, and neither Captain America nor Iron Man – nor Hulk or Thor, for that matter – feel relegated to supporting roles.
The most important takeaway from “The Avengers,” however, seems to be the film’s triumph as a comic-book movie that defies the trend toward dark and gritty superhero stories.
Where many films adapted from comic books have kept things at street level, “The Avengers” soars through the air at every opportunity and chooses bright, witty, and unabashedly heroic over dark, grim, and conflicted. Possibly the greatest compliment that can be paid to “The Avengers,” however, is that the film comes the closest of any recent superhero movies to capturing that sense of wonder and spectacle that first turned many kids into lifelong comics fans.
Yes, on top of all the expectations the film lives up to and all of the obstacles it overcame to get to this point, “The Avengers” greatest accomplishment could be this: its ability to make an entire audience feel like children reading their favorite comic for the very first time. It’s a quality that precious few comic book movies seem to capture these days, so let’s hope it’s enough to make audiences assemble for “The Avengers.”
“The Avengers” hits theaters May 4.