There’s been a lot of weight resting on Joss Whedon’s shoulders. Apart from having become perennial catnip for geeks, the man tasked with bringing The Avengers to the screen has had to be responsible for not squandering what was built up by the five very good films that led us to this point. We’ve had characters and worlds established for us, along with intriguing cross-pollinating threads that have hinted at what the bigger picture might be. I guess for a director this must’ve been a bit like taking on a Bond film – the audience know the main characters, we just need a story and villain laid out for us.
The story here is pretty straightforward – Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is back, as hinted in the post-credit scene in Thor, and he wants the Tesseract, Hydra’s power source in Captain America: The First Avenger. This will allow him to summon an army from another world, the Chitauri, to invade Earth so he can take control of the planet. A team must be formed to stop him comprised of... guess who? Ultimately The Avengers isn’t about story and it’s certainly not even about character development, it’s purely about showing what happens when a bunch of super powered people (and a god) team up to take on something incredibly powerful and destructive.
Logically the film eschews character introductions (we should know them by now), but fortunately lets us see how they’re introduced to each other as they all assemble from their respective locations. It's most fun when anyone meets Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) as his ego inevitably turns everything into a pissing contest. As expected the film is most intriguing when the team is interacting because they’re all rich characters and there is a lot humour between them, but at the same time this just all feels very superficial and virtually no attempt is made to scratch any further beneath the surface. As all of the other films manage to do this so well it felt like something was missing by it not happening here.
Downey Jr. does his usual enjoyable narcissistic “doesn’t play well with others” Stark schtick, but it feels very reigned in here. I wasn’t as convinced by Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, I’m not sure if it was the writing or just the legacy of Edward Norton who was so good in this role in The Incredible Hulk, but something didn’t feel quite right. Fortunately there was less of the Hulk than I was expecting. Cap (Chris Evans) suffered here too. There were a couple of gags about him being out of his time, but otherwise he just looks wistful and fights, coming across really quite blandly compared to in his stand-alone film. I was pleased we got a lot more time with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and she did get some character development, which was needed bearing in mind her introduction in Iron Man 2 wasn’t as substantial as the others, but it still felt too cursory. And Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) - we barely get anything on him which I found quite annoying. I really would like to see a Black Widow / Hawkeye film as it looks like there’s a lot of interesting stuff you could do with them, and especially if it’s along the lines of Black Widow’s first scene in the film, as it’s one of the best. Oh, and the audience could really do with some background on Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) at some point in future films, seriously.
I deliberately didn’t mention Thor (Chris Hemsworth). His remains a fantastic character and every time he was on screen I was happy as he brings an interesting personality and a certain gravitas to proceedings. Due to Loki’s role as chief antagonist Thor has more invested in this and there are a couple of great scenes between the pair. Hiddleston is again excellent in this role, offering something multi-layered that always keeps you questioning his true egotistical malevolence. He was one of the best things about Thor and so the decision to utilise him here is extremely satisfying. It’s a shame the same can’t be said about the other-worldly Chitauri that he is working with. They’re potentially interesting but are not fleshed out, only to serve a solitary purpose. The action sequence their presence obviously culminates in is all very perfunctory. It’s not unentertaining per se, but I think I’ve reached the point of casual disinterest when it comes to generically overblown and excessively CGI'd action sequences. Clearly that’s something I’m going to have to deal with as they’re not going anywhere in this day and age.
My expectations for The Avengers were never that high, mainly because I had concerns about whether it could truly work with so many strong characters. It turns out that wasn’t the real issue, as aside from seeing how they all interact when they all converge, it didn’t want to do anything more with them than we’d already seen in their own films. Yes this convergence leads to some fun and interesting verbal sparring and a bit of infighting, but it means we don’t get enough time with each one. I wanted to see what’s happening in Asgard; to actually watch how Captain America is coping with the modern world; to know more about Stark’s new building and what he’s currently developing; to find out all about Black Widow’s background. Seeing these characters on screen again left me wanting more because I know that there’s a lot more to be had, which is a testament to the quality of the previous five films. Thank god it at least gave us more Loki!
So did I like The Avengers? Yes, but nowhere near as much as I could’ve potentially liked it. It’s entertaining, is definitely fun and I’m looking forward to watching it again, but it felt like a film with a lot of great characters that didn’t have much character itself. By too frequently resorting to big destructive action sequences and not letting it’s characters function outside of generic plot contrivances, it clipped its own wings. Despite assembling everyone together, The Avengers turned out to not be as good as any of the individual character films that have preceded it. Evidently less would've been more.