Taking a cursory glance at today’s cinematic landscape it would appear that Marvel, or more accurately Disney, rule the world. Since 2008’s Iron Man the Marvel Cinematic Universe has built itself up into a box-office behemoth with huge cultural influence. I have never quite got the superhero hype, however. A long-time lover of ‘proper’ cinema and arthouse flicks, in recent years I have fought against this tendency to be a ‘film snob’. My Marvel Diary is a challenge to myself to watch all 23 MCU films, perhaps proving my prejudices correct, or perhaps turning me into a lifelong fan of all things superhero.
Release Date: 26th April 2012
MCU Phase: One
Director: Joss Whedon
Writer: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner
May contain spoilers.
I have liked and admired MCU films so far, and had a good time with them. This is the first one I’ve properly loved. It’s just so much fun. Funny, exciting, heartwarming – it made me giddy. There’s one shot in particular; you know the one I mean. Our heroes are all in the same frame for the first time, forming a circle and facing the enemy together. As Alan Silvestri’s score swells and the punch-the-air moment is complete, it feels a bit like you’ve been manipulated and plonked exactly where Kevin Feige wants you. After five solo films and little bits of world building, this is the money shot, the one you’re supposed to love and whoop and cheer. But it doesn’t feel cynical, because it works. My god, it works.
In many ways, how you respond to this moment is a measure of whether the film has succeeded and you have fallen hook, line and sinker for the MCU plan. If the film had been no good, then this shot would come off as a cynical money-grabber. One to stick in the trailer and sell tickets, but getting only an eye roll from me. That it works is testament to writer-director Joss Whedon and everyone else involved, and helps mark The Avengers out as a top-tier blockbuster.
Why does the film around that now-iconic image allow it to work so well? Well, there are several reasons for that. One is timing. We are made to wait for the big team-up, multiple times in fact. The long opening sequence keeps all of the major heroes out the way, instead establishing Loki and the Chitauri army’s threat and aims, and reaffirming the importance of S.H.I.E.L.D. to the story. Then after the Avengers are individually (re)introduced and brought together, they fight and bicker and clash. So when the team is properly together, fighting as one, we really appreciate it. Holding back the big moment clearly has its benefits, but leaving some time after it is a smart move too. The final battle is pretty damn long, and this helps to give it a big second wind half way through.
The excitement about the whole super-team concept pays off so well not so much because of the bombastic action, but the writing. Whedon was handed a great premise for this film, and the benefit of clever strategy and solid solo films coming before it. There was so much potential for The Avengers, and he doesn’t waste any of it. Character is the key here, and Whedon knows that. In not much screen time he adds layers to the core players in their dialogue, like Black Widow revealing her chequered past, or Coulson’s sweet fanboying over Captain America. This means that when we get to the climactic levelling of New York City, it is not just mindless action; every Avenger has a personal reason to fight, something to prove.
Even more impressive is how Whedon packs in the necessary character beats and exposition without the dialogue letting up in intensity or humour. It has been said countless times before, but The Avengers is a smart, funny film, and these characters are a delight when together. Tonally, this is closest to Iron Man of all the solo films, but the wit and charm of Tony Stark doesn’t overpower all around him. Thor and Captain America are still distinct characters; they are not ‘Starkified’ for the sake of levity. My favourite bits are when the heroes are bickering and bantering, delivering on the personality-clash that solo films promised us. But then I also love how their characters inform the action, each Avenger fighting in a way that suits their personality. Iron Man is flashy and cocky, but ultimately heroic, whilst Cap does the hard groundwork and marshalling – he’s a proper soldier.
These two were the easiest bit for Whedon to get right, I imagine. With the best solo films and clearly-defined, totally contrasting personalities, it was always obvious that bringing Tony Stark and Steve Rogers together would be fun. The other four members of the team needed more work, and by and large Whedon does a good job. Hawkeye is admittedly sidelined, but for a lean film perhaps someone has to be; I hope he gets more attention in future films. Black Widow is given a fair bit of backstory which helps grow her from a very one-note starting point, but she is ultimately still a secondary character because she didn’t have her own solo film. With Black Panther and Captain Marvel a few years away, we are still very much in the white man version of the MCU.
Thor is an interesting one. As you may have read, I was not a big fan of his solo film. The god of thunder himself felt a bit flat and bland. Whedon doesn’t really do much to change my mind about that here. He is noble and a leader, but Cap already does that better, and Thor’s previous hot-headedness is no longer an issue. With Tony Stark his old flaws are still there, battling with ‘new Tony’, which is what makes him interesting. So we’re still left with Thor as the hero I find the hardest to connect with. Chris Hemsworth’s performance shows moments of a sweet and funny character, who is perhaps not the serious dramatic god he has to be. It’s no fault of Whedon’s, but I’d like to see more of this personality in future Thor outings.
That leaves us with Bruce Banner/Hulk – the film’s great success. I love Mark Ruffalo anyway, and he is a perfect fit here. When I watched The Incredible Hulk I didn’t mind Ed Norton in the role, but Ruffalo feels much more natural as Banner. He actually has a proper personality this time, really amplifying his struggle with the beast within. He actually comes across like a scientist now, too, rather than action hero who is apparently smart. Even the Hulk CGI is a massive improvement, bearing some resemblance to Ruffalo to help humanise the very angry man.
Lastly, a shoutout to Loki. They made the right call making him the big bad in The Avengers; he was by far the best villain from the solo films and bringing him back means he brings with him all the emotional complexity from the first film. It is a very efficient way of ensuring the film is not too hero-centric with a one-dimensional villain. It is just another good call in a film that is full of them.
There’s two stings this time, perhaps appropriately for the biggest MCU film so far. The first is mid-credits and reveals that the scary bossman Loki and the Chitauri were answering to was a big purple fella who appears to be up to no good. With the benefit of hindsight I of course know this to be Thanos. The second sting is just a little bit of fun, making good on Tony’s idea for The Avengers to get shawarma together. Nobody says a word; they just eat. It’s a good joke and encapsulates the spirit that makes the film a success.
Where it Ranks
It’s not a perfect film. Some of the characters could still use a little work, and the action climax feels a little overblown for me. I prefer it when every explosion, every punch feels either devastating or necessary, not just there for the sake of spectacle. Yet despite the odd quibble, this is brilliant stuff – big and bold and delivering on all the promise of the previous films. Everyone, we have a new number one.
- The Avengers
- Iron Man
- Captain America: The First Avenger
- Iron Man 2
- The Incredible Hulk