Marvel's THE AVENGERS is, if nothing else, a triumph of planning: a smart assemblage of affordable multi-picture deals, "collaborative" movie stars, and a fan-approved filmmaker in desperate need of a hit. It's a massive movie, but not sprawling to the point that the studio will burn through a sizable chunk of its billion-dollar worldwide gross attempting to break even. This is responsible big-budget filmmaking. It even looks responsible! There's not a single shot in the movie that makes you gasp at the go-for-broke scale of the undertaking. That's because there was no gamble. THE AVENGERS is minimum-bet entertainment.
This has been the Marvel Studios way for some time now* - particularly with its 2011 features, THOR and CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, both of which sensibly primed the pump for THE AVENGERS - but it only pays dividends on the audience's side of things when you can sense an authorial voice. THOR was well cast, but undone by its unconvincingly CG Asgard and muddled storytelling; Kenneth Branagh's presence behind the camera was notable only for the abundance of canted angles. CAPTAIN AMERICA, however, was undeniably the work of Joe Johnston; armed with a well-structured screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, he infused the film with the same gee-whiz, save-the-day spirit that made THE ROCKETEER such a joy.
This was also important in that it established Chris Evans's Captain America as the big-hearted contrast to the ingratiating jocularity of Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark. This, it seemed, was the natural conflict that would serve as the primary hurdle to uniting The Avengers. Given that CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER ended with an unfrozen Rogers confronting the modern day for the first time, Marvel even had an organic way into THE AVENGERS. And in Joss Whedon, they had an ace screenwriter with vast experience in managing multiple story arcs - mostly over the course of a twenty-plus-episode season, but with sufficient studio savvy (he saved SPEED and survived WATERWORLD and ALIEN: RESURRECTION) to earn the benefit of the doubt.
And yet THE AVENGERS is, narratively and emotionally, largely untethered from the previous films. It opens with fallen demigod Loki (Tom Hiddleston) brandishing the tesseract, controlling minds and giving the puny human agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. what for. Realizing they're badly overmatched, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) starts rounding up his extra-abled A-team, setting off a series of vignettes that re-introduce familiar characters in disappointingly by-the-numbers fashion. Some of the scenes are amusing on their own (it comes as no surprise that BUFFY-creator Whedon immediately evinces an affinity for Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow), but they're also rushed and disparate: Rogers's opening moment gets lost in the shuffle because, being the boy scout of the bunch, he's just not as funny as the others; then again, Robert Downey Jr.'s first appearance as Tony Stark is supposed to be funny, and pretty much face plants. Worst of all, these sequences are dimly lit** and visually flat (not that shooting widescreen would've helped; scope can look like TV in the wrong hands, too). It's a terribly ho-hum kickoff to what should feel like a once-in-a-lifetime event.
The whole first half of the movie hurtles forward at a hectic pace, and only the occasional, effectively-deployed pop-culture reference reminds you that Whedon is at the helm. It's about roughly forty minutes in, during a clumsily-staged confrontation with Loki outside of a German concert hall occurs, where panic begins to set in. This is THE AVENGERS, and they're blowing it. It's small, cheap and utterly devoid of wonder.
There's marginal improvement once Thor (Chris Hemsworth) gets artlessly wedged into the proceedings, though the three-way, forest-felling brawl between the God of Thunder, Iron Man and Captain America is much cooler in theory than execution (again, too dark to enjoy). But with the team all together on S.H.I.E.L.D.'s helicarrier, Whedon finally begins to get his footing both narratively and visually. Presented with just a sliver of breathing room to attend to character, he gets these superheroes relating to each other as real, emotionally-conflicted superheroes might. Even better, Rogers's humorless leadership style begins to grate on Stark, Fury grows weary of Stark's petulance, and Bruce Banner shows flashes of irritation. Then Loki tricks his way out of captivity, and the film suddenly shows signs of blockbuster life with a prolonged action sequence.
Whedon only gives the audience a taste of the Hulk on the helicarrier, but it's enough to whet one's appetite for the grand finale, which finds the Avengers throwing down as one in the heart of Manhattan against Loki and his intergalactic minions (aka the Chitauri). Once Captain America starts barking out orders to his charges (as all car-asplodin', skyscraper-crumblin' hell breaks out around him), Whedon lets loose the inner-child, and THE AVENGERS turns into the all-star superhero romp fans have been clamoring for since they flipped open their first comic book. Unlike the earlier set pieces, everything is bright and coherent; the staging may occasionally betray its pre-vis origins (in that the unnatural camera movement calls attention to itself), but then the Hulk will snatch a huge Chitauri-piloted vehicle out of the sky and tear it to shreds like a five-year-old on an apocalyptic sugar rush. That's livin'. It's also a reminder that the Hulk is the most cinematic of superheroes (something Ang Lee already figured out***); a soaring, inarticulate bundle of smash for what used to be a purely visual medium. Take that, awkwardly constructed first hour!
What's never at issue is the quality of the performances. Over the last four years, Marvel has cast every one of its top-tier heroes perfectly, and though Downey threatens to dominate at times, he generally plays point guard, setting up his cast mates with clever Whedonesque quips (Hemsworth makes out surprisingly well in this regard). Ruffalo's Banner is much more puckish than Norton's or Bana's; he enjoys taunting his colleagues with the possibility of a Hulk-out (which results in a terrific third-act payoff). Evans, unfortunately, winds up being the odd man out; he's fine in the film, but his uneasiness with the modern world is reduced to a couple of punch lines. Wonder what happened to Peggy Carter? Forget it. This Steve Rogers has moved on.
After a return to rousing form with CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, composer Alan Silvestri has gone back to the score-as-wallpaper business with THE AVENGERS, but it's really not his fault. There's no time in the cluttered first act to establish a memorable motif - and he must've been directed to not play favorites by re-invoking Captain America's theme.
Somewhere between Michael Bay's mega-budget sense of scale and Whedon's possession of a brain and a heart, there's a great AVENGERS film to be made. But no studio is going to roll the dice on the emotional integrity of a summer tentpole; they want it made their way, with the benefit of market research. So this is it: an ungainly, but just-satisfying-enough pseudo-epic. Miracles notwithstanding, it's the best possible outcome in this corporate age of risk-averse event filmmaking. Dream to be on time and on budget, kids.