Superhero teams have been around for almost as long as there have been superhero comics, with the first, the Justice Society of America, debuting in 1940. Since then they’ve been a staple of the genre and for good reason. They give editors a place to test out new characters that can be spun off into their own books if readers take a liking to them and there’s simply more stories you can tell with a large group than you can when you’re focused on a single hero. One character’s not working out? Simply kill him off and replace him and the book carries on unaffected, much like the earth will keep turning inexorably after your inevitable death (wow, where did that come from, Mouse?). In fact, it’s pretty much a cast-iron rule that where you have superheroes, you will have superhero teams. My point is, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did many ground-breaking, ingenious and innovative things with the comic book medium during their partnership in the sixties, but inventing the Avengers was not one of them. Once they had created a certain number of superheroes, putting them all in the one book was about as inevitable as the tides. And to be honest…that kinda shows. When you read those old comics you can tell when Stan and Jack were really invested and bringing their A-game to a book (Fantastic Four, Thor, Silver Surfer) and when they were kinda phoning it in (Daredevil, X-Men and the Avengers). Even the name is half-assed. The first issue literally ends with the heroes standing around and saying “What should we call ourselves?” “The…avengers?” “Sure, let’s go with that.” Like, they literally just went with the generic place-holder superhero team name.
If the creation of the Avengers comic book was unremarkable and by-the -numbers, though, the movie was anything but. In fact, I’m pretty sure future movie historians will be looking back at this as the start of something entirely new. Whether that’s a good thing or not remains to be seen but regardless, this movie is a big effing deal. For the first time, audiences were expected to go to a movie that shared continuity, characters and plot with four separate pre-existing series of movies. This was something on a scale that the film industry had simply never seen before.
And, be honest, you kinda thought it would suck. Didn’t you?
C’mon. Be honest. You thought it was going to suck. You can say it.
Seriously though, the reaction to this movie was damn near euphoric but part of that just had to have been due to the fact that Marvel had even pulled it off. The fact that it was simply something you could point to and say “Yup, that’s a movie.” was in and of itself something to Marvel at (I ain’t ashamed). Four years later, though, when every studio and their mother is trying to ape Marvel’s shared universe concept, does it still hold up as anything other than a well-executed gimmick? Is it even a good movie in its own right? Does it have what noted film-maker Jackie Treehorn called the “little extras”?
“Story? Production values? Feelings?”
Let’s take a look.
So the movie begins with narration by The Other (Alexis Denisof), who’s the kind of hissing, inhuman sycophant you usually find either cowering behind some Dark Lord or working in human resources. The Other says that the Tesseract has been awakened on Earth and that his army, a race of fugly lizard men called the Chitauri, will soon overrun the Earth and take it.
On Earth, Nick Fury arrives at a secret SHIELD base called Project P.E.G.A.S.U.S. which stands for Potential Energy Group Alternate Sources United States.
Damn glossy pages.
P.E.G.A.S.U.S. (MAN that is a pain to type) is in the middle of an evacuation because the Tesseract has started throwing its toys out of the pram. Fury goes down to the basement where Selvig is working on the nation’s favourite glowing cube and asks him what the hell is going on. Selvig tells him that it’s probably no big deal and that the cube’s started giving off low levels of gamma radiation and Nick Fury’s all “well I’m no world renowned physicist but isn’t gamma radiation kinda dangerous?” This of course is the Marvel Cinematic Universe where Gamma Radiation is an unknowable and arcane branch of Deep Magic and not just basically any electromagnetic frequency higher than an X-Ray. Fury asks where Barton is and Selvig tells him that he’s sulking on the balcony as usual and yeah, if I was an Olympic level archer who had to leave my nice farm to babysit a gussied up Rubic’s cube in the desert I’d be pissy too.
Fury asks Barton if he’s seen anything out of the ordinary and he says that he’s nothing on “this end”. Fury asks him to clarify that and Barton says that since the Tesseract is supposed to be a doorway to another world (it is?) who’s to say there’s not someone jiggling the door knob from the other side?
Enter said knob jiggler, who is none other than Loki brandishing a glowing sceptre and the kind of smile worn only by the most elegant and fashionable psychopaths. Fury tells Loki to drop the sceptre and Loki’s all “How about I drop your FACE?!” and proceeds to take the SHIELD agents apart like they’re made of old Lego that’s lost its grip.
One thing that’s interesting about this scene it terms of the broader MCU is that it demonstrates just how ridiculously weak human beings are compared to the other realms. In Asgard Loki was a weakling who had to use tricks and illusions to get the upper hand over his foes. But against normal humans he’s just unstoppable. Loki uses the sceptre to take control of Selvig (who I thought was already under his control? Maybe he just needed a top up?) and Barton (who then shoots Fury) and they peace out with the Tesseract. Agent Maria Hill (Colbie Smulders), tries to stop them escaping but they get away and Loki’s portal destroys the P.E.G.A.S.U.S. (god DAMN that is not fun to type) base. Coulson and Hill ask Fury what they should do, but we cut to the movie title before he can answer.
“Get me the Planeteers!”
We now cut to Russia where Natasha Romanov is handcuffed to a chair and being interrogated by a corrupt Russian general whose black market operation she tried to infiltrate. I think I mentioned before that this movie is where Black Widow went from being my least favourite movie Avenger to my favourite. Firstly, Scarlett Johannson just took a flying leap in the quality of her performance. I don’t know if that’s just settling into the role or a better script or direction, don’t care, she’s got
Nat now and that’s all that matters. Second, Whedon’s given the character a fairly major overhaul to the point where Iron Man 2
Nat and Avengers Assemble
Nat almost feel like two different characters. Here she’s definitively established as being Russian. And whereas Iron Man 2
Natasha would twist Justin Hammer’s arm out of its socket until he told her what she needed to know, Avengers
Nat doesn’t need to lift a finger. Joss Whedon made his bones writing team shows like Buffy
and while a director primarily known for TV action comedies seemed like an off-beat choice for one of the biggest special effects extravaganzas of all time, he was an inspired choice because he understands what it takes to make a team work (also why he’s one of the all time great X-Men writers). In a good team, every single member fulfils a role that no other member can. In the case of the Avengers, Nat’s the one who can get into the heads of their enemies and read their weaknesses better than anyone else, a flawless actor and an absolutely ruthless intelligence agent. She’s a scalpel in a box full of clubs.
Speaking of crude instruments, the General is about to do some impromptu dental adjustments on Natasha with some residents of the less refined end of the tool box when he gets a call from Coulson warning him that there’s a jet within spitting distance of the warehouse that will level it if he tries to leave and also could he please put Natasha on the phone, thanks. Coulson tells an irritated Natasha that he needs her to come in. Natasha tells him that she’s kinda tied up right now (HACK, YOU’RE A HACK, MOUSE) so Coulson simply tells her “Barton’s been compromised.”
That does it for Nat and she proceeds to kick the crap out of three heavily armed Russian mobsters while tied to a frickin chair.
Walking out of the warehouse Nat asks Coulson what her mission is and he tells her he needs her to talk to “the Big Guy”. For some reason, Nat assumes he means Tony Stark which is ridiculous. No one would ever assume that Tony Stark is “The Big Guy”. Robert Downey Junior is so small that if you catch him he has to give you gold. Coulson explains that when he says “The Big Guy” he means the guy who is very, very, very large. And green. And notoriously uncharismatic when in a state of choler. Natasha stops dead and murmurs “Bozhe Moi” which is an effective little bit of tension raising. If even an unflappable stone cold badass like the Black Widow is freaked out at the idea of talking to Banner, you know he’s got to be bad news.
We now move to Kolkata where Bruce Banner (now played by Mark Ruffalo) is working as a doctor trying to contain a malaria outbreak. A young girl begs him to come and treat her father and he goes with her and I feel I should single out ten year old M’laah Kaur Singh who is just a perfect example of an actor doing a lot with a tiny part. Seriously, watch her scene again the kid’s phenomenally good. As for our latest Hulk, Ruffalo’s Banner is probably the furthest removed from the comic book character of any of the three actors who have played the character on the big screen. But he’s also by far the most likeable and I can definitely see why this is the version of the Hulk that finally clicked with audiences. Ruffalo meshes with the other Avengers actors in a way I don’t see Ed Norton being able to and he has great chemistry with them, particularly Johannson, Evans and Downey.
Bruce finds himself face to face with Natasha who tells him that Nick Fury sent her. Banner asks her if she’s going to kill him and she’s all “Why ever would you say that, the very idea!” and Bruce pretends to lose his shit and she pulls a gun on him and he’s all “yeah, that’s what I thought.” Also, I just love how Johannson plays this scene. She goes from pleasant and laid back to lethal intensity in a microsecond. You can tell that it’s actually physically hard for her not to kill him in that moment. Her killer instincts are so finely honed that it takes an incredible feat of willpower to not pull the trigger. After Bruce, Nat, and the fifty or so heavily armed SHIELD agents outside the house calm down, Natasha explains that Fury doesn’t need the Hulk, he needs Banner which I have to say I appreciate. Logically, what can the Hulk do for Fury that he couldn’t do himself quicker and more simply with a really big bomb? Having Banner be the one that Fury needs a makes a lot more sense.
Fury goes to talk to Steve who’s been having trouble adjusting to life in the 21st century and has been taking it out on some innocent punching bags. Cap isn’t happy with how America has changed in the last seventy years, notably that twelve of those years had seasons of Keeping up with the Kardashians.
“Was it for this, Lord? Why didn’t you let me die!?”
Fury tells Steve that the Tesseract’s been stolen and Steve’s all “Fantastic. Let me just go get that for you again. Maybe this time I’ll end up in the 25th century and have to fight robots for the rest of my life CAN YOU PEOPLE DO NOTHING RIGHT?”
Meanwhile in New York Coulson drops in on Stark Tower where Tony and Pepper have just finished turning the arc-reactor into a safe, clean, renewable energy source for all the world to use and it only took them six movies. And man. These scenes with Tony and Pepper as a happy loving couple are a bit of a gut punch after Civil War, no? Just as they’re settling in for a night of conscious coupling Coulson crashes the party and tells Tony that they need him. Tony don’t wanna, but Pepper convinces him to do the responsible thing and save the world and promises that they’ll pick up where they left off and whispers something incredibly naughty to him.
“My God…where would we even find that many giraffes?!”
Later, Coulson is flying Steve to the Helicarrier and explaining Banner’s background. He says that Banner was trying to re-create the super soldier serum and calls Captain America the “first superhero”. Blatantly incorrect of course because as we all know the first and greatest Marvel superhero was the Original Human Torch.
Presenting, my next tattoo.
Coulson says that when Banner’s not a huge green Shrek cos-player he’s like “a Stephen Hawking” and when Steven draws a blank Coulson explains “he’s like a smart person” and Phil, just say “Einstein”, he knows who Einstein is. Hell, he’s probably met him. Coulson says that he’s redesigned the Captain America costume and Steve asks if the stars and stripes aren’t a little “old fashioned” and Coulson says that what with everything that’s about to happen, people might need a little old-fashioned.
Meanwhile, Loki uses the sceptre to talk with the Other. In the fandom there’s a lot of debate as to whether Loki is actually in command of his own actions or whether he’s under Thanos’ control. There’s some evidence either way. On the one hand he does seem kinda pale and strung out which would make sense if he’s been essentially magically drugged. Also, it’s said that his eyes change colour from from what they were in Thor
although I can’t say I see it myself (Rodent. Colour blind) which is a side effect of mind control by the sceptre. The Loki-as-puppet-of-Thanos theory also gets points when you remember that Thanos would be far more likely to entrust one of his precious infinity stones to Loki if he could be sure that he was under his control. But I think on balance, I’m in the camp that says Loki is a free agent. Loki and the Other bicker and threaten each other which frankly there would simply be no need to do if Loki was a mindless puppet. And lastly, let’s not kid ourselves. The “Thanos made him do it” theory is an attempt by Loki fangirls to make the character redeemable but here’s the thing. Thanos is supposedly brainwashing Loki to commit genocide so that he can set himself up as a mighty king which, if you recall, was his plan in Thor.
If Thanos is brainwashing Loki, he’s doing it to make him do something he was already perfectly willing to do before. After the Other and Loki trade barbs (oh just kiss already) Loki asks Selvig what he needs for their project. Selvig tells him he needs iridium so he needs Loki to steal a dude’s eyeball.
On the helicarrier Steve meets Bruce and Natasha. Banner gets to work trying to track down the Tesseract. Jasper Sitwell (who’s totally not a HYDRA agent) tells them that they’ve spotted Loki in Germany and Fury tells Cap that he’s up.
Loki attacks an art exhibition in Stuttgart and tears out the eyeball of the director of a science laboratory and electronically relays the eyeball’s retina to Hawkeye, allowing him to break into the lab and steal the iridium. And just look at Loki’s face as people run screaming from him. The guy’s practically got a semi.
Loki then appears to the crowd outside in full Cyborg Bambi regalia and and orders them all to kneel before him. He tells them that secretly all human beings crave subjugation and that they are sheep in need of a strong leader. But one older German refuses to be cowed and rises to his feet.
“Go back to /pol/, asshole.”
Loki is about to blast the guy with his sceptre but Captain America suddenly arrives and all the Germans are really happy to see him and Steve’s all “man, this feels so weird.“ Steve and Loki knock each other around for a bit but then Iron Man arrives bristling with more guns than a hedgehog has fleas and Loki surrenders. Flying back back to the helicarrier though, Thor suddenly plonks onto the plane, knocks Tony on his ass, grabs Loki and peaces out. Tony flies after him and Cap grabs a parachunte to follow but Nat tells him to sit this one out as the Asgardians are basically goes. Steven replies “There’s only one God, ma’am. And I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.”
Thor demands to know where the Tesseract is but Loki says he doesn’t have it. Back in the Thor review I said how surprised I was by how good that movie was and how well it held up to repeated viewings and the Thor-Loki relationship has some of the best acting and most interesting dynamics of any plot thread in Phase One. Hemsworth and Hiddleston just bring out the best in each other as actors. There’s so much going on here; bitterness, rage, resentment and always the undercurrent of brotherly love and a desperate need for reconciliation. When Thor says “You give up this poisonous dream…you come home.” you can tell he wants that more than anything. He wants his little brother back. And Loki? Loki’s in tears. He wants to come back. But he can’t. He smashed his bridges a long time ago.
Anyway, Iron Man cuts the family soap opera short by ramming into Thor and knocking him into a forest clearing. Thor and Iron Man have a massive destructive fight which is the superhero equivalent of a friendly handshake and then Captain America breaks it up and tells Thor that he can have Loki after they find out where the Tesseract is.
They bring Loki to the Helicarrier where he walks past Banner’s lab and gives him a really obviously evil smile and my God Loki should not play poker. Fury puts Loki in a special cell designed to hold the Hulk and tells him that if he twitches in the wrong direction the whole cell will fall several miles to ground level. Loki asks Fury how it feels to have come so close to having the power of the Tesseract only to have it taken away and Fury leaves.
“Um. Where’s the bathroom in here? Hello? HELLO?!”
The Avengers discuss their next move and Tony explains that Selvig needs iridium to build a portal that’ll stay stable and won’t collapse like the one at P.E… the fucking place in the desert. He also points out that a SHIELD agent is playing Galaga in the corner.
“Yeah, I’m actually single handedly overseeing SHIELD’s defence of the solar system from a Brood invasion which would go so much smoother if NO ONE DISTRACTED ME.”
Banner and Stark start working together in the lab and the glory that is Science Bros is born. Tony gives Bruce some friendly advice and offers to take him to Stark Tower in between administering electric shocks to Banner to try and make him Hulk out for shits and giggles. You know, when I said Tony had a death wish in the Iron Man review I was kinda joking but damn the evidence just keeps piling up. While Bruce and Tony have hit it off pretty swimmingly though, Steve and Stark just can’t seem to get along. Steve thinks Tony’s a reckless gloryhound while Tony thinks Steve’s dead weight. Also not helping matters, Tony seems to know the exact things to say to piss Steve off.
“Everyone’s too polite to say it but the new helmet makes your chin look pudgy.”
Tony and Banner tell Steve that it’s a little suspicious that Fury was working on a clean energy initiative and didn’t ask for Tony’s help (not that suspicious, he’s met him) and Tony says that Jarvis is hacking into SHIELD’s mainframe as they speak. Steve angrily tells them to stop dicking around and just find the damn cube, but he decides to investigate on his own.
Meanwhile Natasha visits Loki in his cell and asks him what will happen to Barton. Loki taunts her by bringing up every desperate act she committed during her time as an assassin. He then promises to have Hawkeye kill her in the very worst way possible before releasing him from his control just long enough to see what he’s done and then kill him. A seemingly traumatised Natasha whispers “You’re a monster” only for Loki to sneer, “Oh no, you brought the monster.” thereby tipping his hand that he plans to use the Hulk. Natasha instantly drops the BSOD and calmly and politely thanks Loki for his co-operation before running to find Banner. This was the scene where Natasha become my favourite Avenger. The one where she frickin’ outsmarts the goddamn God of Mischief and made it look easy. Scalpel in a box fulla clubs.
In Banner’s lab things get all kinds of tense when Tony reveals that he’s hacked SHIELD’s files and learned that Fury was using the Tesseract to build weapons to fight Asgard.
“Also half your agents are in something called HYDRA. What is that, like an aquatic fitness class?”
Thor’s all “What the hell Midgard, I thought we were buddies?” and Fury, not unreasonably, points out that Asgard attacked an American town with a big indestructible robot so you can probably forgive SHIELD for trying to upgrade their defensive capabilities. Fury and the Avengers loudly argue while upstairs Coulson sticks his head through the bannisters and wonders if this is all his fault. Just in time they realise that it’s Loki’s scepter that’s making them act all narky and they should all just eat a snickers or something when suddenly Loki’s forces, led by Hawkeye, attack the Helicarrier. Banner hulks out and has to be taken down by Thor who knocks him out of the Helicarrier to the ground below. Loki is sprung but Coulson tries to stop him with a big frickin’ gun but Loki shoots him down the the sceptre. Fury arrive at the scene and stays with the dying Coulson, urging him to hold on.
“Now you listen to me. Where you’re going, it’s gonna be rough. You’re going to feel like giving up. But stick with it for the first half a year and I PROMISE it gets better.”
“Now you listen to me. Where you’re going, it’s gonna be rough. You’re going to feel like giving up. But stick with it for the first half a year and I PROMISE it gets better.”
With Phil gone to Tahiti (it’s a magical place) Fury tells the heroes about the Avengers Initiative and says that poor ol’ Phil really loved the idea of a big cool superteam. Shame he died before he could see it. Oh well. You big important superheroes probably have better things to be doing than fulfilling poor, noble, too good for this world Phil Coulson’s dying wish. Muttering “yeesh, alright alright!” Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow and a now-deprogrammed Hawkeye head down to New York where Loki is opening a portal over Stark Tower to unleash the Chitauri army on the world.
So, prior to this movie you would probably not have associated the phrases “Joss Whedon” and “kickass action director” but goddamn the entire Battle of New York sequence is just a joy. Clear, dynamic, fluid, packed full of jawdropping action, flawless special effects and instantly iconic moments (I’m always angry, how is that a party, puny god, I’ll have that drink now). Along with the airport battle in Captain America 3 it’s pretty much the gold standard for depicting a group of superheroes in battle in film. Good thing too, because what with the subsequent movies plus Agents of SHIELD, Daredevil and Jessica Jones all going out of their way to portray this as an epoch shaping moment in the history of the MCU, kind of like 9/11 if the good guys won, it really matters that it’s as big a deal to the audience as it was to the characters in universe. When the battle looks to be going south, the World Security Council launches a nuclear missile at Manhattan to close the portal and if that doesn’t work presumably they’ll just blot out the sun on the vague chance that the Chitarui are solar powered. Iron Man flies the missile into the portal where it destroys the…surprisingly fragile Chitauri mothership and the shockwave knocks Iron Man unconscious and sends him falling to a certain death. Fortunately he’s caught by Hulk, the Chiatauri conveniently all drop dead because they’re basically video game characters and the movie ends with Thor taking Loki back to Asgard and Fury promising that the Avengers will return when the world needs them.
The Avengers was released in the summer of 2012, a year when the sun was blotted out by swarms of currency flying out of people’s wallets, through the air and into the coffers of Marvel studios. This thing made ALL. THE. DAMN. MONEY. Does it hold up? Eh…yes and no. Whedon’s dialogue is an acquired taste, I personally find him funny but I won’t deny it can get grating after repeated viewings. But it’s still an absolute thrill ride.
If anything, the movie improves on the source material (in the original comic the Avengers defeat Loki with ants and a trapdoor). The plot is about as simple as a playground game of make believe and is just as much fun.
Our Heroic Heroes 22/25
Whedon does the damn near impossible and ensures that every characters gets their moment in the sun.
Our Nefarious Villain 25/25
Hiddleston’s still killin’ it.
Our Plucky Sidekicks 16/25
Jackson finally gets to show us just how much of a badass Fury is, Cobie Smulders makes for a convincing Hill and Coulson excuse me I have something in my eye.
The Stinger (Part 1)
The Other informs his boss that he kinda misread Earth’s defensive capabilities and that the whole attack was a bit of a learning experience all round. He tells his boss that to challenge the Avengers would be to “court death”. His boss turns around and gives a smile and we finally see who it is: THANOS.
And the audience went:
Depending on their level of comic book nerdity let’s call it a healthy mix of…
The Stinger Part 2
The Avengers eating schwarma.
And the audience went:
Yeah. That was really not worth waiting through a Koran’s worth of credits.
Infinity Gem Count: 2
DING! DING! DING! The Tesseract (Space Stone) is joined by the Mind Stone housed in the scepter. Of course, we don’t know that yet.
Wait a minute, was that Stan Lee?!
That was Stan Lee expressing disbelief at the existence of superheroes in New York city. Is it really any more unbelievable than the same eighty year old man having dozens of duplicates across space, time and dimensions, Stan?
“I’m not on trial here.”
Hey, what’s Thanos doing?
THANOS HAS GOTTEN OUT OF HIS CHAIR THIS IS NOT A DRILL I REPEAT THIS IS NOT A DRILL PEOPLE!!!
Granted he’s just standing and smiling ominously but I’m sure he’s going to do something interesting any second now.
FINAL SCORE: 86%
NEXT UPDATE: 23 June 2016
NEXT TIME: Have I mentioned recently that you guys are dicks? Because you’re complete dicks.