The Avengers (2012) feels like the epic two-part finale to a high-profile sci-fi television show—no less ambitious and well-crafted, but inherently meaningless without the fan investment in everything that came before it. Of course, any film with this much hype for this long will inevitably be a disappointment, so we’ll forgo that. At the same time, Joss Whedon’s long-gestating epic benefits tremendously from the films which came before it, allowing the audience to remain invested in a wide range of characters that would be otherwise lost amidst an over-bloated ensemble cast such as this. It also frees up the co-writer/director from having to spend too much time with backstory on any one character. If we are already familiar with the characters and story lines in earlier films such as Iron Man (2008), Captain America (2011), or Thor (2011), we are less likely to be distracted by the relatively shallow attention given to each character—they don’t feel like one-dimensional stock characters because each has had a whole discursive history behind them. The film does a good job of honoring each character, their respective interactions, and the larger group dynamic, all the while keeping the story moving along briskly.
At the same time, The Avengers does feel quite by-the-numbers too—just like the other films, but with more characters and a higher budget. The movie’s success as a blockbuster is predicated as much on getting out of the way of formulas already established, as on coming up with anything particularly new or clever. The most interesting aspect of the new film remains the complicated, ambivalent relationship between “adopted” brothers Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) that was so effectively established in the earlier movie. One unspoken irony in the narrative seems to be how Loki’s desire for fascist control and world domination clearly echoes the franchise’s desire for a similarly passive and willing global audience. Meanwhile, Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) remains as smug and snarky as ever. If anything, by the end of the movie, the ensemble does him a favor—a little Stark goes quite a long way. The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) is the focal point of many of the film’s most amusingly memorable moments, but his inner conflict, as Bruce Banner explains late, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, especially when looking back at earlier developments in the film.
Meanwhile, Captain America (Chris Evans) retains his inherent, necessary dullness—has anyone else noticed that Evans’ narcissistic “hero” in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) would make a far more interesting character to build a big-budget action movie around? At the same time, “dullness” here isn’t meant as an insult, as part of the appeal of his earlier film was the way it articulated this romanticized nostalgia for an earlier (imaginary) period of impossible heroism which remains the guiding myth of selflessness and sacrifice for the Avengers today. Yet the film misses a chance to play more on Captain America’s anachronism—the sense of his temporal out-of-place-ness in the modern era. Although, it must be pointed out, a throwaway joke between him and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), which plays to his “datedness,” may be quietly the most clever and subversive moment in the entire franchise (though I was left wondering how he managed to not lose his wallet after all these years, or why he would still need money now, but whatever).
One is left wondering how long before the inevitable sequel. Despite the obscene amounts of money the film will continue to make, Disney and Paramount may wish to slow down a bit, letting the anticipation building for another reunion to resonate across several other films first. Part of why The Avengers works at all is the rare novelty of uniting this cast of characters. If we get a new one every two years, the appeal will grow old very quickly, and the plot holes, character inconsistencies and rushed development on display in this one will become more and more glaringly apparent. The franchise would be wise to ease up on the pedal, go back to the individual films and revisit an Avengers sequel further down the road.