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By Jim Rohner · May 7, 2012
Imagine the ego it takes to be a superhero, to be so unparalleled in your physical and psychological prowess that you're the one counted on to take on unprecedented national and global threats. The emotional swings from both the victories and the defeats would be more taxing on body and mind than any normal human could handle.
Now imagine that four of these massive egos – morally upstanding, Captain America (Chris Evans), billionaire/philanthropist/playboy, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), demigod from another realm, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and reclusive one man wrecking crew, Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) – all of whom have dealt with their own external and internal cataclysms through their own methods, are brought together by a fifth massive ego, machinating super spy, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and told that they must work together to achieve a common goal. When five exceptionally powerful men who all assume that they know what's best come together, disagreements are often punctuated by blows capable of leveling entire landscapes.
Humor me just one more time and imagine the studio executive or executives who ultimately made the decision to assemble The Avengers on film. Imagine the humongous risk the studio was taking in attempting to execute a superhero tie-in that would see seeds planted in five titles over the course of more than four years and that would require the cooperation and buying in of an absurd amount of A-list actors, writers and directors whose collective titles have grossed hundreds of millions and notched multiple Oscar nominations. The public is not as aware of a Thor or an Iron Man like they are of a Batman, a Superman or the X-Men and if even one of these links in the chain had faltered, if the box office and audiences proved unkind, then the big screen Avengers Initiative would likely have been as successful as all of DC's attempts to get a Justice League movie off the ground.
Years after whenever this decision was made, The Avengers has hit theaters written and directed by Joss Whedon, a man whose ego, should one exist, would be easily understandable based on his entries into the pop culture lexicon and the devoted following he's subsequently spawned. It was the perfect hiring to bring this grand vision to life as the man who has made a name for a signature voice respects the fictional egos he's working with enough to know exactly how to do them justice.
Remember our good friend Loki (Tom Hiddleston) from Kenneth Branaugh's Thor? Hopefully, you had fond memories of him because he's back. The Asgardian god of mischief has more than just trickery on his mind as at the outset of the film he single-handedly invades the S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, swipes the infinitely powerful Tesseract cube, brainwashes both S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Clint "Hawkeye" Barton (Jeremy Renner) and Professor Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and then bails in time to watch the entire compound sink into the ground. And that's just the first step in his grand scheme.
The next step involves something like using the Tesseract to open an inter-dimensional portal that will unleash the Chitauri alien race upon the Earth. It's a win-win situation for both the dude in the spiky golden helmet and the faceless alien masses as the former will get to command an infinite army that will bring billions of humans to their knees and in exchange, the latter will get the Tesseract for unspoken devices that, due to the gravely nature of their leader's voice, one can only imagine are devious. Loki, in a speech delivered shortly before his introduction to Captain and the Metal Man, wants to free people from the idea of freedom, insisting that mankind was born to be ruled. That makes sense, I guess, in a comic book villain sort of way, but because it's being delivered by the infinitely charismatic Hiddleston, Loki's is a mission that makes sense in a twisted sort of way, or at least, we believe that he believes it makes sense in a twisted sort of way.
Loki's reappearance and ability to vaporize regular folks with a flick of his scepter forces Fury to put "The Avengers Initiative" into action, a plan intended to bring together Earth's "exceptional people" to counteract exceptional threats. The seeds already planted, some of the intended participants – Cap, Thor and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) – come along willingly while the others – Iron Man and Hulk – need to be convinced. Each Avenger gradually joins up (the threat of mankind's enslavement has that effect on people), but that doesn't mean that the heroes will immediately join hands and sing Kumbaya.
Disregard whatever complaints you may have had with any single film leading up to The Avengers – they will not be an issue. Whedon, a veteran of comic book writing, is intimately familiar with how to write an ensemble, each of whom are iconic in and amongst themselves, and is up to the task of making all the pieces fit into a larger, dynamic puzzle. Having five pre-existing films that have already extensively fleshed out their respective characters' backstories, The Avengers is able to do what other superhero films aren't by foregoing much the obligatory exposition and getting right into the issue at hand – assembling The Avengers.
Admittedly, it takes a long time to do so – the film's running time clocks in at 142 minutes – but that's because sufficient attention is paid to giving a reason and motivation for everything that transpires. The stakes are already apparent –Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger took care of that – so Whedon and co-story writer Zak Penn devote most of their attention to the question of "we've assembled these guys, now what?" That much ego in one place not only brings out the inherent conflict between superheroes – they all assume that their way is the best way – but it also allows for an exploration of the individual characters in how they play off each other. Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark is a loudmouthed smooth talker no matter who he's talking to, but the way that that propensity manifests itself creates entirely different moods and rapport depending on whether he's flattering the mild-mannered Bruce Banner or thumping his chest to the proud and stoic Captain America. Similar, neither Cap or Thor are from this iteration of reality, so how are they supposed to react to pop culture references or 21st century advanced technology?
These moments are born out of Whedon's understanding of the characters, but he should be lauded for more than just his ability to assemble previously fleshed out characters into a solid blockbuster. There's a real sense of love and appreciation that permeates The Avengers in the individual moments of achievement they're all given and the amount of time they all get to kick their own share of alien ass (Hulk's, which I will not spoil, is particularly satisfying). It's especially remarkable how he's able to take the two regularly powered heroes of Hawkeye, he of the bow & arrow, and Black Widow, she of 9mm pistols, and make them seem not out of place in a group that includes a giant green monster and a demigod.
As he is won't to do, Whedon does inject his own voice into the screenplay, but rather than distract, those moments largely contribute to the overall pacing of the lengthy epic, taking the form of jokes, quips and gags that create something memorable in those moments when it feels like the narrative is only inching along. Even if they were distracting, it'd be a nitpicking complaint in a film that is well worth the hype, the most awesome fruition of a journey that began years ago, helmed by the absolute perfect director for the job. If Whedon didn't have a big head before The Avengers's record-breaking weekend, it'd make sense if he did now. That wouldn't be such a bad thing though, he'd be another ego in a long series of egos that has brought us one of the most exciting film franchises of all times.