I've enjoyed the set up films, the worst is the poor unloved Incredible Hulk and that's more a bit dull in places than outright terrible. But Captain America and Thor were never as engaging nor as fun as Robert Downey Jr's career saving performance as Tony Stark. If The Avengers was going to be a successful team movie it needed to be more than just Iron Man and Some Other People. It actually almost succeeds at that, even if some super heroes are still more equal than others.
Jackson, as Nick Fury (the only character in history to have also been played by David Hasselhoff), assembles Earth's Mightiest Heroes against the wishes of his superiors to deal with the problem, and after some initial teething problems and Loki running rings around them, they come together in New York to kick the crap out of the Asgardian and blow the alien fleet up. The End. OR IS IT?!?!?!?! as Thanos shows up in the post-credits sequence. Mostly to audience apathy who have no idea who Thanos is.
The plot is slight, but this is a Joss Whedon film. His ear for smart dialogue and ability to direct snazzy action scenes means you never really notice there isn't a huge amount going on. From the moment Loki arrives on Earth and steals the Tesseract (destroying a SHIELD base in the process and taking over Thor guest stars Hawkeye and Doctor Selvig) the action is expertly handled. The film's biggest and most successful set piece being the fight on SHIELD's giant flying aircraft-carrier where Evil Hawkeye leads a team to rescue the captured (mainly for shits and giggles) Loki) that results in massive, but still easy to follow carnage.
Compared to that, the final battle in New York does seem slightly less interesting, partly because the aliens are a little dull, but mainly because it's virtually identical to the closing Chicago scenes in Transformers: Dark of the Moon just a year ago. Beware anyone who has slagged of Michael Bay in the past but still praises the ending of this film to the skies. Indeed, I have little doubt we'll soon have a raft of Youtube videos editing the two sequences together so that Optimus Prime and Captain America can fight side by side.
To a large extent though, it's not the action people are going to see this for, but the chance to see the heroes interact. Iron Man is very much the lead, both in terms of prominence and role (he's the one who gets the big face to face chat with Loki near the end and the one who blows up the alien fleet with the nuke. He's also the only character who bring virtually all of his supporting cast with him). He also gets nearly all the best lines, with RDJ being as cool and effortless as ever.
The real surprise though is the Hulk. Bruce Bixby's performance in the TV show has cast a long shadow and neither Eric Banner nor Ed Norton managed to escape from it. Here though, Mark Ruffalo is brilliant. Funny, charming a geeky but with an appropriately dark edge always bubbling under the surface. He's helped by the Hulk being expertly realised as well, during the attack on the aircraft-carrier where we're not sure if the character will come down on the good guys side he's genuinely scary. And when Banner arrives in New York and lets the transformation happen willingly for the first time in his life (“You want to know my secret? I'm always angry”) he becomes pure comedy gold. Whether thumping Thor for no reason other than because he can or whacking Loki about (“Puny God”) he's a Tex Avery cartoon brought to life and actually manages to steal the biggest laughs of the film from Stark.
After that though, it's diminishing returns. Thor at least benefits from having a direct personal connection to the villain and gets some good lines (“He's adopted”). He fades a bit during the film's climax, and him taking Loki off to Space Prison at the end is strangely unsatisfying way to end their conflict. The lingering plot threads from his film concerning Natalie Portman are basically hand-waved away for the sequel as well meaning he's left somewhat in limbo.
Of the major characters though, it's Captain America who suffers. The deeply silly new costume doesn't help (as with The Ultimates comic it seems far easier to do a good “What would they have actually made in the '40's?” costume than do the modern day version) but I think the big problem, and this affects Thor as well, is Whedon just has no interest in sincere characters. There's more than a whiff of Riley Finn from Buffy about him and after doing a credible job in his own film of making a potentially dull character interesting Chris Evans tends to look either lost or bored.
He also has by far the least to do and which is odd as he starts in the most interesting place of only just having woken up after 70 years asleep. Apparently a lot of scenes that actually dealt with him adapting to modern life were cut out to get the running time down, and what we're left with doesn't give the character much to work with.
His main scene solo against Loki in Germany with unsubtle Hitler analogies that are made even more unsubtle by Cap pointing them out is probably the silliest moment in the entire film as well.
Promoted to leads after bringing support to Iron Man 2 and Thor respectively, Black Widow and Hawkeye have mixed favours. Scarlett Johansson looks great [/shallow] and gets some fun moments of manipulating both a dodgy Russian general in her intro scene and Loki whilst he's captured into giving up vital information.
Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye does suffer from the fact he's made evil almost as soon as he appears. One scene in Thor wasn't enough to really establish his “normal” character (I suspect most people don't even remember him in the previous film) meaning any real shock from him doing bad things for most of the film is lost and we get an inadvertently funny info dump from Black Widow about why we should care what happens to him that doesn't really work. He's probably the only character in the main body of the film where having some prior knowledge of the comic character really helps. Once he's de-eviled though, he gets lots of great shooting moments and simmering anger one liners.
Non comic character Agent Coulson is the films token sacrificial lamb. I've seen his death dismissed as typically Whedon, but to be honest I think his card was going to be punched no matter who was directing. The film needed someone to be killed by Loki to give the character a bit more bite and ensure the whole film didn't just feel like jolly japes and Coulson was the most dispensable. Once he walks in on Loki with a big gun you know exactly how the scene is going to end, but it's still incredibly powerful because of the excellent supporting work Clark Gregg has done over the three previous films he's appeared in, and the picture is careful to make sure he gets moments alone with Stark, Rogers and Thor re-establishment good relations with all of them (or creating relations in the Cap's case) in order to make sure the way they're all hurt by his death seem real to anyone who hasn't seen the earlier movies.
The other character from the comics to get a decent amount of screen time is Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill, but she doesn't really get anything to do here bar give Nick Fury someone to talk to. She's clearly being set up to take Coulson's place as the main SHIELD go to character in future films rather than contributing anything of her own here.
As said, the aliens are pretty much faceless till the post credits scene. Now, I'm not a huge expert on The Avengers comics (mainly having just read The Ultimates) and have barely heard of Thanos so it was pretty much a damp squib to me, and indeed most of the audience I saw it with who, despite being saavy enough to sit through the initial credits to get to the scene, all went “Meh” in unison. From what I'm told he is a major villain and has some sort of special glove that gives him super fisting powers or some-such, but I think Marvel have here forgotten that what made everyone go wow at the post credits bit back in Iron Man wasn't that it was Nick Fury. It was that it was a surprise Samuel L. Jackson cameo. He could have been saying anything really. The Avengers tag is just for hardcore fans and that's a shame as the “Who is that and why does he look stupid?” reaction at my screening did kill off a lot of the enthusiasm for the sequel that the previous two hours had built up just by being very good.
Though the tag does win points from me for an unrecognisable Alexis Denisof offa Angel as Thanos' alien sidekick though.
Despite the unevenness of the cast, they do gel well enough together to work well as an, albeit Iron Man and Hulk centric, team. And even with various other small niggles the film still works brilliantly. If there was one really major flaw I'd point at, it's that the various different power levels of the team aren't very well portrayed.
The Hulk is clearly the strongest, but after that everyone else is exactly as equal as each other as the plot demands it. Cap even gets told at one point he'd be better off keeping out of a Thor/Iron Man smack-down as they're more powerful but he still goes in and holds his own. The non-super powered Hawkeye and Black Widow are just as adept as everyone else during the final battle at battle armoured aliens and surviving high falls. Loki's powers and strengths are somewhat inconsistent over the film as well, and it's odd he doesn't try his mind control voodoo on more people after the opening.
Oh, and it wins massive silly bonus points for a completely pointless yet hugely fun cameo from Harry Dean Stanton as a nonplussed security guard who gets to ask Bruce Banner if he's an alien (see what they did there?).
Four Samuel L. Motherfucking Jackson's Out of Five.