What Didn't Work
By the end of the first reel of "The Avengers," we'd be lying if we said we weren't a little concerned. Given how good the rest of the film is, we can only assume that Whedon had the flu when he both wrote and directed the early scenes. That brief early prologue is lame enough, but then we get Nick Fury and Maria Hill arriving at some secret S.H.I.E.L.D base that looks like the combination of a conference hotel and an aircraft hanger. They reel off some clunky technojargon, we see Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson (who mostly sits on the sidelines), Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, and Stellan Skarsgard as Dr. Contracted-To-Appear, and then Loki arrives. The brief fight scene that follows is airless and not even that well shot, and then Loki starts zombifying all those around him. Then the building starts collapsing, and we get some big effects shots reminiscent more of Roland Emmerich movies than anything else. It's all a bit half-hearted, as though Whedon didn't really care when his superheroes were offscreen, and had the movie continued along the same lines, we wouldn't be looking at the giant success that it's turned out to be.
Hawkeye Is Wasted
Speaking of that opening, it contains the biggest misstep of the plot, making Hawkeye a brainwashed henchman of Loki for over half the running time. With some characters having appeared in earlier installments, it gives you a shorthand to care for them. But Jeremy Renner's only appearance was in those crude, obviously-added-in-reshoots cameos in "Thor," so we're not particularly attached to him going in. And as soon as we meet him properly in "The Avengers," he's immediately turned to the dark side, a personality-free zombie serving Loki. He's eventually turned back, but the fact that we've never been that invested in him in the first place means that his return doesn't serve as some grand victory. It's presumably been done to give Black Widow some emotional investment in the whole thing, but it's hard not to feel that sidelining him is a waste of Renner's talents, just as it was in "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol." Attention movie franchises: if you hire a double Oscar-nominee like Renner, try and give him something to do. And speaking of wasted, we'd hope that Cobie Smulders, a talented comedienne, would get more to do that a humorless riff on Sigourney Weaver's computer-repeating character in "Galaxy Quest."
As much as Whedon gets the heroes right, it's a shame that they don't have adversaries worth their salt. Tom Hiddleston brought such an off-kilter bruised energy to his performance in “Thor,” but here is reduced to a one-note sneering baddie, without much of the pathos that was one of the highlights of his earlier appearance. And Lord help you if didn't see that film, and want to know why Loki is so angry. And then there's his army: why does his hard-on for conquering humanity obscure the fact that the Chitauri are a bunch of space bums who lie down with barely a fight? A quick shot shows a handful of alien soldiers amongst about hundred people inside a bank, hoarding them together so they’re easy to kill. Dude, there’s a planet of us, nice try. Why doesn’t Loki go about assembling an army from Jotunheim to conquer the Chitauri, then set two alien races upon the earth? If the remaining Nine Realms are as full of pushovers as the world of the Chitauri, then this is going to be one boring-ass franchise. If you’re going to involve a race of redshirts (admittedly, kind of a funny idea), don’t have them just stage one sloppy, uncoordinated invasion in the third act of your movie. We’re led to believe their plan was to wait for Loki to procure what, to them, is the ultimate weapon, and then simply jump into Earth feet first and shoot wildly? Yeah, Manhattan took the worst of it, but the rest of the Earth has to be watching and thinking, “Oh, it’s cool, nothing to worry about.”
It's Kinda Plotless
Yeah, a lot of stuff happens in “The Avengers,” but what’s the story? Loki wants to dominate Earth, S.H.I.E.L.D. assembles the Avengers, and they combat the threat. Seems simple, right? So why is this movie two and a half hours long? Because we must have Avengers infighting! Except that it never seems organic, but could it ever? We’ve got "Iron Man 3," "Captain America 2," "Thor 2" and God knows what else on the docket, why would you risk changing these characters in any real way? So instead Loki, who has minions working on the Tesseract, decides to show off a little. First he makes his way to Germany, in a fairly deadening sequence meant to illustrate just how powerless someone like Captain America is against this Norse villain. Then he merely allows himself to be captured, slapped into a prison for a good forty five minutes, so everyone can fight amongst themselves, without much in the way of a ticking clock. And surprise! His plan backfires, and this supposed God of Trickery only ends up wasting the film’s second act strengthening our heroes. D’oh. Meanwhile, the film’s juiciest suggestion -- that S.H.I.E.L.D. is seeking the Tesseract because they want to build weapons of mass destruction -- is abandoned, and Nick Fury has a change of heart. Because he knows it isn’t right? Or because he was caught? Or does he simply realize having a team like the Avengers is even more lethal than the Tesseract, a reality-altering power source? Whatever, don’t think too much about it. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s got this, now stop asking questions
Though a delicate balancing act, Joss Whedon can't stick the landing at all. First off, journalists don’t seem too interested in the story of how we HAVE to believe hundreds (thousands?) died in one of the worst attacks on American soil. They also don’t seem concerned by the mind-warping realization that a portal opened up at the top of Manhattan and started leaking aliens from another universe. Might want to do a double check on the atmosphere up there, guys. Oh, and by the way, all religions just got a MASSIVE page one rewrite. And then there’s Thor and Loki, gallivanting their way back to Asgard with the Tesseract like it ain’t no thing, as Captain America motorcycles away like a badass. Now what? How is Cap, a man frozen in time from World War II, coping with a future world with iPods, the internet, microwaves and now motherflippin’ aliens? Nick Fury is so confident the Avengers will return that when asked about it, he replies, “Because we’ll need them.” Dunno about that, Nick. Won’t Iron Man be busy discovering alternate energy sources? Won’t Hawkeye and Black Widow be working black ops somewhere? Won’t Thor be in another universe? Won’t Bruce Banner be... wait, what the hell does Bruce Banner do, anyway? Anyone wanna lend this dude some money? Oh, and one more nitpick: given the damage done by Downey Jr. in his Iron Man suit, does it not cross anyone's minds that there's another hero with equal abilities knocking around, say, Don Cheadle's War Machine? It's not his exclusion that annoys us: it's one more character that Whedon would have had to juggle. But at least include a line about how Rhodesy is on holiday, or something.
-- Gabe Toro & Oliver Lyttelton