The first scene of " The Avengers" is not very good. Deep in a secret S.H.I.E.L.D. base, scientist Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) is conducting experiments on The Tesseract, the blue cube that powered the Red Skull's experiments in "Captain America: The First Avenger." Experiments that, unfortunately, bring to earth Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the vengeful brother of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), last seen plummeting from Asgard into oblivion. Loki manages to take down S.H.I.E.L.D's best -- Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) -- with ease, and soon the base is decimated. It's a perfectly acceptable place to start, but there's something off about the execution: it's stilted, awkward and humorless, and the action is pretty uninvolving, with a TV-level of scope.
We're not quite sure what happened, because that opening scene is by some distance the worst thing in the film. In fact, it's a complete anomaly, because for 95% of its running time, "The Avengers" (or as it is called in the U.K, where we saw the film ahead of its opening next week, "Marvel Avengers Assemble") is thrilling, hilarious and brilliantly executed. It's not just the best Marvel movie to date (although it is that), and it's not just in the very top tier of superhero movies (although it is), but it's one of the most all-around satisfying summer blockbusters since God-knows-when.
Once Loki is out in the world, things move quickly. S.H.I.E.L.D., on the backfoot, go about bringing together their super-team: Captain America (Chris Evans), in the care of S.H.I.E.L.D. and still trying to adjust to the 21st century, is brought on board. Top covert agent Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is sent to track down Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a scientist whose expertise they hope to use but who also has the advantage/possibly-cataclysmic-downside of turning into a giant green beast occasionally. Billionaire inventor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is persuaded to take time off from opening his new, self-sustaining Stark Tower HQ, and don his Iron Man suit for the team. And before too long, Thor himself is on Earth, looking to bring back his brother and dispense some Asgardian justice. Unsurprisingly, the team fail to gel at first, but soon the stakes are high enough that they're forced to work together to save the planet from Loki and the mysterious army that he's putting together.
Marvel's approach to hiring their directors has been an interesting one; a diverse mix, but so far, they've generally felt like employees, serving the Marvel factory rather than getting to put their own stamp on a picture. But Joss Whedon becomes the studio's first writer-director here (working from a story by Zak Penn), and it's undeniably and thoroughly a product of the man behind "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Firefly" and "The Cabin in the Woods." Whedon's a writer first and foremost, and he does a superb job at juggling his expansive cast and with a couple of minor exceptions (more on that below), every member of the ensemble gets an arc, moments to shine, and feels like a living, breathing character. Whedon's written for Marvel comics in the past, and clearly knows these characters like the back of his hand, but develops them with an impressive economy: he rarely tells when he can show.
Indeed, much of the fun comes in seeing them rub against each other, thanks in part to Whedon's typically snappy, witty dialogue, from Stark's pop-culture jibes (calling Loki "Reindeer Games" is one of the ones we feel less bad about spoiling) to Banner's weary asides. The other thing Whedon's historically proven strong at is stakes. From 'Buffy' to "Serenity," when the world needs saving, it really needs saving, and that carries over here; unlike in the earlier Marvel movies, you're never entirely convinced that all the characters are going to make it out alive, as Whedon mounts threat upon threat upon threat upon them.
Because at the same time, Whedon is adding to his toolbox here. We'd feared from trailers and clips that the film wouldn't have the kind of scope that you'd expect from a movie that teams up four stand-alone superheroes, but scope is exactly what Whedon delivers. This thing is huge, as though Marvel had been skimming 40% off the budget of each of their earlier movies to add to this one. It spans the globe, with action that -- arguably for the first time in a superhero movie -- feels like it's lifted from the pages of a superhero comic. When kids run around pretending to be Thor and Iron Man, this is what plays out in their heads. At the same time, there's a heft and weight to it, because you care about the characters.
And this all adds to perhaps the most surprising thing about "The Avengers." Like fellow TV legend J.J. Abrams on "Mission: Impossible III," Whedon's big-screen debut, "Serenity" had its moments, but felt more like television than a movie. But like Abrams did on "Star Trek," Whedon has stepped up his game in a major way: the action is clear and coherent, the pacing is tight (it's 140 minutes long, but flies by) and the technical contributions are top-notch across the board, from the Bond-movie production design of James Chinlund ("The Fountain") and the razor-sharp cutting of Jeffrey Ford ("Public Enemies") and Lisa Lassek ("Cabin In The Woods") to Seamus McGarvey's bright cinematography and Alan Silvestri's firmly listenable score (although the latter could, it should be said, use a more distinctive theme).
And it's funny. Did we mention it's funny? God, it's funny. As serious as the stakes get, Whedon's never afraid to let a joke out (the final action sequence has more than one gag as funny as anything we've seen in a comedy for a while), and it gives the film a light, bouncy tone that makes it such a pleasure to watch. And his cast members are clearly having just as much fun as the audience will be.
Casting's been a strength of the Marvel movies, and everyone who's returning matches their earlier engagements -- any fear that Downey Jr. might be phoning it in is misplaced, as he's actually stronger here than he was in the last "Iron Man." For the first time, Samuel L. Jackson feels engaged, rather than cashing a paycheck, and Scarlett Johansson's gone from dead weight to one of the highlights of the film (honestly, she's almost revelatory here). Most characters get to show new sides, even Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson, while the new additions mostly fit in just fine. Indeed, the film's M.V.P. is a newcomer: Mark Ruffalo, taking over for Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, brings his trademark offbeat energy to the role, quietly walking away with scene after scene as he does so. And it helps that the Hulk (played for the first time through performance capture) is the most fun he's ever been on screen.
There are, inevitably, issues. As well as Whedon juggles his principles, some of the supporting characters, particularly Cobie Smulders' S.H.I.E.L.D. second-in-command (who's oddly humorless for such a talented comedienne), aren't given much to do. More problematic is Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye: He's fine when things get going (he's got great chemistry with Johansson), but spends much of the movie in the background, thanks to a plot contrivance we won't give away here. Had he been established by anything other than an obviously-reshot cameo in "Thor," maybe you'd feel more attached, but he feels underdeveloped on the whole.
That also leads to the film's biggest problem: the villain. It's not that Hiddleston is bad -- far from it, in fact. But the film relies on you having seen "Thor" to be able to read into his motivations, and even then, both what he's doing and why he's doing it remain a little opaque. It's far from a deal-breaker: the film moves fast enough, and the stakes are clear enough, that you remain invested. But one feels that even one extra scene with Loki might have made him a more satisfying antagonist.
That this is the film's biggest problem, however, is sort of extraordinary. "The Avengers" should never have worked. Too many characters, too many egos, an inexperienced director, an interference-happy studio. That it works as well as it does -- that it's as satisfying a tentpole movie as you could hope for -- is something close to a miracle. [A-]
"The Avengers" opens in the U.K. and elsewhere in the world on April 26th, and hits U.S. screens on May 4th.