Marvel’s Avengers assemble for the first time on the small screen, in a satisfying union that requires some assembly but ultimately achieves its ambitious collision of worlds. However, the Australian ‘Limited Edition’ Blu-ray lives up to its name in every way.
It may have seemed like a crazy idea half a decade ago, when the release of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk within a few months of each other signalled the start of something entirely unique in the film world. Marvel Studios had begun gathering together its mightiest heroes not simply for a series of adaptations, but to reconstruct its comic book universe for cinema audiences. The so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe gained momentum with the addition of Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger to the roster, not to mention an Iron Man sequel, and suddenly the impossible seemed possible. While DC Comics struggled through Superman reboots and Green Lantern misfires, Marvel had a legitimate cinematic institution on their hands.
With The Avengers, the disparate elements from four thematically different worlds come together. When an alien force threatens the Earth, under the charge of Asgardian wild child Loki (Tom Hiddleston), über spy organisation S.H.I.E.L.D is compromised. Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) desperately summons together Earth’s mightiest warriors to analyse the threat. Yet Captain America (Chris Evans) is a man out of time, and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) an unstoppable egotist with other pursuits on his mind. Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) is emotionally compromised, uncontrollable demigod Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is conflicted when it comes to his brother Loki and the newly calm Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) keeps the Hulk in check. Will this ragtag team be enough to keep the extraterrestrial hordes at bay?
Given that The Avengers is the culmination of a six film world-building saga, much of the first act of the film is confusingly spent in a dragging set-up not just for this film, but for the chapters that will inevitably follow. Indeed, one would be forgiven for thinking this was the prematurely released Iron Man 3 for at least half of the exposition. Yet as director Joss Whedon‘s script rapidly ticks off the whereabouts of all the players, getting us up to speed with their various misadventures in the cracks between films, some of the immediacy of the spectacular opening is lost. Here even master team-builder Whedon, seasoned through Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, struggles with the essential problem this film was always going to face: keeping four fan bases happy but simultaneously moving the story forward.
Once all of the pieces are in one place, however, The Avengers becomes the cracking piece of event cinema that it was always destined to be. Here Whedon plays in his element, as humour and character building mark this just as much his film as the work of Marvel Studios’ producer Kevin Feige. Downey Jr naturally gets all the best one-liners, but exchanges between him, Evans, Ruffalo and Hemsworth in particular are evenly paced and frequently side-splitting. Whedon is not afraid to use visual humour either, playing on the Hulk’s size or his ability to fling about mortals like rag dolls. More than anything, he recognises that these are already well-defined characters from previous films and comics, and allows their natural charms to emerge within the story where possible.
Hiddleston builds on his powerfully sympathetic portrayal of the conflicted villain, although the nature of The Avengers beast requires that he be a little more cut and dry in his villainy. On the flip side, Captain America’s transition back into the world after decades on ice is one that requires more exploration, but we will have to wait several years for this to eventuate in its own sequel. The only new cast member is Mark Ruffalo, who replaces Edward Norton as Bruce Banner/The Hulk. Effortlessly slipping into the role, he provides genuine warmth and a glimmer of what has transpired to the character off-screen. Although a third standalone Hulk film is not currently on the horizon, Ruffalo is the first actor to take on the role who actually makes us want to see more of his charmingly gentle take.
Yet this is, above all things, an action film and this is where the film ultimately delivers and overwhelms. Once the invasion force descends from the heavens, the Michael Bay gene of the film takes over, favouring spectacle over all else. There is undoubtedly far more intelligence behind this action, from the Hulk’s encounters with individual enemies to Stark’s quips in the heat of battle. It would be a cold-hearted fanboy who didn’t get all aquiver as the team comes together on the battlefield for the first time, and a giant creature snakes its way around an embattled New York. In the climactic moments, some of the cracks admittedly show. The Hulk’s domesticity is a convenient occurrence rather than a naturally occurring one, but does make for some spectacular imagery. After literally using archer Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) as a pawn in the opening chapter, Whedon is left with not having an effective place for him (or Johansson for that matter) in the final battle of super-beings.
As a cinematic achievement, The Avengers requires a firm salute of respect for giving the fans exactly what they wanted and pulling together one of the first epics of the year. Yet as fans will know, sticking around until the post-credits sequence is mandatory in a Marvels Studios film, although this time non comics readers will be left scratching their heads. Either way, what The Avengers mostly achieves is an end to one chapter and opening a door to another, filled with sequels, spin-offs and a growing legion of fans who have had their expectations raised by the unnecessarily high quality of this series.
The Disc (★★★):
In a word, disappointing. This 3-Disc (Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy) is also spruiked as a limited edition with a slipcover, but in every other way lives up to the term ‘limited’. The audio/visual aspects to this disc are actually outstanding, and if you are region locked, then this is the only way to see The Avengers. The crystal clear video is easily a 5/5 and the bombastic audio is an impressive equaliser, rattling the windows suitably. We’re also pleased to report that it contains both of the end-credits sequences from the US edition of the film.
The bonus features on all Australian editions are another story. In fact, there are just over 30 minutes worth of bonus features on this disc, making this a virtually bare-bones outing. The Marvel One-Shot: Item 47 (12 minutes) is the most substantial single feature, and is an ambitious and mostly satisfying expansion to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Deleted and Extended Scenes (15 minutes) are most worthwhile for the alternate opening and closing sequences featuring Cobie Smulders (detailed here), and pieces with Harry Dean Stanton/Mark Ruffalo along with more Captain America. There’s also a pretty standard Gag Reel (4 minutes) of line flubs, dropped hammers and general silliness on set. The Blu-ray also shares a featurette with the single disc DVD (also in this set), A Visual Journey (6 minutes), in which Joss Whedon and his creative team take us through the design of the S.H.I.E.L.D areas of the film.
What’s missing? We hate to say it, but this one is definite an import recommendation. The film alone is the best ‘feature’, but it seems the price to pay for getting this a month early is missing out on an audio commentary from Joss Whedon, the Soundgarden music video, the alleged ‘second screen’, and worst of all, a 90-minute documentary called “Assembling the Ultimate Team”. The UK Blu-ray is out 17 September, while the US Blu-ray is out on 26 September.