It’s not a surprise that The Avengers has a great ensemble; it was perfectly engineered to have one. The film was the culmination of a five film buildup. Maybe more on this later, but whatever you think about the quality of the Marvel Universe films, they are undeniably a historic series of films (and, in the aftermath of The Avengers, television series). But when you have five films, all of them wonderfully cast in and of themselves, all leading up to a collision like this film, you can’t help but have a wonderful cast, now can you? Let’s get the big dogs out of the way first. Robert Downey, Jr. in his fourth appearance in the role it now seems obvious he was born to play, the acerbic, abrasive Tony Stark; Chris Evans reprising his performance as the idealistic, if somewhat battered Steve Rogers; Mark Ruffalo, in the best casting of the film, as an abashed, brilliant, anti-social Bruce Banner; Chris Hemsworth reprising his starmaking role as Thor with an all-in, completely committed performance that continues to sell the absurd role; and, of course, Tom Hiddleston, the greatest discovery of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as the preening, fun-loving, villainous Loki. Picture any other actor in any one of those roles. Can’t do it, can you? Neither can I. Alrighty, tier two. Scarlett Johannson as Black Widow, giving a completely surprising performance, finding a genuine emotional vulnerability that raises her character from “generic sexy female secret agent” to real human being; Clark Gregg as the affable, unflappable Agent Coulson reaffirms that no one in the world has exactly his light comic touch and his ability to underplay in the face of a room full of method actors playing to the rafters; Samuel L. Jackson and Jeremy Renner are on hand as Nick Fury and Clint Barton respectively and, if they don’t do anything new or particularly interesting, those are still actors who know how to give solid supporting performances and they do it exactly as they should. Tier three? Yes, please. Stellan Skarsgard’s somewhat extended cameo role as Erik Selvig finds the wonderful actor being underused yet again, but the film can’t be ten hours long, and Skarsgard knows how to show up and make himself memorable know matter how little time he’s given; Cobie Smulders doesn’t have a lot of heavy emotional lifting to do as Maria Hill, but she does more than a lesser actress would do in terms of conveying the steely nature of the character; Gwyneth Paltrow hasn’t lost a step in the witty banter department when it comes time for her cameo and she’s enough of a professional to not phone in even an appearance this small. Fourth tier? Yeah, I’m going there. Is that Powers Boothe and Jenny Agutter as members of the World Security Council? Yup; are they phenomenal – well, no, they don’t have the time or the material, but it’s just great to see them, isn’t it? Does Paul Bettany deserve to do more than voice Jarvis? Of course he does, but it shows a certain amount of care and commitment on the part of the filmmakers to find such a huge talent for such a minimal part, so that’s still a win every time he shows up. Alexis Denisoff is completely unrecognizable and unable to give anything even approximating a performance as The Other, but I suppose a little money in his bank account allows him to keep working, so kudos to Whedon for throwing it his way. And last, but perhaps most wonderful of all, is that Harry Goddamn Dean M******f****** Stanton in a hilarious, scene-stealing, two minute appearance as a security guard that’s remarkably unterrified by seeing a naked green giant fall out of the sky and then morph back into Mark Ruffalo? Yes, yes, it is and so don’t tell me the legend isn’t still in total command of his powers. Why isn’t he working more, damn it? The Avengers is basically a perfect movie by my lights, no secret about that. With that astounding cast, it almost had to be. Every time I hate a movie like The Dark Knight Rises or Man of Steel, I get accused of being some frou-frou art house snob who only loves esoteric, artsy-fartsy movies. My love for The Avengers underlines the fact that I love a good blockbuster, key word: good. This one happens to be great. Others denigrate movies like The Avengers as being just stupid, lowest common denominator crap; the brilliance of a movie like this one puts the lie to that. Actors in movies like this will never get Oscar nominations. Too bad.
Next up, it’s a movie with several strong connections to The Avengers, though one that came and went with significantly less splash. Less aliens, but just as much great acting.