Over the last decade and change, movie goers have been overwhelmed by a deluge of superhero movies. Most of them have been good to great, while others are best forgotten altogether. At any rate, it’s a good time to be a comic book fan who also happens to love movies. While Bryan Singer’s seminal X-Men flick is usually considered to be the genesis of the modern era of comic book films, it’s largely due to the success of the first Blade movie that Hollywood started setting its sights on funnybooks as the next big thing in the world of blockbusters. Either way, though, Marvel comics has played a large role in helping to usher in the current golden age of superhero movies, so it’s only fitting that they deliver what very well may be the best entry in the genre thus far. By gambling on the feasibility of a shared universe on a film, a gamble that was by no means a sure bet, as evidenced by the mixed reaction to most of the Marvel films not called Iron Man, Marvel has proven once and for all that what works on the four color pages can just as easily work on the Silver Screen. It’s a gamble that paid off in the form of The Avengers (2012), a thrilling, breathlessly entertaining blockbuster that succeeds thanks to the excellent work of director Joss Whedon and a game cast made up of some of the best talents Hollywood has to offer.
For those of you who have been living in a cave since 2008, Marvel has spent the better part of the last four years setting up this movie, using all the other films under their banner to get all the pieces lined up for their big cinematic experiment. Planting the seeds all the way back in Iron Man (2008), and continuing through The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man II (2010), Thor (2011) and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), Marvel has been moving their big screen characters in a singular direction, occasionally at the expense of the individual narratives. It was all worth it, though, because The Avengers succeeds both on its own, and as a logical extension of all the other films.
In the film, the Norse trickster god Loki (Tom Hiddleston), last seen falling into a black hole at the end of Thor, returns from the abyss to steal the Tesseract, a sort of mysterious and powerful cosmic cube that was originally stolen by Hydra under the command of the Red Skull back in World War II (as seen in Captain America: The First Avenger). Loki has assembled an army of evil alien warriors known as the Chitauri, and wants to use them to wipe out all life on Earth. Standing in his way is Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of a super-secret peacekeeping organization known as SHIELD (aka the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcements Logistics Division), originally glimpsed in Iron Man but popping up in every subsequent Marvel film. Though his shadowy superiors have nixed the Avengers Initiative, Fury believes the only thing that can save the planet from total destruction at the hands of a mad god and his horde of alien invaders is a group made up of Earth’s mightiest heroes. So Fury sends out the call, and gathers a force made up of Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Despite their initial differences, the heroes realize what is at stake, so they assemble as a team to fend off a threat that none of them could handle on their own. But will even their combined powers be enough to stop Loki and his army from wiping out Mankind? And is Loki leading the attack, or is there someone else lurking in the shadows and pulling the strings?
The film succeeds largely for the same reason that all the other Marvel films have (mostly) succeeded, and that is due in large part to the fact that the films perfectly capture the spirit of these characters. While the origin stories may be somewhat different from those that comic book fans grew up with, the films are nevertheless infused with the essence of the characters, and despite what hardcore fans might tell you, that is what is truly important. Every character is recognizable, and they all feel like they stepped right off the page of an issue of their respective comics. It helps that the films have been perfectly cast, starting with Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man. He really set the template for the current run of Marvel films, bringing an almost supernatural sense of synergy between actor and role, and each subsequent film has followed suit, as they have all managed to find the perfect actor to fit the character. Chris Hemsworth captures the regal godliness of Thor, while also managing to invest him with a relatable sense of humanity. It doesn’t hurt that he understands there is a huge streak of silliness to the whole thing, and he isn’t afraid to embrace it and inject a little bit of knowing humor into the character. Similarly, Chris Evans really gets that the thing about Steve Rogers/Captain America is not that he is a super soldier, but that deep down, he’s a good man who is just trying to do the right thing and stand by his beliefs.
But it’s Mark Ruffalo who practically steals the show, as he was not given the chance to develop the character in another film prior to appearing in The Avengers. Sure, the character has appeared in other films, but he was never embodied quite so perfectly as he is here. Ruffalo takes the role and runs with it, creating a Bruce Banner who for the first time feels like the one who has inhabited the comic books since his first appearance back in the 1960s. Ruffalo presents a Banner who is truly haunted by his dark side, but who also seems to embrace it in many ways. He also seems to be in more control of his rage than he lets on, and stops just short of reveling in it, a fact which is conveyed by his twitchy yet sly portrayal of the meek scientist who makes up the human half of the big green monster who represents the duality of man. If it weren’t for these performances, none of the individual films would have succeeded on any level, and The Avengers is no exception. Thankfully, the entire cast, like the characters they portray, is up to the challenge.
At this point in the review, I should probably admit that I am not the world’s biggest Joss Whedon fan. Firefly/Serenity is fine, and I adore Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, but I could never get into Buffy: the Vampire Slayer or Angel. I just wanted to throw that qualifier out there to sort of diffuse any notion that I’m gushing about this film simply due to his involvement, as that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, my biggest worry going into the film was the fact that Whedon was involved, as I was afraid the film might become to…well, Whedon-y is really the only term for it. I was afraid that his sensibilities and quirks would overshadow the characters, and that the film would simply resemble everything else he’s ever done, rather than feeling in line with the rest of the Marvel movie universe.
I shouldn’t have worried, though, because much like his great run on Marvel Comics’ Astonishing X-Men, Whedon has proven that he gets these characters. Furthermore, with this film, he has established himself as one of the only filmmakers who really understands the dynamics of a superhero team, and that he knows how to let every single character have their moment in the sun. Prior to the film’s release, a lot of people were afraid that this movie was simply going to be Iron Man and His Amazing Friends, and I was one of them, but thankfully that is simply not the case. Every single character is given a moment (often more than one) where they are allowed to shine. Having said that, Hulk does tend to have most of the best moments, but every character gets his or her due in this film, and that includes Hawkeye and Black Widow. We are made to understand why these characters exist on the same team, but more than that, we come to believe that they all belong there. This is all because of Whedon’s deep understanding of the both the genre as a whole, and of the individual characters. Combine that with his proven ability to juggle large casts and teams made up of larger-than-life characters, and you have a winning formula.
Of course, the film is not perfect, and it does tend to bog down under its own weight a bit at times, most notably in the second act, but for the most part, Whedon manages to keep the film moving along at a brisk pace that never becomes overwhelming. There are plenty of great action set-pieces, and while they are often huge and breathtaking, none of them ever feel gratuitous or unnecessary. Every sequence feels organic, as though they are growing out of the story rather than driving it. Compare that to something like Michael Bay’s Transformers (or really, ANY Michael Bay film), where the story feels totally perfunctory, and is simply there to move us from one action sequence to the next. It’s a refreshing change, and it is simply another reason why The Avengers is the most satisfying blockbusters in years. It manages to be fun and thrilling without ever devolving into mindless pandering. It’s a nice to once again have a big Hollywood movie that doesn’t require you to turn your brain off while it unfolds before you.
Ultimately, The Avengers isn’t going to reinvent cinema or anything like that, and that’s just fine. We shouldn’t expect every film to do that. What it does is provide two hours and 22 minutes of fun, excitement and thrills, all while delivering on the promise that Marvel Films made the moment they had Nick Fury pop up in a cameo after the credits in Iron Man. By doing that, they were telling fans that they were interested in doing something special with their films, something more than just cranking out adaptations of their comics. They were interested in bringing the very spirit of those same comics to life on the big screen, and with the help of Joss Whedon and an incredible cast, they have done just what they set out to do.
Final Rating: 8.5/10
CBR Break Down:
How it was viewed: Theater
Running time: 220 minutes
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man, Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk, Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff /Black Widow, Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton/Hawkeye, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Tom Hiddleston as Loki
Directed by: Joss Whedon
Recommend viewing: In a cinema with a big receptive crowd of comic book nerds.
Why you should see it: If you’re a fan of superhero comics, this is the movie you’ve wanted to see since you were 10 years old. If you’re a normal person, you should still see it, because it’s the best, most satisfying blockbuster in years.
Why you shouldn’t see it: Because you hate puppies and rainbows and everything good in this world.