After an assembly of four years, Marvel finally unleashes The Avengers, one of the best and purest superhero films ever made. EVER.
WARNING: MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS!
S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), has come into possession of the Tesseract, a mysterious cube that could be a source of unlimited energy. The Tesseract activates a portal that allows the Norse god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to step into Earth. Loki steals the Tesseract and plans use it to summon an army of the alien Chitauri to help him conquer the planet. Fury assembles the only team that may have a chance of stopping him: the Avengers, Earth’s “mightiest heroes.” Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) join with Loki’s brother Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) in defense of the Earth.
(NOTE: Prior knowledge of the previous Marvel movies is not completely necessary, but is highly recommended.)
Four years has all led up to this, The Avengers, the pinnacle of Marvel Studio‘s output and a showcase for their biggest heroes who aren’t currently licensed to other studios (like the X-Men and Spider-Man). Marvel’s taken great care to set up their cinematic universe, and a massive amount of time and effort have gone into bringing the Avengers to the big screen. To further up the stakes, Marvel turned the film over to Joss Whedon, who has tremendous amounts of talent and fanboy good will, but little experience in blockbuster spectacles of this size. The gamble pays off, however, as The Avengers is simply pure, unadulterated comic book thrills, a four-color, 3D rush of adrenaline, heart and wit.
I love demigods and super-soldiers in uniform.
The amount of talent in front of and behind the camera that Marvel’s assembled is no less than staggering. As writer and director, Whedon has a clear love for the characters, as well as an eye for both crowd-pleasing spectacle and visual beauty. The script never panders to the audience, nor does it try to deny or belittle its origins. A story about characters who can fly, hurl cars and fire energy beams can’t take itself too seriously, after all. However, Whedon never tries to make the film too serious, always maintaining a careful balance of light and dark. Dramatic monologues are broken up by witty asides or genuinely humorous moments that give the film depth and humanity.
Whedon’s only feature film credit as a director prior to The Avengers is Serenity, which proved he was more than capable of staging huge action sequences and juggling a full cast of oversized characters. He certainly has his hands full here, but he handles everything beautifully. Each character is given an opportunity to shine, in heroics and in dialogue, with particular attention paid to how they all interact as a unit. One of Whedon’s biggest strengths, as he demonstrated on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is showing how highly dysfunctional and damaged individuals can come together to form a coherent, functional whole that benefits from both the flaws and the strengths of each unit. The scenes of the Avengers arguing about what to do next are just as interesting as seeing them take down a flight of alien bio-ships or seeing Iron Man and Thor literally butting heads.
And you think YOUR family gatherings are hard to get through.
Superhero films live and die on the strength of their action sequences, and time and again Whedon delivers them with flair and style. His super-fights are lessons in physics, where impossibly strong characters hurl near-indestructible opponents back and forth, uprooting trees, smashing glass and digging trenches into the ground. Each bout is edited with very careful precision, detailing the meticulous choreography and mastery of space present in each. During one battle, perspectives are constantly shifted between the heroes, but it’s done in a confident, assured manner that reminds us how all of these individual melees are connected and how the team is working for a singular purpose greater than their own personal aims. It’s character depth through fisticuffs that avoids the “things go boom” mentality common in most summer action films.
Likewise, each character is treated as a fully-fleshed individual and not reduced to a single personality trait or to their individual abilities. Tony Stark and Steve Rogers get the most screen time, their personalities near total opposites in most ways, with Stark being the self-proclaimed “billionaire genius playboy philanthropist” and Rogers being the good soldier struggling to maintain order. Downey has Tony Stark down perfect at this point, and Whedon hands him the majority of the film’s funniest lines, all of them delivered in a self-satisfied smirk that clearly hides Stark’s own fears and doubts.
Strut, pout, put it out….
Evans, on the other hand, portrays the good Captain as more than just a “soldier out of time.” His old-fashioned virtues are at odds with both Stark’s freewheeling independence and modern warfare’s shades of gray, and it’s how he handles the conflict between doing what needs to be done and following orders that makes Rogers the heart of the team. Evans’ calm, balanced portrayal makes him the most sympathetic of the team and the most dynamic. Rogers is never a blustering super-soldier or a Boy Scout with a shield. Evans also happens to have one of the finest rear ends in modern cinema history, which is just extra spangles on the jump suit.
Oh, say can you see….
Hemsworth and Hiddleston continue the Shakespearean dueling that made Thor so compelling. Loki isn’t a cartoonish, maniacal laugh type of villain, and Hiddleston approaches the role as a genuine character and not a two-dimensional image. Loki is a highly fallible creature, just like his brother Thor. Both Asgardians wear masks of bravado, Thor to shield himself from emotional involvement, and Loki to hide an inferiority complex that drives almost every action. The brothers are more alike than either one would care to admit, and this comes out in the tense, love-hate interactions between the two.
The Avengers is a team, however, and the three biggest personalities don’t get all the spotlight. Johansson gets much more to do here than look good and kick ass, although she does both effortlessly. At first glance, the Black Widow seems an odd partner for characters like Thor and Iron Man, but her true strengths lie in the fact that she can’t simply pick up a city bus with one hand or blast a warship out of the sky. She has to rely on skill and wit more than perhaps any other character, and watching her rough-and-tumble, up-close-and-personal, lucha-libre-inspired fighting style is a genuine highlight of the film. Renner has perhaps the hardest job in establishing Hawkeye in the universe’s firmament, having only had a brief cameo in Thor prior to this. He’s the least developed of the Avengers, but he’s still a compelling personality, and like the Widow, his strength lies in his relatively frail humanity.
Explosions are the new black this spring.
Mark Ruffalo takes over for Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, and he fully inhabits the role both figuratively and literally. As Banner, he’s a world-weary man constantly walking on eggshells with his own thoughts and plagued with self-hatred for his inability to contain his alter ego. Ruffalo also portrays the Hulk through motion capture, and he gives this Hulk a distinct physicality and human connection that pure CGI could never match. It’s a shame, though, that Samuel L. Jackson doesn’t give more life to Nick Fury, although he’s still perfect to play the role, and Whedon wisely reigns in Jackson’s inherent cool-guy vibe; Fury is not the kind to spout obscenities about snakes on a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier.
You may notice that I’ve not devoted a lot of time to mentioning specific scenes or moments in the film. This is entirely deliberate. There are so many great moments that it would be hard to list them all, and it would be cruel to ruin the fun of seeing them for the first time. There’s more than one piece of action or line of dialogue that caused laughter so loud during my screening that I decided I would have to go see the film again just to catch the bits I couldn’t hear. There’s a moment toward the end of the film’s climactic battle that not only ranks among one of Whedon’s best visual gags ever, but quite possibly one of the best visual gags in superhero films period.
No, that’s not one of the visual gags. At least not officially.
It’s the Avengers themselves who make the film as dynamic as it is. It’s not their powers or their battles, but them as individuals and as a family, even if it’s a family not of their own choosing. Whedon’s signature is showing how outsiders and “freaks” are perhaps the most heroic of us all. His characters all battle personal demons as well as literal ones, and nobody has an easy time doing it. Still, what makes Whedon’s work so appealing is seeing how these jagged pieces can fit together in a way so seamless that it’s impossible to imagine them as separate parts. Buffy could never do what she does without the Scoobies’ help, and that show’s fourth season quite literally showed them becoming one to battle an opponent that would be impossible to defeat without a bond that strong. Likewise, the Avengers may fight amongst each other, and they might fall down more than once (and quite spectacularly), but they always succeed in the end by relying on each other. Much like how the X-Men can inspire the outcasts to fight for themselves and the future, the true strength of the Avengers is their reminder that the world exists outside of ourselves, and nothing is impossible if your friends and family are beside you.
Will there be a sequel? Is the Hulk green? (Spoiler alert: yes.) Let’s just say that the post-credit scene had multiple people in my audience (myself included) shouting “Holy shit!” and desperate for 2015 to arrive. The Avengers is on track to be one of the biggest films of the year, and it’s by far the best superhero film in nearly a decade. This is what a comic book movie should be: thrilling, exciting and surprisingly, almost shockingly, human.
Rating: 9 out of 10 / A
JOHNNY M is a senior agent of F.B.O.T.U. on a secret mission.