BRIEF SYNOPSIS: When the Tesseract opens a rift in space to free the power-hungry Norse god Loki, SHIELD director Nick Fury assembles a diverse group of superheroes—the Avengers—to stop him from taking over the world.
PROS: Visually engrossing, with outstanding performances from each cast member; and a script that moves at a deft clip…
CONS: …even when it is somewhat predictable.
Like a number of my generation’s geeks, I cut my teeth on comics. By the time I was ten I knew all of DC’s and Marvel’s major heroes, and many of the minor ones. My love affair with costumed characters waned considerably once I discovered the prose adventures of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Rider Haggard’s Allan Quartermain,
Roberson’s Robeson’s Doc Savage, and Ian Fleming’s James Bond, but I always kept an eye on changes the storylines and key players of four-color sequential art underwent, especially as comics transformed into graphic novels and movies of lesser-known creations popped into multiplexes at a regular pace.
So I speak with little hyperbole when I state that Marvel’s The Avengers is a movie I’ve waited almost forty years to see. With such patience came the certainty that Joss Whedon’s second picture (after Serenity) would not, and could not, live up to the expectations created by more than three decades of comic book movies, beginning with Richard Donner’s canonical Superman: The Movie and continuing through to last year’s Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. How could it? I’m not the same person I was when I read my first Action Comics or The Spectacular Spider-Man. Moreover, given how dismissive I can be of most superhero movies, even if Whedon hit all of the necessary notes, I didn’t see how his movie could appeal to an audience beyond its target (which, remember, twisted itself into knots trying to rationalize its disappointment with Zack Snyder’s Watchmen).
Needless to say, I was not only wrong, but incredibly wrong, for Marvel’s The Avengers met every hope I might have had, exceeded a few, and addressed some that I didn’t know I held. While it never cuts quite as deeply as Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, it again pushes the envelope for what comic book movies can do while still staying within the boundaries of its genre. Marvel’s The Avengers never seems interested in transcending its genre, and for precisely that reason it becomes among the best superhero movies yet made.
From the opening sequence it hits the ground running. At a remote research facility the Tesseract (an otherworldly energy source) activates, opening a portal through space and freeing from exile the Norse god Loki (Tom Hiddleston). When Loki seizes the Tesseract, seizing control of the minds of agent Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) and physicist Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), against the wishes of his shadowy superiors, relaunches the Avengers Initiative, activating Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson, who from here on should be required to make all of her movies as a redhead) in the middle of an interrogation (“This moron is giving me everything,” she protests to Fury on a cell phone while tied to a chair), a reluctant Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) caring for the sick in India, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) to review Selvig’s research, and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), fully revived from his decades-long slumber beneath the Arctic ice. Fury assembles the team to retrieve the Tesseract from Loki, who has set his sights on subjugating Earth with an army of Chitauri warriors provided by the Other (Alexis Denisof). Loki brother’s Thor (Chris Hemsworth) joins the team when Loki attempts to steal iridium in Germany and demands a group of civilians bow before him.
A movie with six major protagonists threatens to be unwieldy, yet, smartly, Paramount and Marvel chose to make several movies introducing the key players before embarking telling the Avengers’ tale. A wise move, since Whedon (who wrote the screenplay) wastes almost no time with backstory. Those previous movies didn’t always work. Often audiences lined up for those releases as a method of paying their dues, hoping their attendance would cash out with huge rewards. At times they brought to mind the World War II posters asking if this trip was really necessary. Think about it: how many people rationalized their disappointment with Iron Man 2? Beyond a shirtless Chris Hemsworth, who remembers, offhand, a key sequence in Thor? Yes, Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk proved superior to Ang Lee’s strangled, misguided attempt to invoke Greek tragedy in the green gamma giant, but who can remember the actors playing Emil Blonsky, Betty Ross, her father, or even Bruce Banner himself without running to IMDB?
Fortunately, the gamble paid off, forThe Avengers, despite its more than two-hour running time, seldom flags. A good deal of the movie’s first part simply brings the key players onstage, allowing them to play off each other. Indeed, although Whedon provides plenty of action during the first hour, its most memorable moments come from the interactions of Banner and Stark (“I’m a huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into a green rage monster,” Stark tells Banner on their first meeting) and the friction that inevitably comes when one places alpha egos in close proximity. (“Big man in a suit of armor,” Rogers says derisively to Stark. “Take that off, and what are you?” Stark shrugs and answers, “Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.”) Upon their initial capture and imprisonment of Loki on the flying aircraft carrier Helicarrier, one wonders how this bickering sextet will manage to work together.
There’s no question that they do, which is perhaps The Avengers‘ key weak point. Although Whedon handles each action sequence with a deft touch, although he spikes each intriguing character with great lines and exemplary showcases of their abilities, he cannot escape the movie’s inherent predictability, a formula followed by far too many superhero movies, including its predecessors. On the other hand, Whedon, gets such good performances from his actors, and has so much fun allowing these characters to interact, that it hardly matters. Downey may be the most dynamic of the leads, but each actor gets enough time in the spotlight that nobody seems to cast a shadow.
Even better, Whedon ensures that the Avengers do what they’re best at, from Captain America’s spur-of-the-moment strategizing (culminating in a New York under siege when he turns to a transformed Banner and says, “Hulk? Smash.”) to Barton’s sending arrows exactly where they need to go to Hulk, finally, getting to act like the Hulk, something that eluded him in his two previous efforts.
Most of all, though, Marvel’s The Avengers, lives up to the promise of what comic book movies can be, and for the first time, truly feels as if it brings sequential art to life. It never tries to reinvent the comic book movie, but understands the difference between comics and movies, and thus becomes, perhaps, the most engaging, satisfying superhero movie in a long time.