In a word, The Avengers is a Marvel.
When I was a kid, comic books literally defined my life. Back then, Thursdays were new comic days if you lived near a shop, which I didn’t and had to trek five miles each week, or I’d have to wait to hit the spinner racks at my local drug store to get my monthly adventures of Thor, Batman, Superman, The Uncanny X-Men, and The Avengers. And each week, I would devour these stories, reading and re-reading each issue, and then I’d study the art, panel-by-panel, page-by-page.
Afterwards, my friends and I would sit around the playground at school, or at the lunch table, and we’d debate who was better, Superman or Spider-Man (Superman, seriously), who would win in a fight between Wolverine and Batman (Wolverine, sorry folks), and we would always dream of the holy grail of all comic book fans: The Avengers movie!
Who would be on the team? Who would be cast in the iconic roles? Who had the gumption to write and/or direct a movie of such geek magnitude that old men would have heart attacks and our young minds would literally be blown out of our skulls by the majesty of such a film? It was, as we thought back then, unfilmable. It was a project that could never work in an ego driven business like Hollywood. As I said, it was the impossible dream.
But that began to change in 2008. Marvel, who had created a string of decent comic-based films starting with Blade in 1998, had begun to shift its sights on its remaining A-list properties. Fox had the X-Men and Fantastic Four all tied up, and Sony had Spider-Man, but Marvel had everything else. And When Jon Favreau proved to everyone that people would care about a narcissistic playboy character like Iron Man, the Avengers Initiative was born.
What followed was a systematic rollout of key component character films, including a second Iron Man movie, this one introducing the Black Widow character, and then later Thor, The Norse God of Thunder, and Captain America, The Greatest American Soldier. Each film ended with a “stinger,” or after-credits scene that alluded to a much longer work in progress. The rumblings of the unfilmable dream project were there, and all they needed was a perfect writer/director to pull it all together.
That person was Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Dollhouse).
And now, after all these years (I still can’t believe I’m typing this) The Avengers movie is here, and I am happy to announce that Whedon and Marvel pulled it off. Masterfully.
The story begins with Loki (Tom Hiddleston), last seen falling into the Asgardian Abyss from the shattered Bifrost, in last summer’s Thor, arriving back on earth with a malicious goal to dominate Earth and her people. And Loki, always one to be a step ahead of everyone else, brought along an alien army to aid him in his task.
This forces Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) of S.H.I.E.L.D. to call in each of the “component” characters that he and Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) have been collecting in each of the solo Marvel films. Desperately, Fury needs each of the heroes to work as a team or the earth itself could be destroyed.
The story itself is that simple, the movie is not.
The Avengers not only reintroduces Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), but also Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Bruce Banner (now played by Mark Ruffalo) and introduces Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). These six characters intermingle and clash, and that is where the grand beauty of the film begins to shine.
Whedon is able to create a dynamic that reflects the flaws of these characters. They aren’t heroes because they wear armor, or were injected with a super soldier serum, or come from realm of Gods, or were blasted with gamma radiation. These characters have to get past their fears and insecurities, and distrust of each other and come together to fight a common enemy. Only then can they truly be heroes.
Now, don’t get me wrong, it is a nerdgasmic blast seeing the team’s infighting (Hulk vs. Thor is incredible, the philosophical discussion between Cap and Tony is inspiring, Banner’s sheer distrust of everybody is spot on) and Stark’s machine gun-like quips and comments are equal parts insults and observations and are all chuckle-worthy. It is here where Whedon does what he does best.
The best part of the Avengers is this series of “growing pains,” which, of course, pays off when the going gets tough. Watching these characters finally come together and congeal into a solid unit is awesome. As Tony Stark says to Loki late in the film, “We may not save the Earth, but we’ll sure as hell avenge it.” By that point, even Tony has realized what the team means and why it even exists.
I could literally go on and on breaking down the dynamics of the team, and how each character grows throughout the movie, but really, doing so would spoil a lot of the fun.
The performances in The Avengers are incredible. Robert Downey Jr. continues to channel Tony Stark like normal people wear clothes, Chris Evans continues to surprise as Steve Rogers/Captain America, and Chris Hemsworth IS Thor (and this is coming from a tried and true, lifelong Thor fan). The only character that doesn’t seem to flesh out completely is Renner’s Hawkeye, but in all fairness he also didn’t have his own movie to establish himself. At least Black Widow had an important role in Iron Man 2, whereas Clint Barton only had a cameo in Thor. And Johansson’s Black Widow, having more time to grow on screen this time out, turns out to have some substance behind her fiery red hair and skin-tight leather outfit. Even S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Coulson has an interesting arc regarding his boyish admiration in meeting his idol, Captain America.
The true standout in the film is easily Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner. From the early trailers and commercials, Ruffalo came across as a man out of place. An actor hired late in the game to replace another actor (Edward Norton). But really, those commercials were badly edited, because Ruffalo’s Banner is the living embodiment of the character. Finally, after three attempts, SOMEBODY got it right (with all due respect to Norton, and Eric Bana, who played Banner in Ang Lee’s Hulk). Ruffalo conveys Banner’s distrust, all while using his brain to help the team at first, and later “the other guy” (as he likes to say) to act as the team’s muscle. By the end, Hulk becomes a well-rounded character that the team knows they can count on. Yes, the CGI Hulk actually matters as a character. I’m just as shocked as anybody.
On the technical side, the film looks great. I was especially pleased with the editing (both between scenes and during the intense action) and the sound effects. When the film begins to head toward its climax, and the invasion of earth begins, the special effects go up a few notches and the action becomes in your face. In fact, I’ll go ahead and say it; The Avengers packs enough stunning eye candy to back up the stellar writing, characterization, and performances.
Speaking of, while not shot in native 3D, the transfer looks good, especially during the invasion scenes.
The magnitude of the on-screen destruction of Manhattan during the climax is awe-inspiring, and there is actually some doubt if the team can actually pull it off. And that is where Whedon punctuates the entire affair. He takes these six people who individually are larger than life, and then humanizes them. One look into Cap’s eyes near the end tells you that even he is unsure of success, and the audience feels his doubt. It’s at that point where the film ascends to a level not seen before in a comic book movie. And it is pure magic.
There is enough going on to please the lifelong comic book fans and new fans alike. I could literally dissect every aspect of this film (as I said earlier, I’ve waited most of my life for this movie, and I tend to ramble), but instead I’ll just tell you to go see it. See it in 3D, in 2D, see it three times opening weekend, and another two times during the week, because if you are reading this review, you care enough about the subject matter. And I will tell you this: The Avengers is the best superhero movie ever created. That’s not hyperbole; that is straight up fact. I actually clapped loudly and I “wooo’d” in the theater. Yes, I “wooo’d.” Like I was at a rock concert, or a sporting event. The Avengers is that damn good.
It is simply without peer, and the bar has now been set so high by Marvel, and Whedon, and the cast, that I thought, as the credits began, that it might never be touched.
And then I watched the mid-credits extra scene…But that, my friends, is a conversation for another day.
The Avengers is rated PG-13 and opens in theaters everywhere on May 4.