The Avengers (2012)

L-R: Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Not pictured: no one who matters.

Directed by Joss Whedon. Screenplay by Joss Whedon; screen story by Zak Penn, Joss Whedon; based upon characters created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby and published by Marvel Comics. Produced by Kevin Feige. Music by Alan Silvestri. Photographed by Seamus McGarvey. Edited by Jeffrey Ford, Lisa Lassek. Production designed by James Chinlund. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson, Gwyneth Paltrow.

The Avengers is The Dirty Dozen of superhero movies. Like The Dirty Dozen, The Avengers is a war film about a team of misfits brought together to form something grand, all of them selected, essentially, because they are all movie stars. Instead of Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, however, The Avengers brings us Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and a handful of peers. True, they don’t add up to a dozen, but when you figure that most of them have secondary personalities, the math is agreeable.

The Avengers is also a trial by fire for geek titan Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and the joy of many), who wrote and directed. And it is the culmination of a concerted effort by Marvel Studios to interconnect their various filmic properties. It’s the payoff to four years of Marvel comic book movies (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger) teasing something bigger; something huge. So now here it is: that huge thing. It’s big. It’s gigantic. And it is, quite frankly, one of the single best comic book films I have ever seen.

I don’t say that lightly. Throughout the years, I’ve seen numerous comic book films and liked-to-loved many of them. But The Avengers vaults to the top of whatever list you could compile that ranks superlative funnybook epics. It sits in well alongside Iron Man, Spider-Man 2, Superman and even (although it’s a film with quite different aims) The Dark Knight. It’s a generous and stylish picture that, if it doesn’t transcend its genre, honors it to such a giddy degree usually restricted to movie fans. If you’ve ever read a great comic book and have longed for a movie to fully capture its exhilarating mix of character interaction and splash-page ambitious mayhem, then stop reading right now. Go to the movie-ticket ordering kiosk of your choice, and say “One for The Avengers, please.” This movie is for you. GO NOW.

Here’s our roster of heroes. You have Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), also known as Tony Stark, millionaire technological super-genius. And Captain America/Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans), supersoldier relic of WWII whose still full of p & v (long story). And there’s Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Norse thunder God and alien from the planet Asgard. You have Bruce “The Incredible Hulk” Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who you wouldn’t like to see angry, unless you like to see The Hulk, and we do. And there’s the athletic assassin Natasha Romanov/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who is romantically paired with Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), the tricks-up-his-sleeve-and-then-some archer. Rounding out the team is Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who is mainly a mentor but sure packs a mean bazooka. Most of these characters have appeared in their own films, the rest in guest spots within that set. Unaccounted for are Marvel stablemates Spider-Man and The X-Men, due to legal woes with competing studios. But the core gang is all here.

What on Earth…strike that. What at all could possibly compel these guys to join forces? How about an intergalactic army bent on a full-scale invasion, led by the treacherous Loki (Tom Hiddleston)? Yeah, that’ll do. In a decent-if-unassuming prologue, Loki, last seen floating in space at the conclusion of last summer’s Thor, arrives at a deep underground facility that is home to S.H.I.E.L.D, super-secret government agency that is sympathetic to superheroes. Loki emerges from a glowing space portal powered by what’s called The Tesseract, last seen being coveted by a red-faced Nazi in Captain America: The First Avenger. Important tip: don’t trust beings that emerge from energy portals powered by objects desired by red-faced Nazis. Just don’t do it. An ensuing catastrophe leads Nick Fury to make the ultimate call: assemble The Avengers. And wouldn’t you know it, that’s when The Avengers truly begins to take its own wonderful shape.

We meet the would-be Avengers right where we left them in their respective movies. Tony Stark is furthering his empire and having a little time alone with now-girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Captain America is still reacclimating to society after having been in suspended animation for seventy years. The Hulk is still laying low in a foreign country. Thor…well, he remains offstage, prudently waiting for a thunderstorm to make his grand re-entrance. Following the group’s apprehending of Loki, Thor kidnaps their prisoner (the two are brothers, after all). This leads to a rock-em, sock-em forest battle between Iron Man, Cap and Thor, while meanwhile Bruce Banner smiles like a good schoolboy who really longs for the day that he can go bad.

Things barely improve when Loki is brought aboard Nick Fury’s airship/military base/aircraft carrier/submarine (trust me, it’s cool). Loki stalks in his cell and plants a seed of mistrust that finds plenty of soil to take root. After all, Tony Stark is an egomaniac, Captain America a square-jawed boy scout, and Thor has a bit of a temper, which pales only in comparison to…well, The Hulk. Here is where Whedon’s gifts as a screenwriter truly show themselves, because while the first act of The Avengers is fun but simple, in the second act it transforms into a wickedly perceptive locked-room dramedy: Long Day’s Journey Into Night reimagined as a graphic novel. And here he cannily uses the same skill he used on television to believably pit people we equally like against each other. Marvel’s strategy to establish these characters in individual films and then draw them together into conflict was, turns out, precisely right.

Whedon is sometimes criticized for writing all his characters the same. I fear such complaints will hit The Avengers, but they’re dead wrong. He has fun with Tony Stark (he and Robert Downey Jr. are a match made in heaven), but he gives all the characters distinctive voices. He keeps Thor’s tendency to burst into iambic pentameter. Straight-laced Steve Rodgers is a straight man, but never ever the butt of a joke. Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner is compelling, mumbly and shy. Black Widow has a knack for tricking people into thinking she’s weak (not in the way you might expect). The only one underutilized is Renner’s Hawkeye (a function of the plot), but Whedon is careful to at least give the man a reserve of private moments. And then there is Loki, who at one point lashes out at Black Widow and dubs her a “mewling quim.” You don’t hear that every day. (Also: look it up.)

Yet, that’s avoiding the real asset here: the reason why many (myself included) love Whedon as a storyteller is because his fundamentals are strong: character development, plot, theme. Most filmmakers can’t be bothered with servicing one character within their action movie, but in The Avengers Whedon has to juggle half a dozen, giving them all equal power, and not tilting the film too hard in one direction: if The Avengers became Tony Stark and Friends, there’d be a riot. That Whedon keeps all these plates spinning so well is a minor miracle; the fact that he then ties it to a plot that matters and keeps the action sequences in proper proportion is even moreso. Not only does Whedon succeed in retaining this franchise’s disparate voices for its characters, he even reformats its weakest links into strong ones (Black Widow benefits greatly from the rewritten sensibility that noted feminist Whedon brings to her). Whedon is also clearly passionate about the material, in a way that does him proud.

But what is most surprising about Whedon’s work here is that as the director of a $200 million dollar effects-laden fantasy epic, he acquits himself with shocking aplomb. Whedon has directed dozens of ambitious hours of TV and a feature (the Firefly sequel Serenity), and yet this, I’d argue, is his first movie. It starts a little pedestrian with standard James Bond-style visual ticks, and then expands along with its cast into a determined action-adventure film with scope and weight. Even when it barrels into CGI-driven sequences (intercutting between Loki’s escape, Iron Man and Cap’s attempts to repair their attacked ship and an unfortunate run in with The Hulk, for example), Whedon delivers them with epic style.

I’m not spoiling anything if I suggest that the Avengers, do, ultimately, come together, right? That they marshall their forces and prepare for a battle royale against Loki and his army? That they sweep aside their differences and become the kick-ass team that they were destined to be? Of course not. It’s the journey that matters, not the destination. This is off-the-shelf stuff to be sure. But it’s built up to with such genuine skill that damn it, we’re swayed all the same. Captain learns to be less naïve, Thor gets schooled in family matters, Hulk manages some anger (or at least finds a healthy outlet), and Tony Stark discovers that maybe he can be just a little selfless. Simplistic, yes, but we don’t read comic books for depth. We read them for reaffirmations of archetypes, told with new words that make them feel fresh.

And then. Oh, and then. I shan’t really spoil too hard the third act of The Avengers, except to say that it bears a remarkable similarity to another alien-invasion movie that came out last year. No matter. Whedon, a craftsman even at his new trade, makes the Michael Bays of the world look demonstrably pathetic with his impressively-mounted and insanely complex  action climax set in the heart of Manhattan, as aliens scream out of a dimensional portal and Loki struts his stuff, and the Avengers peel off for individual battles: on the street, on a skyrise rooftop, in the air, through buildings, into outer space. Everything. It’s the most assured leap of a newcomer into epic Hollywood filmmaking since Peter Jackson with Lord of the Rings.

If you remember the mind-bogglingly complicated top-this-no-top-this-now-top-this-dear-God-this-is-still-going ending of James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, you have an idea of the level of creative aggression to expect in The Avengers’ grand finale. You know that shot in all the ads, where the camera swoops around the group as they form a tight circle? That’s not even the best or coolest shot in the sequence. Swear to God. You’ll know which one it is. And yet, at no point does Whedon lose it all to chaos: he focuses on the characters throughout—the crowd-pleasing moments extend from the writing, they’re not engineered by it. It all could have been trimmed, perhaps a little, but by the time The Avengers comes to a halt, we’re pretty much too wrung out—in the best way—to quibble too much.

The actors are pretty much across-the-board terrific. Downey comes on screen already owning the Iron Man character; he needs no further praise from me. What’s surprising is how well he does working with others this time around, and how easily the others match his level. Evans shows the same charisma he displayed in last year’s Captain America, as does Hemsworth from Thor. Hiddleston, now shuttled into a more eye-catching leading villain role, is a worthy adversary, and he does a smart thing in keeping his performance the right mix of light and dark: wryly vinctive, you might say. But the film’s MVP is most assuredly Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, who together with the CGI creates the very best Hulk seen yet on film. And the two performances are perfectly in sync, for once: Ruffalo steals scenes as Banner, and the CGI Hulk frequently does the same when the comic-book action hits the fan.

Marvel’s experiment to release five movies that came to pay off in one super-movie was a gutsy play. It must have been trying. Was it worth it? Four years build-up to this? I can answer without hesitation. Yes. A thousand times yes. The Avengers is not just terrific entertainment, but it’s perfect. Not a perfect movie per se, but a perfect summer movie: joyful, inventive, fun and wonderfully energetic. As a superhero pic, it’s tremendous, and best of all has an enormously broad appeal, even to those who would never ever touch a comic book. You’ve got to hand it to Joss Whedon. At the end of the day, he makes being a geek feel…well, just plain super.

GRADE: A

NOTES: There are two end-credits surprises. The first guarantees an Avengers 2. The second…you must wait till the very end to see. Yes, it is worth it. Also, keep your eyes peeled for one or two cameos.

Who gets the funniest line? I expect much debate about this. For my money, it’s…surprisingly…Agent Phil Coulson. Yes, his name is Phil.

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