Since the first screening occurred, word hit the Internet that Marvel Studio’s epic The Avengers is one hell of a superhero romp and I am absolutely thrilled to be able to tell you fine folks that the early hype is justified. When the fledging comic book movie factory announced plans to unleash for a five-movie odyssey climaxing with this iconic mash-up, it was met with a healthy amount of fanboy skepticism. After all, countless comic book movies have been ruined by an excessive cast of costumed characters and making that the climatic goal of the company’s post-Iron Man superhero onslaught seemed like a disaster waiting to happen. Well people, they did it. With a feature length introduction to each character already in the books, this sucker hits the ground running and with self-confessed uber geek Joss Whedon (Buffy, Firefly, Cabin In The Woods, etc) calling the shots, it’s dripping with fan service. Despite a hefty running time, this movie races by at a breakneck pace sure to keep even the most ADD-afflicted or drug-addled attention spans entertained.
The film opens with Tom Hiddleston’s Loki returning to his villainous role in Thor to use that mysterious cube featured in Captain America to bring a vicious alien race to earth and take over the planet. Unfortunately he forgot about one thing, Samuel L. Jackson plays perpetual badass Nick Fury in this universe and he isn’t going to let any demigod walk in and fuck up his planet. In fact, the guy has been preparing for such an event with his long discussed “Avengers Initiative.” So he gathers the crew, starting with Scarlett Johansson’s superspy Black Widow and her arrow-slinging partner Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) who are already kicking ass in special ops for SHIELD. They set out to bring in that wisecracking billionaire Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., obviously) and talk their formerly frozen hero Captain America (Chris Evans) into leading the crew. Then they have to go grab hiding super-scientist Bruce Banner for both his Gamma Ray expertise and that giant green monster he turns into from time to time. Of course, Thor isn’t just going to stand by with his brother causing mischief and Fury still has Agent Coulson (the hilarious scene-stealer Clark Gregg) on staff as well as a new sexy SHIELD ass kicker in Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders). So the team comes together, but like any good family they’re relationships are founded in bickering and infighting (which given their superpowers and all, leads to some fine set pieces). But, I’ve got a feeling these guys will learn to get along and come together eventually for a 30 minute New York cluster fuck of a battle that could be the finest big screen spectacle of this summer.
What’s most impressive about The Avengers (well, beyond the obscene levels of entertainment value) is just how well Joss Whedon manages to juggle his ensemble cast. Any one of these heroes can and have starred in their own movie and they all need screen time. Miraculously, Whedon finds at least one big scene for everyone and no character is short changed. Downey gets to swagger through some of the sarcastic magic that made Iron Man such a hit, Evans brings his movie serial hero into the present day comfortably, Hemsworth gets to work his hammer and old-timey English with ease, Hiddleston rocks an evil grin to perfection and possibly grows into being the finest Marvel villain so far, Johansson and Hill get to do the badass heroine thing that Whedon loves so dearly, Gregg contributes his usual scene-stealing hilarity (a running gag involving his vintage Captain America cards is a particular highlight), and Sam Jackson gets to be Sam Jackson…with an eye patch. Of course I’m forgetting someone, Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk. The big green guy has already stared in two movies and no one seemed to get the character right until now. The indie movie veteran creates a pained and deceptively quiet Banner who has learned to control his internal monster through being mellow. It’s an intriguingly warm and funny take on the character that instantly erases Eric Bana and Edward Norton’s work to make Banner Ruffalo’s creation. Then when he cuts loose in motion capture as the Hulk, it’s a joy to watch the destruction unfold. The Hulk almost steals away the movie and hopefully he’ll be making many more appearances in the Marvel movies to come.
With at least one movie of set up behind each of the characters, there’s a wonderful audience investment in place that Whedon capitalizes on. Each one of these guys and gals is a joy to watch and they way he pairs them up and has them clash heads n’ egos is endlessly entertaining. A TV background schooled Whedon in ensemble storytelling and all the lessons pay off here. Thankfully Whedon also ditches his usual meta tone in favor of straight up superhero shinanegins, but his sense of humor is never lost. That’s a wonderful thing because The Avengers is surprisingly hilarious from start to finish. The integrity of the characters and world is never undermined by irony, but Whedon knows he’s making goofy fluff and wisely embraces it rather than trying to shoehorn in unnecessary brooding or subtext. There are intellectually compelling things to be done with all of these characters, but there’s no time for that in a movie featuring all of them. So Whedon simply lets the iconic characters shine, whips up some incredible action, and glues it all together with a gently comedic tone.
I know that sounds simple, but so many movies of this scale end up over ambitious and dull. To be able to weave rollercoaster plotting, character beats, show-stopping action, and comedy together in a single tapestry is a difficult task and it’s a testament to what Whedon achieved that you won’t ever notice his guiding hand. Like any good superhero yarn, the film is pure entertainment from start to finish. The plot is merely functional, but Whedon knows that action is only truly impactful with proper audience investment in the characters and earns that with dysfunctional family interactions just as pleasing as the explosions. When the final battle arrives, it’s a climax for the ages. Everyone shows off their skills and New York is laid to waste amongst an epic battle royale. Sure, the whole venture is essentially meaningless beyond pulpy fun and it is a bit long (though personally I was enjoying it so much that I only wanted more), but isn’t that the point of summer popcorn movies? In the realm of blockbusters, it simply doesn’t get much more crowd-pleasing than this and both Marvel and Whedon should be proud of their achievement. All of that groundwork that derailed Iron Man 2 was worth it after all. The Avengers just might be the climax of the entire Marvel series thus far and what a payoff it is. Of course, the sequels will keep coming and now that the figureheads of the crisscrossing universe are established and all the stars are inked to multi-film deals, lets hope that these heroes will keep popping in and out of each other’s movies. There’s quite a team in place to do it and even though The Avengers is going to be one hell of a tough act for Marvel to follow, I can’t wait to see them try.