|Marvel's THE AVENGERS
||Review by Scott Weitz
||May 2, 2012
Plainly and simply: Marvel's THE AVENGERS is epic in scale and enjoyment like you've never seen before. It's a rare film that is so supersized yet leaves you wanting more, and writer/director Joss Whedon achieves the seemingly impossible with style and a big smile. Make that an unabashed geeky grin which you'll be wearing happily on your way out of the theater this weekend. By all standards, THE AVENGERS should be too much of a good thing, at least one superhero too many crowding the screen in a sprawling tale spanning the galaxy. Whedon has another plan, though, skillfully doling out just the right portions of character conflict, weapon-clanging action and wry humor to satisfy audience appetite without exceeding it. He pulls off this feat time and again for nearly two-and-a-half hours with only minor missteps, yielding a major triumph for Marvel Studios' biggest, Hulkiest gamble ever. For the next couple weeks, expect to wait in box office lines behind people seeing it for a second time.
Brilliantly and boldly, Marvel Studios has set up this perfect storm of franchise tent poles that not even Thor's mighty hammer Mjolnir could summon from the skies: two IRON MAN blockbusters (via the irrepressible Robert Downey Jr.) laid the rails for THOR (Chris Hemsworth) and CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (Chris Evans) to steam ahead on their own stand-alone franchise tracks. Bruce Banner a.k.a. the Hulk hasn't proven so fortunate (until now) with a pair of middling installments in the past. Ang Lee's stumbling attempt starring Eric Bana in 2003 disappointed out of the gate, while Louis Leterrier's 2008 reboot starring Edward Norton fared marginally better but captured only fleeting moments of Marvel Studios' hit film philosophy of today. With such misfires forgiven and forgotten, Marvel and Whedon have literally pulled out all the stops, not only daring to assemble their biggest three franchises and characters but adding new heroes, villains and S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel as icing on top of the icing on the cake. This film isn't a roll of the dice, it's a stampede of them and the payoff will be astounding to say the least. Beware Batman, the dreaded Bane may not be your fiercest competition this summer. THE AVENGERS have staked their box office claim early and with six-sided authority!
Despite the film's epic scale and ambition, the story at its heart remains deceptively, delightfully simple: as S.H.I.E.L.D. guards (and studies) the Tesseract — an arcane cube of self-sustaining and limitless power — torn from Thor's galactic realm of demigods, Thor's banished bad guy brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) uses its power signal to open a portal back to Earth and resume his quest to conquer humanity. Thor has not finished paying for his previous sins of pride, and his errant attempt to be King-worthy haunts him still. Once Loki runs off with the galaxy's most treasured cubic zirconium, the larger than life game of demigods and superhuman egos is set into motion.
As the eye-patched enforcer of S.H.I.E.L.D. and field general to a secret council pulling the larger strings globally, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, imposingly cool as ever) must assemble these disparate superheroes and soldiers to resurrect the Avengers Initiative in time to save Earth from destruction. His first call to action rings the phone of Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Black Widow, last seen in the guise of gorgeous Scarlett Johansson from IRON MAN 2. Natasha's introduction here as a tables-turned interrogator of some woefully unprepared captors is an early gem in the film, re-establishing her character in a flip-kick while sparking off an important relationship link to Bruce Banner (simmering and sympathetic Mark Ruffalo) that becomes an important story spine. This scenario perfectly illustrates how Whedon deftly plays tri-level chess throughout the film: one moment never operates on merely one plane of storytelling, but rather builds ladders and fires ziplines to other planes in the plot which are explored and cashed in with gleeful surprise or satisfaction at just the right time.
Perhaps Whedon's greatest trick was to realize that superheroes pack superegos along with their superpowers, which makes THE AVENGERS not as much of an assembly as it is a glorious six-way collision. Collecting the Avengers personnel is one challenge, but corralling their egos long enough to accomplish this desperate mission proves just as hard a task as defeating Loki's invading army of space soldiers. This is where Whedon's genius gift for mixing and mismatching characters, born from his years heading complex TV story lines, pays off in jackpot quantities for the film. Wisely, Whedon realized that mashing up the worlds of Tony Stark, Thor, Steve Rogers and Bruce Banner may be a great idea in a Marvel comic, but locking them all together in the same movie could easily spell disaster on the grandest of Hollywood scales. Mistakenly treat these cultural icons as empty costumes and the film would crash and burn in IMAX with the digital amp turned up to 11.
Rather than flee from this Marvel-ous challenge or give in to its inevitability for franchise sake, Whedon embraces the potential for disaster and makes his superheroes fight through their own disaster, against each other if necessary. When Thor and Iron Man clash in forest battle of wills, the armor-crushing clangs and plasma fireballs produced pale in comparison to their duel of egos and wits. When Captain America bounds in to triple the stakes of this fight, he not only asserts himself in the pecking order of Avengers but makes yet another salient story point at the same time. Like a sublime layer cake, Whedon feeds his audience one delicious morsel at a time with just a hint of the next strata of goodness to follow. Never allowing us to wolf down the entire dessert in one gluttonous bite, THE AVENGERS becomes a multi-course meal that's both sweet and savory, with just enough salty humor to make the entire feast a joy.
In their return performances, Downey, Evans, Hemsworth, Johansson and Jackson add depth and delight to their respective characters without a drop off in quality from the bunch. Mark Ruffalo had perhaps the toughest assignment joining THE AVENGERS, since he had to compete with (if not overcome) to previous interpretations of Dr. Bruce Banner and still re-re-introduce the very same character. He got massive help from how Whedon drew Banner as a vulnerable recluse from the world, attempting to control his inner Hulk-producing rage if not actually making peace with it. A brilliant scene pits Tony Stark against Banner while the two are charged with tracking the stolen Tesseract: while similar in their scientific genius, Stark and Banner prove polar opposites in nearly every other aspect of their personalities. Yet Whedon exposes a deep core of alienation in both men which ultimately unites them as allies, troubled though their partnership may be. FilmEdge credits Ruffalo for creating the first big screen version of Banner/Hulk that we've liked, and his work could pay off well for the character and Marvel's ever-growing stable of superheroes in the future. It certainly gives THE AVENGERS a heart that would otherwise be diminished without Ruffalo's twitchy, demon-battling take on bedeviled Bruce Banner.
While Jeremy Renner had precious little to do in his THOR cameo appearance introducing S.H.I.E.L.D.'s archer assassin Clint Barton (that's Hawkeye to comic fans), he doesn't get much more opportunity to expand upon his role, given a plot point that deliberately prevents him from doing so until late in the film. Suffice it to say there is more Marvel gold to be mined from Hawkeye in future films, and Renner is easily up to the task . . . that is, assuming he can find the time between his work extending the BOURNE spy-thriller franchise and possibly picking up where Tom Cruise leaves off in the MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE series. Clark Gregg's reprise of his stalwart, comically stoic Agent Phil Coulson is an AVENGERS highlight, which says a great deal about the actor given his superstar competition in the film. Stellan Skarsgärd returns as brilliant (and targeted) astrophysicist Erik Selvig, though he's more of a plot point functionary here than he was in THOR. Cobie Smulders delivers a nice introduction to S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill, though her character's capacity is a but stunted compared to her role in the Marvel print universe which nearly competes with Nick Fury himself. IRON MAN veterans Gwyneth Paltrow and Paul Bettany also add their characters and talents to the mix, making THE AVENGERS' canvas seem to stretch ever-wider in this panoramic tale. Audiences can't argue they don't get enough star power for their buck in buying a ticket come May 4th!
This review refuses to spoil the story because it's too much fun to experience, and that experiential take on THE AVENGERS heralds its greatest triumph. Yes, it's a summer popcorn movie on supersteroids and all that implies for light-hearted action flick fun, but Whedon never lets his film settle for that low-end goal. Because his heroes must fight to become a team before they even consider saving the world, Whedon makes the audience work with them simultaneously. Uniting six superheroes isn't the hardest math problem in the universe, but Joss isn't satisfied letting you sit there like a soda-fueled lump while two hours of CGI batter your eyes in and brains out. His script, reworked and enhanced from writer Zak Penn's early attempt at hammering out the complex story, propels you through these titanic events as much as it entices you forward to greet them when you're ready. THE AVENGERS does not exist to overwhelm your senses into a 3D IMAX stupor, but instead is crafted to engage and energize them while almost always giving you an unexpected bonus reward for your participation.
Still THE AVENGERS has its flaws and drawbacks, but more often they arise from slight overindulgence in an ambitious quest for more instead of a shallow settling for less. The finale battle with Loki and his intergalactic army which reduces several sections of Manhattan to rubble feels like it goes on a bit too long. Could the sequence have had the same visual and dramatic impact with ten fewer shots of the space soldiers zooming around New York in a barrage of energy beam destruction? Yes, but one could also argue that Whedon deliberately attempted to overwhelm at these moments to impress upon audiences how overmatched the Avengers seem to be in this battle — which is actually an important point when your story has six superheroes with megapowers fighting to save the world. You can't make it too easy for them or their struggles mean nothing to the audience, and indeed the Avengers team pays a sobering price in this war.
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Another minor fault is the post-production conversion of THE AVENGERS to 3D, which shows its flaws in several scenes that would not have betrayed themselves had Whedon shot the film with 3D cameras. It ends up a minor quibble, especially when one considers how expensive this epic was to produce in just 2D, and the abundant visual effects throughout the film are often dazzling. FilmEdge's recommendation is to see THE AVENGERS twice (and you'll have to just to absorb and appreciate it all); first in 3D to revel in its splendor and bravado, then again in 2D to enjoy its finer points and to hear many of the dialog lines you'll miss the first time due to laughs drowning them out. I'll have to go back a third time to perhaps finally hear a punchline Hulk delivers at a key and hilarious moment.
One could easily argue that Marvel's THE AVENGERS attains new heights of splendor and sheer enjoyment in the crowded superhero genre, and Joss Whedon gives one plenty of ammunition to make that claim with confidence. Whedon has made a Marvel film as soaring and fun to watch as his counterpart Christopher Nolan has made DC Comics films so serious and solidly told in his BATMAN/DARK KNIGHT trilogy, due to conclude later this summer. Yet their separate approaches may have more in common with successful results than they do in different methods of story craft. Our baseline conclusion for now is that THE AVENGERS is easily, surprisingly the best Marvel Studios film to date and that subsequent IRON MAN, THOR and CAPTAIN AMERICA sequels have stout challenges ahead to reach the bar Whedon has now set so high.
THE AVENGERS is unabashed moviegoing joy that engages your senses as much as your sensibility, which already makes it a cinematic rarity among superhero films. Joss Whedon need not rely on hype to sell tickets starting May 4th, because he has delivered the goods and then some with this towering, quick-witted winner. Prepare for box office dominance next weekend and beyond: THE AVENGERS is the first and perhaps biggest must-see movie event of this summer!