Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson
(Walt Disney Pictures; US theatrical: 4 May 2012; 2012)
When you consider what he had to work with, when you realize that a similar task practically drove Mad Max‘s George Miller away from live action filmmaking for a time, you can understand the pure magic created by writer/director Joss Whedon for his take on Marvel’s The Avengers. Indeed, jerryrigging a Justice League movie for DC turned many an accomplished filmmaker into jelly. So imagine having to take six origin films of varying success rates, a group of characters already established and yet begging to be broadened, and a legion of lifelong comic book fan expectations, and somehow make them all gel, and you’ve got some idea of the undertaking. One slip up, and all was lost. If it worked, however, it could become one of the greatest superhero comic book movie of all time…and that’s just what Whedon has created.
The story centers on Loki (Tom Hiddleston) adopted brother of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and last seen banished for his role in the potential overthrow of the cosmic kingdom of Asgard. Desperate for the power source known as “The Tesseract,” he opens a portal to Earth and begins amassing an army, including scientist Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and master archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). This draws the attention of team leader Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) who sends out his ace spy assassin Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) to find Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), aka The Hulk. In the meantime, Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is plotting the future of his empire with gal pal Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) while Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans) is waiting for that elusive first mission. It all comes together when Loki achieves his goals and unleashes a full scale alien invasion on New York City.
It’s loud. It’s long. And it’s unlike any of the movies made for Marvel in the last decade or so. Like the finest filter of fun and speculative fiction, Whedon manages to capture everything that made/makes a potential Avengers’ film such a must-see treat. It’s got action, complexity, and humor. It treats the characters with both reverence and revisionism, allowing them emotional depth and psychological motivation. No one is left out. No one feels underserved. Even the so-called ancillary characters - Black Widow and Hawkeye - became important components in the plot, their past and present (she’s helping to assemble, he’s been…‘compromised’) driving the narrative forward. Since the other four main members have all had individual showcases, Whedon assumes we know their potential. He then plays them off each other in ways that make the final grouping awe inspiring.
Indeed, this is a layered revelation, an experience that builds on itself creating moments that mean little at the time, but payoff in spectacle once the extraterrestrial spit hits the fan. Yes, this is yet another example of the third rock from the Sun being manipulated and trounced upon by others in the galaxy, but the message Whedon works within (we need The Avengers now that we’ve discovered we’re not alone) provides more than ample reason to reinvest. In fact, this may be the best example of using the otherwise stereotypical plot device. The invaders are tough, provide ample artillery to keep our heroes busy, and offer that rarity among similarly styled films - the possibility of ultimate success. By remembering that small situations can explode into something epic, Whedon walks a fine line between individual and iconography, and makes it all the way to the top.
The cast has never been better, each (aside from Ruffalo) having already worn these particular party suits. While some think Downey overruns the storyline, the truth is that Tony Stark is that kind of man - charismatic and calculated, incapable of blending into the background. Similarly, Thor is not happy about being back on Earth (especially in light of the battle ahead) and Hemsworth looks it. Evans delivers his lines with the kind of military finesse we expect from a super solider, while Johansson and Renner are excellent as two sides of the same human coin. As for Loki, Hiddleston is the kind of actor who understands how to balance nastiness with nuttiness. This villain is both. That just leaves our new Bruce Banner, and Ruffalo is sensational. He comes across as someone constantly battling an insane inner demon, and when the creature is finally unleashed, we witness the true rebirth of the Hulk.
Indeed, the less than jolly green giant steals the show, delivering on the promise two previous filmmakers just couldn’t find. It makes no sense once you see what Whedon manages, but he also has the benefit of doing away with the tired origins of the character. Apparently, zapping Dr. Bruce Banner with gamma radiation was a bit too sci-fi for the other directors. Instead, they had to find a dysfunctional childhood (Ang Lee) or a personal crusade for a cure (Louis Leterrier) to take up most of the time. Here, Banner is the perfect sideman, eager to help but not necessarily lead - and when the aliens attack, his worth is showcases in several spectacular sequences (one in particular will have you cheering…while you clutch your sides with laughter).
Yes, Marvel’s The Avengers is a very funny film. It needs to be, considering the out of this world premise. Indeed, what many movie buffs don’t realize is that humor, because of its personal nature and reaction, grounds things. Even the goofiest or most outlandish concept can be properly positioned via laughter. Here, Whedon works in enough jokes to remind us that we’re watching something outsized and ridiculous - the coming together of physically amplified individuals - and then allows the wit to hang around. The results make for an amazing entertainment, an experience that rivals the original blockbusters that established the Summer season in the first place. It may not meet every requirement of the die-hard faithful and may leave a few unprepared members of the audience unmoved. But for the most part, Marvel’s The Avengers is a minor masterwork. Considering what Joss Whedon had to work with, however, it’s a miracle as well.