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The Avengers (2012)

DIRECTOR: Joss Whedon

CAST:

Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Gwyneth Paltrow, Stellan Skarsgard

REVIEW:

I don’t think there’s ever been a movie with as much set-up as The Avengers, for which Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America all, to greater or lesser extents, served as prologue.  It was a risky gamble (any of the four movies leading up to The Avengers flopping badly enough could have derailed the whole endeavor), but it has not only paid off, it has done so with flying colors.  The Avengers is a virtual comic book movie fan’s wet dream from start to finish, and crafts an epic spectacle on a level that might surpass that of any existing comic book film.  As entertaining as Iron Man and Thor are, The Avengers easily climbs to another level.  The Dark Knight may deal with darker, deeper themes, but the two movies’ tones are different enough that it seems unfair to compare them, and both represent the genre at its crowning pinnacle.  The Avengers is delirious levels of fun from beginning to end, and provides any Marvel comic fan with two hours in cinematic candyland.

S.H.I.E.L.D., the secretive government organization led by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) aimed at creating a team of superheroes, has tried with varying success to recruit billionaire playboy and brilliant weapons manufacturer Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and revived WWII hero Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans).  The need for Fury’s Avenger Initiative grows more urgent when the megalomaniacal demigod Loki (Tom Hiddleston), last seen sucked into a wormhole in Thor, returns from exile, puts scientist Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and arrow-wielding sharpshooter Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) under his mind control, and steals the Tesseract, a mysterious cube that holds unlimited power.  Loki is quickly captured, and seems suspiciously content to cool his heels in a holding cell, but he’s really biding his time until the brainwashed Dr. Selvig creates a portal for the alien race he’s allied himself with to follow him through and launch an all-out assault on Earth.  To combat this threat, Fury reaches out again to Stark and Rogers and sends Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to recruit scientist Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), whose expertise with gamma radiation could help track down the Tesseract but fears the danger of slipping into his uncontrollably destructive Hulk alter ego.  Thor (Chris Hemsworth) also joins the party when he becomes aware that his brother Loki has returned.  Personalities, egos, and powers clash, but the uneasy teammates are forced to join forces when Loki escapes and his allies invade.

The Avengers is one of the most relentlessly action-packed movies I have seen where that is not a detriment.  Somehow, in spite of every few scenes seemingly turning into an elaborate action sequence, the movie finds enough time to breathe to where the continuous action does not overwhelm the plot or the characters.  Granted, neither the plot nor the characters are overly complex, but they each retain their distinct personalities, and the movie takes time to develop their different dynamics.  In a movie with a sprawling ensemble of superheroes, the movie manages to spread out the action surprisingly evenly among the characters, with everyone getting their own individual moment in the sun.  The snappy dialogue is no surprise coming from Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but whatmight be more surprising given his past resume is how well he handles such an epically-mounted production.  Whedon directs action sequences on a scale seldom seen in comic book films with assurance, style, and energy, and despite all the balls he is juggling here, he never gives the sense that he’s in danger of letting them spiral out of control.  Even when the climactic battle extravaganza approaches the level of an all-out CGI-heavy Michael Bay action fest, Whedon never lets the action get dizzying, or loses sight of the characters enough to turn this into a Transformers lookalike.  The special effects are spectacular, particularly a S.H.I.E.L.D. naval battleship that goes airborne, and the massive, fish-like alien spaceships in the climactic battle royale.  The CGI Hulk’s facial expressions and musculature are impressively rendered, much better than in his last outing in The Incredible Huk (the animators also make a clear effort to make The Hulk’s facial features still vaguely resemble Mark Ruffalo), and given the utter inevitability of the carefully-controlled Banner losing his grip and “going green”, I was surprised at the amount of tension about when and where it would happen.  Oftentimes in comic book movies, especially those with large casts of characters, some get the spotlight while others get short shrift.  Not so here: Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor are, expectedly the most central characters, but Black Widow, Hawkeye, Loki, The Hulk, and even Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) all get their chance to shine.  In fact, The Hulk gets some of the most crowd-pleasing moments in the movie.

With so many superheroes packed into one movie, it’s probably inevitable that some of them stand out more than others.  Unsurprisingly, Robert Downey Jr.’s narcissistic smart-ass Tony/Iron Man has the most personality, while Chris Evans’ strait-laced do-gooder Steve/Captain America arguably has the least, with Chris Hemsworth’s Thor landing somewhere in the middle, but all of the actors are completely comfortable in their roles, and it mixes things up and puts a different spin on their characters to see them all having to play off each other.  Here, Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America aren’t the lone man hero of their own story like they’re used to, but being forced onto a team where they are required to play with others, and Tony and Thor in particular do not find this an easy task.  That Downey, Evans, and Hemsworth are at ease in their roles is to be expected, considering they, and almost everyone else in the movie, is reprising a role they’ve previously played at least once in either Iron Man, Thor, or Captain America.  The biggest newcomer, Mark Ruffalo, is the third live-action Bruce Banner in fairly quick succession, replacing The Incredible Hulk‘s Edward Norton, who had himself replaced Hulk‘s Eric Bana.  The fact that Ruffalo is a replacement’s replacement doesn’t matter here; Ruffalo is a better fit for the part and makes it his own from his first scene.  The previous Banners were interchangeably bland and replaceable, but Ruffalo injects Banner’s long-suffering weariness and guarded anger with enough conviction that I’d like to see him stick around.  Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner are relegated slightly more to the background and primarily onhand for cool action scenes (Johansson’s best is her first, where she takes down a room of bad guys while tied to a chair).  Clark Gregg, one of Iron Man and Thor‘s small pleasures, gets more amusing moments in a somewhat expanded role, and Samuel L. Jackson finally gets more to do than one random cameo per movie.  Other old friends dropping in include Iron Man‘s Gwyneth Paltrow and Thor‘s Stellan Skarsgard (Natalie Portman’s Jane does not appear, but is mentioned, and her absence explained).  As for the villain, if Tom Hiddleston had not already established himself as one of the best Marvel villains in Thor, he reaffirms it here.  As he did in Thor, Hiddleston steals scenes, but with more force here due to the larger scope.  Also, unlike some villains, Hiddleston understands balance, restraint, and the right dash of scenery-chewing, and is neither too low-key nor too over-the-top.  Paul Bettany again provides the voice of Tony’s personal computer Jarvis, and the single line that The Hulk utters in green mode is, fittingly, voiced by Lou Ferrigno.

The Avengers isn’t quite a stand-alone—events from both Captain America and Thor are heavily referenced, and some plot details will be clearer to those who’ve seen each of the Avengers’ introductory outings—but it’s close enough that uninitiated viewers can follow clearly enough.  A quick summary by a friend of what you’ve missed should be enough to fill in the gaps.  To put it somewhat crudely, The Avengers is the kind of movie that induces (for the benefit of fellow theatergoers, hopefully figurative) multiple orgasms in comic book fans.  The sight of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye all in one camera shot, kicking ass and taking names, singlehandedly kicks enough ass to make its minor flaws—Loki goes down with a whimper instead of a bang, although he gets plenty of impressive moments up to that point—barely worth mentioning.  In fact, it raises the bar to such an epic height that subsequent individual Iron Man and Thor outings (Iron Man 3 and Thor 2 are already in the works) where singular superheroes battle singular villains may seem thin in comparison.  Whedon avoids outright campiness, but there’s plenty of humor sprinkled around, and the wisecracks, especially from Tony, are tossed around fast and sharp.  The movie clocks in at 2 ½ hours, with the climactic battle lasting about forty-five minutes and leveling half of Manhattan, but the movie never comes close to dragging.  Opening title to end credits, it’s a spectacular action extravaganza, and it’s hard to imagine any Marvel comic fan not floating out of the theater on Cloud 9.  Whedon has raised the bar: bigger, bolder, and more spectacular.  The Avengers shattered box-office opening weekend records, and should hold a comfortable position as the reigning box office behemoth of the summer until the next likely blockbuster, The Dark Knight Rises, swoops into July.

***1/2

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