“The Avengers” is everything I’ve ever wanted out of a comic book movie, although I’m still reeling from the fact that it’s actually a movie.
The comic book movie landscape has changed drastically since it became a significant cultural force in 2002 with the release of “Spider-Man.” But even as popular as the sub-genre has become (who could have guessed that someone would end up winning an Oscar for playing The Joker?), it always seemed like a pipe dream, an impossibility that we would ever see a movie like “The Avengers.” Surely the concept was too big, too grand, too likely to fail that any studio would ever attempt something like this.
And yet, here we are, living in a world where an “Avengers” movie not only breaks box office records, but is genuinely great. Someone pinch me.
It seems weird to call something like “The Avengers” an experimental blockbuster, but there’s little else that feels so succinct. Movies featuring comic book characters are old hat now, but there’s no precedent for a movie starring multiple marquee heroes (and no, the “X-Men” movies don’t really count). There was no way to know if a movie featuring four huge heroes would soar or if it would simply collapse under its own weight. Would clashing egos ruin the day? Has hero fatigue set in and would audiences even want to watch something like this? Topping it all off was the fact that Marvel chose Joss Whedon, a guy who had only directed one feature film (that bombed) and had mostly only presided over television shows with cult followings, to write and direct. “Experimental” barely covers it.
However, as it turns out, yes, audiences do, and the movie (mostly) soars.
Much of this is due to Whedon. Whedon-ites (myself among them) have long known and loved Joss’ ability to manage group dynamics. It’s his bread-and-butter, really, as pretty much every project he’s worked on has at its core been about a family dynamic, allowing these disparate personalities to bounce off one another in interesting ways. In other words, there’s nary a writer in Hollywood and beyond better suited to tackling the fractured family that makes up “The Avengers” better than Whedon.
But it’s not just his ability to write witty dialogue and manage multiple disparate personalities that makes Whedon a perfect fit, it’s his ability to find a character’s heart. This is what made shows such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly” so outstanding. He took concepts that most writers would have kept as fairly shallow action prospects and turned them into properties worth investing in because the characters were more than the sum of their parts. The same is done here and makes “The Avengers” one of the best comic book movies ever made.
Whedon doesn’t treat Captain America (Chris Evans), Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) or even the film’s villain, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) as simple, four-color projections. Everyone gets at least one solid moment to reveal the depth hidden beneath the outlandish costumes and action figure physiques. Little things bring this out, like flashes of Cap’s PTSD as he pummels a punching bag or the heartfelt exchange between Thor and Loki on a mountaintop. Whedon humanizes these titans in a way that could have easily been overlooked or ignored in favor of more action scenes.
It can’t be stated enough how well everyone fits their roles and it’s a testament to Marvel that they’ve been able to keep (mostly) the same cast in place from previous films. Evans remains pitch perfect as Cap and Whedon does a superb job of naturally sliding him into the role leader for the team. Downey brings the expected wit and charm, but Whedon takes his Tony Stark to some new places here and in one sequence manages to signal the sort of growth that it took an entire film to bring previously. Thor ends up being sort of the unsung heart of the film as he’s the one having to deal with Loki’s schemes on an infinitely more personal level than anyone else and Hemsworth holds it up well.
The two biggest surprises, though, are Ruffalo and Johansson. Johansson has always had potential, but few directors seem to know what to do with her.
Leave it to Whedon, though, to finally find the perfect use for her. Whedon has essentially made strong female characters the foundation of his career, so it’s no surprise that he would bring out the best in both Johansson as well as her character, providing delicate balance of both strength and vulnerability, all mixed with a touch of Whedon’s trademark wit.
It’s Ruffalo as Banner/Hulk that really steals the show. He’s the third man in as many movies to portray the character, but Ruffalo makes his depiction definitive. Norton was good in the role, but the intensity he brought to Banner would have been all wrong in the dynamic Whedon sets up here. But Ruffalo together with Downey? I could watch the two of them talk shop in a S.H.I.E.L.D. lab all day. And when he finally Hulks-out? Hoo boy. Both times I watched the movie the crowd all but stood up as they cheered and laughed at Hulk’s big moments.
And that’s the other side that Whedon gets right. If you can’t build a proper threat, what’s the point of assembling some of Earth’s mightiest heroes? And while Loki’s attempt and bringing an invading army of Chitauri (intergalactic beings dead set on conquering the cosmos) isn’t quite as grand scale as some might have preferred, it’s a fitting opening salvo for a large conflict hinted at by the film’s mid-credits stinger. Besides, Loki’s manipulation and deception of the team make for more than enough reason for a Manhattan-based throwdown. The action is thrilling and fast-paced with Whedon making perfect use of each Avenger’s special capabilities, even justifying the presence of the non-superpowered Black Widow and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). You wouldn’t think that a guy who uses a bow and trick arrows would have much of a place in a fight against invading aliens, but Whedon makes sense of it.
The film isn’t flawless. It takes a good 45 minutes for Whedon to finally find his footing and things begin to flow a bit more naturally. Although the fact that it works at all is sort of a miracle given the logistical nightmare it could have been trying to get all these pieces on the board, much less in place.
But what it gets right, it gets more right than any other comic book movie that’s come before. There’s plenty of colorful action to be had. Which, I should add, is one of my favorite things about “The Avengers”: It’s not ashamed of its comic roots. Everyone suits up in-costume and the more outlandish things are just sort of taken as normal. “HERE’S A FLYING AIRCRAFT CARRIER THAT TURNS INVISIBLE. MOVING ON…” It’s refreshing to see a movie embrace its sillier roots, especially in a cinematic landscape where even Batman’s cape has to have some sort of practical explanation. There’s a joy to the proceedings that may end up making Christopher Nolan’s final Bat-film a bit too dour to fully enjoy.
None of that color and fun, though, comes at the expense of getting to the heart of who these characters are and why they fight. It’s a tremendous balancing act that Whedon nails from start to finish. This is the pinnacle of what summer blockbusters can and should be.