Marvel’s The Avengers
Honestly, I’m not really too sure as to what is compelling me to avoid the full “A+” when it comes to Joss Whedon’s triumphant culmination of the cinematic universe Marvel has been building since 2008’s “Iron Man.” I’m sure I’ll have more answers after I watch the film again during a midnight showing, this time, in 3D.*
For now, however, I will just relish in the ridiculous fun I had watching the creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” and “Firefly” bring together Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and the Hulk to fight an intergalactic war waged by Thor’s mischievous adopted brother, Loki. Driven mad with jealousy towards Thor, now in line to be the king of Asgard Loki longed to be, Loki takes banishment none too well, and he recruits a race of aliens known as the Chitauri to bring Earth to its knees. Why Earth? Well, apart from Thor’s newfound affection for the planet (which we saw in Kenneth Branagh’s 2011 movie), he also finds a way to take advantage of S.H.I.E.L.D., the secretive, military installation headed by Nick Fury, and the research they are doing with the Tesseract, a cube of pure energy we saw in “Captain America: The First Avenger” (and the post-credits sequence in “Thor”), capable of being the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. Honestly, part of me thinks S.H.I.E.L.D. has this coming, and I’m not alone– when Steve Rogers (who already witnessed this power in the hands of the Nazis in “First Avenger”) gets wind of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s plans, he and the other Avengers have plenty of reasons to be concerned not just with Loki, but with the plans Nick Fury has with such power.
The end-of-the-world scenario posed in Whedon’s screenplay (from a story he shares credit on with the film’s original writer, Zak Penn) would be enough for most comic book fans, but leave it to Whedon, whose artistic fingerprints are all over this bad boy, to delve deeper without giving into the sometimes-depressing angst of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. As he has done in not just his television shows (yes, even the much-maligned “Dollhouse”), but also his feature film debut (the “Firefly” spin-off, “Serenity”) and his fistful of awesome web series, “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog,” Whedon decides to dig deeper into these characters, testing their ideas of the world in ways that shake their belief systems to their core, leading to greater self-revelations about their responsibility to the world around them. This is Whedon’s MO as a storyteller in its purest form; for years, he tested teenaged vampire slayers; centuries-old vampires cursed with humanity; hardened soldiers-turned-rebels; and even wannabe-evil geniuses to see what they were made of, and what they were capable of even in their weakest moments. For seven seasons on “Buffy,” that led to world-saving heroics, although typically-speaking, not without a price. (And yes, Whedon plays similar narrative tricks here, though it’ll take intense interrogation by Black Widow to make me reveal such secrets here.)
At 142 minutes, and a budget of roughly $250 million (over six times the amount he had on “Serenity”), Joss Whedon provides plenty of action movie bang for moviegoer buck (especially in the last 30 minutes or so), but it’s the character interactions that elevate “The Avengers” above 90% of superhero movies. For the first time, we have a writer/director who knows how to inject humor into a superhero film without it overwhelming any dramatic weight (see the “Fantastic Four” films), or feeling ridiculously out-of-place (see “Superman III” and “Spider-Man 3”), or– God forbid –going for full-on camp, a la Joel Schumacher’s “Batman” entries in the mid-to-late ’90s.
Thankfully, Marvel has handed Whedon a cast well-suited for his idiosyncratic sense of humor. Anyone who has followed “Buffy” and “Firefly” in particular knows that Whedon is capable of bringing out miraculous chemistry from large ensembles. So lucky is Joss that not only was he able to bring aboard a couple of new additions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (as it’s called) in Jeremy Renner as Clint “Hawkeye” Barton; Cobie Smulders as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill; and Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner (replacing Edward Norton, who played the character in Marvel’s 2008 film, “The Incredible Hulk”), but he was also gift-wrapped a cast that already included a couple of Oscar nominees/winners in Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, and Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark’s love interest, Pepper Potts (yes, Gwyneth makes an appearance, and damn, she looks fine); Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow; Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America; Chris Hemsworth as Thor; Tom Hiddleston as Loki; Stellan Skarsgard as Erik Selvig, a scientist who appeared in “Thor”; Paul Bettany as Stark’s virtual servant, Jarvis; and Clark Gregg as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson, who has been the main, connective tissue of Marvel’s Universe thus far, and is rewarded with his meatiest, most meaningful role yet in “The Avengers.” (Whew…) You don’t really need to see any of these actors in the previous Marvel movies (“Iron Man,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “Iron Man 2,” “Thor,” and “Captain America: The First Avenger”) to know what they bring to the table in terms of performance, although prior viewing of the movies WILL help you keep track of what the Hell is going on in the plot, how the characters relate to one another, etc. This is a lot of big personalities, and distinct characters to fit into one movie, and I’ll be damned if Whedon doesn’t have a blast directing all of them, and giving them their own unique voice in the dialogue he writes for them.
All of the actors have their moments, although Smulders (from “How I Met Your Mother,” and apparently, Whedon’s top choice for Wonder Woman on his doomed adaptation of that DC character) is the only one who doesn’t really seem to have a grasp on her character yet (maybe a “S.H.I.E.L.D.” movie with Jackson to rectify that, Marvel?). There are a few that stand out just a bit more, though. The first one is Johansson, who is finally allowed to give us a bit of a glimpse into Romanoff’s life after being basically eye candy in “Iron Man 2.” Of course, that’s not really a surprise from Whedon after 15 years of strong, fascinating female characters from Buffy to River (from “Firefly”) to Echo (from “Dollhouse”) to even his version of Ripley in “Alien: Resurrection,” but Whedon and Johansson lay a strong foundation down for the character past “The Avengers,” especially in her bond with Hawkeye, played by Renner (who was a guest star on an episode of “Angel” during its first season) with the same steel and soul he brought to “The Hurt Locker” and “Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol.” Of course, Romanoff also kicks a good amount of ass in this film as well, but it’s the interest Whedon takes in her character that makes the prospect of a Black Widow movie promising beyond Johansson’s ridonkulous good looks.
The second of the film’s three acting standouts is Hiddleston as Loki, who did promising work in Branagh’s “Thor,” but occasionally melted down into over-the-top villain hamming during that space costume pageant. Here, he’s more down-to-Earth in terms of performance. There’s a real sense of danger and instability to his character that was lacking in “Thor” that helps elevate him to the top-tier of superhero movie bad guys, and definitely to the head of the class for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He’s going to be a hard act to follow for whoever forces The Avengers together in the sequel.
Finally, there’s the new recruit for the role of Bruce Banner and The Hulk, Mark Ruffalo. Yes, Robert Downey Jr. continues to nail every narcassistic note as Tony Stark, Chris Evans feels more assured with the old-fashioned sense of duty Steve Rogers has than he ever did in the “Fantastic Four” films, and Chris Hemsworth is building on his portrayal of Thor, making next November’s “Thor” sequel an intriguing prospect, but Ruffalo’s performance as the hard-to-nail down Banner and his big, green alter ego is the one most people will leave talking about. This is a very different Banner than we saw out of Eric Bana in 2003’s “Hulk,” or Edward Norton in the 2008 Marvel Studios film, and it’s the best one we’ve seen of the three. Ruffalo’s Banner is in control of his condition, and has even started to accept it as a part of who he is. That’s a marked difference from Norton’s Banner, and a welcome change-of-pace for the character moving forward. This is a Banner/Hulk I desparately hope to see again, because Whedon and Ruffalo nail the character. (Might I suggest Disney put a For Your Consideration campaign in the works for Ruffalo?) And having Ruffalo perform the Hulk via performance capture was an inspired choice, as the character has more weight and dimension as an extension of the brilliant Banner than he did in either of the previous film versions. Ladies and gentlemen: after three big-screen appearances, and three different actors, in nine years, I think we finally have a Bruce Banner and Hulk that will develop into the successful, big-screen franchise Marvel has long wanted him to be.
There’s so much more to love about this film than just the actors, though; Whedon has grown more confident as a director to match his superior gifts as a writer. He doesn’t let the massive budget and scope of the film or the visual effects overwhelm him, and most importantly, the characters, which fit perfectly into Whedon’s history of dysfunctional surrogate “families” that find they need one another more than they realize. True, we’ll never see Buffy or Spike or Angel or Malcolm Reynolds in a Marvel movie, but with the way he navigates the labyrinthine narrative of Marvel’s “The Avengers,” Iron Man and Bruce Banner and Black Widow, both the characters, and the actors bringing them to life, would feel just as much at home in the Whedonverse as those fan favorites. This is one mission you definitely want to assemble for.
*I did, in fact, see the movie at a 3D midnight screening. It was my second time seeing it, and my “A” grade holds up. The film is a tremendous entertainment, but not quite on the same artistic level of 2012’s first big event blockbuster, “The Hunger Games,” or Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s stunning horror film, “The Cabin in the Woods.” “The Avengers” is certainly in the top tier of superhero movies, but just below the true masterpieces in the genre (“Spider-Man 2,” “The Dark Knight,” “Superman: The Movie,” “X2: X-Men United,” “Iron Man,” and “X-Men: First Class”). That said, I’m dying to see where Marvel, and hopefully Whedon, take these heroes the next time they have to team up.
My blog laying out my hopes for a “Road to ‘The Avengers'” Blu-Ray box set.