The summer blockbuster season has arrived, ladies and gentlemen. Reviews are largely positive, word of mouth is deafening, and The Avengers had a $207M opening weekend, smashing all kinds of records, including the biggest domestic opening of all time. Now, many people are probably saying “Well, duh,” or “I told you so,” but for me personally, the success of the Avengers was anything but assured, at least before the trailers started rolling out. Too many superheroes, not enough truly big name stars, that whole “three different Bruce Banners” debacle, the fact that director Joss Whedon had only previously directed one film (cult favorite Serenity) … I’m a fan of big shiny movies, of superheroes, and of Whedon, but still, let’s be realistic, right? Making The Avengers, and making it good, was a tall order, and I frankly doubted that it could be done.
Mr. Whedon, Marvel, everyone involved in making this film: I owe you an apology.
The Avengers picks up where the Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and (sort of) Incredible Hulk movies leave off. SHIELD, led by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), has its hands on the Tesseract (which we learn of in CA), but not for long. Thor’s brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) barges in and makes off with it, but not before he kills a few SHIELD employees and brainwashes a couple more to serve as henchmen. Given this threat, Fury decides to bring in a few outlying operatives, ostensibly to help in tracking down the Tesseract. Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Natasha Romanov, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are tasked with convincing Bruce Banner (now Mark Ruffalo) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) that their assistance is required, and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is recruited as well. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) shows up on his own, hot on the trail of his wayward brother. With all of these larger than life characters on board the same gigantic, invisible airship, tensions obviously run high. When Loki is captured, the atmosphere reaches a critical level, and when his henchman arrive to free him, the entire operation seems to be in shambles. Loki uses the Tesseract to open a portal in space, bringing in the Chi Tauri, an alien race, to destroy/subjugate the planet Earth. Finally, Fury’s real plan, to assemble the Avengers, is realized, and results in an epic showdown in Manhattan. All of our heroes, along with Black Widow and sharp-shooter Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) must put aside their differences and work together to save the day.
It’s a pretty straightforward plot, but you know, I think the simple stories usually work the best. In this case, I would suggest that the simple story is absolutely necessary in order to allow the characters, and the actors portraying them, to shine. And boy, do they. Whedon’s major theme here is the idea of The Avengers as a big, dysfunctional family, with each individual having his or her own baggage. Stark’s an egomaniac. Rogers has recently woken up in the new millennium, having left behind the 1940s. Thor feels responsible for Loki’s attacks on humanity, and isn’t too happy about having to take on his own brother. Banner has, as Stark puts it, “breathtaking anger management issues,” and so on. Obviously, if this group of people used to operating alone doesn’t manage to work together, there’s not much hope for Earth. Whedon works a miracle with this idea, managing to give each actor the time and space to develop as an individual without focusing too much on one over all the others. Ruffalo’s Banner/Hulk is a little more central to the plot, perhaps, but not to the detriment of anyone else. Each Avenger eventually moves into a particular role within the structure of the team, and it’s a natural shift that allows each character (and actor) to find the right “conclusion” to their character’s development.
Speaking of Ruffalo, he nails it. His laid-back presence and intelligence are perfectly suited to Bruce Banner, and he has the acting chops to give real weight to the internal struggle of a man who can never let his anger get the better of him. All of the other actors rise to the occasion as well, building on the characters they created previously and continuing to flesh them out into surprisingly (for a comic book movie, anyway) real people. The other newcomer to the team, Jeremy Renner, does a fine job as Hawkeye, one of two non-super members working hard to keep up with the “freaks”. His chemistry with Johansson (the other “normal”) is solid, and together they bring some extra humanity to the experience. Finally, a word on Tom Hiddleston. While I enjoyed him greatly in Thor, I was a little concerned with his ability to be the main baddie in such a huge venture. I shouldn’t have worried. His every move suggests malevolence, and he holds his own against everyone in the cast (except maybe The Hulk) with perfect ease. His Loki is an incredibly charismatic and interesting villain; he’s got more motivation than the usual comic book baddie who’s only interested in taking over the world. There’s pain in Loki, and Hiddleston is more than capable of balancing that pain with a towering anger and sense of purpose.
The cast as a whole does a tremendous job, both as individuals and as a team, and they are the major strength of the movie, with the action and effects coming in at an extremely close second. From start to finish, the action here is non-stop, and truly fantastic. The great thing about having a group of superheroes who don’t get along is that you get to have them fight each other in addition to the bad guys. Everyone gets a chance to kick some ass, with a fight between Iron Man and Thor as a highlight. Black Widow has a great scene in which she dispatches some would-be interrogators, and Hawkeye’s shooting in the grand finale is totally awesome. And that finale … WOW. I’ve had several friends agree that the wide-ranging fight, involving all of the Avengers, Loki, and the Chi Tauri, equipped with flying chariots and some freaking cool fish-like ships, is the best action scene ever. The fact that it takes place in the middle of New York, which is familiar ground to so many, adds a level of intensity. I cringed every time they used a shot of Grand Central (love that place). Obviously, as with any comic book movie, there’s heavy use of CGI, but it’s all extremely well done here. Apparently this is the first time that the actor playing Bruce Banner was actually used in the construction of The Hulk, and it definitely pays off: he’s still obviously computer-generated, but that small amount of humanization makes him that much more realistic.
The Avengers is, in my opinion, an absolutely incredible piece of work that started back in 2008 with the release of Iron Man. To make multiple movies introducing main characters, to keep the narrative thread going throughout, and to bring it all together into a cohesive whole is a big accomplishment. In terms of the film itself, the credit has to go to Whedon, who manages to juggle a large cast, big characters, and big action perfectly. His signature wit and sensitivity are evident throughout, and feel like an organic fit within the structure of The Avengers series as it has progressed so far. I was asked, a few days ago, to come up with something I didn’t like about the movie. At the time, I couldn’t think of anything concrete. If I have to find a nit to pick, though, I’ve decided that despite the great acting and chemistry of the players, I found the emotional heart of the movie a little lacking. The linchpin that holds the story together, which I admit disappointed me on a narrative level, also felt a little forced, and not as touching and poignant as it perhaps should have been. That said, it could be argued that these are soldiers, and this is war, and there’s no time to truly mourn the dead. Whedon is a master of balancing light and dark, and while the main goal of a summer blockbuster is to be bright and shiny, that ability is still showcased beautifully.
In a sentence? I loved this movie. It was everything I could have asked for, but didn’t really believe was possible. I regret that it’s a piece of a larger whole, because the MO for these franchises is to continually attempt to outdo what came before. I think that The Avengers should be allowed to stand alone as a hugely successful undertaking, worth all the hype and money. I will look forward to the inevitable sequels, of course, because I enjoy the actors and the characters. Some will be good, some probably less so. When you go see The Avengers (and you should), try to stop the Hollywood machine for a moment, though, and just enjoy the movie for itself. You won’t regret it.