“Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
By the time this film is released nationally, I will have seen it twice. That’s not me bragging; it’s me illustrating that as a writer and lover of film – usually seeing more than 130 films theatrically in a given year – I typically only see them once in a darkened auditorium. However, a film like The Avengers begs to be seen multiple times. It’s that good.
My initial impressions, which I shared as I exited the first screening, was simply, “That movie was [expletive deleted] awesome.” But that’s not to insinuate I’m a Marvel Comics fanboy. I’ve enjoyed all the movies that comprise the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in general, and had strong expectations that Joss Whedon’s vision would be at or near the movies that have come before it. I never expected the final product to set the bar of what future Marvel movies would aspire to be.
While it doesn’t transcend the genre like The Dark Knight – Avengers’ foe Loki (Tom Hiddleston) recently wrote a piece for The Guardian noting that Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker “changed the game,” and added that the late actor “raised the bar not just for actors in superhero films, but young actors everywhere; for me.” – the movie has an overriding sense of enthusiasm (hence the Emerson quote above). This is good news for Joss Whedon fans that have championed the cult status work (more so for TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly; not his screenwriting contribution to Alien: Resurrection) ofthe multifaceted magician of all things media. Here he has produced something that is very entertaining while at the same time exuding a sort of confidence we haven’t seen since the first Iron Man.
For those who have been emotionally invested in all the films of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, which Robert Downey Jr. once described in an interview were used as a means of “cross-pollinating our superheroes,” then you know that Marvel Studios has been building to this release for quite some time. Rather than try to shoehorn characters into a massive comic-book movie epic, The Avengers has been preceded by five superhero movies meant to establish a universe where characters and plot elements are shared. It began with 2008’s Iron Man and continued with The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger.
With all that build up expectations were to be had. This is the ultimate endgame after all; a superhero dream team joining together to stop a baddie (Thor‘s Loki) with long-stemming family issues. Up until now the previous films felt like episodes of a TV series leading up to a thrilling season finale. So it makes sense that the man pulling the strings would be someone who comes from a TV background. Whedon’s own experience as a comic-book writer, having done multiple story arcs for Marvel’s Astonishing X-Men and Runaways, is also an asset. That background helps, especially knowing that Whedon’s key ear for writing witty dialogue with pithy remarks and pop culture references that come into play. The references aren’t used as a way to stick out and be distracting – this isn’t George Clooney saying, “This is why Superman works alone” – each remark or put-down helps underline the characters. Of course, Robert Downey Jr. gets the lion’s share because that’s Tony Stark’s MO. But The Hulk, here played by Mark Ruffalo (replacing Edward Norton), has at least three moments that turn the film from one of the most action-packed to one of the funniest you’re likely to see this summer.
Additionally, Whedon goes as far as to give each character a shining moment so that he or she isn’t forgotten, left to stand around in the background. The best example would be Black Widow, aka Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). As the lone female in a group of male heroes with superhuman abilities, she is just a leather-clad femme with a Ph.D. in ass-kickery. So she’s got the attitude to hang with the boys, but her appearance in Iron Man 2 didn’t reveal much about her character. Before the title screen appears we learn quite a bit, and her history is later explored in a scene featuring her and Loki. No explosions take place or punches thrown, but it has one of those nice “gotcha” moments that make it more than just filler before the grand finale.
In a business that thrives on sequels, remakes and franchises, Marvel Studios has succeeded in building a universe with The Avengers as its brass ring. The films prior have told individual stories of all the major players within the faction while also building up the eventual emergence of the superhero team. So while much of the Iron Man sequel felt like the zero issue of The Avengers with all the Avengers Initiative exposition presented, the payoff is justly rewarded. Overall, this is easily the best film in the Marvel canon, and it leaves you to wonder how things could have been if Marvel Comics hadn’t licensed some of its characters to other studios. Imagine the crossovers that could have been possible had Spider-Man not web-slinged his way to Columbia Pictures or Wolverine raised Adamantium-claw hell over at 20th Century Fox.
Up until now the best superhero movies have revolved around a singular character. I’m looking specifically at Richard Donner’s Superman and Christopher Nolan’s Batman. While Nolan’s “realistic” approach to The Caped Crusader has brought the superhero film to unparalleled heights, Joss Whedon embraces the outrageousness of his creation. But he does it with respect. Whereas Superman has a strong moral compass that, to this day, continues to fascinate cultural theorists, and Batman is a vigilante yet watchful protector of the fictional Gotham City, the Avengers are known as “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes,” fighting the “foes no single superhero can withstand.” And judging from the climatic 30-minute battle at the end they hold true to this theme.
Outside of the action and comedy, what really struck me is the sense of community and all the work that goes into to corralling egos (or in this case, Superegos) and have them function as a unit. The X-Men films (not including X-Men: First Class) had the team aspect pretty much in place from the start so the biggest ego to contain was that of Wolverine. Here we see how those characters already introduced in the five previous Marvel movies form relationships through a convergence of events that sometimes see our heroes square off against one another in mini skirmishes.
As far as the actors go, everyone plays their roles pitch perfect. Robert Downey Jr., brilliantly cast in the role of the genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist Tony Stark, again steals the show. Chris Evans as Steve Rogers (aka Captain America) reveals a gullibility that’s instantly relatable to anyone who can’t see the forest for the trees. Because for Cap, in his mind, yesterday he was battling Nazis, now he’s in the present day acclimating himself to the world and its overriding sense moral decay and cynicism. Chris Hemsworth, who got the role of Thor while acting in Whedon’s production of The Cabin in the Woods (which finally saw release this year after being on the shelf since 2009), is an awesome Thunder God taking on as much punishment as he can dish out, including a great knockdown drag out with everyone’s favorite misunderstood Not-So-Jolly Green Giant.
Twice already they have had different origin stories for The Hulk. First, it was Ang Lee’s flawed look at Dr. Bruce Banner’s transformation into Hulk with Eric Bana in the starring role. Then, five years later, Louis Leterrier’s Incredible Hulk tried to begin again with Edward Norton in the Banner role. But neither film utilized The Hulk to his full potential. Now with Mark Ruffalo as Banner the third time was definitely the charm. Next to Tony Stark he may very well be the standout character in the film and the one most discussed.
Members of S.H.I.E.L.D. are also given their moments of glory. Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury gets to be Sam Jack with an eye patch and be the leader of the team he was meant to become. Cobie Smulders, who previously had a screen credit as “Beautiful Eye Candy in Car” in 2004’s Walking Tall, plays an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and serves her purpose well. Then there’s Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson. A suit and tie guy with a deadpan sense of humor, here he is rewarded for being “that agent who just happens to be the smartest guy in the room (when it comes to random, yet important, exposition).”
Clocking in at two hours and twenty minutes, The Avengers never feels long. It has so much going for it in terms of plot, character and action that it almost feels too good to be true. This is a blockbuster that delivers in convincing fashion and with a confidence that most intended blockbusters lack. Having characters to believe in and cheer for helps, and it makes the payoff that much sweeter.
Joss Whedon, who in his own way is a pop culture deity, will soon reap the benefits of his latest creation, which has revolutionized the superhero team movie. The Avengers has miraculously become the comic-book movie that once existed as a “what if” scenario, a hypothetical, to become something truly spectacular. It is a masterwork of the genre that has been competently assembled. Just like the Avengers themselves.
Director: Joss Whedon Notable Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Renner, Scarlett Johansson, Clark Gregg, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson Writer(s): Joss Whedon, based on the Marvel Comics series created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!