The Avengers (Marvel Studios, PG-13)

The Avengers is not just a great superhero movie; it’s the great superhero movie.



Given the success of the string of Marvel superhero films that paved its way into theaters, The Avengers seems an obvious shoo-in for one of the top spots in this summer’s box office race. But it’s easy to forget just how easy it would’ve been to screw this up. The “shared universe” behind the last 70 years of Marvel Comics is one of the company’s greatest storytelling strengths, and transferring that idea into the medium of film seemed like a natural next step. But what would happen if one of those movies sucked? What if one of the movies that Marvel banked their entire Avengers franchise on landed in theaters with an Elektra- or Ghost Rider-like thud? Or worse, what if Marvel succeeded in the build-up but didn’t stick the landing, wasting a giant budget on brainless action and big name actors in underdeveloped roles? And even as the trailers started coming out, the question still lingered: what if, after four years of build-up, The Avengers was one big letdown?
Well, here’s the good news: not only is The Avengers as good as you want it to be, it’s even better…maybe even perfect. And the man we have to thank for all of the puzzle pieces falling perfectly into place is writer/director Joss Whedon.
It’s hard to imagine a more perfect candidate for the job of bringing Marvel’s preeminent superteam to life than Whedon, a man whose lengthy television career (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse) has proven his skill with shared universes, ensemble casts, witty banter, and sci-fi action (not to mention an often stellar run on the comic book series Astonishing X-Men to show he’s quite at home playing in the Marvel playground). One of his finest tricks in The Avengers is in making the film wholly accessible to newcomers without bogging it down in a lot of unnecessary repetition or exposition. Basically, he treats it like a self-contained TV episode on a blockbuster budget: yeah, you’ve met all these characters before, so Whedon uses a slew of quick scenes to set up the villain’s sinister plot and reintroduce us to the crew—armored hero Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), patriotic super soldier Captain America (Chris Evans), thunder god Thor (Chris Hemsworth), ex-Soviet superspy the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Bruce Banner (last seen as Edward Norton, now played by Mark Ruffalo), the genius scientist who has run off to a rural village to protect the world from the big, green, angry “other guy” he shares his body with—before moving on to the important part: getting all these guys in the same room and letting the sparks fly.
Instead of an origin story for the characters, The Avengers is the origin story for the team, telling the story when, as the old intro from the 1970s comics put it,
“There came a day, a day unlike any other, when Earth’s mightiest heroes and heroines found themselves united against a common threat. On that day, the Avengers were born—to fight the foes no single super hero could withstand!”
The assemblage of these disparate heroes is brought about by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the head of the clandestine extra-governmental group S.H.I.E.L.D. Fury was seen as an occasional string-puller in the prior Marvel movies, but he’s forced to take a more active role following the arrival of Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s devious half-brother (and the villain from Thor’s own blockbuster last year). Loki is a delightfully Shakespearean villain whose delusions of grandeur convince him that his rightful place is as ruler of earth. He’s drafted an alien army (there’s your “foes no single super hero could withstand” for ya) to invade on his behalf, and all he needs is the Tesseract—a magical MacGuffin that will allow him to open a portal to this alien world—to make it happen. Loki brainwashes archer extraordinaire Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and uses him to steal the Tesseract from under S.H.I.E.L.D.’s nose, and only the combined might of all of Earth’s mightiest heroes can ever hope to rescue Hawkeye and steal back the mystic bauble before it’s too late…but only if Fury and his crack S.H.I.E.L.D. squad—led by Agents Maria Hill (How I Met Your Mother’s Cobie Smulders) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg)—can get all of these out-sized personalities to get past their egos and work together.
Sound like an awful lot of balls to juggle? You bet. But Whedon’s script (which he wrote solo, based on a story he developed with Incredible Hulk screenwriter Zak Penn) doesn’t let a single one drop. Other than Smulders’ Agent Hill (the only “new” character), there isn’t a single character in the proceeding few paragraphs that gets the short shrift, as every hero is carefully woven into the fabric of every major plot development. Whedon gets into the heart of each character, giving their interactions and friendly rivalries a genuine spark, and the strong ensemble of actors, having settled into their roles from the previous films, are more than up for the challenge.
Nowhere is Whedon’s juggling act more impressive than in the film’s final act. With the Avengers finally fully assembled, the team faces all-out war and unrivaled carnage toppling skyscrapers throughout Manhattan, and they rise to the challenge. The scene is stunning, both in its spectacle (unlike Michael Bay, Whedon knows how to frame his CGI destruction so that it’s eye candy you can actually follow) and in its choreography. This is a team that wins its fights with both brawn and brains, as Captain America (the ultimate tactician) places every single team member, even those without superpowers, in a role that proves pivotal to the overall win.
What it all comes down to is this: The Avengers is not just a great superhero movie; it’s the great superhero movie. True, it doesn’t have the out-sized dramatic ambitions of The Dark Knight, but that isn’t what Whedon was aiming for anyway. What it does have is warmth, wit, humor, and action, all wrapped up in a group heroes actually worth rooting for. It’s hard to imagine a more fun movie to see this summer. | Jason Green

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