Directed by Joss Whedon
Opens May 4
The Avengers was a serious gamble. In producing five big-budget superhero flicks (first with 2008’s Iron Man and continuing with The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger) to act as tent poles for an even more enormous mega-blockbuster, Marvel Studios has attempted something on a scale never done before. While its previous efforts had been modest critical and box-office successes, this is a movie that has been hyped for four years. The film couldn’t merely be good, it needed to be great.
With that in mind, I am happy to report that, against all odds and much to the delight of our collective 10-year-old inner children, The Avengers delivers. Oh, how it delivers.
The premise: Bad-guy god Loki steals a powerful artifact known as the Tesseract from a government facility as part of a plan to power a wormhole that will bring an invading army of scary alien allies (the Chitauri) to subjugate Earth. With the fate of the free world at stake, cyclopean super-spy Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) brings together a super-heroic strike force made up of Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and SHIELD operatives Natasha “Black Widow” Romanov and Clint “Hawkeye” Barton in an effort to thwart Loki and company.
“Team” superhero movies historically suffer from an inability to manage their casts. (Fox’s X-Men franchise put the spotlight on Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and relegated the rest of his mutant teammates to thankless supporting roles, for instance). Avengers director/co-writer Joss Whedon, no stranger to genre projects with large casts with his Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV pedigree, expertly avoids this by focusing first and foremost on characters.
Although the film’s 142-minute running time forces Whedon and co-writer Zak Penn to be economical, past movie headliners Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., and Chris Hemsworth bring the gravitas they each displayed in prior films and get satisfying micro-character arcs that build nicely off what’s come before. Newly revived World War II-era super-soldier Steve Rogers struggles to find his place in an unfamiliar modern-day America, Tony Stark continues on the difficult path of heroic self-improvement he began in Iron Man, while Thor tries in vain to save and redeem his insane brother Loki.
The rest of the cast is given shorter shrift, but nevertheless gets a chance to shine. Affable SHIELD Agent Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) status as a background player in previous Marvel outings pays off in a big way and Scarlett Johannson nicely balances Black Widow’s detached and calculating asskicking with flashes of affecting vulnerability. After appearing in a handful of lackluster post-credits appearances, it’s refreshing to watch Samuel L. Jackson play espionage-savvy Nick Fury as a morally questionable and often creepily manipulative bastard. The film’s choice of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki as its major antagonist is a wise one; he ramps up the blossoming insanity seen in Thor into full-fledged megalomania with gleeful aplomb and gets some cool Hannibal Lecter moments to boot. The only real shame is that Renner’s Hawkeye mainly just gets to look cool, but there are certainly worse sins.
The movie’s greatest surprise may be its superb interpretation of the Hulk. As Bruce Banner, Mark Ruffalo steps into a role made famous by Bill Bixby and totally makes it his own with an awkward burn-out clumsiness that barely conceals his repressed anger. Although he doesn’t transform into the iconic green Goliath until midway through the film, when it finally happens we’re treated to a Hulk that’s a legitimately scary force of nature.
Along with its strong performances, it’s the sense of Raiders of the Lost Ark-like fun that makes the film a real joy to watch: Iron Man and Captain America’s initial team-up brings out the best in both characters, a high-stakes action sequence aboard a falling SHIELD Helicarrier, and the third act-long battle that’s entirely too crazy to try to describe here.
In short, The Avengers is a thrill-packed, grin-inducing, fist-pumping superhero jam session of a flick and one helluva gauntlet to throw down during an already promising summer movie season.