There are two moments of cinematic genius in Marvel’s The Avengers. The first is when several of its heroes have finally joined forces and are arguing about the current crisis and how they should proceed. As tempers escalate, the dialogue is smart and funny and quick, just what I’d expect from screenwriter Joss Whedon. The second is during the climactic battle on (and above) the streets of New York City. In one smooth movement, the camera switches between quick glimpses of who and where individual heroes are fighting, until everyone is accounted for. The action is non-stop and exciting and fluid, not necessarily what I’d expect from director Joss Whedon, although everything I hoped for.
I say this only because I’m a fan of Joss Whedon as a writer, but have never seen him in charge of a big-budget, summer blockbuster event movie like The Avengers. For years, he’s been a wonder with words, so I guess it’s no surprise that he’s equally talented with images. And it takes a big talent to wrangle six of Marvel’s biggest superheroes while giving us a satisfying payoff to the four-year buildup when their individual movies were released with post-credits teasers about the mysterious “Avengers Initiative”.
Avengers assemble! Let’s do roll call:
Hawkeye (Clint Barton), master archer aka “The World’s Greatest Marksman”. As played by Jeremy Renner, we don’t learn much about Hawkeye in The Avengers. But he’s the first hero introduced and immediately becomes a key part of the story. It surprised me how this unfolds, but it suggests his debut in the comics as a reluctant villain before joining the team. Hawkeye is the only character not to be featured in a previous movie, although he has an uncredited cameo in last summer’s Thor.
Black Widow (Natasha Romanoff), master spy and assassin. As played by Scarlett Johansson, it seems that agent Romanoff (I don’t believe she’s ever referred to as “Black Widow”) has been working for S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) the longest. She’s the first one called in and helps recruit Bruce Banner when a crisis arises. We learn a little more about her past than Hawkeye’s, although they seem to have a history, possibly romantic. Black Widow was featured in Iron Man 2 in 2010.
Hulk (Bruce Banner), giant green monster. Although previously portrayed by Eric Bana (Hulk, 2003), it is Edward Norton’s version of Bruce Banner (The Incredible Hulk, 2008) that Mark Ruffalo plays in The Avengers. In a way, he takes the spotlight because there’s always the possibility that he’s going to succumb to his anger, burst out of his clothes and start smashing everything. Banner’s alter ego is also used, quite effectively, as comic relief. More about him later…
Captain America (Steve Rogers), super soldier and patriot. Cap (Chris Evans) had the most recent, and most lengthy, connection to The Avengers in last summer’s Captain America: The First Avenger. The finale of that movie serves as a nice prologue to this one and is the one I’d recommend watching before you see The Avengers. He’s recruited by Nick Fury early in the movie and probably has the most screen time of all the heroes. His character may also be the one that develops the most as he continues to get adjusted to living in a new era.
Iron Man (Tony Stark), billionaire playboy with a mechanical suit of flying armor. Played by Robert Downey, Jr. in two previous movies, Iron Man is easily the most familiar of the heroes, and arguably the most popular. Recruited by Agent Coulson, we learn what Tony Stark and Pepper Potts have been up to since we last saw them in Iron Man 2 (2010). In the comics, he and Steve Rogers have opposing viewpoints on almost everything. In The Avengers, their heated “banter” represents the challenges the heroes have in coming together as a team.
Thor, god of thunder. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the last hero to appear (at what seems like the halfway point of the movie), although it is his “enemy” from last summer’s movie, Thor, who has orchestrated the crisis in The Avengers. One of my concerns with The Avengers was that he appeared out of nowhere; I guess we’re to assume he was watching from Asgard and decided it was time to intervene. It’s never really explained to my satisfaction. However, his initial meeting with Iron Man provides the classic comic book trope of heroes battling before they realize they’re on the same side.
The Avengers is filled with many wonderful details. Previous movies and events are referenced, so it fits in perfectly with Marvel’s cinematic universe. Nearly all the supporting characters from those movies either appear briefly, have relatively important roles, or are mentioned in reference. I don’t want to spoil what was one of my greatest pleasures, but aren’t there things that happen in all superhero movies that don’t make sense? For example, when Hulk transforms back into Bruce Banner, why haven’t his pants fallen off? Or, when a master archer is firing arrows one after the other, why does he never run out of them? The Avengers deals with those issues and more, making it either one of the most realistic superhero movies ever, if not one of the most self-aware.
So let’s talk about Hulk. In previous movies, CGI has not been terribly effective at conveying a realistic creature. One of the things I kept hearing about The Avengers was that it got Hulk right. I tend to agree… to a point. While I still don’t think the CGI is perfect, it is the personality of Hulk that rises to the occasion. He does look a little different: he has more of the face of Bruce Banner/Mark Ruffalo, he now has a hairy chest, and he does not seem as physically large as he has before. (That was always one of my problems; I never could tell how big he was supposed to be.) But it’s his purpose in The Avengers, his interaction with the other heroes, and his awesome smashing skills that make him one of the brightest spots in the movie.
I stop short of giving The Avengers a perfect rating, but it’s only because of the first part of the movie being a little slow and focusing so much on the lesser heroes. I found myself literally thinking, “When is Iron Man going to show up?” and “Where is Thor?” But when the party finally starts, it is a nearly perfect movie. Prepared at any moment to nitpick, it was impossible after that point for me to do so.
A quick postscript: I am not normally a fan of 3D, much less when a movie is showing on what AMC Theaters claims is an IMAX screen. While I don’t think it’s necessary to see The Avengers in 3D or on IMAX, in this case it really adds to the spectacle. The picture is bright and clear and the sound is amazing. Packed with yummy goodness, The Avengers is well worth the extra money. For once, you truly get what you pay for.