The Avengers is everything you hoped it would be, if what you hoped The Avengers would be is an hour of “assembling” then an hour of awe-inspiring superhero team-up action.
I apologize if that seems blunt. It is an incredibly fun movie, really, as you’ll inevitably see and judge for yourself. It is the culmination of Marvel’s comic book movie universe you’ve heard so much about. Yes, the Internet has been talking about it for years — four, to be exact — but so have Marvel’s own characters, every time Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) makes an entrance after the credits or drops in mid-movie to chat about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s top secret initiative.
But five sequential blockbusters and their compounding hype have elevated this ensemble pic beyond reasonable expectations. You would be doing yourself a disservice by walking into a theater believing this will be “the greatest comic book movie of all-time,” or some equally hyperbolic geekgasm. Despite being a hell of a lot of fun, Marvel’s flawed Avengers simply does not rank in the pantheon of truly great comic book films. Which is fine, of course, film making is not a competition. Nor should the very best be reduced to a Family Feud-style leader board. “Show me The Avengers!” Not so fast. Again, set reasonable expectations for this.
It should come as no surprise that the merging of Marvel’s moves is also an origin story. Only, this time we witness the origins of the team. Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the horned villain in Thor, warps into S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters in the opening minutes and steals the Tesseract (the Cosmic Cube to comic readers) and a handful of mind-controlled good guys. Fury recognizes the apocalyptic threat and puts out the word to the various “Avengers.” One by one.
The beginning, for nearly an hour, goes through the motions of putting together a team and establishing Loki as a pawn in an interstellar scheme to invade Earth. The heavy lifting has been done on establishing the core members of the group, but each is introduced in their own vignette. Robert Downey Jr. continues to prove why casting him as Tony Stark/Iron Man was one of the smartest moves in Marvel Studios’ short history. Stark’s natural swagger injects a sense of playfulness to an otherwise scowling group. Captain America (Chris Evans) is ever the Boy Scout, just one without much to say. Bruce Banner tentatively signs up, except he looks remarkably like Mark Ruffalo now. And Thor (Chris Hemsworth) just abruptly arrives, waving off his ascension to Asgard at the end of his stand-alone movie. In short, the Avengers assemble.
This is where Joss Whedon comes in. Those acquainted with the “Whedonverse” will recognize the writer/director’s signature wit, including some well-timed combos between Iron Man and Thor. The “Buffy” creator certainly puts his ass-kicking-female stamp on Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who steps up with more to do this time around and a minor subplot shared with Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Black Widow’s expanded role and the introduction of S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders from “How I Met Your Mother”) balance out this boys club, though naturally they are outfitted with skin-tight catsuits. Whedon deftly handles the team dynamic, too, as the egos jockey for position aboard S.H.I.E.L.D.’s flying aircraft carrier.
With the team fully formed, the second half surges with energy. The movie feels like a moving comic for the first time, or the realization of so many childhood make-believe sessions in which action figures would soar and crash. In this case, the superheroes scramble around the helicarrier. (This will undoubtedly be a hot toy this summer, but can anyone explain why there’s so much glass on a helicarrier?) Later, as seen in all the ads, the Avengers stand back-to-back in the oft-embattled streets of New York City when Loki and his Chitauri invaders strike.
In action, each of the Avengers is allotted equal screen time to basically do what they do best. Iron Man flies and swerves between buildings. Captain America leads and deflects projectiles. Thor attacks with devastating hammer blows. Hawkeye dispatches enemies with precision and impossible accuracy. Black Widow is deadly in close combat. And Hulk? Hulk %#&^@ smashes.
The third time is most definitely the charm for the green monster on the big screen and, despite looming in the background behind the pack, Hulk steals the show. Whedon understands both sides of Banner and the potential of Hulk’s size, but it helps that the character is no longer a fugitive learning to cope with his mutation. Ruffalo’s calm, collected Banner warns of the “other guy” multiple times, until his temper flares and the Hulk returns with a vengeance. Incredible.
Ultimately, the pay off is worth the wait, but palpable studio calculations and a sluggish start prevent The Avengers from being great and worthy of such high expectations.