I don't think Marvel's new blockbuster The Avengers represents an all-time achievement in summer popcorn filmmaking. And I can tell you right now that it doesn't stand as a benchmark of action-adventure cinematic storytelling. But in terms of its sheer logistical achievement, the film dwarfs anything released by a major studio since Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings soon-to-be-quadrilogy. Uniting characters who have been spotlighted in their own films for a four-year span, and the end result of a tease planted after the closing credits of the very first film in this cycle, 2008's Iron Man, The Avengers is the payoff to arguably the longest non-George-Lucas-related case of cinematic blue balls in fanboy history. It's a loud, colorful, multi-million dollar spectacle on a massive scale, delivering six costumed superheroes for the price of one and reducing even the most normally erudite of online zombie film critics to hyperbole more befitting a 1940s movie poster: SEE! The Invincible Iron Man! THRILL! To the terrifying Incredible Hulk! SWOON! At the rippling pecs and flowing locks of Thor, the God of Thunder! Marvel Studios, partnering with Disney (they now own the comics behemoth), Paramount (responsible for the popular Iron Man, Thor and Captain America features), and Universal (they released two Hulk films, both to decidedly mixed critical and audience response), have put together a package that was sure to score huge box office...for the first week, at least. After all, this film seemed primed more than most to fall victim to the two cardinal rules of fanboy cinema: 1) the fanboys will go, and 2) the fanboys will bitch. Deliver a substandard film, and no matter the box office, a second Avengers film could have well been dead in the water (not to mention further solo adventures for the film's heroes). Therefore, it makes me happy to report, as most of you no doubt already know, that while it's no masterpiece, The Avengers is a fast-paced, exciting spectacle, and the fact that the film is ultimately no more than it has to be doesn't much matter when what it has to be is so supremely entertaining.
As perhaps befits a film aiming so squarely for all four quadrants, the plot of The Avengers is simple and to-the-point. Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Asgardian god of chaos and brother / nemesis of thunder god Thor (Chris Hemsworth), has arrived on earth to steal the Tesseract, a glowing cube of pure energy last seen in Michael Bay's Transf...uh, I mean, in last summer's Captain America: The First Avenger. In that film, the nefarious Red Skull was using it to power super-weapons, and the high-tech, low-profile government agency known as SHIELD has recovered it and is attempting to develop its own deterrent to the potential intergalactic threats it now knows are out there. But they don't know the cube also holds the key to an interstellar portal with the power to unleash Loki's conquering armies onto an unsuspecting planet. Losing the cube, SHIELD's director, the hard-nosed, eye-patched Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, with his most screen time yet in the role), realizes that mankind only has one hope: to kick off the Avengers Initiative, bringing the power of Earth's mightiest heroes together to defeat the alien swarm.
That is, if they don't kill each other first. In classic movie super-team tradition, the Avengers initially prove a combustible mix. Captain America (Chris Evans), the super-soldier who puts duty and country above all else, clashes with Iron Man / Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), who sees the world as a monument to himself and has the towering skyscraper emblazoned with a giant neon "STARK" to prove it. Thor can't see why they don't just smash Loki to smithereens and be done with it, and Bruce Banner (franchise newcomer Mark Ruffalo, taking over for the "difficult" Edward Norton), brought in against his will to track the Tesseract, just lives in fear of the moment when "the other guy" kicks into snarling green high gear. Alongside Fury is super-assassin Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who's got a personal stake in the battle; Loki has hypnotized her fellow agent, master archer Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and has developed a mind-raping, Hannibal Lecterish bond with the tormented government killer.
It would be a large cast for any filmmaker to wrangle, but one of the strengths director Joss Whedon (who also wrote the screenplay from a story he conceived with Zak Penn) brings to the table is his ease with ensemble casts, his ability to make a team work strongly on screen without sacrificing any character's individuality. One of the best things about The Avengers is the interplay between the team, how each hero's strengths complement the others...and how Whedon remembers exactly what quality in each hero's personality would most annoy his teammates. Stark and Banner connect over their mutual scientific expertise, while Thor is an ideal battlemate for the Hulk, marrying the latter's brute strength with control over its devastating effects. But then, Thor's cocky and brash, just like Stark, whose sarcastic humor doesn't go over well with anyone, and Black Widow's own confidence in her warrior's abilities is shaken when she can't face the sheer titanic assault of the Hulk. Building on the solid character work done by the franchise's previous directors and writers (aside from Penn, who wrote The Incredible Hulk, only one receives onscreen credit here: Iron Man's Jon Favreau, as co-executive producer), Whedon stays true to who we already know everyone is while playing them off of each other in interesting and exciting ways. Of course, we get the scenes where these super-powered beings throw down against each other, but Iron Man blasting Thor into a tree is just as thrilling as Stark smashing away at Steve Rogers with jokes. (Please tell me I'm not the only critic to ever think he could just as easily be called Tony Snark.)
As director, Whedon likewise delivers on the action in a big, blockbusting way. A mid-film assault on SHIELD's floating fortress is impressive enough to serve as the climax of a smaller-scale film, with Iron Man forced to manually fire up a ship's failing rotor while Captain America's life hangs, literally, by a thread. Black Widow's escape from the Hulk reminded me of another great big man / little man showdown, between Jet Li and Dolph Lundgren in The Expendables (putting a team's biggest fighter up against their smallest always works for me, even if the big man dominates, as the Hulk basically does here). This scene also brings Hawkeye back into the fold and into the film's REAL climax, an explosive assault on Manhattan by Loki and his army of lizard-soldiers and flying techno-beasts. Whedon marshals this sequence like a master general. He does an excellent job of keeping us oriented within the sprawling, all-over-the-place battle, and he deftly gives every character an arena of action commensurate with their powers. Captain America and Black Widow lead the ground defense, while Iron Man manages the air combat and Hulk...well, Hulk smashes things. Loudly and brutally, and marvelously. Every character gets an iconic moment here, whether it's Hawkeye leaping dramatically from a roof while firing his last-ditch arrow, or Iron Man placing a quick phone call to Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, in for a crowd-pleasing cameo) at the moment of direst drama. It's more or less the climax you wish that every such film would wrap up with, and it's arguably the big screen's best depiction yet of the kind of huge, over-the-top action only comics could previously provide.
It's to Marvel's credit that, even with all the action and spectacle on display, the film would not work without the efforts of the actors, who have done such a strong job sketching in their characters in previous films that they know just what to do here. By now, four films into playing this character (if you count his brief appearance in The Incredible Hulk), Robert Downey Jr. could probably play Tony Stark in his sleep. Isn't it nice that he chooses not to? Downey is lively and engaged here in a way he wasn't in the entertaining-but-not-excellent Iron Man 2, and he has a scene where he confronts Loki that ranks among the best in the film. (Nice to say, the suit likewise has some new tricks we haven't seen yet.) Hemsworth's a handsome giant with charisma to burn, and playing a role that could be completely ridiculous in the wrong hands, he invests Thor with gravity, strength and just enough humor. Evans makes less of an impression here than he did in his own film, but thanks to the conviction of the character and Whedon's smart writing, he stands out more than most people would against the one-two screen-stealing team of Downey and Hemsworth. Ruffalo has, in many ways, the toughest role, coming into a cast of Marvel vets as a first-timer (playing an already-established character, no less), but he wisely chooses to underplay Bruce Banner less as a man holding in anger than one skittish with fear of what he knows is inside him. (The big reveal of his "little secret" solidifies Banner as a hero and just makes us like him all the more.) Johannsson may never grow on me as an actress, but she's more comfortable with the character here than in Iron Man 2, and Renner, who also has a tough job in his first full-fledged appearance as Hawkeye, shares several strong moments with Johansson that make his late-coming seem less of a problem. Hiddleston chews huge mouthfuls of scenery in the way that only great British actors can, and Jackson, like Ruffalo, underplays to great affect.
The film is also one of the year's best-produced, with no expense spared and every dollar on the screen. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Atonement) delivers colorful, whirling, Oscar-caliber images, and costume designer Alexandra Byrne dresses everyone in a unique, eye-catching style. Editors Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek pull off their job as heroically as any Avenger; not since GoodFellas have I found a two-and-a-half-hour film so easy to sit through. The special effects, of course, are terrific, though I almost never like mentioning that in reviews; with as good and expensive as FX technology is these days, there's really no excuse for any film having subpar visual effects. But I will mention that I was a little disappointed by Alan Silvestri's score. Thus far of the Marvel composers, he's the only one to give his hero's film a distinctive theme (I was humming the "Captain America March" for days after I saw the film...that is, when I wasn't humming Alan Menken and David Zippel's "Star Spangled Man"), and I was hoping for the same here. Instead, I got serviceable action themes, perfectly fine, but not as rousing as I was hoping for.
But honestly, if you stuffed any more rousing elements into any one film, the theater might explode. The Avengers is a hell of a curtain raiser to a summer movie season that I predict will be one of the stranger in recent memory. I think there will be plenty of "big" films that fall by the wayside (Battleship and Men In Black III are on deck to try to dethrone Earth's mightiest heroes at the top of the box office, and I don't think either of them will pull it off), as well as a few second-string blockbuster releases that I have a feeling will outperform expectations (call it my gut, but I think G.I. Joe: Retaliation is going to surprise the hell out of everyone). But unless something goes horribly awry, or The Dark Knight Rises somehow manages to top its predecessor, look for 2012 to be remembered as the Summer of The Avengers. And I'd mind that a lot more if the movie wasn't so damn much fun.