For decades now the Official Summer Movie Season has kicked off the first weekend of May with a big action movie, and eight out of the last ten of those have featured Marvel superheroes. Three of the last four have been parts of Marvel’s ambitious “Avengers Initiative” franchise in which 2008’s Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, 2010’s Iron Man 2, and last year’s Thor and Captain America laid the building blocks for the coming together of this weekend’s super-group geekgasm The Avengers. *
The Avengers must court a variety of patrons. To comic-book fans, it’s the fulfillment of decades of furtive wishing. To the rest of the movie-going public, it once again marks that heady, hyped, and welcome start of the Cineplex Summer. To Marvel Studios it is the payoff—and massive box-office payday—to a long, risky franchise gamble.
As if all that wasn’t enough for a perfect storm of pop-culture expectations, The Avengers is multiplied into stratospheric geekery by the adoration of dedicated Whedonites—those of us fans of the film’s director and writer Joss Whedon who worship every insightfully clever and achingly melancholic bit of genre genuflection penned by the self-deprecating Buffy/Angel/Firefly auteur.
The Avengers is nothing more—or less—than a superhero movie giant-ized to Team-Up size. It’s not a gritty reinvention or sub-textual exploration or masterpiece of the superhero genre. It’s big and shiny and full of lots of moving parts (including—be still my fan-boy heart—the Helicarrier and Quinjets!), not all of them meshing in perfect cinematic clockwork. In many ways it’s like any other of its ilk—all the familiar tropes and action beats are here. (My lord, I’d give up my Limited Edition Aquaman Under-Roos for a new action film that doesn’t feel compelled to have yet another pointless, mindless car chase.)
Setting aside lofty aesthetic or thematic aspirations like those sported by its dour cousin from across the tracks, The Dark Knight franchise, The Avengers fully embraces its bright, comic-book roots and limitations. Whedon, as Iron Man’s Jon Favreau did before him, knows and loves the genre, muffling the crass franchise ka-ching, and cloaking the usual narrative framework and familiar men-(and women)-in-tights formula behind good clean, giddy fun.
With story assist from Zak Penn, Whedon’s Avengers jumps through all the usual super-hero movie hoops, but does so with such entertaining confidence (and often, no surprise to Whedon fans, full-blown hilarity) that thanks to its over-sized nature, the film probably feels more awesome than it really is. But like the man said, never mind the details—If you think you’re in love, you’re in love.
If you’re not already familiar with these characters and their respective movies of the past few years, you’re going to be a little lost—The Avengers assumes you’ve at least seen Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America, all of which feed directly into the new movie’s plotline and its characters’ emotional development.
The story rounds up Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Thor/Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and the Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). They’re recruited to join the national-security agency S.H.I.E.L.D.’s director, eye-patched Bad Mutha Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), his winningly dedicated underling Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), and S.H.I.E.L.D. agents The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawk(eye) (Jeremy Renner) in their battle with Thor’s brother-gone-bad Loki. (One of the film’s secret weapons, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is a smirking spoiled brat by way of Richard E. Grant as a Euro-trash alt-rocker).
Big hunks of The Avengers feel driven by what’s expected from the super-hero genre, and for a while things lean toward the stilted and dictated—the movie keeps slipping sideways as it works to round up the heroes and map out all the teams internal and external conflicts. (As Tony Stark knowingly tells Loki later, “It takes us a while to get any traction.”) Don’t despair—by the midway point things do come together, traction is achieved, and the movie does eventually take off. (Did I mention the Hellicarrier!?)
The Avengers is very much a corporate franchise construction, and Whedon is mostly a hired gun—albeit a very talented one. There’s plenty of his usual smarty patter and deadpan pop-culture riffing, and the director does the very best he can within the genre’s formulaic restrictions. (He’s not out to completely subvert as in Cabin in the Woods, but Whedon does slip in one of his favorite topics: distrust of government agencies and institutions.)
Despite a few token nods to his ongoing theme of lonely outsiders banding together to do the right thing, Whedon uses a wit and savvy George Lucas only dreams of to fire big bolts of “Hulk, smash” glee into the quivering cortexes of our forever 11-year-old selves.
As in so many of his projects, Whedon gets his heroic mojo working when dishing out group dynamics between seemingly incompatible personalities. The Avengers is as much about the would-be heroes butting heads with each other as with Loki, and the film’s second act is solid face-to-face character-building chats as the reluctant new teammates poke and prod each other, the string of testy interactions made considerably more engaging by the wryly amusing work of Evans, Ruffalo, and Downey.
Downey’s the biggest marquee star here, and his smug, snarking Stark almost overpowers the proceedings, but luckily Ruffalo—the newcomer, picking up where previous Hulk stars Eric Bana and Edward Norton left off—is a master of bemused, knowing understatement, and provides a fine brooding counterweight to Stark’s braggadocio.
Best of all, where the pre-Avengers movies all had plenty of character but sported weak finales, The Avengers delivers the pugilistic goods with a truly spectacular Big Battle against Loki’s invading army (including Giant Armored Space Worms!) in Marvel’s traditional hometown, New York.
Visually, the third act’s explosions and building-destroying special effects aren’t anything new, but unlike the similarly destructive Transformers flicks, they’re handled with spatial clarity, and we know and care about the characters giving (and taking) the punches. (Some of the film’s best bits comes at the business end of The Hulk’s big green fists.) That Manhattan battle is every comic-book nerd’s deepest boom-smash fantasy finally brought to glorious, four-color life.
In many respects The Avengers feels like a function of its own hype—it exists only because it had to exist, willed into existence by the desperate, sweat-soaked coupling of both fan-boys’ and studio accountants’ fevered dreams.
Whedon understands the illusion that keeps the arranged marriage of geek hopes and studio ledgers working, making what is purely a big-tent action flick feel like something fresh and exciting. A good stage magician pulls off that mutually agreed-upon illusion even when the audience knows it’s a trick. (Fumble the stagecraft and you get Green Lantern or John Carter.)
Like the film maker’s own beloved characters from Buffy Summers to Captain Mal Reynolds, The Avengers is imperfect but steps up mightily when it needs to. That makes it about as pleasing a blast of summer movie fun as any geek could hope for.