If you can’t use over-the-top superlatives when describing superheroes, what’s the point of even having extreme comparative adjectives? So, to cut right to the chase, The Avengers is completely freaking over-the-top-and-back-again awesome.
Gigantic summer blockbuster though it may be, a film like The Avengers is always going to attract two audiences. The first is the fans who grew up devouring comic books and are intimately familiar with the exploits of Marvel Comics’ premier superhero team. (I’m smack dab in the middle of that category.) This is a tricky group to satisfy. On the one hand, they’re practically vibrating with anticipation to see this epic team-up. On the other, they’re so soaked in the history and tradition of the franchise, they’re just as likely to freak out over the tiniest of changes. I’m happy to report—much like Peter Jackson’s heroic efforts on The Lord of the Rings trilogy—this film delivers on even the most critical of expectations. The fan service here is excellent.
The second audience for The Avengers is made up of people who have never picked up a comic book in their life. Maybe they’ve been lured to the theater merely on the promise of summer blockbuster fireworks and fisticuffs. Maybe they’ve been slowly conditioned to want this film based on the careful buildup of cinematic teaser material (Jon Favreau’s Iron Man movie, Kenneth Branagh’s Thor movie, Joe Johnson’s Captain America: The First Avenger movie). So what will non-dyed-in-the-wool Marvel maniacs think of The Avengers? Very likely, they’ll be cheering their lungs out right alongside the twentysomethings in Captain America T-shirts and Hulk Underoos.
The Avengers represents the crowning achievement of Marvel and the publishing company’s new moviemaking overlords at Disney. The two put together a multiyear plan to introduce some of Marvel’s most legendary heroes in a series of big-budget films, each one pointing toward the titanic team-up that is The Avengers.
Brilliant step No. 1 was hiring talented and appropriate filmmakers. That bright idea continues with The Avengers. At the helm is “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly” writer/creator/director Joss Whedon. A fan fave from the get-go, Whedon is known for his clever scripting and sharp dialogue. Stepping into the big-budget big-time, Whedon doesn’t drop a stitch. His script manages to take six major heroes—Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, Chris Evans’ Captain America, Mark Ruffalo’s The Hulk, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye—and find space for each of them to shine.
The story starts out like gangbusters, with Thor’s evil brother Loki (the still-great Tom Hiddleston) returned from his exile on the far side of the galaxy and looking for revenge. With the assistance of the realty-warping Tesseract and a nasty alien race, he’s got his sights set on conquering the Earth. (Yes, a bit of familiarity with the Iron Man, Thor and Captain America films is helpful at this point.) What could possibly hold off such a disaster of this magnitude? Bad-ass government agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, finally unleashed) has a plan: Draft the word’s most powerful heroes into a single superteam.
Of course, as any comic book fan knows, there’s got to be plenty of infighting and arguing before any team worth its salt can unite behind a cause. Whedon does an expert job of sandwiching this character development between propulsive bursts of action, keeping the story hurtling forward at all times. Listening to Downey’s snarky Tony Stark trade barbs with Evans’ upstanding Steve Rogers is a zesty treat. Watching Ruffalo’s towering Hulk duke it out mano a mano with Hemsworth’s studly Thor is even more rewarding.
Throughout it all, we get a very solid handle on who these characters are. The problem with a team like The Avengers has always been the question of how and why they fit together. What’s the point of having Hawkeye when you’ve got the Hulk? But The Avengers clearly delineates the skills of each player and explains what each one adds to the big, evil-bashing picture. If you can take a character like Hawkeye, who’s stuck with some rather pedestrian powers (he owns a bow), and turn him into the show-stopping, ass-kicking hero he is here, you’ve done something very right.
Whedon manages a similarly admirable tune-up on The Hulk. After a couple of only mildly successful features (2003’s Hulk and 2008’s The Incredible Hulk), it seemed as if the Green Goliath just wasn’t a good match for the silver screen. But Whedon has cracked the problem, offering up a rageaholic Hulk who gives the film its biggest, smashingest, most satisfying moments.
Like Rocky III jacked up on Super Soldier formula, The Avengers is bursting with stand-up-and-cheer moments. My only minor criticism, is that—like Captain America: The First Avenger—the film gives short shrift to the villain’s motivations. If you’re familiar with Thor, you’ll understand a bit of Loki’s backstory. Otherwise, he comes across as your basic evil-for-the-sake-of-evil bad guy. His alien minions are even more faceless and cannon-foddery.
Still, there’s a persuasive argument to be made that The Avengers is the greatest comic book movie in the history of ever. You could voice the opinion that The Dark Knight is smarter and more well-crafted. But you’d be hard-pressed to say it captures the hyperbolic, city-smashing, rainbow-colored, KRACK-A-BOOM! that is the comic book world as expertly as The Avengers.