One of my first memories of comic heroes on the screen -- indeed, possibly one of my earliest memories ever -- comes from when I was four years old and watching syndicated reruns of TV's The Incredible Hulk, terrified and exhilarated at the sight of Bill Bixby metamorphosing into a green-painted, fright-wigged Lou Ferrigno. So different from the comic, but hey, it was the best we had. Cut to several decades later, and as I sat watching Marvel Studios' mammoth superhero jam The Avengers, bringing to life the kind of spectacle that was, until recently, the exclusive purview of the page, I kept thinking about four-year-old me and wondering what he'd be thinking right about now.
In that sense -- in a very large sense -- The Avengers doesn't merely mark the culmination of Marvel Studios' sometimes interminable, slow-burn plan (initiated with 2008's Iron Man) leading toward the creation of a shared movie constellation comprised of its brightest stars. Rather, it's the ultimate expression of everything superhero movies have fitfully built up to in the thirty-four years since Chris Reeve's Superman stepped out of a revolving door and first took to the sky. As masterfully executed by writer, director, and famed geek god Joss Whedon (he of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Angel fame), The Avengers shatters the last barrier separating the printed page and the celluloid image, fully wresting the superhero genre away from the medium that birthed it.
The story has wayward God of Mischief Loki (Tom Hiddleston), last seen plummeting into a black hole at the end of last year's Thor, returning to Earth, this time with a world-beating plot involving the Tesseract (the energy cube/McGuffin from Captain America: The First Avenger -- also last year). Recognizing the impending challenge, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), head of ubiquitous spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D., pulls together the strands of the Marvel's movie-verse and enlists the aid of Steve Rogers, recently-revived WWII super soldier Captain America (Chris Evans), millionaire industrialist Tony Stark, a.k.a Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), famed geneticist/big green monster Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Asgardian Thunder God.
Before the credits roll, this array of disparate personalities (which also includes Jeremy Renner as ace marksman Hawkeye, and Scarlett Johansson as lethal superspy Black Widow) must work through their various personal and interpersonal disfunctions and forge a team that can repel an onslaught of alien invaders from another dimension. Do they pull it off? Well, without giving too much away, let's just say that the Avengers have continually been in print for going on fifty years now, so it wouldn't be going too far out on a limb to expect a sequel or two down the line (and, as is customary with these flicks, it might also be worthwhile to stick around through the credits).
More than just the narrative mechanics necessary to get the story going though, what Whedon manages to pull off with breathtaking precision is to integrate these various individual franchises, so different from one another tonally, into a seamless whole. For anyone not versed in the intricacies of the Marvel Comics universe, where these characters cross paths week-in and week-out, this could just as easily have become the superhero equivalent of the old Universal "monster jam" flicks like House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula that tossed all of the studio's hoary horror icons into one pot to increasingly nonsensical and inadvertently comedic results.
Whedon and co-scenarist Zak Penn give each character a compelling reason not only to be part of the action, but also to work with one another. Here again we see the genius of the studio spending the last several years building these characters up separately via their individual films. Without the need to ladle out each of their respective backstories, the various plotlines (Captain America adapting to life 70 years removed from the time he knew, Bruce Banner coming to terms with his big, Hulking problem, etc.) have room to breathe, and the way they're interwoven not only provide an impetus for the characters to come together, but for the audience to retain interest beyond the promised third act fireworks (which are plentiful, natch).
As far as the cast, all are in fine form, benefitting greatly from the expanded canvas of being able to interact with one another. Downey, playing Stark for the third time in five summers, has settled on a comfortable collection of tics and mannerisms for his character that could very easily cross over into self-parody (as the actor's interpretation of Sherlock Holmes seems in danger of doing), but the tone and tenor of his scenes with Evans' Steve Rogers allows both actors to find new emotional terrain to mine, with Stark's bluster and bravado masking a core of deep uncertainty, and Rogers forced to measure up to his own legend that's grown around him while he was (literally) on ice.
Picking up more directly on threads left dangling in Thor, Hemsworth and Hiddleston don't miss a beat in their reprisals of Thor and Loki, continuing the inter-sibling tension which began in the prior film and is amped up even further here. While Hiddleston had an air of tragedy about him last time, with deeply haunted eyes, he's now crossed the line into full-blown insanity, which he embodies with gusto. Also, what I liked previously about Hemsworth's take on Thor is the delicate balance he found between making the hero larger-than-life while still imbuing him with enough vulnerability to make him relatable. I was gratified to see that trend continue there, with some meaningful acknowledgement of prior developments.
Meanwhile, making his first appearance here is Ruffalo, the third Bruce Banner in as many movies (and the first to actually embody his giant green alter ego, via motion capture). Although I was initially wary of the news that the role's previous occupant, Edward Norton, was not going to be included in The Avengers ensemble after actor and studio famously fell out, I have to admit to liking Ruffalo's take a great deal. I wouldn't say it's necessarily better or worse, just different enough to make it uniquely his, while retaining enough of a tie with the Norton version as to not feel like a wholly different character. Based on the development he's given here, I'd be fully onboard with a new Hulk feature with Ruffalo in the lead.
Moving beyond the primary heroes, The Avengers has also been blessed with an exemplary cast of supporting players, from secondary heroes Johansson and Renner to S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Cobie Smulders (playing second-in-command Maria Hill) and Clark Gregg (in his third turn as Agent Phil Coulson), to spymaster Jackson as the eye-patched Fury. It truly is a measure of the looking glass world we live in that this model of Fury, traditionally a caucasian in the comic books since his creation in the '60s, began with artist Bryan Hitch's 2001 remodel of the character in Jackson's image -- nearly a decade before the actor actually played the role -- and now it's hard to imagine the character being anyone but Jackson (okay, maybe David Hasselhoff too...)
Even with a very solid running time that pushes right up against the two-and-a-half hour mark, the film moves along briskly enough that it never feels oppressive or padded, with plenty of welcome character development squeezed in between the various action set pieces (a mid-film battle sequence on the airborne S.H.I.E.L.D headquarters is a particular highlight). Also, in what comes as a welcome and unexpected surprise for me, the post-converted 3D that Whedon utilizes here works surprisingly well, neither so obtrusive as to become distracting, nor so unobtrusive as to become irrelevant.
For me, in my mind's eye still the four-year-old watching Lou Ferrigno in green greasepaint, it wasn't until deep into the film's third act, with an extended tracking shot in the midst of a wrecked and alien-infested NYC that allows each of the team a moment to shine, that it suddenly hit me: This was an Avengers movie! I can't even say it's something I've waited all my life for, because never in a million years did I think something like this could get made at all, much less succeed as well as it does. Far more than just a triumph of logistics or special effects or even art in the midst of commerce, The Avengers is a triumph simply for the fact that it exists. No assembly required here. A
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