Make no mistake, this is high praise coming from a member of the nitpickiest of fanbases. And while there are nits here to be picked, there are none that ultimately get in the way of what is a remarkably enjoyable superhero comics experience. Because that’s what this film is; that’s what writer/director Joss Whedon and company have created. If you were to right-click on the page of an Avengers comic (or more specifically a 6-issue TPB compilation of the opening story arc of a rebooted Avengers comic), and then drag the cursor over a movie screen, right-click again and press COPY, Marvel’s The Avengers is what you’d get. Whedon clearly did a few remarkably simple things: he paid attention to Avengers comic books, he figured out what comics fans wanted to see in an Avengers movie, and he actually WATCHED the Avengers prequel movies we’ve been inundated with since 2008.
Let’s start there: how important, now, do both Iron Man movies, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, and Thor seem? Since Marvel Studios put forth those films, and put them forth well, then Marvel’s The Avengers didn’t have to waste time with all of those origin stories. We’d already met virtually every major character in this film, allowing it to simply be an Avengers origin story. That, more than anything else, was the key to making Marvel’s The Avengers a film that would actually work: we knew the characters, the filmmakers trusted that we knew the characters, and this enabled them to hit the ground running.
The story itself is simple enough: world peacekeeping organization S.H.I.E.L.D., headed by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), has in its possession the Tesseract (*koff koff* Cosmic Cube *koff koff*), an ancient otherworldly artifact capable of generating limitless energy. When the cube is stolen by the Loki, the in-the-flesh Norse God of Mischief, Fury pulls together a team of disparate individuals with unique abilities to retrieve it: Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Loki’s God of Thunder brother Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Dr. Bruce Banner a.k.a the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and S.H.I.E.L.D. agent The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson); eventually marksman Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) joins the team as well.
There are several things I want to take note of: it’s fascinating, to me, that the current other-media interpretations of The Avengers, including this film and to a lesser extent the DX animated Earth’s Mightiest Heroes series, owe as much to Kirby and Lee as they do to Millar and Hitch. The impact of The Ultimates is felt all over Marvel’s The Avengers, and it’s more than just the Sam Jackson model for Nick Fury: The Avengers as a S.H.I.E.L.D. task force, Loki manipulating Thor in a plastisteel prison, the alien forces of the Chitauri (*koff koff* the Skrulls *koff koff*), Cap’s observation that Loki’s alien-gifted weapon looks a lot like Hydra WW II tech (as the Chitauri in The Ultimates were supplying the Nazis, if you recall), Robert Downey Jr.’s eccentric version of Tony Stark that has remained constant through two Iron Man movies as well as this film…
And that’s another thing that works so beautifully here, and shows how seamlessly Marvel Studios has pulled off the impossible: when Tony and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) banter, it could have been pulled out of the deleted scenes of Iron Man 2. Chris Evans’ Cap looks as if he stepped right off the set of that movie and onto the set of this one. New threads aside, Thor is the same guy we’ve seen before in his own flick. The consistency here from the earlier films to this one is Marvel-ous; attention was paid and the strings attaching Marvel’s The Avengers to its predecessors are invisible.
Except, of course, in the case of the film’s breakout star of sorts: the Hulk. The Incredible Hulk is the one prequel I hadn’t seen, and so I iTunesed not so long ago and found that, hey, it was pretty good, and Ed Norton’s Bruce Banner was actually a really neat portrayal. So I’m not going to say I liked Mark Ruffalo better, per se; two outstanding actors gave two nuanced and separate spins on the character. In Marvel’s The Avengers, though, the Hulk himself is exactly what the Hulk should be: angry, yes, but more a petulant, frustrated child than an uncontrollable monster or unthinking beast. This Hulk, from his CGI model to his actions and reactions, looked and felt more like the comic book Hulk than any other we’ve ever seen on-screen, and one of my major criticisms of the Green Goliath in The Incredible Hulk was corrected here: the character can be played for humor. There is a world of comedic potential in the single-minded Hulk interacting with a world that fancies itself far more important and multi-faceted than he, sometimes correctly and sometimes not so much. One of the keys to the Hulk is that he’s not as brainless as we think, and this film, finally, recognized that. (Also, Ruffalo gets what might be the line of the movie in a script full of clever lines, when he explains to Captain America what his own personal secret weapon is.)
The casting is spot-on: Scarlett Johansson is appropriately bad-girl-spy-chic and badass, and even vulnerable at times; she’s far more comfortable in the Black Widow skin here than she was in Iron Man 2. Jeremy Renner makes for a fantastic Hawkeye, the favorite character of my party of moviegoers, and I’d probably pony up American cash money to see a Hawkeye/Widow film. Hemsworth and RDJ are their usual textbook Thor and Iron Man, respectively.
Then there’s Chris Evans. Chris Evans’ Captain America is so different than what we’ve come to expect. For decades, Marvel scribes have been writing Cap as the granite-jawed field general, letting every decade of his eighty-plus years on this Earth show through. Evans, though, clearly has latched onto the pre-Cap version of Steve Rogers, gotten that identity ingrained into his actor’s bones, and I really appreciate his softer, almost vulnerable, and far younger version of Captain America than I’m used to reading in either 616 or Ultimate continuity.
What puts Marvel’s The Avengers over the top, though, is its final 30 minutes. Far too often the “big fight at the end” in a superhero movie is anticlimactic. Not so here. I’ll admit: this is the part of the film I had the most trepidation about, and ultimately it’s the part that worked the best. In my more honest moments, I thought it would likely look pretty silly, this group of six fighting back legions of alien hordes, and with Cap, Hawkeye, and Black Widow pretty much ineffectively running down the street while Thor, Hulk, and Iron Man took care of business. I was wrong. This is the sequence that will make Whedon a star, an A-List director. He utilizes every Avenger to their fullest in the final battle (and really through the entire move; this never feels like Captain America’s movie, for example, like X-Men was Wolverine’s movie), and gives you a great sense not only that each of them brings something different and vital to the combat, but actually manages, even while they’re presumably spread over several New York City blocks, to make the group of six feel like a team. The most rewarding part of Marvel’s The Avengers is watching over that 30 minutes as 6 people enter the ring separately, and leave it united. Far more than any other movie of its kind, Marvel’s The Avengers is clearly and unabashedly an ensemble story about the whole, not the few, and this is another reason why it’s a winner.
I didn’t leave Marvel’s The Avengers as blown away as I did after, say, The Dark Knight; Joss Whedon still isn’t the filmmaker Christopher Nolan is, and while his film doesn’t do anything wrong, I’d also hesitate to say it breaks any new ground. But far more than The Dark Knight, Marvel’s The Avengers is a comic book on film, a four-color panel-by-panel spectacle brought into living, breathing reality. And aside, perhaps, from the missing cry of “Avengers Assemble!” (Really? Not once?) there isn’t much more that we, as crazy-ass comic book geeks, could have asked for.
Tom Hoefner (@TomHoefner on Twitter) is a playwright, theatre director, college professor, and would-be novelist living in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter. By now, whenever a writer unexpectedly and viciously kills off a fan-favorite character but for a good reason, can we officially say they’ve “pulled a Whedon?”
Check out “From the Casefiles of Race and Cookie McCloud”, a blog of super-short stories chronicling the adventures of Race McCloud, Private Eye, and his 15-year old former-secret-agent-in-training niece Cookie: http://raceandcookie.blogspot.com
Post-Credits Scene 1: Half the audience went, “YES!” The other half went, “Who?”
Post-Credits Scene 2: … brilliant. Just… brilliant.