Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Avengers

Director: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgard, Samuel L. Jackson
Running Time: 143 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

So, how is it that nearly every Marvel superhero movie leading up to this has been either a mixed bag or flat-out failure, yet when the characters assemble in The Avengers, it somehow clicks? It's good, not great, but that it works at all is kind of a miracle considering how uneven the build-up was in getting here. The only explanation is that they found the right guy for the job in Joss Whedon, who clearly understands how this material should be treated and avoids many of the pitfalls made in the movies leading up to it. While it's kind of unfathomable to me that this ranks as the third highest grossing film of all time, at least it's a lot of fun and delivers for the fans what's asked of it, if not more. Yes, it's an overblown, CGI spectacle with a ridiculously mindless finale, but for once in the Marvel universe at least the filmmaker seems aware of it and in on the joke. Most interestingly, all these characters function much better together in one tightly scripted story than apart in their own separate franchises, making the thought of a sequel (especially under Whedon) actually seem somewhat enticing. Though forgive me for just being glad it's over, since I've about had enough of entire Marvel features functioning as trailers and cheap plugs for this effort, which thankfully turns out to be a lot of fun.

The six superheroes known collectively as The Avengers are brought together when Thor's (Chris Hemsworth) evil, adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) breaks into SHIELD headquarters, gaining possession of a powerful glowing energy cube known as the Tesseract and brainwashing Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Professor Selvig (Stellan Skargard). Given no other options, SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and agent Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson)  recruit Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Thor to try to put a stop to Loki's plan to rule Earth by opening a wormhole that would allow the Chitauri alien race to descend upon this planet and attack. All of these superheroes being able to co-exist and work effectively together is one challenge, but stopping Loki's army from completely decimating New York City and its inhabitants is an even bigger one.

The plot is ridiculous and there isn't a surprise to be found other than how quickly the two and a half hours fly by, but that's fine. The real draw is seeing these familiar characters interact with one other in a fresh, humorous story that plays to the strengths of everyone involved. That all the backstories involving these characters have (for better or worse) been taken care of in the previous Marvel installments allows this one to get down to business right away, and Whedon takes full advantage in the exciting opening prologue that effectively gets the ball rolling with little time wasted. At first I cringed at the prospect of Hiddleston's Loki being the film's chief antagonist, if only because the feud involving him and his brother in Thor was such a slog to get through that the thought of revisiting it on a larger scale would seem to be asking for trouble. Luckily, Loki's depicted as much more of a conniving, menacingly slimy presence this time around than the wimpy whiner we saw in that film and Hiddleston's performance really benfits from it, likely making an impact for even those unfamiliar with the character. The same could be said for all the featured players who are about ten times more intriguing here than they were in their own films. Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark/Iron Man was the best developed superhero leading into this, but even his act, which was starting to show fatigue, is given a shot in the arm when he's surrounded by all these characters he can bounce his sarcasm and cockiness off of. Also along for the ride again is Gwyneth Paltrow, who makes a barefooted cameo as Pepper Potts, and Clark Gregg, who successfully builds on his previously undefined role as Agent Coulson. Even Samuel L. Jackson feels like he has agency and purpose as Nick Fury, leading an actual mission instead of just popping up during or after the credits of every summer superhero blockbuster.

Understandably, Downey could very well be considered the lead in terms of screen time, but what's most impressive about the tight script is how it literally gives everyone something to do without the film feeling overstuffed. The biggest benefactor just might be Scarlett Johansson who after being poorly introduced and developed as Black Widow in Iron Man 2 is redeemed completely as kick ass heroine who basically has a co-leading role alongside Downey, really delivering this time around. It feels like she's in every scene of the movie even when she isn't, which is a sure sign Scarlett gets it right. The only character that genuinely seems underutilized is How I Met Your Mother star Cobie Smulders' Agent Maria Hill. The actress's first semi-substantial big screen role has her unfortunately relegated to merely giving info to Nick Fury and taking orders. I guess it's a start, but here's hoping it's built on and her character is fleshed out more in the sequel since she's given nearly nothing to work with here.

Chris Evans' Captain America benefits from having the most interesting built-in backstory and that's exploited to full effect and his arguments with Downey are a hoot. But the true standout is Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, stepping in for Edward Norton who actually did a fine job in 2008's The Incredible Hulk. On paper, Ruffalo wouldn't seem to be the ideal choice to follow him but his take on the conflict within Banner ends up being the most intriguing performance in the role since Bill Bixby set the gold standard in the late 70's-early 80's TV series. All the movie's best scenes involve the character's complicated relationship with his giant green alter ego and what it takes to keep him in check. When The Hulk does come out it's the most efficient CGI rendering of the character thus far. This entire concoction is enjoyable as a live action cartoon but when Ruffalo's the focus, it feels like more because of his concerted effort to make Banner actually seem like a complex person. While "Complex" and "Avengers" probably shouldn't be used in the same sentence the amusing back-and-forth dialogue between the characters comes the closest it ever has in a Marvel film to approaching genuine cleverness. The third act's is a silly mess for sure, but at least it's an entertaining one with impressive looking effects and crisp editing that still managed to hold my interest on the small screen and in 2D.

This getting a pass because it didn't do enough wrong probably isn't the most glowing recommendation, but I've slowly coming to the realization that these Marvel movies just might not be my "thing." So that I really enjoyed it despite feeling let down by just about every other superhero movie they released prior, might be more of a compliment than it seems. They're a lot of people's thing though and those fans couldn't reasonably be disappointed with any decision Whedon made. There's no getting around the fact that this would be compared and pitted against The Dark Knight Rises over the summer and it might be the ultimate compliment to both filmmakers (okay, mainly Nolan) that I don't even count the two wildly different films as belonging to the same genre. But if we are comparing, they're not even in the same league since the impeccably crafted TDKR actually feels like it's about something, whereas this is just plain fun for the sake of it. It's good to have options and The Avengers most definitely falls in the wheelhouse of a more traditional, ripped-from-the-pages comic book movie. It doesn't change the game in any way, but it's enormously successful in what it's trying to do and makes for legitimately great time. Considering the the mixed bag of Marvel movies preceding it, that's just about as big an accomplishment as it gets for a franchise that doesn't seem to be running out of gas anytime soon.      

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