This could have gone very badly, and we all know it. Had any one film in Marvel’s roster leading up to THE AVENGERS (the two IRON MAN films, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER and THOR) been a disaster, then it could have very well have doomed this project. And even those movies had varying degrees of success, both thematically and box office wise. My favorite of the Marvel films was the last one – CAPTAIN AMERICA hearkened back to those halcyon days of 1981 when I saw RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK every possible weekend that summer, and even CAPTAIN AMERICA had its share of issues.
But we stuck with all these movies because we hoped that all these arcs would pay off in the final product. It all depended on who they got to throw all these characters and stories in a blender. Too much Tony Stark in the mix, and we get too much cynicism; too much Steve Rogers and the movie becomes insufferably earnest. Add to that Thor’s Shakespeare-by-way-of-Jack-Kirby and Hulk’s psychological complications and it becomes obvious that it would take a master to put just the right amounts into the mix to make something unique and worthwhile.
So, we arrive at THE AVENGERS. And it turns out that not only was Joss Whedon the right man for the job, but that he may well have been the only man for the job. I’d like to think that Marvel knew what they were doing when they hired him – as far back as only being able to hand him story outlines for the still-to-be produced THOR and CAPTAIN AMERICA. They knew Whedon’s particular skill set (in terms of what he’s done in television and the comic-book world), and didn’t just hire him for the loyalty of his fan base or his geek credentials. It turns out that all three may have come into play here in some way, because what Joss Whedon has achieved joins geek moments where all you need is a month and a year and know exactly what it represents. Like that fateful day in May of 1977, or even that December of 2001, when everything seemed so dark and gloomy and Peter Jackson showed us that through perseverance and friendship we can see our way through. Yeah, THE AVENGERS is that good.
I’m certain that some 10-year-old child, boy or girl, is going to see this and say, “I want to do that,” and make something amazing in 20 years. Like STAR WARS, or LORD OF THE RINGS, THE AVENGERS has a transporting power that, like those great epic movies of old, takes the audience to a different world, a world in which a rich man can invent a mechanical suit of armor, or that magical gods exist, or that rage can make a modest man into a beast, or that heroes from yesteryear can return and save us all. There are moments where I wasn’t just recalling my childhood, sitting in the darkened church and reveling in those movies; no, I was that gleeful 10-year-old boy again, cheering my heroes, booing the villains, and being shown such images of wonder and majesty that I was utterly transported. This is nostalgia of the now.
Joss Whedon’s abilities as a director and a writer must be acknowledged, and I’m no Whedon fanboy. I love his work on BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, and his ability to give each character in that series their own arc and moment to shine absolutely comes into play in THE AVENGERS. With the exception of one character (and I’ll get to that), all of the heroes and supporting characters are given satisfying stories and conclusions. They all grow as characters, in that they are no longer the same people at the end that they were in the beginning. Marvel movies from here on will have to in some way acknowledge THE AVENGERS because everything has changed. From a movie perspective, yes, but also from a business perspective and how future comic book properties are utilized in movies from here on out.
The reason why readers young and old attach so much weight and attention to comics and their silly four-colored drawings is that they inspire us in this world. They are our fables, our myths, our stories told around the campfire. Christopher Nolan’s brilliant iteration of Batman has put the audience in a real-world place and yet has tapped into this primal storytelling. But THE AVENGERS is the first movie that feels like I fell into the pages of those comics of my youth. Like SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE and THE INCREDIBLES before it, THE AVENGERS has shifted the paradigm for this genre and filmmakers would do well to pay close attention to what Joss Whedon does here, because his film will raise the expectations exponentially for audiences at this point.
The story is simple – Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has come to Earth, and he will have his revenge against Asgard and his brother Thor. For that to happen, Loki will need an army to conquer Thor’s beloved Midgard, and he enlists the alien Chitauri to aid him. He has promised them the Tesseract – the Cosmic Cube of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER – that will aid the Chitauri in conquering the known universe, and in return they will give Earth to Loki. Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson) is left with no choice – he must bring together these disparate heroes to challenge Loki and save the planet. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is reluctant to put himself under the orders of other people, and Iron Man’s narcissism threatens any possibility of a team; Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) was a leader of men as Captain America, but now he is lost in a world in which he has no bearings; Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) has dedicated his life to helping others, but must hold his temperance in check lest the monstrous Hulk take control and destroy what little life he has made for himself; Thor (Chris Hemsworth) must put aside his conflicted feelings for his brother Loki and become the hero that Midgard needs. Loki subverts Clint Barton’s Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and it’s up to agent Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) AKA Black Widow to figure out how to release him from Loki’s spell. All these people must put aside their petty differences and work as a team if they have any hope of defeating Loki and his minions.
We can all agree that Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man is the definition of perfect casting, but while terrific in IRON MAN, he was unfocused to the point of rambling in the sequel. Yet, Whedon refocuses Downey’s performance in THE AVENGERS and I think the result is his best work with the character yet. Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers/Captain America is earnest and strong, qualities that could have become annoying fast but Evans, like his work in the first Captain America film, finds the truth in all of it and turns Rogers into the leader that he was always destined to be. Chris Hemsworth is equally good as Thor – intrinsically retaining the lessons learned of his previous movie without changing the character completely. Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow is strong and capable of holding her own with all these uber-men. Tom Hiddleston plays Loki much like his terrific performance in THOR, but he’s much angrier here; ready to deal out some damage to these pesky humans that have annoyed him so. Samuel Jackson does his “bad mutha” thing with Nick Fury, but we do get to see him hold his own in combat and show us why he’s the man to lead SHIELD. Even Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) with his deadpan demeanor brings something new to the table and it’s the best use of that character in all the films. He brings to Coulson a sense of earnestness and even nobility.
But the performance that I think everyone will be talking about, and remembering the most, is Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner. The Hulk seems easy on paper, but when it comes to the movies he’s been extraordinarily difficult to adapt successfully. It’s probably because while the Hulk in full-on rage can be very cinematic, Bruce Banner’s conflicts are all internal. It’s a mix that’s almost impossible to get right – imagine a sensitive indie movie about a man with deep psychological scars that suddenly turns into a Michael Bay movie in the last third. It’s a dichotomy that isn’t easy to portray onscreen, as fans of even Ang Lee’s HULK can attest.
On the surface, Mark Ruffalo’s Banner is cool and collected; he seems to enjoy other people, especially Tony Stark, and the characters are constantly asking him what his secret is so that he doesn’t rage out. But Ruffalo never tips his hand too much – you can sense more going on underneath, and when he finally transforms, you can’t help but feel like he’s lost a battle. It’s rare that Bruce Banner is portrayed so well in movies, but Whedon and Ruffalo have figured out that elusive spark that makes the character work.
And did I mention that when the Hulk does appear, he takes THE AVENGERS and makes it his own smashing ground? The Hulk bar none gets the most rousing moments in the movie, and I think Whedon gets something about the Hulk that even filmmakers like Ang Lee do not – he is catharsis as character. In a musical, characters sing because they have no other choice; in THE AVENGERS Hulk smashes because he must smash, and it leads up to some of the movie’s most triumphant moments.
With all this rousing praise, don’t think I could overlook the movie’s problems. In the beginning, THE AVENGERS struggles to find its tone and pace. With the amount of character building that must take place, such a problem was probably unavoidable. Because of all the character juggling, Hawkeye’s arc is sadly shortened. He spends a good portion under the control of one of Loki’s spells, so we learn little of his motivations or past. Perhaps the eventual sequel will open up his character a bit.
The treatment of such a stoic hero shouldn’t be seen as a dealbreaker. More unfortunate is Alan Silvestri’s score. Having previously scored CAPTAIN AMERICA, Silvestri again composes, but is unable to provide this comic-book epic with the iconic, rousing theme that it deserves. Someone like Michael Giacchino or John Powell would have worked wonderfully. Silvestri’s score isn’t terrible, but it’s completely unmemorable, and it needed to be very memorable.
Not enough Hawkeye and a weak music score are problems that I can overlook, however, because the end result is so spectacular. The final hour of THE AVENGERS is genre filmmaking as we’ve rarely seen before – full of action but never forgetting that we are invested in these characters. It’s bombastic, silly (in a good way), riveting, and completely works in a way that Michael Bay’s films never do. The way Whedon brings all these arcs to their proper conclusions is probably the most masterful aspect of his direction and the reason why I think that while the other Marvel movies can switch directors, THE AVENGERS franchise should stay with Whedon until the end.
Joss Whedon has crafted what I feel is the best superhero movie yet. It’s intense, satisfying, and even moving. THE AVENGERS has thrown down the gauntlet for this summer, one that like Thor’s hammer may be impossible for others to pick up. The mid-credits scene made me as a comic geek stand up and cheer and feels like a validation for this silly hobby of ours, that started in our rooms, reading these books and dreaming of our heroes, aspiring to greatness ourselves. THE AVENGERS is the movie of our childhood dreams brought to wonderful reality. It’s capital-G Great.