It’s not often that I see a movie early and honestly get frustrated about not being able to post a review before a specific date. It’s especially frustrating when I see other movie news sites breaking those press embargoes seemingly without a care in the world. But at last I can share with you my experience with Marvel’s THE AVENGERS… at last. We’ve seen several superhero movies in the past few decades, though it’s probably safe to say most of the comic book blockbusters started with Tim Burton’s BATMAN in 1989. Oh sure, SUPERMAN finished out the 1970’s and was a big success, but despite four entries starring Christopher Reeve, that franchise never sparked other characters getting their own movies. After Burton turned in his dark take on The Caped Crusader, we finally started to see pulp heroes getting the big screen treatment. Things were off to a shaky start at first, with Warren Beatty’s DICK TRACY in 1990 being colorful and aesthetically impressive, but failing to wow critics or audiences (personally I still like it). In 1991 we got THE ROCKETEER, adapting the cult favorite comic books by Dave Stevens, though probably a little too nostalgic for its own good – a favorite of mine nonetheless. In 1994 we saw Alec Baldwin as THE SHADOW, another good-looking film that just didn’t find an audience, and THE CROW which was quite good but sadly marred by it being a film that accidentally took Brandon Lee’s life. A few others in the 90’s just flopped, including THE PHANTOM (which means well but just doesn’t work) and the nearly-unwatchable STEEL starring Shaquille O’Neal. It was also during this time that we saw three BATMAN sequels, each progressively more disappointing to fans – BATMAN RETURNS (1992) had some good moments but was starting to get a little too campy, BATMAN FOREVER (1995) switched directors and ramped up the camp even more, and BATMAN AND ROBIN (1997) was an downright abomination. As that decade came to an end, it was BLADE that gave us hope, bringing a vampire-killing Marvel hero to the silver screen in a violent-but-effective way. As we entered the new century, Hollywood went nuts with comic book films. We got three SPIDER-MAN movies and three X-MEN movies, each featuring strong second films but messy and disjointed third installments. We also saw two HULK movies, one in 2004 that disappointed audiences, and one in 2008 that was a reboot with a different lead actor (Edward Norton). And we saw two FANTASTIC FOUR movies that were financially successful but didn’t garner good word of mouth. Batman got a reboot in 2005 with BATMAN BEGINS under the direction of Christopher Nolan, and hugely successful follow up with THE DARK KNIGHT in 2008. We also saw our share of failures with THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN in 2003, CATWOMAN in 2004, ELEKTRA in 2005 and JONAH HEX in 2010. Perhaps one of the biggest successes and most-important Marvel films to hit in that time was IRON MAN in 2008, which introduced Robert Downey Jr. as “Tony Stark” and gave Marvel more creative control over their films. While entering the current decade, we’ve had IRON MAN 2 in 2010, and THOR, CAPTAIN AMERICA and X-MEN: FIRST CLASS in 2011. Putting aside the latter, those other Marvel movies all had a purpose – to lead into a big screen epic called THE AVENGERS. Based on the popular comics, this would be a film that brings together the company’s most popular heroes to fight against a common foe as a team. Highly ambitious? Yes. Difficult to bring together? Almost certainly. Worth the wait? You better believe it.
I’m going to start this review by saying if you haven’t seen the IRON MAN movies, along with THOR and CAPTAIN AMERICA, chances are you may be a bit lost here. One thing THE AVENGERS does a good job of is tying all of these films together and drawing story elements from each. In fact, there are certain key moments in the other movies that factor directly into this screenplay. So if you missed any of them, do yourself a favor and watch them before you watch this. Otherwise you may have a big question mark floating over your head in the theater.
I also want to note that the plot description you’re about to read mostly just talks about the opening 10 to 15 minutes, so it’s not as spoiler-ish as you might think. It’s hard to talk about a film’s plot without going into some detail, but believe me when I say I’m leaving out some of the most surprising stuff.
The story opens by reintroducing us to an item that played heavily into the story from CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER… The Tesseract, also known to comic fans as The Cosmic Cube. In Cap’s big screen adventure, The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving, who does not appear in this) had stolen the cube from Odin’s tomb to use as a means of bringing Hydra (his Nazi offshoot organization) to power. Thankfully Captain America stepped in before it was too late. Currently the cube is in the hands of SHIELD, run by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and is being observed by Dr. Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård). After negotiating with some cosmic beings, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) pops up inside SHIELD headquarters and steals the cube, also brainwashing Selvig and Clint Barton aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) into serving him. With this new unsettling development, Fury and his right hand man Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and right hand woman Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) call together Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in hopes of forming a team. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is relaxing in the new Stark tower with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) when Coulson debriefs him. Stark isn’t interested, and points out that SHIELD initially didn’t think he’d fit their profiles anyway. Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) is ready to serve his country, though still struggling with fitting in after being unfrozen from the ice for almost 70 years. Bruce Banner (played here by Mark Ruffalo) is called in by Agent Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and seems reluctant to get involved, partially because he knows what happens when his anger gets out of control. SHIELD eventually catches Loki, but the cube is still missing, along with Selvig and Barton. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) shows up and steals his estranged brother Loki hoping to find out what he’s up to. This prompts a fight between the heroes and the Asgard God of Thunder. It soon becomes clear that the impending threat is one that can only be battled with a team effort… but joining together is the last thing these heroes want to do.
THE AVENGERS is directed by Joss Whedon, the man behind BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and FIREFLY – also known to many as a Geek God. Whedon’s past work seemed to be hit or miss on TV, but always struck a chord with the fans. Even SERENITY, his big screen continuation of the unfairly canceled FIREFLY series, wasn’t exactly a financial success during its release, but still sells out charity screenings and bring fans in by the thousands to see the actors at conventions. In short, Joss knows nerds, and knows what they like. When I first heard he was assigned to direct this movie, I immediately thought that was a smart move – taking a guy who understands the minds of people who love comics, and by the way has written several successful comics for Marvel and Dark Horse, and hand him what is undoubtedly the biggest comic book movie of all time. Granted, they could have gone after a bigger name director, like a Michael Bay or Bryan Singer, but sometimes bigger names mean a bigger chance of screwing things up. Sam Raimi turned in three incredibly successful SPIDER-MAN movies, and he was a guy who used to make insanely low-budget horror films for almost no financial return. Sometimes taking a smaller director with a big vision and handing them a lot of money can result in the biggest payoff. What Whedon excels at here is splitting up the attention on each individual character to extremely balanced results. Oh yeah, I almost forgot, he wrote the screenplay too. Again, a smart move. No one feels left out, no one feels more important than anyone else. Each character, despite their various strengths and abilities, gets to perform and do things with a fairly distributed amount of screen time. This one simple element was always one of the biggest problems with the X-MEN movies. Despite all those characters having their own uniquely cool traits, it always ended up being the Wolverine show. Hey, I love Wolverine just as much as anyone else, but shouldn’t a “team” movie be about a team working together and all doing their fair share? X-MEN films were never that – this is. THE AVENGERS does something very smart, and again something that’s thanks to Whedon’s understanding of comic books and comic book movies. It takes the stuff from the books that works so well and puts it on the screen, but doesn’t forget it’s a movie and therefore adjusts things that need to be tweaked. Joss even said recently in interviews that films like WATCHMEN, which tried to translate an incredibly complex comic story by simply putting it on the big screen word for word and panel for panel, don’t work because comics simply cannot be adapted directly as movies and be successful. At the same time, you don’t want to take away the stuff that is working, so you have to find the right balance for the finished product… and that’s exactly what we get here.
Each character is expertly reintroduced and fleshed out without being overdone. We’ve met these guys and gals before for the most part, so the movie doesn’t need to retell origin stories or start over, but rather bring them back into the narrative with subtle reminders of where we last saw them. Tony Stark for example is still maintaining his work/personal relationship with Pepper Potts when SHIELD comes calling. We know Tony and Pepper had a previous relationship with Coulson, so when Coulson shows up to recruit Stark, there’s banter to remind you of their previous encounters. Captain America is still fresh to this new timeline and advanced world, so he’s still getting used to things and people around him. In one particularly charming moment, it’s revealed that Coulson has a “vintage” set of Captain America trading cards, and is in fact a big fan of Steve Rogers. Black Widow still works for SHIELD as she did in IRON MAN 2, and Hawkeye does as well as he did in THOR. Perhaps the only characters who don’t get reminder backstories are Thor and Bruce Banner, but it never hurts the script. Thor is a God from another world, and if you saw that movie you already know all you need to. Banner is the alter ego of The Hulk, and even if you haven’t seen either of the big screen incarnations of that character, you pretty much know his story already. The screenplay wastes no time bringing these guys together, and there’s a great tension to start off their adventures. None of them particularly like each other, nor do they want to work together. In many ways this is kind of like the classic Marvel comic book team ups, in which two heroes must join forces to fight something or someone, but must first get past their differences, and in most cases fight each other for a bit. There’s also some nice surprises along the way that the average Marvel movie fan might not expect, and again moments that effectively tie this movie in with the previous big screen outings for these characters.
On the acting front, everyone seems to be giving it their all here. Not to say directors like Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh or Joe Johnston weren’t able to bring out the best in these people, but Whedon really does seem to capture all of them in exemplary form. Everyone has also had time to figure out these roles, especially Robert Downey Jr., who after two IRON MAN movies can probably play Tony Stark in his sleep. In many ways, Joss is getting them at a time when they’re perhaps most-comfortable with who they’re supposed to be. I loved Chris Evans playing Cap as just a little out of touch but nevertheless determined, and frequently butting heads with the cocky Tony Stark – their moments together are some of the best in the film, thanks to that snappy Whedon dialogue. Scarlett Johannson also gets to show a lot more to the character of Black Widow, and we see her biggest talents are in the art of getting information, through a variety of ways. Hulk is so cool, he’s just so cool here I can’t even tell ya. Ruffalo does a great job playing Banner as a reluctant but brilliant man, scared of who he is and what he can do, and in many ways I found it to be the best portrayal of that role to date. Then there’s the big green guy, and man oh man when he’s on screen you’re gonna love it… every second. One thing Joss appears to have added is a gorilla-like quality to Hulk, and it’s just one of many ways that character is so cool here. Perhaps the only actors who aren’t used quite as much as the audience might hope would be Chris Hemsworth and Jeremy Renner. Hemsworth gets plenty of hero and action moments, but doesn’t have much to say that I can recall. Renner’s character is somewhat downplayed for the first half because of being brainwashed, but is given lots of cool action scenes in the final act. Samuel L. Jackson is also used sparingly, but does have some great lines, and that makes up for his brief screen time. Again, in a movie like this with all these parts to put together, it has to be hard to find the exact right balance to where no one is feeling left out, and overall I think Joss did it very well. Some of the best lines belong to Tom Hiddleston as Loki, who is definitely more nasty and mean than what we saw in THOR. Perhaps his time in cosmic exile has jaded him, but his character here pulls no punches, and isn’t afraid to truly hurt people in his way. Maybe that was Whedon’s choice, but either way it’s a welcome surprise.
Advance reviews have complained that THE AVENGERS as a three-act movie features okay first and second acts followed by an excellent third act. I can understand that way of thinking. It’s safe to say the first two acts feel more by the book and obligatory, which could also be the result of the story having to bring all the elements together in a cohesive way. And sure, there’s a few slow moments in there and a handful of talky scenes. At 142 minutes, the movie definitely feels bigger and longer than most superhero fare, but just wait until the third act kicks in. Without spoiling anything, we’re treated to a final battle that is intense and epic, and never slows down. There are visuals that I, as a comic fan, never thought I’d see realized so beautifully on the big screen. In many ways this movie feels like a Michael Bay film, only without all the unnecessary gloss. The action is intense and cheer-worthy, and the characters are ALL worthy of being rooted for. Everyone gets their glory moments, and the end result is stunning. Even composer Alan Silvestri’s sweeping score is perhaps one of his best, and compliments the movie in a way many others never could. This is quite simply the comic book movie we’ve all been waiting our whole lives for.
To try and over-analyze this type of film would be futile, but there’s undoubtedly going to be people who don’t like it or simply don’t enjoy it. Considering our enthusiastic advance screening crowd of loudly-cheering fans, I’d be shocked to see anyone flat out hate the end result. I can say the 3D, as with most films these days, was underwhelming and added nothing to the end result, so I would recommend saving your money and seeing it in regular 2D. Also, be sure to stick around halfway through the credits for a stinger that sets up a sequel for THE AVENGERS nicely. You may need to ask someone next to you what you’re seeing, but again, as a comic fan, it was just one more way to make me very happy this whole thing came together as well as it did. Check it out for yourself and tell us your thoughts in the comments below.