Forget the fact that Christopher Nolan’s batmagnum opus “The Dark Knight” is the one of the highest grossing films of all-time. Forget that four big-screen comic book adaptations were released last summer (“Thor,” “X-Men: First Class,” “Green Lantern” and “Captain America: The First Avenger”). Forget that everybody and their mother is vocally expressing their censure towards one future Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film (produced by Michael Bay, directed by the guy who did “Battle: Los Angeles”) in which the titular turtles are said to be from an alien race. That idea seems offensive to all the words in the property’s title.
No, the true signifier that geek culture is synonymous with popular culture is that a live-action, big-budget summer blockbuster about the Avengers is finally arriving in theaters, and to rabid audience anticipation, from comic book aficionados and casual moviegoers alike. They said it couldn’t be done, and in all likelihood, probably shouldn’t be done. Well, “they” have some serious explaining to do, and “they” might have to issue an apology when they get a load of “The Avengers.”
The Avengers, of course, is the cross-continuity assembly of Marvel’s top superheroes united together to function as a force to be reckoned with, similar to the DC Comics’ all-star lineup, the Justice League. In this film iteration, the colorful display of comic book icons is made up of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (seen here and there in “Iron Man 2,” played by Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).
After a long line of generally pretty good self-contained superhero movies tracing back to the transcendentally entertaining first “Iron Man” film in May of 2008, the rest of the gang has been introduced to moviegoers (with the exception of Hawkeye, who makes his big screen debut here). We know their unique backstories, their specialties and powers, and their distinctive personas. Now that character establishment is no longer an issue, this allows the film to get straight to the point. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the eyepatched mission director in charge of the spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D., forecasts the potential threat of war and calls upon earth’s mightiest heroes to combat the worldwide hazard and save the world as we know it.
The impending danger: Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who devoted fans will recognize as Thor’s wayward adopted brother with a major inferiority complex, stumbles into our world through a inter-dimensional portal opened up by a radiant blue cube of unlimited energy called the Tesseract (geometry majors will surely know what that means). Naturally, the phrase “unlimited energy” doesn’t limit the Tesseract’s power strictly to moral usage or constructive benefits; in the wrong hands, the device can be used to breach the space-time continuum and summon legions of extraterrestrial lifeforms and dozens of robotic war machines (that look like fat, metallic manatees) to overthrow humanity.
Loki was the antagonist in “Thor,” constantly bitter about living in his brother’s shadow, jealous of the fact that Thor was chosen to rule the kingdom of Asgard instead of him. In my initial review for that movie, I was quoted in saying the kid was “not all that intimidating” and “equally hollow” as the film’s not-so-compelling metallic automaton whose entire programming is to engulf everything in flames. I suppose Loki neither struck me as a particularly charismatic villain, nor a very menacing one with his constant sulking and that insistently crooked look about him. Loki must’ve taken notes from other, better villains before showing his face on our planet this time. At the very least, he’s been practicing his own villainy in his spare time, because in “The Avengers,” I found him to be a positively upright baddie, dastardly and despicable in every way, yet it looked like he was having a good time with his wicked ways.
As for the superheroes themselves, getting acquainted and working cooperatively seems all but hopeless from the outset. Removed from their natural habitats, hailing from all different geographical regions, time periods, and even universes, their attitudes push together like convergent plate boundaries. It’s only a matter of time before someone awakens the Incredible Hulk from his slumber. From the moment a three-way showdown takes place between Iron Man, Captain America and Thor in a pitch-black forest, it’s clear to see that the road to mutual agreement will be about as smooth as a cobblestone alley.
The film is both directed and written by Joss Whedon, a name that should be etched into the psyche of many fanboys and fangirls by now. Whedon may as well be the modern superhero of niche properties and cult classics, having created TV shows such as “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” and “Firefly” (as well as the “Firefly” theatrical release, “Serenity”). If one thing is clear from his television credits, it is that Whedon excels at controlling large ensemble casts. All the better for him to helm “The Avengers,” which basically amounts to a superhero version of the game “Super Smash Bros” (or “Marvel vs. Capcom,” but without the Capcom part).
Also, just like Whedon’s screenplays, including the recent horror satire “The Cabin In The Woods,” the witticisms, one-liners, self-aware humor and snappy dialogue passages are practically spilling off the page in scene after scene. However, even though the film has a tendency to produce bigger laughs than most recent mainstream comedies I can pull out of a hat, the comic book source material that inspired this is never placed in dishonest hands, nor does the film condescend to its target audience. Each of the characters retain a sense of themselves even when things start to get ridiculous, implausible, or, dare I say, dramatic.
And then there’s the thing that everyone wants out of their big dumb summer spectacles: the action. And yes, there is a lot of it, particularly in the third act. Even though needless action can bring the quality of a movie down a few notches when it is merely used as an autopilot technique by filmmakers to cruise onward to a tidy, unthinking conclusion, it is all about the purpose the action serves. Around the halfway mark comes one of the greatest action setpieces in recent memory, which takes place on the S.H.I.E.L.D. hovercraft as it is being infiltrated by Loki’s henchman. The way the film simultaneously juggles all the external and internal conflicts throughout this scene (momentarily setting fiery arguments aside to assist one another, fending off Loki’s cronies, controlling the seemingly uncontrollable Hulk, managing with the ship’s electrical power disabled, Black Widow coping with her troubled past experiences with an Avengers turncoat) is nothing short of brilliant.
In fact, this sequence could have been the reason why the final extravagant setpiece in Manhattan seemed sorta less accomplished and not nearly as fulfilling by comparison. Make no mistake, this part is never boring and the characters finally act as a team, but how come it felt like more was at stake on the airship?
Nonetheless, “The Avengers” is first-rate action escapism at its finest. In addition to the initial entertainment value, one can only imagine the studio decisions and filmmaking possibilities this can open up if it makes a profit at the box office (which it undoubtedly will). This was a big, ambitious undertaking riding on the appeal of comic book fans, and of course, success could mean more large-scale comic projects in the future (DC’s Justice League might get a chance to shine). Perhaps even film adaptations for some of the lesser known Marvel Avengers. Be prepared to see much influence and comparison to “The Avengers” in future years.
Note: Stay after the credits. It’s a Marvel movie for crying out loud. There’s two credit stinger scenes.