Thursday, May 3, 2012

Review: The Avengers

Non Spoiler Review:
The culmination of Marvel's grand plan comes to fruition in The Avengers, under the watchful and wise management of Joss Whedon. Following the return of Captain America from 70 years on ice, and Loki's disappearance in Thor, we immediately see that the trickster god has found new alien allies and is preparing to spearhead an invasion of Earth by the Chitauri, in exchange for delivering the tesseract (or cosmic cube) to his benefactors. That means stealing the tesseract from S.H.I.E.L.D., who is analyzing its properties for unlimited energy potential. Loki's arrival sparks S.H.I.E.L.D. commander Nick Fury to attempt to initiate his already defunct Avenger's Initiative in order to meet the threat. More problematic is managing the assorted egos, issues and relationships that come with throwing six disparate heroes together who have previously worked alone.

The Avengers is, of course, directed by Joss Whedon (Buffy, Dollhouse, Cabin in the Woods), and brings back the cast from Iron Man, Thor and Captain America—Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Chris Evans (Captain America), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Scarlett Johannson (Black Widow), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), Tom Hiddleston (Loki) and Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury). Rounding out the cast is the omnipresent Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson, appearances by Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, and Stellan Skarsgard as Dr. Selvig. The new face this time is Mark Ruffalo, taking over from Edward Norton as Dr. Bruce Banner.

The story has a basic premise, but is quite intricate in how it unfolds—Loki versus the Avengers. But Loki remains a very clever villain and doesn't fall into any clich├ęs thanks to Whedon. He carries out a plot both for conquest, but also for revenge against his brother and a need to be recognized and worshipped as a conqueror. Meanwhile, Nick Fury must manage all the variables in bringing his players together, as well as meeting Loki's threat. This leads to a first hour of assembling, but remains just as interesting as the action parts.

What's even more remarkable, Whedon weaves the characters of three movies together flawlessly, with customary snappy dialogue—Tony Stark can refer to Thor as "Point Break", while at the same time Loki arrives declaring "I am burdened with a glorious purpose", and both sound just fine coming out of each actor. The byzantine continuity between films remains sacrosanct and constantly self-referenced, accented by some great appearances by secondary characters, notably Dr. Selvig, Pepper Pots, and even acknowledgement of Jane Foster. With an impressive running time, The Avengers gives everyone and everything the time needed to develop organically, without feeling rushed or too slow.

Chris Hemsworth continues to bring to life a believable, funloving god, but one who has learned his lessons from his earlier battle with Loki. Now reunited with his adopted brother thought dead, he has to deal with his responsibility in the danger facing Earth. Chris Evans juggles the characteristic do-goodery of Captain America but with new opportunity to show off his powerful leadership skills. After a very extreme Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man 2, he delivers a just as funny, but perhaps more restrained and enjoyable version, one likely tempered by his new relationship with Pepper Potts. Even Black Widow gets fleshed out to such a degree I'm looking forward to her getting some flashbacks in a future S.H.I.E.L.D. movie, along with her equally compelling comrade, Hawkeye, who is likely the one character with the least screentime.

Mark Ruffalo excels in portraying the troublesome Bruce Banner as a very understated and quiet genius. The Hulk itself feels like it's finally right...bearing hints of Ruffalo in his appearance, as well as a bit of comprehension scattered among his mindless smashings. The CGI really delivered this time around. I'm not yet sure Hulk should carry his own movie again, but he certainly could provide a strong pillar as a guest star in any of the other franchises.

Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury, never the strongest supporting Marvel cast member, really shines here, and his subtle manipulation of his recruits masterfully herds the cats that are the Avengers. This is the first film I've really felt he's Nick Fury, and not just a tacked on element for continuity purposes. Cobie Smulders appears as new S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill, who is sure to be making future appearances in the franchise. And of course...the helicarrier.

Tom Hiddleston continues Loki's arc and really succeeds in bringing a great villain to screen again, building on all his issues from Thor. The Chitauri themselves provide the army (and cannon fodder), and are kind of Skrull-like, however I've read that Skrulls are tied in with the Fantastic Four franchise, and currently out of reach by Marvel Entertainment. The climatic scene in New York is one of the best orchestrated I've seen in awhile. Just one of many dazzling action sequences.

Visually, The Avengers is awash in eye-candy—the New York skyline complete with the (terribly) ugly Stark Tower, the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier with see-through computer screens, and all manner of technical gadgets, including some chilling designs for the Chitauri weaponry. But it's the heroes themselves who jump off the screen in their brilliant costumes. This is the first time we see Captain America's modern day garb, and it looks pretty stellar.

So often one can leave a film wishing a simple line of dialogue could have answered a troubling plot hole, and Whedon is aware of this. How does Thor get to Earth when the Bifrost is destroyed? What does a senator from New York think about all the damage Manhattan takes? Why wouldn't Thor go find Jane Foster? They are all simple answers and are given their bit of exposition to fill in the blanks.

One dagger's edge of super-hero movie writing is balancing humour while taking the plot seriously, and Whedon manages this quite aptly, both in the frenetic and clever dialogue between heroes, and the sudden hilarious situational moments that are laugh-out-loud funny, but never detract from the honor of the material. Let's just say that the Hulk is one of the major sources to draw from in this respect. But there's never a moment when I felt Whedon wasn't treating the material with absolute respect.

It was tough to find something to critique in this film given it hits so many right notes. For a long running time (about 140 minutes), I never once thought about the clock. I was enjoying every moment of character and action. There is always the debate about individual character's power levels—just how much damage can Loki and Thor take and inflict? How invincible is the Hulk? And just what happens when Mjolnir hits Captain America's vibranium shield? I guess my major gripe is that the Stark Tower is such a monstrous eyesore that it would never get approved in Manhattan. Of course, the helicarrier is completely preposterous, but absolutely fun, and, as expected, goes down more than Lindsay Lohan in a nightclub bathroom. And the post credits scene (while not a complete surprise as the film progressed) totally delivered, and ranks up there as one of the best revelations in the series. 

The Avengers is a success in every way—as an action movie, creating a template going forward for a super-team film, tying the threads from all the other movies, and kickstarting a sequel. It's best appreciated after a healthy dose of all five previous instalments, but would keep any action lover entertained. I loved it and will be seeing it again. It's going to make oodles of money and I'm happy for Joss Whedon that he'll likely be able to hand pick his future projects (Wonder Woman, please).

Without a doubt, Marvel gets how to portray its characters in film, in stark contrast to Warner Brothers' top down direction for DC (except if you're Chris Nolan). I look forward to the next episodes in these franchises, with what is sure to begin a build up to Avengers 2.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review! As you mentioned it is difficult to nit-pick a film that clearly is having too much fun delivering an incredible adventure/action tale to be bogged down by missing elements or some touch that would have added even more. The Avengers is a rare movie indeed for its balance of story and action. I will be watching this again and again as well. How many films can you say that about?


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