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First, a word of warning: I am not going to be able to write about THE AVENGERS without venturing into the histrionic squeals of hyperbole. I’ve been reading comics for twenty four years and I recognize Joss Whedon’s epic as a miracle of cinema. The five previous films from Marvel Studios (and every other comic book movie from Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN to Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT) were barely a glimmer of the promise that’s delivered with THE AVENGERS. Frankly, it’s the first comic book movie, in that moviegoers are finally given a film in which iconic superheroes are doing crazy superheroic shit that comic readers have been blathering on about for decades. From Mark Ruffalo’s “I’m Always Angry” Hulk smashing to Captain America bouncing Iron Man’s repulsors off his shield to Tony Stark & Bruce Banner simply chatting up science on the floating Helicarrier. There are moments in this summer blockbuster of such pure comic book beauty that I stumbled out of the theater in a wave of euphoria I can only imagine was similar to the daze felt by the fanboys born at the 1977 premiere of STAR WARS.
Ok, so if you want to continue on reading a “review” from a guy who has so clearly drunk the Kool-Aid than please feel free to continue.
THE AVENGERS clearly announces itself as a comic book movie from its opening shot of The Tesseract, the cosmic cube from Joe Johnston’s CAPTAIN AMERICA that gave the First Avenger so much Nazi/Hydra trouble. It’s fallen into the hands of Thor’s adopted trickster brother Loki who means to use it as a portal for an army of aliens called The Chitauri. You’re sixty seconds into the film and as far away from any kind of shiny reality Jon Favreau tried to establish in 2008’s IRON MAN. You either have to accept this Nordic God Science Fiction mumbo jumbo or check out, cuz THE AVENGERS is not concerned with your desire for Batman grit.
S.H.I.E.L.D, the omnipresent government organization led by Sam Jackson’s one-eyed badass Nick Fury, is fully aware of the galactic devastation about to rain down upon the Earth, and after butting heads with the shadowy council of Powers Booth and Jenny Agutter, he orders his master assassins Scarlet Johanson and Clark Gregg to gather the human oddities known as the Avengers Initiative. The first third of the film is spent picking up where the other movies left off. Johanson’s Black Widow finds the latest incarnation of Bruce Banner, Mark Ruffalo, tending to the ill in Calcutta. Robert Downey Jr, with the help of new girlfriend Gwyneth Paltrow and her too short short-shorts, has just completed construction of Stark Tower in New York City and it might be a symbol of clean energy as much as a representation of his massive ego. Chris Evans’ man-out-of-time Captain America hides from the modern world behind a series of punching bags. Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye—uh, no one cares about Hawkeye, right? And Thor…he’s going to be late to the party.
The real joy of THE AVENGERS comes from watching these disparate characters interact with each other. For the creators as much as the readers, that was the original appeal of the comics. Once upon a time Marvel saw their competitor DC raking in the dough with their Justice League of America title and dollar signs burned brightly in their eyes when they imagined the Invincible Iron Man duking it out with the Incredible Hulk. There are always a myriad of excuses to use in pitting one hero against the other (Mind Control! Miscommunication! Contempt for One Another!), and writer/director Joss Whedon knows how to deliver those quintessential VS. moments. As a kid, you’re arguing during recess on who would win in a fight: Captain America or Iron Man? Thor or Hulk? Black Widow or Hawkey — no one ever cared about Black Widow or Hawkeye! Moving on… shockingly, THE AVENGERS manages to dish out those battle royales in a believable, seemingly organic way that doesn’t feel jarring to the plot or condescending to its audience. Sure, it might stretch the run time into two and a half hours, but if you’ve suffered through the five previous crops of fair-to-midland movies than you’ll be more than happy to just sit with this film.
The real scene-stealer though has to be Mark Ruffalo and his CGI Hyde. Hardcore fans of The Hulk have had to settle for a lot of “okay” when it comes to the representations of their beloved character (look, I’m one of the few folks out there that liked Ang Lee’s HULK but I also know that it was not the action smashing revelation we were all dreaming of, and Louis Leterrier’s 2008 film was fun but forgettable). However, the big guy in THE AVENGERS is the purest form of the character we’ve been granted on big or small screen so far. Ruffalo’s Banner is a seemingly quiet or meek scientist who stumbles and mumbles his way through initial conversations with these epic heroes, but after listening to the wisdom of Tony Stark and facing the intergalactic treachery of Loki, he reveals the secret to his psychic control of the monster and it is the most crowd pleasing moment in the entire film. And all the best VS. moments are with the Hulk. Poor puny gods.
As far as pure popcorn entertainment is concerned, THE AVENGERS is going to be tough to beat this summer. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES seems like it’s going to subject a whole lot of depressing brutality onto its audience as much as Batman. GI JOE: RETALIATION looks like cartoony fun, but there’s still that revolting taste left in our mouths from Stephen Sommers’ original abomination. And STEP UP REVOLUTION sure has a lot of sweaty neon. But THE AVENGERS brings out the kid in all of us. It’s the film in which all fanboys (and girls, it is a Whedon film after all) can wave their geek flag high and proud. And it feels real good not to have to question a Jack Nicholson Joker here or a Mickey Rourke drooling Whiplash there. You’ll walk out of THE AVENGERS with a big ol’ smile on your face, confident that you just watched a pure comic book movie. A film that finally got the four color page right. But don’t forget to stay through the credits, cuz Marvel is only just getting started with its Universe of crazy.