The Avengers  (2012)

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Marvel finally makes the movie that ties all their related properties together; the ensemble piece in which Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and Captain America team up. Along with a couple of second-stringers with no superpowers: Hawkeye and Black Widow.

Naturally, this is a very big movie event. And yet, despite all the attention, I don’t think I’ve heard anyone notice that this is, despite its very familiar summer-blockbuster action franchise format, something that has never been tried before in Hollywood. What we have in the Avengers-universe films is a movie series that is made out of other serieses as its components. It’s a meta-series! I don’t think any such thing has existed before in feature films, though it’s routine in comic books. (No, the classic Universal monsters don’t count. And no, Hammer doesn’t either. The old franchise which comes closest to qualifying is probably Godzilla.) It's easier in television, where Star Trek is the most prominent example.

For the hardcore comix fans who’ve been enjoying the various film serieses of these assorted heroes on their own, this is the culmination. The climax. The moment of geekgasm. And indeed, many of those fans are squeeing that this movie is every bit of what they hoped for; that it delivered everything they wanted, making it the perfect superhero movie.

One thing it certainly does have is the biggest super-battle ever. This alien army invades Manhattan, see, and the whole gang has to run out and fight them... yep, there is indeed some terrific action spectacle here. Iron Man flying around and blasting stuff, Thor flying around and pounding things, and best of all, the Hulk bouncing from skyscraper to skyscraper, demolishing whatever he comes in contact with. Not to mention the freaky alien centipede-ships. The nonpowered human characters get plenty of good action too: Hawkeye sticking explosive arrows where they do the most good, Black Widow yanking enemies right off their sky-scooters so she can use them against their owners, and Cap liberally applying the shield to alien faces.

And they do an excellent job with what could have been a serious problem with such a mismatched team, where two are merely normal humans, two are augmented humans, and two are insanely powerful superbeings: they give everyone plenty to do and allow everyone to show off their own brand of awesome badasshood. Everyone who’s there shows there was a good reason to send them.

But that’s only the concluding battle. There’s lots of movie to get through before that happens. And that has to count too.

Fortunately, they handed the project over to a writer-director who really knows how to handle comic book characters and ensemble casts: Joss Whedon. The creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. And, as it happens, a sometime writer for Marvel. He’s good with snappy group dialogue where (as is often the case in Marvel-land) the people aren’t necessarily getting along all that great — we knew that. Turns out, he’s also good at writing these characters so they feel authentic. Especially Captain America, the man from the nineteen forties.

In the earlier going, Thor’s naughty brother Loki raids a SHIELD base to steal the Cosmic Cube, or as they call it here, “the Tesseract”. It’s a MacGuffin of Power which can apparently do anything. Nick Fury, the boss of SHIELD, rallies together all the superheroes, and tries to forge them into a team. They don’t gel very well. They seriously don’t get along. It’s left open for speculation whether Loki is on some level messing with their minds to cause friction.

...and this gives us an excuse for some hero-vs-hero matchups. What happens if Thor fights Iron Man? What happens if Mjolnir hits the Shield? The movie indulges in some of this sort of geek wankery in order to keep the necessary action scenes going in the first half.

Loki is captured, but apparently he wanted to be captured, they’re falling for his plan, and they still aren’t working together worth a shit. One of them gets mind-controlled for a while and manages to do tremendous damage without even needing any powers. The Hulk is out of control and things are looking bad.... And then that pesky invasion gets under way.

This movie does indeed have a shit-ton of great superpower action and other badassery, and it’s anchored in solid characters. The talking scenes had no problem keeping my attention riveted.

What about the acting? Let’s run through the performances of the ensemble.

Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark / Iron Man: He’s pretty much got the same style going on, but it’s not quite as vivid and snappy as in his own movies. I would guess this is because the dialog is more scripted and less open to improvisation than in those films. Downey does a good job of performing as a balanced part of an ensemble while playing a maverick who isn’t good at teamwork.

Chris Evans as Steve Rogers / Captain America: Doesn’t have a huge amount of acting material, but when he gets a character moment, he definitely makes it count. A solid good performance that shows that the new level of star-power and acting ability he showed in The First Avenger was no fluke.

Chris Hemsworth as Thor: Much flatter and less interesting than he was in his first movie. His mood doesn’t vary much and he sounds a bit like he’s putting on a fake Big Manly Voice, whereas he sounded much more natural in the first Thor film. I think what’s lacking is the contrast with lighter moments. This is the only performance that was a bit disappointing.

Samuel L. as Nick Fury: This by far the meatiest material he’s been given within the series, and as a result, a much better performance than we previously saw.

Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow: The same comments apply here. There’s actually a bit of layering to the performance. But the credit for that is with the script; I’m still not the least impressed with Scarlett as a serious actor.

Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton / Hawkeye: He’s given plenty to do here but the role remains one-dimensional. A solid action performance, and always believable, but there’s very little real acting material here. I get the feeling that Renner could have done more with the role than we got to see.

Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Colson: His schtick as the mild-mannered office drone of badasses is still cool. And he gains a nice bit of depth here, relative to what we’ve seen in the past. I’m not surprised that this is the guy they might base a Torchwood-ish TV spinoff around... well, except for one awkward detail, which would be a spoiler to discuss.

Tom Hiddleston as Loki: Better than he was in the Thor movie, even though his character is now more one-sided. He now manages to be frightening. And apparently, a lot of young (and not so young) female fans are getting their swoon on for him, which wasn’t really happening in the Thor film.

...aaaaaaaaand finally, we come to Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner. This needs a longer discussion, because unlike any of the others, this character is drastically changed from what we’ve seen in the previous movies. Ruffalo’s version of Banner is no closer to Ed Norton’s than it is to Eric Bana’s, or for that matter, Bill Bixby’s. This despite the fact that the Norton movie is still part of this film’s continuity. The Hulk model is also substantially changed, looking (and jumping around) more like the Ang Lee version than like Louis Leterrier’s ridiculous fashion-model hulk with the translucent skin and the overgrown teeth.

This film’s read on the Banner character is all new, and Ruffalo’s performance contributes something that Bana and Norton, for all their acting chops, utterly failed to bring to it: SUBTLETY. With Bana, everything that was supposed to be “hidden” below the surface was constantly paraded in the open, never really hidden at all, and Norton was little better. Ruffalo actually keeps the inside stuff on the inside, where it belongs. You pick up just the slightest whiff of what’s really going on — just enough so you can recognize later that you were seeing it all along. On the surface, he’s all scientist, and as nerdy as one might wish. Fans of the comic tell me that this is the first film version of the hulk that has gotten Banner’s character right, and I can see their point. This script finally fixes a major weak point of the otherwise excellent Ang Lee film, which Leterrier’s movie didn’t address, and Ruffalo deserves plenty of praise for how well he manages to convey a layered character with a low-key approach, avoiding all melodrama. I only wish he’d been skinnier.

Gwyneth Paltrow is here as “Pepper” Potts, but it’s basically just a cameo. Stellen Skarsgård’s part as Dr. Erik Selvig (returning from Thor) is quite a bit more substantial, and he delivers. The one other supporting role worth mentioning is Cobie Smulders as Nick Fury’s sidekick, Agent Maria Hill. It’s a thankless one-note role and she looks too much like a fashion model, but she brings presence to it.

One minor weak point is Alan Sylvestri’s score. It’s adequate but quite bland. His Aaron Copland-flavored themes for Captain America were better.

So put it all together, and you’ve got a movie with large and numerous strengths, and hardly any weaknesses. Of all superhero action blockbusters, this is the blockbustiest — far bigger and badder than the rest.