Saturday, May 05, 2012

In Theaters: The Avengers (2012)

The Avengers movie poster
Poster from

I come into The Avengers with conflicted feelings- on the one hand I'm glad they're finally doing a big superhero team-up movie, embracing the full range of absurd imagination inherent in the genre, and I've always liked Joss Whedon, but on the other hand I now have to be really specific when talking about the single most underrated film of the 1990s, and I do talk about it a lot. After much wheeling and dealing, Marvel Studios have brought together Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, Captain America, and Thor from their respective franchises, added a couple more heroes alongside them, and given writer/director Whedon the task of bringing it all together in a coherent fashion in time to kick off the summer blockbuster season.

This could easily have ended in disaster, given the sheer scale of what was attempted and the micromanagement inherent in any movie with a budget the size of several government programs. But The Avengers is admirable in how well it negotiates the perils of blockbuster moviemaking; it delivers even more action and spectacle than you'd expect, draws characters big and charming enough to engage us, and even has a plot that basically, more or less hangs together. Not too much, but it'll last until you get to the fridge.

For years, researchers at the top secret organization SHIELD have been studying the Tesseract, a strange cube that could be a source of unlimited free energy. However, it's also prized by beings from many other dimensions, and can be used to open portals between worlds. The chaos god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) manages to steal it and uses his power to enlist the loyalty of a small army of agents and scientists- worse, he's planning to use it to lead an invasion of Earth by an army of extradimensional alien beings, and take the role of "supreme overlord" denied him by Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in the movie bearing the thunder god's name. SHIELD agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) responds to the theft by rounding up some of Earth's mightiest heroes- Iron Man, aka Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.); Bruce Banner, the Incredible Hulk (now Mark Ruffalo); Captain America (Chris Evans); and top assassin Black Widow (Scarlet Johannson)- and assembling them into an elite superteam of Avengers. The problem is, they're used to working on their own and don't get along terribly well, and none of them are entirely sure SHIELD is on the up-and-up either. Thor joining the team just adds to the number of egos in play, and all this conflict just makes them easier prey for the trickster god.

A story this big takes some time to build, even if bits of the narrative groundwork were laid in other films. (I'm reasonably sure you don't have to have seen any of them to follow this plot, but since I HAVE seen them I can't be positive.) The early going is kind of slow, and involves a lot of laying of pipe by various characters. Which is not to say it's unenjoyable, because we get some witty banter (Whedon's voice isn't quite as dominant as in Buffy and the like, but he still likes the exchanging of quips), some action, and some of the plot stuff is genuinely interesting.

Once the story kicks into high gear, though, and an aircraft carrier starts flying because why the Hell not, the film's true strength starts to emerge. This is a very good ensemble, full of strong performers (including a really great turn by Clark Gregg as a nerdy agent, and a nice action role for Cobie Smulders), and the filmmakers seem to get that one of the strengths of the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby halcyon days was that the heroes had outsize personalities to go with their earthshattering abilities. There's a really strong dynamic at work in how these characters bounce off each other; Tony Stark is a smug bastard who earns it by being smart and realizing that the whole set-up isn't very kosher, Banner bonds with him over their mutual geekiness and mistrust, Cap feels the need to do his duty, Thor wants everyone to focus on the cosmic matters at hand, and Black Widow has a personal stake in this, as her partner Clint "Hawkeye" Barton (Jeremy Renner) has been turned by Loki. Not only do the team exchange funny quips, they clash in believable and entertaining ways, and the film really manages to make their attempts to come together a central theme as opposed to a subplot.

But how is the action and explosion-related material, you may justifiably ask. While the action in Whedon's Serenity tended to be fairly rough-and-tumble (reflecting both the setting and its moderate budget), he transitions well to the realm of slick superhero action with only a few bumps on the way. The action is mostly clear and comprehensible, or at least the important bits are- there are a few messy close-ups, and the climax involves an entire alien army plus giant flying snake monsters so we can't keep track of everything, but I never felt like we were being denied a good moment by a bad angle or cut. Amazingly, what would be the one practical problem- how can characters defined as "woman with a gun" and "guy with a shield" share the spotlight with "ultrastrong monster" and "god of thunder"- is handled so easily I found myself never really thinking about it. Everyone gets to shine on and off the battlefield. (I would recommend against the 3-D screenings of this, however, as the film wasn't really shot for it and it does make the images less sharp than they should be.)

The Avengers doesn't quite have the same level of passion that propels the true masterpieces of the genre, and of course it doesn't have anything as awesome as a conference room full of giant teddy bears, but it's fun and reasonably smart, and despite some obvious sequel hooks is more than enough payoff for the years of franchise building Marvel has engaged in. It's a very finely put together movie indeed, and proof that the superhero genre has plenty of life left in it, the behavior of comic companies themselves notwithstanding.

Based on characters created by Stan Lee, Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, Don Heck, and others whom Marvel Studios declined to give any credit to.  For shame.

Story by Joss Whedon and Zak Penn
Written for the screen and directed by Joss Whedon
Grade: A-

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