Highly anticipated by fanboys and casual moviegoers alike ever since it was alluded to in a post-credits tag in Iron Man four years ago, The Avengers is a glorious combination of action, comic book adventure, and four-color character drama that not only lives up to the loftiest of expectations, it stomps them flat and raises the bar for comic book movies. The term “geekgasm” was invented for flicks like this.
The talented cast sell their respective roles with panache (most of them have had plenty of time to settle in by this point), but much of the credit goes to director and co-writer Joss Whedon, who juggles complex baggage-laden characters while shuttling them through a fast-paced story.
The movie hits the ground running with an explosive opening set piece before settling down just a bit to get all the pieces on the board for the extended climax. The story is straight-forward enough, and rooted in the team’s comic book lore: Fallen demigod Loki (Tom Hiddleston), last seen attempting to usurp the throne of Asgard in last summer’s Thor, returns from exile to steal a cosmic energy source known as the Tesseract from the super-secret and extremely well-funded global spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. Loki intends to use the device to pave the way for an alien invasion in exchange for dominion over the planet.
Naturally, this doesn’t sit right with S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, finally getting to fully strut his stuff in the role), who assembles the earth’s mightiest heroes as the planet’s only line of defense. Enter the heavy hitters Marvel Studios have spent the past few years introducing, none of whom seem interested in being part of a team. Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) polar-opposite attitudes have them constantly bickering; arrogant and hot-tempered Thor (Chris Hemsworth) would prefer to deal with brother Loki on his own terms; S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) have some dark deeds in their pasts; and everyone is walking on tiptoes around Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, replacing Edward Norton) lest they bring forth his mean, green alter ego.
Most of the players have had time to settle into their roles, so there is a comfortable level of familiarity that contrasts well with the new guys. Johansson’s role is greatly expanded from the lackluster background figure she played in Iron Man 2, and Renner gets plenty of meaty screen time as the compromised archer-assassin he played in cameo in Thor. The real standout is Ruffalo, who finally finds the sweet spot on a very tricky character, playing Banner as a brilliant but troubled and eccentric loner, and providing the Hulk’s motion-capture performance as well. He makes the two compelling for the first time, and here’s hoping Marvel will reconsider holding off on a Hulk sequel.
It was a surprise when Whedon was announced as Marvel’s choice to direct the make-or-break culmination of their five-year plan; his work up to that point had consisted primarily of the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, and the only feature film he had directed was Serenity, the Firefly feature film that failed at the box office. It was also a brilliant choice; all of Whedon’s work displays an impressive ability to handle complicated ensemble-driven stories, exactly what The Avengers required. he and co-writer Zak Penn (The Incredible Hulk, X2: X-Men United) find believable, fluid ways to fold the characters into the story, give them their defining moments, and set up their rivalries.
Whedon also proves adept at handling the action beats, which are suitably intense and inventive. A battle on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s flying fortress headquarters is a masterpiece of creative mayhem, and the final confrontation is a new classic in sci-fi urban carnage plays like a Godzilla movie crossed with the final act of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, except that it doesn’t suck.
The Avengers is a definite game-changer. Expect the tone and content of comic book movies to change drastically after this one.
[Note: Be sure to stay through the entirety of the closing credits. As with other Marvel movies, there is an easter egg at the end…]