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Marvel’s The Avengers 3D (2012)

May 4, 2012

 

written by: Joss Whedon (screenplay/story) & Zak Penn (story) 

produced by: Kevin Feige

directed by: Joss Whedon

rating: PG-13 (for intense sci-fi violence and action throughout, and a mild drug reference)

runtime: 143 minutes

U.S. release date: May 4, 2012

 

Just before the screening of “Marvel’s The Avengers”, my buddy turned to me and excitedly stated, “I just can’t believe we’re here!”, which summed up how I felt as well. Having read the comic book adventures of these superheroes for the past thirty or so years and always envisioning how they would appear in real life – it’s unbelievable to fathom that we’re now going to see Earth’s Mightiest Heroes on the big-screen. It’s been an absolute blast to see what Marvel Studios did with their previous five movies, which laid the foundation for this anticipated blockbuster. Although I had my reservations thatI’m not alone when I admit that seeing an Avengers movie has been a geek dream for quite some time. Writer/director Joss Whedon must feel the same way and he shows it by delivering the most fun and funny superhero movies in a spectacularly energetic and raucous manner.

With Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, Whedon became known as a storyteller who can get the most out of an ensemble cast. It’s also become clear that he knows how to write enough material so every cast member gets their moment too. Sounds well-suited for this material right there. Getting into the superhero team sub-genre is no strange territory for the filmmaker though, having written celebrated runs on other Marvel books like Astonishing X-Men and Runaways, but what “The Avengers” (that’s right, I’m dropping the “Marvel’s” right here and now since no one is expecting Steed and Peel) reminds us, or confirms for some, that Whedon is a total fanboy. Which proves he’s the perfect guy to direct these live-action Marvel heroes.

Now, if you go into “The Avengers” cold turkey, you may be doing yourself a disservice. Sure, you’ll have fun, but if you haven’t seen “Iron Man”, “Iron Man 2”, “Thor”, and “Captain America: The First Avenger” – well, you’re missing out on quite a bit. (Note: missing “The Incredible Hulk” isn’t going to hurt you, but it too is part of the Marvel Universe world-building diligently overseen by producer Kevin Feige). If this were any other movie, I would be critical that viewers have to see those other features in order to get the most out of this one. You should be able to just watch any movie on its own and not be lost, but everything’s been building up to this and Whedon wastes no time bothering with playing catch-up.

 

 

The movie starts off with an action-packed prologue, setting up the villain, the McGuffin and the need for superheroes. Loki (a flamboyant Tom Hiddleston), the demigod from space, has made his way to Earth to steal the all-powerful Tesseract (the cosmic cube seen in last summer’s “Captain America” and in the end credit scene after “Thor”) from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of S.H.I.E.L.D. (the clandestine American espionage agency present in the previous Marvel movies, known as Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division). Fury was had physicist, Dr. Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard, “Thor”) studying the gamma-radiated object, under the watchful eye of Agent Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), but both are easily overwhelmed by Loki. The slick megalomaniac walks in like a pissy rock star with his glowing scepter and strides out with what he wants, like a kid playing tag – he’s asking to be chased.

Fury knows it’s time to get his Avengers Initiative thing going – a secret directive to assemble Earth’s most mightiest beings to battle any extraordinary threat to the planet. It may be frowned upon by a secret government council (hello, Powers Boothe!) he reports to, but so be it! To see this through, he dispatches his top agents to summon the worthy candidates.

Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) is sent to seek out self-described “billionaire/playboy/philanthropist”, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), in New York City, where he’s found residing in the newly-designed Stark Tower with his his Girl Friday, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, in the perfect-sized cameo) and busy with providing sustainable energy powered by his arc technology. Stark is typically snarky (as we want and expect RDJr. to be), but is enticed by Fury’s files on the Tesseract and the Avengers Initiative candidates. Knowing what we know about Tony, we know he’s on board.

 

 

Meanwhile, Agent Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) has been sent to India to persuade reclusive genius scientist, Dr. Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), to assist Fury in tracking down the stolen Tesseract before Loki becomes even more powerful, putting the planet at risk. She ensures him that Fury wants for his brains, but if his brawny alter-ego shows up (and we know he will), well that’s an added bonus too.

These recruitment scenes are great, taking the time to re-establish or introduce us to characters we can care about. Seeing Gregg, Paltrow and Downey Jr. work their clever interaction once again is a hoot. It obviously takes a beauty to lure a beast and the scene with Johansson and Ruffalo gives us an idea why another actor was cast as Banner (after Edward Norton and Eric Bana had their go) and how great Whedon (who co-wrote the screenplay with Zak Penn) is with dialogue and characterization. There’s an identifiable reluctance and hesitation that Ruffalo exudes which draws us to him. We already know the Banner/Hulk story, so we’re more interested now in how/if this portrayal will be any different from previous performances. Ruffalo deftly balances a slightly humorous/slightly on-edge approach that is just right for both him and the role. Possibly because he’s “the new guy” this time around, Ruffalo is fun to watch, fitting nicely with everyone else (especially with Downey Jr., making a nice “Zodiac” reunion) and giving a performance that only gets better as the movie continues.

It must be said that this is the best big-screen representation of The Hulk yet. He’s just the right size – not too huge and maintains a personality that allows him to interact with others around him. He stands slightly hunched over, causing him to be more of a feral creature, but the best part is that there are times where he actually seems like he’s having fun – which is equally fun for the audience.

 

 

Fury handles the recruitment of Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) himself, knowing how to appeal to the heart and mind of a solider. With Loki’s actions deemed a declaration of war, he’s going to need the best soldier there is to stand up to this imposing threat. Plus, Fury is aware that the living legend has encountered the Tesseract before and that Rogers would feel most needed (and at home) on an identifiable mission.  Besides, what else is this man-out-of-time going to do?

Next thing we know, Whedon gives us the first of many super smackdowns – Cap vs. Loki in Germany (well, it tries to look like Germany). Seeing Evans confidently stand up to this supernatural baddie with such stalwart purity is a reminder how well the actor has this character down. Sure he’s backed by Widow and Iron Man, but one gets the idea that Rogers never felt like  he needed anyone to help him take down Loki. What we’ll start to see though are strong characters (both in ego and physicality) who will realize they do need each other, but not before there’s plenty of playground pummeling. Even if the plot is paper-thin, with action scenes that stoke the already lit geek flame – who cares?

Because it’s Loki on the loose and threatening Earth, inevitably his half-brother Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the God of Thunder, has to show up and try and reason with the master manipulator. Nice to see that Thor still has both his naivety and cockiness intact. For him to think that he can change Loki’s mind is downright foolish, but it’s characteristic for his assured demigod. Whedon knows that the egos of Thor and Stark are meant to clash and provides fans with epic battles between the two that feel like fantastic splash pages come to life. At no point do any of these in-house fights feel disingenuous to how the characters have been written for decades or how they’ve been embodied in other movies. It just all feels right, especially when Cap gets involved in the machismo melee and later on, when we see a conflicted Thor.

 

 

While the differences and tensions between these heroes must be dealt with as they come together under Fury, the enemy isn’t resting. True to the comics, Loki has multi-layered plans of his own. He’s made a pact with The Other (Alexis Denisof, a Buffy alum) a threatening alien who agrees to supply him with a savage Chitauri army to invade Earth, as long as Loki hands over the Tesseract. The power-hungry Loki’s sole concern is ruling Earth and sticking it to his brother. Whether Loki is controlling S.H.I.E.L.D. agents in an attack on Fury’s floating Helicarrier or unleashing his off-world rented minions on Manhattan, Hiddleston is as snarlingly fitting as he was in “Thor”, if not better since he’s given more to do here. It’s not going to be easy for these heroes to get their stuff together and focus on taking out the threat, but they will because they’ll realize that they must.

What is most impressive about “The Avengers” is how well Whedon works all these characters into the movie. This is truly a situation where the actors and characters are bigger than any compelling storyline that anyone could come up with, but Whedon manages to give enough spotlight for each, even though some stand out moreso than others. For example, as good as Renner is as the skilled archer (referred to as The Hawk, not Hawkeye, as fans know him) we don’t have much time to learn more about the character other than his shared history with fellow spy, Black Widow. He has his uses in the finale, but as an introductory character, he winds up being the hero who becomes slightly overshadowed by his other teammates. Speaking of Johansson’s Black Widow, it’s nice to see her move beyond the eye candy role she had in “Iron Man 2”, working with Whedon – a writer known for crafting strong female roles – is a nice benefit to the actress and the audience. Maybe in another Marvel film, Renner can have the same opportunity to flex a little more with the role.

The one character who is kind of worthless and wasted here is Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders, of How I Met Your Mother Fame), Fury’s right hand agent. She’s the newest created character in the comics and is written as a no-nonsense, tough-as-nails chick, but she really isn’t given anything special to do here. It could be the casting, although I’m more familiar with the character of Hill than I am Smulders, I always envisioned someone like Selma Blair playing her. With so many characters jammed into a movie like this, one of them is bound to feel irrelevant. So maybe Hill will play a more prominent role in future Marvel movies.

Although Whedon’s strengths lie in creating great character-driven dialogue, he definitely knows what to give those who’ve waited so long for such a movie.  He delights in witty talking head moments with his cast just as much as he does swirling the camera around the metallic leviathans  that drop out of a portal above NewYork City. There will be critics and moviegoers who could care less about a movie filled with shield-slinging, hammer-bashing and all the awesome HULK SMASH!! moments (all worthy of repeat viewings) – to that I say there’s an audience for everything. If you can’t gleefully get behind the aforementioned Thor/Iron Man/Cap roustabout, or the smashingly fun Thor vs. Hulk tussle and a deliriously funny Hulk vs. Loki match (which will have geeks reaching a fever pitch), then this clearly isn’t for you, but I will say you’re missing out on the fun.

This is a movie guaranteed to break box-office records, but what it will mostly be remembered for is its tone. It’s a funny movie! Whedon injects the feature (only his second since his “Serenity” debut) with hilarious nudge-nudge moments, both big and small, that had me laughing out loud – even hollering at the screen in enthusiastic OMG outbursts. I won’t list off all those humorous bits (you’ll know them), as expected many of them involve Stark coming up with nicknames for his teammates, but all of them are earned and are wonderfully timed. Such a tonal approach makes watching “The Avengers” the most fun I’ve had in a movie theater since – well, the Whedon film (still out in theaters).

 

 

“The Avengers” isn’t just another comic book movie to be scoffed at or disregarded. You can’t just see it as superheroes, evil bad dudes, and explosions – because there’s much more going on here than that simplification.  What Marvel Studios has done here, bringing all these actors/iconic heroes together and building off their previous successful movies,  is something that’s never been done before. There’s been other superhero team movies, such as 20th Century Fox’s X-Men franchise, but those started out as team movies with an ensemble cast. The major players  in “The Avengers” have already had their origin stories told (ad naseum, for a specific jade giant) and now we get to see them engage each other in intense and exhilarating action interact. It so closely resembles the comic book pages that we (and Whedon) have and are still flipping through.

The two questions that may surface when considering this movie are whether or not it’s suitable for children and what the 3D is like. Well, those children who seen all the other Marvel Studios movies (mentioned above) and survived them with no scar tissue, there shouldn’t be a problem with this one. As for the 3D, it’s actually not bad. Could one do without it? Sure.  But, I must say I found myself noticing how immersive much of the 3D was.  It’s never distracting or annoying like the post-conversion we saw in “Thor”.  But, there are moments, especially with Black Widow’s gun or Hawkeye’s arrow pointing at you, that are quite cool and feel like something a comic book artist would come up with.

With all the countless TV spots and trailers released leading up to opening day in the States, it’s a relief to know that all the best scenes weren’t already released. By the time the dizzying finale was over, I was delighted to cooldown with two sweet end credit stingers. When it was over, I found myself eagerly anticipating more Avengers adventures. It would obviously be great to see Whedon return and he’d be crazy not to. After all, this will make enough money for everyone to return and the creative possibilities are seemingly endless. Maybe next time they’ll come up with better movie posters.

 

 

RATING: ****

 

 

EXHIBIT A – Awful Movie Poster Art

 

EXHIBIT B – Awesome Movie Poster Art

 

 

 

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