by Brett Parker
What is first and foremost impressive about The Avengers movie is the very sight of so many single, popular Marvel superheroes gathered up into one giant flick. Sure, a movie like X-Men also contains a collective group of heroes within the same picture, but those characters were already part of the same property, you see. To bring all the Avengers together in the same film, Marvel had to pull off a symphony of legal wrangling, rights clearance, star scheduling, plot interweavings, and comic synergy. The pay-off of seeing these all-stars under the same roof is truly spellbinding. There’s a scene towards the end where the camera swoops down in a single-take to find Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Hulk, Hawkeye, and Black Widow pounding on alien baddies invading New York City, and the 12-year-old inside me was thrilled out of his mind!
Of course, for most fanboys, the icing on the cake is the fact that these heroes have all been rounded up under the watchful eye of beloved pop maestro Joss Whedon. For those that don’t know, Whedon is the poetically fun creator of TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly who forever altered the cultural landscape with the grand fusions of humor and heart he brings to his mythic worlds. Whedon can’t help but let big laughs and stunning humanity fly from his characters as they go about dealing with comic book situations. If you’re not familiar with Whedon’s work and wonder why him directing this franchise is such a big deal, look no further than Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, the micro-budget musical web miniseries Whedon created that starred Neil Patrick Harris as a lovelorn supervillian. That little internet ditty astonishingly packed more poignancy and heartache than its more big-budget commercial counterparts. If Whedon could pull off such a feat on such a small budget, imagine what he could do with unlimited resources!
Whedon’s pop musings can be so profound and transcendent that my ultimate hope for The Avengers was for the producers to get the hell out of Whedon’s way and let him work his untampered magic on these classical characters. But I ended up feeling a tad disappointed, for the final result certainly doesn’t feel that way. It feels like Whedon was summoned to look after plot tidying between big-budget action pieces. If this is, in fact, Whedon in free reign mode, then its mildly surprising to see him get so caught up in a dizzying plot that would make even a 10-year-old ask for more substance. Of course, all of this is done in an highly entertaining fashion. When it comes to eye-popping, heart-rushing superhero shows, you can’t say that Whedon doesn’t deliver the goods, but forgive me for believing that the man is capable of delivering so much more than whats here.
The film opens with the Fallen Norse God Loki (Tom Hiddleston) penetrating our world through an inter-dimensional portal. The cast-off Asgardian has found his way to Earth through the magic of a cosmic cube and he holds plans to wreak havoc. Earth and its humans are beloved by his half-brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Norse God of thunder, and Loki plans on enslaving the human race out of enraged spite towards his brother. Loki has assembled an army of monstrous warriors from another galaxy to aid him in his quest to enslave Earth, and he makes it quite clear that no mercy will be spared.
Fearing that the planet is in serious doom, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division) decides to assemble a team of superheroes to do battle with Loki. Fury calls upon Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey, JR.), the billionaire inventor protected by a suit of armor, Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans), a recently frozen 1940s soldier, Dr. Bruce Banner a.k.a. The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), a scientist trying to keep a green inner-beast under wraps, Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), a Russian warrior, Clint Barton a.k.a. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), an expert archer, and Thor to assemble into one giant team to protect Earth. The problem, however, is that these larger-than-life heroes hold gigantic egos that makes it impossible for them to play well with others. Yet if Loki has any chance of being defeated, than these conflicted heroes will have to overcome their issues and flock together as a team. Can this mythic group put aside their issues and do what needs to be done to save the planet? Or will they end up killing each other instead?
The film is at its very best when it regards the brief colorful character bits within the heroes’ interactions. Whether its Stark and Rogers bickering about what it takes to be a hero, Thor and Hulk getting territorial with their testosterone, or Stark convincing Banner to get in touch with his angry side, it says something that these insights are far more fascinating than any explosion this film has to offer. Thats why you wish more than anything that Whedon ditched the logistics of the epic comic plot and let the character riffs take over completely. It’d be far more interesting to see where the heroes’ unpredictable depths took the plot as opposed to the grand developments of Loki’s evil plan.
Still, its hard to deny that Whedon doesn’t excite the living hell out of us with epic action scenes that pull out all the stops. Hulk going ballistic on the S.H.I.E.L.D. facilities and Thor free-falling to Earth in a sealed-off pod aptly wets our appetites as we find our way to the grand finale in New York City. As Loki unleashes his army of inter-galactic nasties on the Big Apple, Whedon treats us to a comic book Black Hawk Down on crack. The finale puts The Avengers in the mother-of-all-battles as they turn New York into a playground of smackdown, and you’d have to be a corpse not to be entertained by the sight of this team collectively dishing out their fighting skills. One of the perks of this sequence is that we get to see what makes each hero so unique in their own rights. Captain America finally gets to dust off his celebrated leadership skills, Hulk proves that he can smash like no other (especially when tossing around Loki), and Iron Man beautifully shows that he can answer the call of the most important sacrifices in spite of himself.
The ultra-talented cast has institutionalized their superhero personas so superbly that you honestly wish the film delved more into their character developments. Downey here finds even more touching variations on Stark’s shiftings from a sardonic goofball to a true hero who can do what is necessary for his fellow man. Evans can wonderfully convey the earnestness of his square leader, but you wish the script deal more with his man-out-of-time dilemma. Hemsworth continues to nicely develop Thor’s old world personality, although you wish his arrogance was given more room to breathe. Johansson brings a no-nonsense fusion of sexiness and smarts to the table, doing Whedon’s heroic-female ideal great justice. Renner puts his overqualified skill-set to good use by compelling us with an archer hero who holds no real superpowers. Ruffalo proves to be quite superb in his first outing as Hulk, beautifully articulating a shell-shocked sheepishness that will prove to be more memorable than Norton and Bana’s variations on the role. And Hiddleston, he of the Peter O’Toole mold, brings great theatrics to Loki, making you feel every ounce of his bitterness and festering heartbreak.
If you, like me, have come to truly grow a heart for these Marvel outcasts and get off on watching superheroes blow up things real good, than you’ll find that The Avengers will bring you more bang for your buck than the usual Hollywood Blockbuster. Yet if you’re looking for the Citizen Kane of superhero flicks, you won’t find it here, not by a longshot. The Dirty Dozen of superhero flicks is more what you’re getting. There’s no major surprises to be found, nor is anything outside of the team’s assembly terribly groundbreaking for the genre. Yet the film plays up the character’s myths competently and finds their juice in a symphony of delicious pop action. And if its any testament to The Avengers’ appeal, the post-credits scenes really got me fired up for a sequel. These hidden scenes prove that: 1) The Avengers quietly dining together can be more exciting than most superheroes in action, 2) the next villain, as my Uncle Phil put it, is gonna be “a real son-of-a-bitch.”