Film Review: The Avengers

The Avengers could have been a colossal mess. Marvel’s latest offering has a huge, ensemble cast and follows a string of questionable ventures that haven’t quite managed to capture the sparkle of the original Iron Man.  Add in a director who is loved by fans but without a big-budget financial success under his belt and the Avengers has every reason to be another mediocre summertime snore.  Instead it’s a tightly-wound, well crafted action-comedy that hits few sour notes and gets so much right that it doesn’t matter.

Credit must be given to Marvel for trusting Joss Whedon.  His presence is felt in literally every scene, from the sharp, witty dialogue, the fluid action sequences that meld high and low art, and genuine life and death stakes that make it all meaningful. Whedon is obviously a comic book fan and possibly knows his source better than any other director that’s helmed a a picture inspired by the Marvel Universe.  He’s not only a good choice but the only choice.  His entire career, from Buffy to Dollhouse, has crystallized into this moment of pure cinematic joy.

Whedon returns the favor by doing something he has undoubtedly learned from dealing with Fox on his failed television ventures:  capitulate.  He’s not out to remake anyone’s vision.  John Favreau’s Iron Man, Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, Joe Johnston’s Captain America…it’s all here.  Marvel’s plan for it’s cinematic universe hasn’t been trampled, it’s been enhanced.  Whedon apparently didn’t spend much time arguing with what Marvel wanted, and instead used his skills to perfect it.  His trademarks are all there, but do not interfere with the pre-existing vision of the franchise.

The story is decent but serves as a vehicle for the characters more than anything.  It’s based not-so-loosely on Mark Millar’s Ultimate Avengers, which re-imagined the characters as living, breathing studies in flawed humanity rather than perfect, unapproachable super-oafs.  Robert Downey Jr. has again found the cocky glee that made the original Iron Man such a treat, and he seems comfortable in his leadership role both in terms of the story and the cast.  Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans embody only the best of their respective takes on Thor and Captain America., and Samuel L. Jackson finally has a chance to make Nick Fury the hard-as-nails super-spy he is but never had the chance to be in his earlier, more limited cameos.  Scarlett Johansson still isn’t very convincing as a Russian, but otherwise more than redeems the throw-away treatment the character received in Iron Man 2.  Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is a standout, and gives the film a complex villain that is essential to making everything work. And Jeremy Renner’s understated Hawkeye hits the bulls-eye as well.

What truly makes the picture is a character which has only been bungled on-screen previously.  First was Ang Lee’s arty but clueless travesty, Hulk.  Next was Louis Letterier’s much improved, but still sadly lacking endeavor, The Incredible Hulk.  Now comes Marc Ruffalo’s Hulk, and not only is it the best so far, it steals the entire show.  The Hulk looks more like the original comics manifestation, and has jettisoned the dourness that ruined the character in the two previous films.  This Hulk is playful and brass, being responsible for some of the funniest moments as well as some “Hulk smash” awesomeness.  Marvel finally nailed what makes the character work and gives the fans a Hulk they can be proud of.

The missteps are few but they are there.  The alien invasion storyline could have been more original and there are a few moments of exposition that throw off the pacing.  But overall this is a great movie that will inject some needed life into a film genre that has lately suffered from stale, over-abundence.  Make sure and stick around for the post-credits for the appearance of a surprise villain and tantalizing hints of what’s to come.  Let’s hope this is a strong beginning for Marvel’s filmic universe , and not the brilliant peak preceding the decline.

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