Avengers, The (United States, 2012)

May 02, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Avengers, The Poster

The Avengers kicks ass. It's a loud, brash spectacle that blows up as many things as a Transformers outing but without the same grinding sense of soulless robotic monotony. For years, Marvel has been building to this movie, painstakingly introducing many of The Avengers' key players in what has amounted to five prequels: Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America. If some of those chapters seemed a little thin when viewed as stand-alones, The Avengers has redeemed their existence. This movie has the potential to revitalize the superhero movie genre... or kill it. The Avengers has raised the bar to a level where the more "traditional" approach of having a single superhero tangle with a supervillain or two may no longer be enough. Once characters like Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Black Widow, and Hawkeye have become involved in an epic story of this sort, how can they go back to being regular superheroes? When something has been dialed up to an "11," isn't there an inherent letdown to turning it back to a "7"?

I doubt there's a comic book fan alive who won't be walking on Cloud Nine when exiting a theater playing The Avengers. In Joss Whedon, the producers found the perfect director: a man who knows the material and his audience in equal measure. For Avengers fans, this is a home run. For the "average" movie-goer, who may not know the difference between the superhero group and the spy ring featuring Patrick McNee and Diana Rigg, this is at worst a triple. Finding faults is a little like picking nits, although they are there. The first hour can at times seem sluggish as there's a fair amount of setup and exposition that needs to be endured. And there are times during the final battle when the special effects take over and things edge toward Bay's fetishistic fascination with hardware over everything else. Yet those are isolated moments in a jaw-droppingly intense 50-minute battle royale (with cheese). Every hero gets his/her time to shine, although some shine more brightly than others.

The threat that brings six superheroes together is posed by Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the adopted brother of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who has broken into SHIELD headquarters, brainwashed Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Professor Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), and stolen the Tesseract, an uber-powerful glowing blue cube. Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) tries to stop the Norse diety, but fails. Under threat of a planetary catastrophe, Fury recruits Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans), and sends Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to bring in Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). Thor makes his appearance when he learns that his brother is up to no good. After a major battle, Loki is captured, but he appears perfectly content to be held in close confinement on SHIELD's hovercraft. He's biding his time while his underlings work to open a wormhole that will allow an alien race to attack Earth. Poor Manhattan is to be Ground Zero for this interplanetary apocalypse.

The core appeal of The Avengers has been (and always will be) the gathering of heroes. The comic book was initially created in the early '60s as Marvel's answer to DC's Justice League (which banded together Superman, Batman, Flash, Wonder Woman, and others). The movie fulfills fans' wet dreams of having a handful of major Marvel superheroes come together in one forum. Whedon provides one of the time-honored occurrences of "crossover" comic books: before the heroes band together to take on the bad guys, they fight each other. So we have Iron Man going at it against Thor, with a little Captain America thrown in for good measure. Hulk and Thor have smackdown. And so forth. Until Nick Fury gives a little pep talk, egos trump heroism. One of the most interesting themes of The Avengers relates to how individuals comfortable with being the biggest and baddest kids on the block learn to work with others with similar capabilities. It's like when a high school valedictorian finds himself in a class full of valedictorians at Harvard.

Ultimately, The Avengers is all about action. The main storyline is pretty basic. The most impressive thing Whedon does with the screenplay is to provide all the characters sufficient screen time and keep the movie from becoming a runaway special effects extravaganza. The explosive, high octane finale - a massive battle that runs for more than 45 minutes and in which half of New York is leveled - works so much better than anything in Transformers because we care about the heroes and because attention is paid to the little details. While Iron Man and Hulk are up in the sky smashing big, ugly flying monsters, Captain America is saving people trapped on a bus.

Whedon avoids getting too serious, although he avoids full-on campiness. Admittedly, the end of the Earth is grim stuff but, in keeping with the comic book tone of the movie, there's plenty of humor, including at least a couple of laugh-out-loud moments (one with a literal "punch line"). The filmmakers ensure we're laughing with them to avoid the unenviable possibility of laughing at them. This is, after all, pretty silly stuff when you get down to it; Whedon's approach is perfect for the material. One senses the only prequel director who might have been able to pull this off as well is Jon Favreau, who is on board as an executive producer.

Most of the "original" actors signed on to recreate their characters. The most valuable of these is Robert Downey Jr., who has the most screen time of all The Avengers. It's not quite Iron Man 3, but there are times when it's close. No one is likely to argue with this decision. Downey is terrific whether he's sharing a quiet moment with Gwyneth Paltrow or trading barbs with one of the other actors. Scarlett Johansson reprises her secondary role from Iron Man 2. Chris Hemsworth, Tim Hiddleston, and Stellan Skarsgard are back from Thor (without Natalie Portman, although her character's absence is explained). Chris Evans reprises the title role from Captain America. And Samuel L. Jackson finally gets a chance to appear in more than a random scene or two; he's The Avengers' glue. Newcomers include Mark Ruffalo, taking over for Edward Norton (who in turn replaced Eric Bana) as The Hulk (Lou Ferrigno provides the UnJolly Green Giant's voice), and Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye (although he had a cameo in Thor).

It's no secret that The Avengers was converted from 2-D to 3-D in postproduction (although some reports indicate that Whedon composed shots with an awareness that the movie's primary platform would be 3-D). That, in and of itself, argues that 2-D is a perfectly valid way to see this movie. However, this may be one of those occasions when it's worth paying the surcharge, especially if there's an IMAX option available. The Avengers boasts what is easily the best post-production conversion to-date. It's not Avatar immersive, but it is close. Problems are few and far between. I failed to notice any motion blur, the brightness levels were okay, and I didn't suffer from eye fatigue (even though the movie clocks in at nearly 2 1/2 hours). The Avengers is more about pop and sizzle than substance, and the 3-D delivers. Put this in the admittedly small club of titles for which putting on the glasses is not an unwarranted burden.

For those who like Easter Eggs, there are a couple of reasons to stay through the end credits. One-third of the way through, there's a short scene with a surprise that will delight comic book fans and mean absolutely nothing to those not steeped in Avengers lore. Then, after all the credits have rolled, there's an amusing moment that adds nothing to the story but is likely to provoke a smile and a chuckle. For those who feel like leaving the moment the movie proper is finished, nothing critical will be missed.

By swinging for the fences, The Avengers opens the 2012 summer movie season with an explosive bang that will reverberate through the superhero genre for years. Some superhero movies, like Christopher Nolan's Batman outings, play on a different field and won't be impacted. But many comic book translations will find themselves chasing The Avengers and more than a few will be found wanting. This is a game changer. By giving audiences everything they could possibly want and more, Whedon has ushered in a new era of bigger, louder, and more spectacular. Future entries into this genre will either have to rise to the challenge or disappoint. The Avengers will likely not be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar but it mayl be one of the most important movies to arrive in theaters during 2012.

Avengers, The (United States, 2012)

Run Time: 2:22
U.S. Release Date: 2012-05-04
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1