Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Early Review: THE AVENGERS

Without a doubt, as far as superhero movies go, The Avengers is a monumental achievement. It’s a huge epic, with very high stakes, a grand scale, and a truly dangerous villain at the center. Exactly what you would expect and want in a film that brings together “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes”—not to mention four separate movie franchises.

The Avengers is so huge, in fact, that I found it to be a little overwhelming, maybe a little TOO big at times, and, as a result, not always easy to follow. I know that I’ll have to see it again to be able to take it all in.

What I can report upon my initial viewing is that there’s a LOT to like about The Avengers. The special effects are amazing. I can even recommend seeing the 3D version—and I’ve never been able to say that before. (Though you’ll certainly enjoy the film just as much—and save yourself a few bucks—if you see the standard edition.) The characterizations are terrific. It ties all of the previous Marvel films together nicely, and shows that not even the sky is the limit in terms of what can be done in a superhero movie.

I actually have mixed feelings about that last part. I really liked how Jon Favreau strived to set the first two Iron Man movies in our world, with everything more or less grounded in reality. The Hulk movie starring Edward Norton took the same approach, for the most part. Things started to get a little more “out there” with Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, what with those two films establishing other dimensions, super-science that, for all intents and purposes, is full-on magic, a race of godlike beings, and an ultimate world-breaking weapon connecting back to those godlike beings. But I found it all easy to accept within the framework of this expanding cinematic universe, as these extra-normal elements were introduced with great care and skill, and in a believable manner.

With The Avengers, though, writer/director Joss Whedon pulls out all the stops. Those extraordinary elements introduced in Thor and Captain America are right at the forefront, with additional over-the-top stuff thrown in. Which means the sense of verisimilitude that Favreau had achieved in the Iron Man films is not as much of a factor anymore. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I’m just not sure how I feel about it. Then again, if you’re going to make a movie that shows off the inner workings of S.H.I.E.L.D., the international peacekeeping organization run by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), how do you not introduce the Helicarrier, its enormous floating base of operations? And if you’ve already established the existence of Thor, Loki, Asgard, and the vastly powerful cube-shaped energy source called the Tessaract, is it that much of a leap to throw in additional otherworldy beings and objects?

Like I said, I’ll have to see the movie again.

The plot is very loosely based on the comic book where it all began: The Avengers #1, by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, published by Marvel Comics in 1963. In both the comic book and the movie, the villain whose actions cause the formation of the team is none other than Loki, the infamous god of mischief and embittered brother of Thor, the Asgardian god of thunder.

Tom Hiddleston, wh0 did a fantastic job portraying Loki in last year’s Thor, is back and brings some new dimensions to the character. Without giving anything away, I can say that Loki is more vile and more vicious here than he was in Thor. His villainy is far less subtle this time. And yet Hiddleston is so good in the role that he always manages to keep you guessing about what Loki will do next, and what’s going on behind those ever-scheming eyes of his. You’re forced to wonder if he’s really as evil as he seems to be, and if there’s any trace of compassion or mercy left in him. As far as I’m concerned, Loki, as portrayed by Hiddleston, is the best, most complex villain of all of the Marvel movies—possibly of all superhero movies, period.

As for the heroes, by this point, most of the characters that make up the Avengers are very familiar to moviegoers, but this film shows them in a new light. For one thing, nearly all of them end up battling each other at one time or another. (Why would the good guys be fighting each other? Ahhh, that would be telling. I will say, though, that the scene in which Iron Man battles Thor absolutely kicks ass, far surpassing any of the fight scenes in the Iron Man movies. And to watch the Hulk and Thor go at each other with no holds barred is a comic-book fan’s dream come true.)

Robert Downey Jr. is of course back as Tony Stark/Iron Man, with his trademark manic wit and charm fully intact. What’s new here is that when Stark displays his notorious arrogance, narcissism, and downright thoughtlessness, he’s surrounded by a bunch of folks who aren’t intimidated by him, who don’t have to put up with his crap, and who have the power and abilities to stand up to him—whether he’s in or out of his armor. And I loved the few scenes that touched upon Stark’s private life, which, I’m pleased to report, feature Gwyneth Paltrow reprising her role as Pepper Potts. The interactions between Downey Jr. and Paltrow remain a joy to watch.

Scarlett Johansson fully embodies the role of Natasha Romanoff/the Black Widow, which she originated in Iron Man 2. She’s just damn wonderful throughout, absolutely improving upon her previous appearance and delivering some of the film’s best moments. Comic-book purists should be happy to know that Natasha’s Russian background is established, and while she speaks in an American accent through most of the film, she does get to speak in Russian at one point, and even utters a trademark phrase in her native language.

Chris Evans, back as Steve Rogers/Captain America, is very effective as the man out of time who has to catch up quickly in the face of a global crisis. I wish there had been more time devoted to his personal life, to Cap’s observations on how America changed during his time in suspended animation, and to showing him getting acclimated to the twenty-first century. Presumably, and hopefully, these things will be explored in the already announced Captain America 2. Still, Cap does get some really nice and cute moments, and it’s great to see him showing his natural leadership abilities.

Chris Hemsworth, once again playing Thor, is in fine form throughout the film, but he’s at his very best when he’s playing off of Hiddleston’s Loki. Their scenes together crackle with energy and emotion.

Jeremy Renner, introduced as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Clint Barton/Hawkeye in a cameo in Thor, doesn’t get to develop his character as fully as the rest of the cast does, but that’s because of the nature of the plot. Still, Renner is effective and likable and the hints dropped about Barton’s adventurous and tumultuous past with the Black Widow are intriguing. 

Samuel L. Jackson’s Fury looms large over the proceedings, which is only fitting, since this whole “Avengers initiative” started with him four years ago in that memorable 30-second scene tacked on to the end of Iron Man. Fury is given a lot more screen time this time around and has a lot more to do—he’s not just a bringer of information anymore. We get to see how S.H.I.E.L.D. operates and how extensive its reach really is. With this expanded role, we get to see some different sides to Fury, and not all of them are likable. Jackson has great presence as Fury and projects coolness and strength, but he’s perhaps a little too remote. He’s not a character the audience can really relate to, but that may be intentional.

While we’re on the topic of S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives, Clark Gregg returns as Agent Coulson, who was introduced as a minor character in Iron Man and reappeared in Iron Man 2 and Thor. Like Fury, Coulson has an integral role in The Avengers, and it’s a pleasure to see him get to do more and to be further developed as a character. Coulson’s relationship with Captain America is actually kind of touching, and the bond he seems to have formed with Pepper leads to some amusing moments.

Cobie Smulders, best known for her role as Robin on the long-running TV series How I Met Your Mother, makes a strong impression as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill, Nick Fury’s right hand. Hill was introduced in the comics a few years ago and has since become a prominent figure. Hopefully we’ll see more of her in future Marvel films—Smulders is very effective in the role.

Finally, there’s Mark Ruffalo as Dr. Bruce Banner. In my opinion, Ruffalo has the biggest challenge of all the members of the cast, because he’s stepping in to a key role that was originated by another actor. I so very much wanted to see Edward Norton in this movie, continuing his role from The Incredible Hulk and interacting with Downey Jr., Evans, Hemsworth, Johansson, Jackson, etc. It’s not just for the sake of continuity—I thought Norton was perfectly cast as Banner and captured the character fully. I have to admit that in the early scenes featuring Ruffalo, I was mentally inserting Norton and imagining him playing the role. But eventually that fell by the wayside and I started to accept Ruffalo. He doesn’t look anything like his predecessor, and in my opinion, he’s a little too beefy and rugged for Bruce Banner, but he conveys the character’s intelligence and internal struggle very well, along with the tragedy, the sheer loneliness, and the innate goodness of the troubled scientist. What’s more, he works well with the rest of the cast—reportedly, one of the reasons that Norton was dropped from the film was Marvel’s concern that he would not be a team player.

As for “the other guy,” which is how Banner refers to his green-skinned alter ego throughout the film—director Whedon and company come very close to hitting a home run. For starters, the Hulk looks FANTASTIC here—a marked improvement over his appearance in The Incredible Hulk. (Don’t even get me started on what he looked like in Ang Lee’s 2003 crapfest.) The CGI used to create him is the most effective and realistic that we’ve seen yet. In The Avengers, the Hulk looks more like a brute, with a pronounced brow and real menace in his eyes. 

In many ways, this version of the Hulk is like a smaller King Kong, specifically the 1933 edition—wild, bestial, uncontrollable, unpredictable, and absolutely dangerous, and yet you can’t help but root for him. If I have one criticism about the Hulk in this film, it’s that he’s probably a little too dangerous and menacing, particularly when he first appears and finds himself in the presence of the Black Widow. I just don’t see him being so harsh, especially with a pretty lady who’s done him no harm. Still, when the situation calls for it, the Hulk proves to be as heroic as the rest. He has but one line of dialogue in the film, and it’s a doozie.

Without getting into the specifics of the plot, I’ll say that The Avengers, at its core, is really about the necessity for teamwork, for putting aside differences to work for the greater good. (Maybe Congress should be forced to see it?) I don’t think you can ever have too many stories about that.

My initial feeling is that the film drags a bit in the middle. You’re waiting for the main stuff to happen and to get a real sense of what Loki’s up to and where it’s all headed, but instead there’s a lot of discussion between the Avengers about Loki, the threat he poses to Earth and humanity, and how to foil whatever it is he’s planning. Once things do get rolling though, there’s no letting up. And in the midst of it all, there are some downright hilarious bits, many of them involving the Hulk.

There are flaws, to be sure. For example, there’s a plot resolution involving Hawkeye that I found unsatisfying. As is the explanation for Thor’s sudden ability to return to Earth, given the destruction of the Bifrost at the end of Thor. And I’m not entirely sure why (this is a very mild spoiler) Loki allows himself to be captured at one point—how does that help him advance his plans?

The Avengers isn’t perfect—no film is. Nor can I really declare it my favorite superhero movie. But I can say without hesitation that it’s certainly the ultimate superhero team movie, and it will remain so unless Warner Bros. finally gets its act together and pulls off a truly fantastic Justice League film. (I’m not holding my breath for that though.) There’s an undeniable thrill just seeing these classic Marvel characters together in a big-budget movie. Watching Captain America fight against—and alongside—Iron Man and Thor sent chills down my spine. I never thought I’d see the Hulk rampaging through the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier on the big screen. The cherry on top of all of this is that the movie is as good as it is. And I have a feeling I’ll like it even more upon second viewing.

By the way, don’t leave when the end credits begin to roll. As with all of the other Marvel movies, there’s a bonus scene at the end. This one adds some context and sets up a possible future adventure. (My guess? Thor 2.) People unacquainted with Marvel comic-book lore probably won’t grasp the significance of the scene. But comic-book fans will undoubtedly go nuts with delight.

© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2012.


  1. Can't wait to see it with you and the Mad!

  2. No film is perfect? Horse feathers!!! I have one word for you, mister: MANOS.

  3. Y'know, I've been pretty excited to see this movie for the better part of a year. Didn't think I could get more anxious to see it. Until now.

  4. Glenn -- you were clearly overwhelmed in your first viewing to have missed that Loki got himself captured so that he could incite the Hulk to trash the Helicarrier from within... it's why the heroes all start bickering, and why Hulk is so monstrous initially... Loki's doing it all.

  5. John--

    Just saw it again yesterday.

    You're right--it has to do with Loki, but Whedon could have made that fact a wee bit clearer.

    I suspect it's a result of editing, that it was intentionally very subtle. Perhaps someone--maybe even Whedon--felt that if it seemed like Loki was controlling things TOO much, it would seem that the heroes were not bickering with each other of their own free will.

    1. It was definitely played subtly -- I've seen a lot of people speculate on this very issue, only to have that "D'oh! Of course!" moment when some smartass like myself point out that Loki was behind it all. :)