BLOGS

<i>The Avengers</i>: The Gang’s All Here

It's not hard to understand why people are so excited for The Avengers. For starters, its release signals the start of the annual summer blockbuster season, when audiences can look forward to four solid months of effects-heavy escapist entertainment. Secondly, for the millions of moviegoers who have followed the individual Marvel heroes through their own big-screen adventures (not to mention their own comic-book titles), the thought of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the Hulk sharing the same frame and battling the same common enemy (as well as each other) is pretty remarkable. And lastly, there's the fact that the Avengers are assembling under the watchful eye of writer/director Joss Whedon, at last making his leap from cult artist to mainstream moviemaker. While Whedon's name might not mean anything to a good 50-60 percent of the audience that'll show up opening weekend, there will be a significant segment of moviegoers more thrilled about seeing his name in the credits than any of the actors'. With all these various elements coming together, who can blame those viewers who are heading into the theater expecting to see the comic book movie to end all comic book movies?

Not to be a total killjoy, but they may want to temper those sky-high expectations a bit. Despite the enormous amount of money and talent both in front of and behind the camera, The Avengers doesn't completely lick the problems that have plagued all of the Marvel Studios productions to date -- among them stop-and-start storytelling and largely disappointing villains. On the other hand, it does offer rousing action set-pieces that easily out-smash its predecessors, some great superhero banter and a handful of nice, quiet grace notes amidst all the larger-than-life battles. So The Avengers may be a more modest success than some of us may have hoped, but it's still very much a success.

One thing to note right off the top is that if you are familiar with -- and are a fan of -- Whedon's work, don't go into The Avengers expecting to see a new twist on well-worn material. (If that's what you're after, his graduate thesis-level horror movie deconstruction Cabin in the Woods may still be playing at a theater near you... unless that screen has already been taken over by The Avengers.) Having been handed the keys to Marvel Studios' biggest production ever, he plays it straight and down the middle, mostly relegating his own distinct touches to the margins -- the pithy laugh line here, the unexpected reversal there and, of course, the sudden demise of a familiar character whose death is designed to make the audience think that anyone is expendable. (Excluding, of course, any of the Big Four who all have sequels to their individual adventures in the works.) To Whedon's credit, he adapts to the Marvel house style more readily than, say, Kenneth Branagh, whose struggles with Thor were all too evident onscreen. There's a confidence to The Avengers that's new for the studio; even the first Iron Man was a ragtag production that's held together primarily by Robert Downey Jr.'s live-wire performance. Even in its weakest passages, this film has the kind of sturdy conviction that can only stem from a writer/director who fully understands the material and characters he's working with.

And perhaps no passage of The Avengers is weaker than the first twenty minutes, in which Whedon lumbers to get the top-heavy movie off the ground. Set down in a nondescript high-security military facility, we watch S.H.I.E.L.D. head honcho Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) glumly exposit about the movie's particular piece of phlebotinum -- a glowing cube called "The Tesseract" that has the power to open up doorways to other dimensions and worlds. This understandably makes it a valuable object, so valuable that an interdimensional visitor promptly shows up to retrieve it. That would be Thor's adoptive brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who has powered up significantly since we last saw him by aligning with an alien race eager to invade dear ol' Earth. With the help of his trusty, weaponized staff, he decimates Fury's forces and forcibly converts a few key players -- most notably lead scientist Erik Selvig (Stellan SkarsgÄrd) and archer Clint Barton A.K.A. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) -- to his side, before escaping to parts unknown to construct the gateway that will allow his extraterrestrial pals to cross over. It's this looming threat that spurs Fury to re-activate his discarded "Avengers Initiative" project, bringing in heavy-hitting heroes like Bruce Banner's Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Tony Star's Iron Man (Downey) and Steve Rogers' Captain America (Chris Evans) to protect Earth in its hour of greatest need.

Two areas where Whedon typically excels in his own work are designing gripping, inventive narratives that keeps the audience guessing as to what's going to happen next and formidable, charismatic Big Bads for the heroes square off against. Both of those elements are, unfortunately, missing from The Avengers. Although the movie is packed with action and incident, there's not a lot of intrigue or drama in the way the story unfolds; in fact, once the team is assembled -- with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) crossing over from Asgard and Fury's own operative the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) adding a much-needed female presence to this boys club -- the proceedings hit a sizeable dead spot, where the entire team (plus the captured Loki) adjourn to a S.H.I.E.L.D. airship for some hero-on-hero squabbling and bonding. This chunk of the movie feels almost like a bottle episode, one of those installments of a weekly TV series where the action is deliberately kept to one location to save on budget. And it's here that the lack of a richer story becomes more pronounced; like the characters, the film comes to feel stuck in place, with nothing driving it forward. One thing that might have helped with that is if Loki were written and acted to be a smarter, craftier villain -- one who could match the Avengers in brains if not brawn. The best comic book movie villains possess strong character arcs that heighten their conflict with the heroes, be it The Joker's commitment to chaos in The Dark Knight or Doctor Octopus's misguided sense of justice in Spider-Man 2. Loki begins and ends The Avengers as little more than a petulant child throwing an epic snitfit.

The other thing about bottle episodes, though, is that they're often followed by installments that pull out all the stops, and that's what happens here as soon as the action shifts to New York for the big showdown between the united Avengers and the invading aliens. Lasting a good forty minutes, this sequence is tremendous fun, a -- pardon the pun -- marvel of individual super-powered heroics and team dynamics. One of the chief reasons Whedon landed this gig in the first place was his extensive experience at assembling large groups of fighters (be they vampire slayers or space cowboys) and throughout the movie, and particularly in this climax, he spreads the wealth around, letting every character get a crowd-pleasing moment and then integrating them back into the group. So there's Captain America, in one moment taking out a squad of aliens with his shield and, in the next, barking orders to Thor. And, meanwhile, there goes Hulk, smashing through buildings solo and then appearing in the nick of time to scoop a falling Iron Man out of the sky. Even Bryan Singer's X-Men movies never utilized the whole team together in action as seamlessly and effectively as Whedon does here.

Beyond the brio of that final battle, the big pleasure of The Avengers lies in watching these very different heroes (and actors) interact with each other. Not surprisingly, Downey gets many of the biggest laughs, while Evans has probably the most dramatic story as a man literally out of his own time. But the movie's breakout star is, without question, Ruffalo's Hulk, a character desperately in need of a makeover after two underwhelming screen incarnations. (Although I still maintain that Ang Lee's Hulk is at least an interesting failure; Louis Letterier's semi-sequel is distinctly third-tier Marvel.) Besides the actor's appealingly understated turn as Banner, the green giant himself is well-used here, freed from the melodramatic flourishes forced upon him in the previous two movies. The rest of the team is solid, if not exceptional; after being the best thing about his individual adventure, Hemsworth's Thor cuts a less charismatic figure here, while Johansson's Black Widow remains too much of an enigma to really connect with. (Though the solo scene she shares with Loki is easily the best moment either of them have in the movie.) Getting the short shrift are Renner's Hawkeye -- whose primary personality trait is his ability to scowl on cue -- and Jackson's Fury, once again relegated to glorified cameo status. Considering the monumental task of integrating all these characters into one movie though, it's a testament to Whedon's skills that nobody feels entirely inessential to the proceedings. At its most basic level, The Avengers is the story of how a group of individuals comes together to form a cohesive unit. By laying the groundwork for this transformation as effectively as he has, Whedon guarantees that the inevitable sequel will likely be even mightier than the Avengers' imperfect, but invigorating first adventure.

Check out a dubbed version of The Avengers courtesy of Hulu's The Morning After show:

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