Review: “Marvel’s The Avengers”

Comic book fanboys (and girls!) have been waiting for this for almost four years, and let’s face it, most of the rest of America that enjoys going to the movies has been, too. The wait is now over.

Marvel’s The Avengers is here, but does it live up to the hype? The answer is a qualified “yes.”

Marvel’s The Avengers is about as much fun as a summer blockbuster can be, and casual movie goers as well as die-hard Marvel fans should certainly feel like they got their money’s worth by the end of the film, even if things do get off to a bit of a slow start.

The premise of the movie reflects the original idea of “The Avengers” comic book, created by Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby in 1963: when a threat to Earth that’s too large for any one superhero presents itself, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes – Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Dr. Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Natasha Romanov/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) must join together to stop that threat. They’re brought together by spymaster Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to face Thor’s mischievous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), whose fall from grace we saw in last summer’s Thor, and who’s got vengeance on his mind and his sights set on humanity as perfect subjects for him to rule over.

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Sound complicated? Sure it does, and of course, there’s more to it. With all those characters and all those moving parts, the fact that the movie works at all is an accomplishment in and of itself. That it works as successfully as it does is a testament first and foremost to the skill of the film’s writer/director, Joss Whedon.

Whedon, in case you didn’t know, is the man best known for creating the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly (and its theatrical sequel, Serenity), and Dollhouse. Those TV shows came to be beloved because Whedon knows how to handle ensemble casts so that every cast member has a chance to shine and also to bring out the best in their cast mates. Plus, the man knows how to turn a phrase – there’s always at least one character in any Whedon script that’s as natural with a glib one-liner or pop culture reference as others are to breathing – and he knows how to get an audience emotionally invested so that when something major happens, it’s a serious gut-check.

Trust me when I say that ALL of these talents are on display in Marvel’s The Avengers, and don’t even try to be prepared for the “gut-punch” that WILL suck the air out of the theater you’re in as everyone gasps when it comes. Unless you’ve ruined it for yourself by reading spoilers for the film, you might as well just sit back, relax, and be shocked along with everyone else.

Whedon’s script (which is a re-write of the original script done by screenwriter Zak Penn, who receives a story credit for this film) performs the rarely-accomplished feat of making a special-effects laden, set-piece heavy summer action extravaganza a character piece, which is to say that the characters and their personal struggles and conflicts with each other drive the movie just as much as the explosions and fight scenes do. And boy, are there lots of fight scenes between the heroes themselves: Hulk vs. Black Widow, Black Widow vs. Hawkeye, Thor vs. Hulk, Iron Man vs. Thor, etc. But as many of them as there are, none of them feels superfluous or gratuitous – they make sense and you care about what happens in them because these actually feel like real people, despite the colorful, form-fitting uniforms.

Of course, you’d expect Downey Jr. to run away with this thing, and he almost does, as his trademark smart aleck delivery is a perfect mate for Whedon’s quippy dialogue. But he also brings out strong performances from Chris Evans (sparks fly between the futurist Stark and the greatest-generation-born Captain Rogers almost immediately) and Mark Ruffalo, who takes over the role of Bruce Banner/Hulk from Edward Norton. If anything at all, Ruffalo’s contribution to this film was the big unknown coming into this film in terms of casting and turns out to be a surprising pleasure, as he brings a wry sense of humor to Banner that was absent from Norton’s outing in The Incredible Hulk (2008). Also, enjoy another great turn as Loki by Tom Hiddleston, though I HIGHLY recommend that you watch (or re-watch) Thor before coming to this movie so that you fully understand why the Norse “god of mischief” is doing what he’s doing and why his relationship with his brother Thor is so complicated and conflicted.

As for negative points, there just aren’t that many. Yes, the film’s first thirty minutes or so is a bit slow as the plot unfolds and the group comes together. And yes, not EVERY character gets equal love from the script – Renner’s Hawkeye disappears for much of the first hour (but for good reason) and thus doesn’t feel like he gets his due in terms of development. And Johansson isn’t given all that much to do aside from kick butt in a tight S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform (not a complaint!), but she makes the most of her opportunities – watch for a scene between Black Widow and Loki that takes a surprisingly fun and unexpected turn by the end.

But that’s about it. If you’re not awestruck by the sheer scope of this thing, particularly in the film’s second half, and if you’re not applauding and cheering along with the fanboys and fangirls by the end of the film’s 2 hour and 22 minute running time, you need to refresh your memory on the definition of “fun”, because it doesn’t get much more fun than this at the movies anymore. Big summer movies with lots of hype are a norm in America these days, but it’s not often that the movies themselves live up to expectations.

Count this one among that select few, and put it near the top of the list in terms of quality.

Score: 4 out of 5

Marvel’s The Avengers
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner and Tom Hiddleston, with Stellan Skarsgård and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, and directed by Joss Whedon.
Running time: 2 hours, 22 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, and a mild drug reference.