It’s all been leading up to this. When Iron Man hit in the Spring of 2008, it looked like Marvel had finally got it right and produced a comic book to film adaptation worthy of their fans. Sure, we had one or two decent Blade and X-Men films before that, but they felt like stand alone features not truly connected to the Marvel Universe. Iron Man arrived just a few weeks prior to Christopher Nolan changing the game with his phenomenally successful Batman tale The Dark Knight. Jon Fareau’s take on the armored avenger not only had a sense of fun and purpose, but was fully realized in no small part due to its star, Robert Downey, Jr., whose performance catapulted him to super stardom. Even when press were shown an early screening of the film, we had no idea that a secret post-credits coda would reveal Marvel had a game plan in the works.
When reports began to surface from later screenings that the iconic Samuel L. Jackson appeared in a ten second cameo as the equally iconic Marvel character Nick Fury, everyone got the notion that Marvel was thinking bigger. Jackson had lent his likeness to Marvel for their “Ultimate” editions, a series of storylines where classic books such as “Spider-man”, “X-Men” and “The Fantastic Four” were re-imagined and re-booted. Now it looked as if Marvel Studios wanted the flesh and blood version of Jackson to play Fury for real, in a series of films starting with Iron Man.
“I’m here to talk with you about the “Avengers Initiative”.
When Jackson’s Fury spoke that final line to Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man aka Tony Stark, it sent a shudder through audiences that would reverberate for years. The idea of a series of Marvel films leading up to an Avengers feature was hinted at again, later that summer, when Stark had his own cameo in the Marvel reboot, The Incredible Hulk, informing William Hurt’s very annoyed General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, “We’re putting a team together.” It would be another two years until the idea was expanded upon in the lackluster Iron Man 2, but with the highly anticipated Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger just around the corner, Marvel fans knew their lifelong dreams were actually being realized.
Has this ever been done before? Classic comic book characters starting off with their own individual films and origin stories, ultimately uniting in one epic ensemble feature? There probably hasn’t been a single franchise or property that’s attempted this before. With Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans giving star making performances in their respective features as Thor and Captain America, they would “assemble” in The Avengers alongside strong, critically acclaimed actors like Downey, Jr. and Jackson. Joining the party would also be Jeremy Renner, Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo, no strangers to critical acclaim themselves, but basically newbies to the Marvel Universe.
Writer/Director Joss Whedon is the perfect choice to handle such a rag-tag bunch of strong personalities having created pieces in the realm of television such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly. Those shows were firmly rooted in the genres of horror and sci-fi, respectively, but when you got down to it they were really dramas. Whedon has a knack for not only handling an ensemble, but giving each of his characters their moment; a chance to be part of the big picture and presenting actors with the opportunity to show the greater depths of
their characters. Films have a shorter time span to work with than the realm of television and while The Avengers is by no means perfect, when Whedon steps up to the plate he hits more than misses, essentially knocking it out of the park nearly every time.
It’s probably a good thing if you’ve already seen the five previous Marvel Studios films that have led up to The Avengers. Most of the characters have been previously introduced and the film’s storyline was set in motion long before it began. This is a film really made for die-hard Marvel fans, but traditional moviegoers will find much to enjoy and little difficulty following its story. Female audiences who jumped on the Robert Downey, Jr. or “RDJ” bandwagon after Iron Man might find this film less appealing since his Tony Stark is not the main player, but part of a large ensemble. Films of this type with so many characters and strong actors playing heroes need a proper villain and the incredibly brilliant Tom Hiddleston as Loki, the Norse God of Mischief, holds his own and manages to wipe the floor with each of the film’s principals both physically and with his intimidating gaze. Thought to have been believed dead by his brother Thor at the close of that film, Loki has arrived on Earth in search of the ‘Tesseract’, a cube of mysterious power with extraterrestrial origins. The Tesseract was once the prize of the treasure room of Odin, Loki’s adoptive father, but was used as a weapon when it ended up in the hands of Captain America’s rival, “The Red Skull”, during World War II. Locked away safely in the hands of Nick Fury’s intelligence agency SHIELD, Loki has come to claim it, brainwashing several of the Director’s best agents in the process. Fearing that Loki may now have the power to rule the Earth or even worse, destroy it, Fury puts into motion his initiative to unite the planet’s mightiest heroes.
One by one, Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (Evans), Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Downey, Jr.), operatives Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Renner) and Natasha “The Black Widow” Romanoff (Johansson) are brought into the fold along with civilian Dr. Bruce Banner (Ruffalo). The good doctor is a little hesitant being a fugitive and all, but is re-assured that his expertise on the Gamma radiation emanating from the Tesseract is needed rather than his ability to turn into a raging green monster whenever he gets angry. The interesting thing about this group is that they initially don’t trust each other or Fury and their feelings stay that way for quite some time. When the God of Thunder is finally added to the mix, Thor (Hemsworth) arrives with his own agenda: apprehend his brother Loki and protect the Earth from him. His methods don’t entirely sit well with Stark and the Man of Iron faces off with the Prince of Asgard in true Marvel fashion.
Loki may be an adversary to our heroes, but he’s not their greatest threat. Behind him stands a mysterious alien force desperately in need of the Tesseract with the hopes of conquering the Earth. Despite some imaginative CGI and engaging visual f/x this alien race unfortunately feels like the computer constructs they really are. See the alien horde in last summer’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, if you don’t get what I mean. Are they that infamous Marvel Comics race known as The Skrulls? Well, not really. I don’t know what game plan, Whedon, producer Kevin Feige and Marvel have in the works, but the fact that these mysterious invaders are not Skrulls feels like a missed opportunity. The shape-shifting abilities of that race alone would have made for some brilliant plot devices. I’m not even going to tell you what name Whedon has given these folks, but it sounds like a variation on a dish made from pig intestines. Maybe he was in the middle of a “soul food” run when he dreamed it up.
Though Hiddleston makes a strong villain, The Avengers nearly falls apart by making him the sole face of the antagonists. Just when it feels as if the story might collapse, Whedon puts things in proper motion with a turn of events that even shakes up Earth’s mightiest heroes. It’s a dramatic turn that gives the characters the motivation they need and even grounds the story in reality for a bit. Once everyone moves past their differences and trust issues, ultimately working together as a team, the film truly comes alive and feels like a living Marvel comic book.
As expected from Whedon, each of the main characters gets their proper moment. These bits don’t feel like they were written to cater to the ego of each actor, but actually contribute to the overall story. The patriotic Captain America and self-centered Iron Man eventually come to an understanding, Thor, still feeling remorse for losing his sibling to hate is faced with the choice of putting that behind him to protect the Earth and Bruce Banner must confront his trust issues concerning all around him while contending with the monster within. Whedon even makes room to present a bit of history for less prominent characters like Black Widow and Hawkeye who are revealed to be more human than their tough exteriors might present. There’s some rich character development for all, including Loki, whose entire crusade began with the discovery of his true heritage in last summer’s Thor. Hiddleston not only makes a formidable adversary, but a sympathetic villain. Without such well-written characters, the film just wouldn’t work.
The Avengers becomes a fan’s dream in its third act, when they function as one unit defending the Earth from the alien menace, but there are plenty of geek moments along the way. Captain America and Iron Man work hand in hand during one action set-piece as they attempt to re-start one of the SHIELD heli-carrier’s engines as the vessel plummets towards Earth. Thor not only faces off with Iron Man, but the Hulk as well and it ain’t pretty. Downey, Jr. does his familiar comedic wise-cracking schtick as Stark, but surprisingly, there are a few comedic bright spots courtesy of Clark Gregg’s hard-faced boyscout Agent Coulson, who reveals his “man-crush” for Captain America. My favorite gag in the film is a reference Stark makes to the classic 80′s arcade game ‘Galaga’, but there’s also a a great ‘love tap’ between Hulk and Thor that’s just priceless. Despite the fact that two actors have successfully played the characters before him, Ruffalo truly makes both Banner and Hulk his own, perhaps better than anyone. This is the first time we actually get to see the not-so-jolly green giant really cut loose and the f/x involved make for a visual feast. He may be a CG creation here, but the Hulk is a true Marvel Comic Book hero in this film more than any flesh and blood actor.
Running a little over two and a half hours, The Avengers is a tad long and has a number of dead moments, despite the breathing room Whedon has left for character development. It would all be a chore to sit through if everything didn’t pay off in the end and ultimately it does. Whedon’s never handled a production this epic, but you wouldn’t know it after watching this film. The Avengers appears to be “Phase One” of what will ultimately be a cycle where the most iconic characters get their individual films and stories only to assemble yet again in another sequel. The game plan appears to be working and if you are a Marvel fan like me, it’s an exciting time. You definitely don’t have to be one to appreciate and enjoy The Avengers though. For all, it’s something that’s getting rarer these days: a fun ride and engaging time at the movies.