What Marvel Studios has done with The Avengers is almost unbelievable. Ten years ago I would have told you (and I’m sure I wrote it in one snarky piece or another) that it was actually impossible. The Marvel comic universe thrives with a shared world that seemed impossible to properly replicate in movies... until Iron Man began the march towards the first superhero crossover team-up movie ever. Along the way Marvel made some mistakes, but it got two things powerfully right: the characters were being represented in a way that reflected their decades of iconic power, and the casting was great.
That casting. They nailed it, and nailing it in the individual casting goes a long way to nailing it in The Avengers. Each of the leads - Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Chris Evans as Captain America - brought serious charisma and chops to their characters. Each actor approached their role with commitment and a real understanding of why their character has stood the test of time. Each displayed incredible movie star quality.
Bringing them together could have been a disaster. A mess of actors and characters jockeying for position, a situation where one star eclipsed all the others. But Marvel made one final great ‘casting’ decision - they got Joss Whedon to write and direct the movie. Whedon has an almost preternatural understanding of group dynamics, instinctively balancing the players in a group so that everyone gets a moment and so that each moment feels as powerful and important as everyone else’s moment.
I come to this as a dyed in the wool comic nerd - a proud member of the Mighty Marvel Marching Society, no less - so take what I have to say next with a grain of salt (but I think I’m being about as objective as possible here):
The Avengers fucking rules.
Use that as your pullquote, Disney!
But seriously, The Avengers is a remarkable example of the blockbuster, and the ultimate example of what a superhero movie should be. Everyone tackling a superhero film must look at The Avengers and take notes, because Joss Whedon has given you the exact right formula. I have never been so satisfied by one of these movies, never before felt the magical imaginative quality that came from the best four color pages. Until now.
There’s a rough patch at the start. I spent the first twenty minutes of The Avengers sort of shaking my head, muttering ‘They blew it.’ The movie stutters at the beginning as the basic plot points are set up via a poorly staged Loki attack on a SHIELD facility, and the stuttering continues a bit as each character gets reintroduced. But once the team begins to fall into place - once Captain America comes aboard SHIELD’s massive flying Helicarrier - the edges smooth out and things begin to get incredible.
Watching these characters bounce off of each other - sometimes literally - is joyous. The energy in The Avengers comes not from high cost digital wizardry - although there is some of that on display for sure - but good old fashioned chemistry and acting. Steve Rogers and Tony Stark butting heads and then learning to work together is as thrilling as any action set piece in the film’s enormous finale. Everybody gets more than a moment, and every character feels like an integral part of the whole.
Yes, even Black Widow and Hawkeye. In fact Scarlett Johansson’s turn as Black Widow in this movie is so good I hope they spin her off into her own film - maybe a buddy movie with Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. And there’s plenty of backstory hinted at (for both of them, and between them) to make that possible. Who would have imagined that the reaction to Black Widow would have been ‘More, please?’ I guess anyone who knew of Joss Whedon’s history of great female characters could have guessed, but even they couldn’t have known that he would get a career-best performance out of the often wooden Scarlett.
You can tell that Whedon has a special affinity for Steve Rogers, the man out of time. I thought that Captain America: The First Avenger was the best Marvel movie yet, largely because it truly and fully GOT the character of Cap, but Whedon one-ups that film. And Chris Evans blooms with the new company he keeps; standing toe to toe with Robert Downey Jr and Mark Ruffalo and Samuel L Jackson brings out the best in him. The Cap in The Avengers is the best iteration of the character in decades (outside of Ed Brubaker’s comic pages).
When we last left Thor he was trapped in Asgard. That’s waved off in this film in a line of dialogue (pretty much backing up my belief that Thor has 100% the wrong ending), and I’m happy for it. The crux of Thor’s role in The Avengers is to be the guy who humanizes Loki. Even after all Loki has done, Thor still sees him as his brother and wants to help him. I wasn’t psyched about Loki as a villain before I saw the movie, but the chemistry between Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston makes the film better; Loki isn’t just a bad guy with a dumb plan, he’s an actual character we’ve gotten to know, and it adds to the depth of the film.
If there’s going to be an argument that any character gets leaned on a bit too much, it’s going to be an argument about Iron Man. Robert Downey Jr is the big star of the piece, and Iron Man is the big star of the Marvel Movieverse (as a long-time comic reader the idea of IRON MAN as the biggest character is honestly disorienting). But Whedon wisely uses that in his script, having Stark jostling for position with Captain America and Nick Fury, not exactly wanting to be a team player (but, of course, learning the value of team dynamics). It feels organic and right.
I’ve left the best for last. Marvel has tried to do The Incredible Hulk twice now, and failed both times. Both previous versions have their supporters, and both can be looked at as valid iterations of a character who has had many, many iterations. But there is no question: The Hulk in The Avengers is fully, totally correct. It’s the best version of the character I’ve seen in any non-comic medium. Mark Ruffalo is fantastic as Bruce Banner, never quite getting into the mopey places that Eric Bana did but maintaining a steady undercurrent of sadness. His Banner feels sort of like a reformed felon, a guy who feels really bad for the shit he has done in a previous life.
But when he turns into the Hulk... the first Hulk transformation, which sees the Green Goliath trying to smash the Black Widow, is played like a horror movie. It’s remarkable, visceral and great. Later he gets into the big battle to save the planet at the end and Whedon gets the primal appeal of Hulking out - this Hulk is just under enough Banner control to only smash the bad guys (mostly). His moments are ecstatic destruction, marvelously played out.
One of the great hallmarks of the best Marvel comics was that when heroes met they would fight. It always happened, and it satisfied fanboy curiosity as to who was tougher (sort of - most fights were a draw or got interrupted before anybody got hurt). Whedon uses that to full effect in The Avengers, creating a few classic hero vs hero battles. Thor vs Iron Man is great, and it only gets greater when Captain America, being Captain America, throws himself between them. There’s a spectacular Thor vs Hulk fight as well, and Hulk chasing down Black Widow is wonderful. Then there’s some stuff with Hawkeye I won’t spoil...
But all of this is just a lead up to the final fight in the streets of NYC. The alien invaders, for the record, are called the Chitauri, but they’re really cannon fodder, even with their giant armored space dragons. They’re there to keep the heroes busy and to give everyone something to do. In the trailers it seemed like the whole battle took place on like one block... and it kind of does. But this is once again Whedon’s genius; he has Captain America order the Avengers to keep everything contained. So on one level this is the infamous Marvel Studios cheapness on display, but on the other it’s good strategy.
Within the battle everyone has a role to play, and none of it feels stupid or forced or pointless. The Avengers operate as a multi-level team, going from the street to the skies (and beyond). It makes sense to have a Cap and a Hawkeye and a Black Widow dealing with some aspects of the battle while Iron Man, Thor and Hulk take on the heavy hitters. The dynamic range of battle elements makes the fight more exhilarating.
And that’s what makes it the best superhero fight scene ever put on screen. It feels more like something out of the pages of a comic - something wild, something huge, something fun - than anything I have ever seen before. Whedon shoots it with stability and grace, and he knows exactly when to punctuate the mayhem with a totally awesome moment, whether it be the Hulk going apeshit on a bad guy or Captain America standing on a trashed cab and quickly proving to cynical New York cops why being Captain America means something.
There’s a lot more to write about The Avengers. It’s the real deal, and it has resparked my love for Marvel (which is fitting, as some of the previous movies sort of dampened it). Not only that, but The Avengers is the comic book movie I’ve been waiting for because it fully, successfully explodes the ‘street level’ stuff we’ve been dealing with since Tim Burton’s Batman. By the end of the movie the Marvel Movieverse is big and cosmic and crazy, more Jack Kirby than Frank Miller.
They’ve done the impossible. They created a shared movie universe that fully, completely works. One that has multiple franchises that have their own aesthetic but that can get together for one of the most kick-ass blockbusters in years. They’ve proven that character and dialogue (have I mentioned that The Avengers is often laugh-out-loud funny without feeling fully, oppressively Whedonesque (I like Whedonesque stuff, but I understand why a lot of people wouldn’t want it in their Avengers movie)) are just as important to summer blockbusters as action and adventure. Joss Whedon has hit it out of the park, showing the world that he’s got more up his sleeve than cult TV shows.
The Avengers proves these guys truly are Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.