It’s going to be extremely difficult to review The Avengers without sounding like a gushing, hyperbolic fanboy, but after witnessing the jaw-dropping awesomeness of this film, I’ve come to a firm, if not rational conclusion — I don’t care. All other comic book/superhero films to this point have been mere prelude; a soft string overture to the full majesty of the orchestra launching into a soaring sonic bombast. X-2: X-Men United? Thanks for playing. Spider-Man 2? Go sit in the corner now. Superman: The Movie? You helped lay the groundwork for this moment, but see ya’. The Dark Knight? Sorry, but it’s time to relinquish your crown, because there is no room for debate now — The Avengers is the greatest comic book movie ever made.
Strong words, I know, but words that are fully backed up by the unbelievable job that director/writer/ now sure-to-be King of the Nerd legions, Joss Whedon, does to make sure that every comic book fan’s wildest dreams come true in colorful, spectacular fashion. When it was announced that Whedon was handed the reigns to the most ambitious superhero project of all time — a movie that spent five years in the planning stages, and had to capitalize on the momentum of the universe-building of four solo superhero movies — some balked at the notion that a guy who was only known for writing cult TV shows and had only one film directing credit under his belt could pull off such a Herculean task. But forget Hercules, that’s thinking too small — With his effortless scriptwriting and snappy banter; ability to handle large group dynamics; and an eye for epic cinematic scope; Joss Whedon is Zeus here, delivering fire and sustenance to we mere mortals with his powerful lightning bolts.
And speaking of lightning bolts, if you want a dazzling display of epic superhero action and spectacle, The Avengers delivers in spades. Previous superhero films, especially the four Marvel films leading up to this one, always felt as if they were holding back. Sure, we got to see Iron Man fly and shoot repulsor rays out of his amazing high-tech armor; or Thor conjure lightning with his mighty magical hammer and rend the ground asunder with it; or Captain America slinging his vibranium shield into a HYDRA goon’s face; but they were all just coital strokes leading up to this full-on orgasmic release of action and destruction.
There is no holding back in The Avengers. Lightning, thunder, and laser blasts blaze across the screen in a brilliant cacophony of annihilation. Buildings explode and crumble under the might of invading alien hordes and their armor-plated leviathans. Jet fighters soar, arrows whiz into targets, a star-spangled shield deflects energy blasts, and fists and feet fly. It’s a pulse-pounding adrenaline rush that never relents, and you know what? That’s just the Avengers fighting Loki and his evil alien hordes.
The battles among the heroes themselves that pepper the buildup to the astonishing third act are just as fun and memorable, if not more so. Without drifting too heavily into spoiler territory, I will say that we get to see Thor vs. Iron Man, Thor vs. Captain America, Black Widow vs. Hawkeye, and my personal favorite clash of the film, Thor vs. The Hulk — an epic clash of titans that tears through the S.H.I.E.L.D. heli-carrier during the intense second act. Fans of Marvel Comics have dreamed of seeing these iconic matchups for years; they were mythic struggles that only existed in our imaginations, but Whedon and the special effects wizards were able to reach right into our heads and put every once of fun and excitement of these clashes on the screen.
Perhaps the best part about the action sequences are the refreshing clarity in which they are directed, shot, and edited. Joss Whedon doesn’t shake his camera in the audience’s face like it’s strapped to the back of a wild boar on PCP, but it’s never static and boring, either. The pans are graceful, the tracking shots are smooth, and the pace and flow of the superhero carnage is perfect. I was never confused about what was going in the frame; who was fighting who; or the geography of the battlegrounds, etc. Everything was bold, bright, and coherent, without ever being dull.
But what of The Avengers themselves? All of these superheroes doing crazy superhero stuff on screen wouldn’t mean a damn thing unless these actors bounced well off of each other and jelled into a cohesive unit. It was one of the nerd community’s (and the film community at large) biggest trepidations heading into the movie. Would Joss Whedon be able to juggle all the egos? Would the individual characters get enough screen time? Would all these characters from different films mesh? I’m happy to report that the answer is yes. The Avengers works because Joss Whedon just gets it, and because the actors are so spot-on.
Mark Ruffalo, who I feel is one of our most underrated actors, delivers the best iteration of The Hulk/Bruce Banner in any filmed medium, period. His performance is layered and nuanced; as Banner he speaks in a disarming, sensitive manner that makes you physically squirm in your seat waiting for the inevitable rage that is visibly bubbling under the surface to emerge at any second. Robert Downey Jr. is in fine Tony Stark form here, having the most fun of the cast by far, delivering his trademark zingers to all the other characters whom he views as stuffy suits or jack-booted soldiers. He has great chemistry in scenes with both Ruffalo and Chris Evans — with the former he shares a deep scientific admiration and desire to see him unleash, but control the Hulk within; and with the latter, his carefree attitude clashes with what he perceives as Cap’s outdated, stoic, sense of duty.
Chris Evans shines in his reprisal of the Sentinel of Liberty, reaffirming the decision to cast him in the Captain America solo film. Evans simply IS Steve Rogers — displaying all the valor, earnestness, and natural leadership of the character without a hint of irony. He truly gets to shine as Cap during the third act battle, where he spouts out tactical commands to the other Avengers and does a whole lot more butt-kicking with his fists and his shield than he did in his solo film. Chris Hemsworth, returning as Thor, provides a lot of the muscle and fireworks during the skirmishes, but has a smaller, yet vital role to play in the film. He serves as the heart of the movie due to his conflicted emotions over his brother Loki, once again played with devilish glee by the brilliant Tom Hiddleston.
The most surprising character development comes from Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, who was a kind of bland, superfluous addition to Iron Man 2. However, under Whedon’s direction in The Avengers, Johansson brings Natasha Romanov to life. She’s seductive, manipulative, charming, and performs vital tasks throughout the film. Only Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye is left out of the “fleshed-out” crowd. His Hawkeye is cold and steely, and speaks more with his bow and high-tech arrows than his mouth. As for the supporting cast, Samuel L. Jackson turns in his usual scenery-chewing badassery as S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury. Jackson is looking a little long in the tooth these days, which explains why he doesn’t do a lot of running or physical action scenes. He primarily stands on the bridge of the heli-carrier, barks out orders, and stirs the pot with the other characters, which is just fine by me. And once again Clark Gregg as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson steals every scene he’s in with his dry, witty delivery. He’s such a fun, fantastic character.
The Avengers is a remarkable piece of Summer entertainment. It has all the dynamic destruction and technical special effects wizardry of your average Michael Bay multiplex-filler, but with a heart and soul and characters you actually give a shit about. It’s laugh-out-loud FUNNY, and features no less than 15-20 “stand up out of your seat and cheer” moments. Yet, despite being a bona fide crowd-pleaser, it’s not just an empty fan-wank. This film just raised comic book movies to the next level. Your move, Dark Knight Rises.