Joss Whedon, Zak Penn
Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Cobie Saunders, Stellan Skarsgard, Samuel L. Jackson, Gwyneth Paltrow
PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, and a mild drug reference
Buy on DVD
Buy on Blu-ray
The era of the Fanboy-as-Director has produced some of the finest genre pieces in recent memory. For years, it took stylists like Tim Burton to wring anything remotely watchable out of comic book adventures, but today you just have to point one of a handful of hip helmers at any property they love and you'll end up with a film that is as satisfying as you could have imagined. The Avengers is the perfect example of this.
A culmination of four years of setup and bravado, The Avengers has an above-average pedigree of precursor films setting up this ultimate teaming of some of Marvel's most acclaimed stars. Beginning in 2008, an ambitious studio decided to take a new approach to setting up its blockbuster franchise by taking the parts of the future-planned Avengers and turning them into individual features. X-Men took the opposite approach to mixed effect by spinning off an origin film for its popular Wolverine character. Marvel and Disney started out with Iron Man starring Robert Downey Jr and proceeded to The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton, Thor with Chris Hemsworth and Captain America with Chris Evans (who'd already made a name for himself in the genre by playing the goofoff playboy in the Fantastic Four films). Bringing these four characters together with Mark Ruffalo replacing Norton as Bruce Banner and his alter-ego Hulk, the idea was that getting setup and origins out of the way would make for a more interesting and action-packed film. That's almost what they got.
Director Joss Whedon who made a name for himself on television with his highly popular, long-running genre series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, would have seemed like an odd choice to rein in the monstrous responsibilities of big screen spectacle if he hadn't already proven his capabilities with Serenity six years ago. Serenity, based on his popular, but short-season cancelled Fox series Firefly displayed a cool sense of perspective in his feature film adaptation. Serenity was witty, fresh and energetic, showing he was more than capable of balancing performance, plot and action without relegating any of them to the periphery.
Whedon didn't rest on his laurels with The Avengers. Sure, he had five films (Iron Man 2 included) to establish his characters for him, but knowing who they were wasn't enough. Whedon's film introduces the interpersonal dynamics these four headstrong superheroes engender, devoting as much time to getting the characters in focus and working together as it does exploring the winding plot of Thor's brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has hatched on behalf of a conquest-minded alien species, with rulership of Earth as his reward. Whedon has seen from the failures of a number of other films, most notably the servicable, but forgettable Green Lantern, that focusing on a galactic mob-like villain without a focus for the audience's ire creates problems on the viewer-engagement front. With Loki as the front-and-center threat, you have a chance to jeer the most visible threat while having a larger mass of enemies on the doorstep.
Opting to drop Norton for Ruffalo was an unusual choice, but Hulk's uneasiness at his own powers and his inability to control them, comes through crystal clear with Ruffalo behind them. He may not have the badboy charm Norton could bring to the role, but with Downey Jr. more than cornering that market, having a meeker, more respectable Bruce Banner helped leverage the film's cast into a more cohesive and believable group. Downey Jr., Hemsworth and Evans carry over the same appeal they generated in their first (and in Downey Jr.'s case second) outings that their performances seem almost stagnant, but work rather well wholly within the framework of this unified film.
Our primary quartet isn't alone, several prominent actors fill out the large ensemble in roles that are frequently pivotal and no less important to the film. Foremost of these is Scarlett Johansson who plays the interrogation master Black Widow. She was first introduced to the franchise in Iron Man 2 and, to an extent was far more interesting in that film. But being the sole woman in the cast forces her to stand more effectively against her male counterparts and when it comes to physical chutzpah, she is more than their equal. Yet, from a performance perspective, some of her scenes come off a bit flat. That's not to say that she doesn't mostly nail the performance, but she is certainly one of the more inferior elements to the film. Not more so than Jeremy Renner who plays eagle-eyed archer Hawkeye. Most of his scenes seem mired in his dual-natured role in the film. Renner is a very talented thespian, so seeing the end result here is disheartening. This may largely be attributed to Hawkeye being only tangentialy introduced in Thor where he had no backstory or creative development. The same goes for Johansson's Black Widow. Had either character being highlighted more significantly or in their own films, we might be talking in more detail about where they succeeded or went wrong, but as mostly-periphery characters, it's all supposition that they would have otherwise been better.
That leaves two characters who didn't get much development in prior films, but have been featured more frequently in the lead-up films. The most frequently seen of these is Samuel L. Jackson who, as Nick Fury, has been present in each film, even if only in the bumper at the end of the film, giving him a unique development strategy. His personality was well defined by the time of The Avengers, though a background story is still forthcoming (the film on Nick Fury is still in development, but has been for a number of years, which may mean it never gets made). Jackson hasn't changed a bit since his first appearance as the head of S.H.I.E.L.D., the U.S.'s leading protection authority. One of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s agents, Phil Colson (Clark Gregg), is the other character. Showing up in both Iron Man films and Thor, Gregg has been one of the true emotional centers of the franchise. His is the kind of character that sews the entire quilt together. And as The Avengers plays out, we come to know just how integral he is to the film and to the franchise and this is thanks to Gregg's natural charm and wit. He may not have the history nor the paycheck of his co-stars, but he is the MVP of the production.
The Avengers will no doubt appeal to the fanboys who have made the previous films varying degrees of successful, but it's how it plays to non-fans of the franchise that will be most central to its success. As of the writing of this review, the film has already passed the $400 million mark in the U.S., a number once thought reserved only for wide-appeal films and franchises. After all, even The Lord of the Rings films and Harry Potter films never managed to reach that number. Is it a broad appeal or are there other factors at work here? The film's success is equal parts both. Without knowing much about these characters, it's not hard to relate to them for even when they don their spandex and battle armor, they remain humanistic characters evincing frailty and emotion we frequently explore and understand in ourselves. Superheroes represent that dynamic in all of us, wanting to leap beyond our terrestrial bodies to save the world. We desire to live vicariously through these adventurers in hopes that we will learn more about ourselves and our ability to accept those who are different than we are. While the film is bound to be compared financially to The Dark Knight, the more fantastic elements of The Avengers make that comparison a tad tenuous. Christopher Nolan's film is far more rooted in the realistic nature of humanity, after all, its protagonist is physically and emotionally human. With The Avengers, there is a superhumanity to the characters that make its success all the more interesting. Both are heavily driven by comic book fans, but there's a measure of non-fan, general public in those mixtures that explains a good deal of both films' successes.
In the end, the quality of the entertainment and the writing is what makes The Avengers and even The Dark Knight successes. They may be mass appeal movies on the level of Transformers, but they have bucketsful of the qualities that have prevented Michael Bay's films and their ilk monumental successes. They are heartfelt, richly written character pieces with boatloads of action and adventure in support instead of as foreground distraction.
Probables: Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects
Potentials: Original Score, Editing, Cinematogrpahy, Art Direction
May 21, 2012