This was it. This was the film that I had been waiting for since last summer, the film that nearly every comic book collector and everyone raised in a childhood of reading superhero adventures was waiting for. The Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, together in one film, in a super adventure extravaganza. It has been a while since I booked tickets in advance for an opening weekend show, even for a comic book adaptation. This however, was to be the film to end all superhero films. This was The Avengers.
It did not disappoint.
Marvel Studios put into practice in the Avengers what I trust they learned through the ill-fated X-Men films. First, the film began with a collection of characters that had already been at least introduced, and in most cases thoroughly developed, in their own films. Thus, no time was needed to be spent on backstory, with the exception of some history for the Black Widow and Hawkeye, which Joss Whedon and company accomplished nicely through expository dialogue. Secondly, each character was given enough screen time to shine, not only in action sequences, but also in character development. Only a very good director can accomplish this, and I don’t think any of us expected anything less from Whedon, but it was still wonderful to witness.
The plot is relatively simple. Loki, the so-called god of mischief and Thor’s half-brother, returns from the nether-realms into which he fell at the end of Thor, this time assisting an extra-dimensional race that we don’t see (until the end, that is…stay through the credits for the hidden ending) in order to enslave the human race. Nick Fury brings together our heroes into a team in order to stop the alien invasion that threatens to destroy most of mankind and enslave whoever’s left. That’s the story arc in a nutshell, and, with respect to other reviewers who found this to be disappointing, I would point out what any comic book fan knows: this is what the Avengers do. This, in its purest form, is the origin story of the team of super heroes: an evil too great for any one hero to defeat alone, results in the heroes joining forces to save the earth. Approaching it expecting something different is to approach it asking the wrong questions.
The beauty of a simple plot is what comic book writing accomplishes so masterfully: exploring deep themes within the context of the simple story. Whedon explores our ability to trust the government that is there to protect us, a government that has its own secrets that may or may not be better in the bigger picture. He explores the ethics of a society quelling its fear by building the bigger weapons. He explores the theme of individual talents having to overcome their own ways of doing things in order to work together with others for the greater good. He explores mankind’s freedom of choice, and the innate desire to fight for that freedom against one who claims that we “were made to be ruled.” Moreover, he explores the nature of a hero, and how those heroes who swoop in to protect us from those evils up to which we cannot stand ourselves work together to accomplish what no one of them could accomplish on their own. That, after all, is the better part of half of this film: how our favorite heroes’ personalities conflict with each other and what they have to work through in order to work together.
And, in true Whedon style, there’s even a faith metaphor or two (Iron Man likening himself to Jonah was particularly fun).
Whedon uses the exploration of powerful themes to develop the characters that we all came to the movie to see. And the characters do develop: Captain America begins the loyal soldier who reluctantly accepts the hesitation of his colleagues. Iron Man sacrifices his own stardom to become a team player. Bruce Banner moves past his own fear to work for the greater good. I’d go on, but I’m not into giving spoilers. All of the hidden nuggets of story that tie all of the previous movies together are unified nicely by Whedon here, by the way, and I’m sure there are going to be more visual goodies that you just can’t see on the first viewing but that will become obvious when I watch it again.
As expected, Whedon’s writing is snappy and complete with witty moments of comic relief that somehow avoid (with an exception or two) the cliche humor that can so easily trap a big action film. And, speaking of action, the special effects were breath-taking (Iron Man having his own armor catch him in mid-air sound interesting?), and the fight sequences that occur between our heroes as they work past themselves to become a team are quite literally the stuff of legend (want to know what happens when Mjolnir strikes Captain America’s shield? Or if Thor and the Hulk go toe-to-toe? Yeah, I thought so…). If you think that’s great, then wait until the aliens from the other realm invade Manhattan (where else would a huge-scale battle with the Avengers take place?) and the Avengers hold the city, cohesive as a team, complete with firefights, archery, aerial dogfights, the Hulk swatting spacecraft from the skies, and the heroes that you wouldn’t expect to receive the most screen time saving the day, leaving half the city laid waste in the process. This makes the Transformers look like lightweights, but is never overwhelming.
Speaking of the Hulk, incidentally, Mark Ruffalo turns in an outstanding performance as the only new actor in the group…arguably better than Edward Norton did in the Hulk’s own film. To accompany this, the new CG Hulk is even complete with Ruffalo’s facial features. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johanssen, and Samuel L. Jackson each perform beyond expectations as they reprise their roles, and while I didn’t think that Jeremy Renner looked the role of Hawkeye, he rounded out this all-star cast with flourish.
All in all, whether you are a super-hero fan or not, if you’ve enjoyed any of the previous Marvel films at all, this movie will be worth your ticket price. The audience in the show we attended applauded on several occasions. This is not another huge action film. It is the exploration of super heroes at its finest. And, it is a promise that those heroes will return to save us again in the future, because, as Fury so eloquently and simply summarizes, “we’ll need them to.”