The rolling wave of hype for Marvel’s The Avengers has been unavoidable, and with good reason, There’s a lot at stake. They’ve created five movies that serve as a lead-in to the one film that’s supposed to eclipse them all. It’s insanely expensive, its approach has never been attempted before, and it’s from a director who’s spent most of the past decade working in television, courting a fervent fan base but with intermittent success. There’s no doubt that The Avengers will be huge, but how huge is huge? Will it be a blockbuster simply because that’s what it’s been positioned to be, or will it be the kind of movie that people see on the big screen a couple of times; the kind of special effects extravaganza that earns “instant classic” status?
I am pleased to report that The Avengers is exactly the kind of movie that people will want to see multiple times, exceeding expectations with an unrelenting final half that feels like actual Marvel Comics are being injected directly into your bloodstream. It’s simply jaw-dropping. Writer/director Joss Whedon is working with Michael Bay-levels of CG Summer movie mayhem, but he’s done the one thing the Transformers movies still haven’t done after three installments -- he has you completely in love and rooting for his heroes.
Are you a Hulk guy? Avengers has you covered. Mark Ruffalo is the first actor who really seems to get Bruce Banner, and Whedon distills his character into a single line, late in the film, that made the hairs stand up on my arm. Maybe you’re hoping Black Widow kicks more butt here than she did in Iron Man 2? She does. Scarlett Johansson may not have made a strong impression in her debut, but she’s pretty great here, working with a lot more meaty material for her character. Hawkeye’s role may be somewhat smaller than the rest, as he spends most of the film under Loki’s control (a nod to the Avengers comics, where Hawkeye first appeared as a misguided villain), but when he gets his time to shine, you’ll forget all about Whatsherface Everdeen. You will believe a dude with a bow and arrow can totally hang with Thor.
And what about the big three -- Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man? If you’re worried that the movie is really just Iron Man 3 in disguise, don’t be. All of the characters have surprisingly equal screentime and importance to the story. Maybe Thor isn’t quite as happy as he was in his own film, but who can blame him? In The Avengers, his brother is using the Tesseract (aka Cosmic Cube) to bring an intergalactic army into our world to subjugate the Earth. Thor has to feel a little responsible for even putting Midgard on Loki’s radar to begin with. Tony Stark isn’t a team player at first, but even he comes around (with uncharacteristic humility) as the threat grows bigger. And Cap? Hoo-boy. If there was one big geek-out moment for me, it was seeing Captain America bark orders at the team, and seeing them act on those orders with total trust and no hesitation. Chris Evans doesn’t even feel like he’s showboating one bit, and, yet, somehow he’s amazing. I guess that’s really Cap at his core, a natural hero, disinterested in grandstanding. These are definitely the Avengers, brought right from the printed page onto the big screen.
The effort is not without its hiccups. Samuel L. Jackson is the cast’s weak link, and he doesn’t do well with Whedon’s jokey dialogue. His line reading of “Are you saying you’re a boot?’ joins X-Men’s “The same thing that happens to everything else” as one of the all-time worst superhero movie lines. Much of the movie’s set-up falls on Jackson’s shoulders, as S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury, and it makes for an awkward start to what ends up being a fantastic movie. Of course, much of the blame for that klutzy start has to be placed with Marvel Studios, who, for some reason, decide to retroactively discount most of the post-credit stings they’ve been using to set up this film. This movie decides that the “Avengers Initiative” that Fury’s been talking about for a couple of the preceding films was canceled sometime before our story starts, and the post-credits bit from Thor is ignored entirely. Perhaps Marvel was motivated by the desire for a fresh start, but let’s be realistic. If you’re going to use the characters as they’ve been established in the other films, it’s okay to use the “Easter Eggs” too. There’s no reason to pretend that just because they happened after the credits, they never happened.
These aren’t small nitpicks either. Avengers doesn’t hit its groove until about halfway through its runtime, when all of the major players are finally assembled on the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier. Then, and only then, does it start to punch a Hulk-sized mudhole directly into your pleasure centers. The action is so well-choreographed and the moments are so big, you almost forget about that wobbly start all together. This is what we call an “audience” movie, one best enjoyed in a communal atmosphere. With the right crowd, the levels of excitement in the auditorium will feel like an electrical charge.
Not just for the fans of the comics, but for fans of escapist action entertainment, The Avengers is the superhero movie done right. The “fight scene,” a staple of superhero comics for their entire history, is visualized as an extended, organized ballet of safe but thrilling violence. The characters are interesting and individualistic; the threat appropriately egomaniacal and power-mad. Summer has officially been dropkicked through the goalposts by Joss Whedon and Marvel Studios.