The Avengers (2012) – Joss Whedon

The Avengers hits all the notes and hits them well. It manages to be worthy of the ridiculous build-up of four previous movies and a rollicking good time on its own. There wasn’t much in The Avengers that I haven’t seen before but I found myself interested, excited, and laughing. Actually, scratch that. The Avengers does pull off a new trick. After two earlier movies in the span of nine years, we now have a movie Hulk who is compelling, awfully funny, and well, incredible. Third time’s a charm.

After being introduced to some of the characters in Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America, we now have them all together in The Avengers, saving the Earth from Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the evil demigod from Thor who is also the adopted brother of Thor (Chris Hemsworth). Loki has come to Earth to take the Tesseract, an energy source of limitless potential that he will use to open a portal in space that allows the Chitauri, a snarling alien race, to invade the planet.  The movie doesn’t concern itself with why so much, except with some vague posturing about ego and revenge. One of the problems with Thor, which was wise to avoid taking itself too seriously, was its villain, which too often did, but here Hiddleston gets to have some fun along with everybody else. Hiddleston oozes privileged arrogance, a must for a villain bent on world domination, but he gets to have a few winks at the audience too. I love when he announces to the shocked keepers of the Tesseract that he is Loki of Asgard, to distinguish himself from Loki of East Lansing.

With the Tesseract missing and the world in peril, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of the mysterious S.H.I.E.L.D. agency, calls together the world’s superheroes. First we have Agent Natasha Romanoff, known as the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson); then Dr. Bruce Banner and his simmering monstrous inner-self, the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo); Tony Stark and his Iron Man suit and other assorted toys (Robert Downey Jr.); Steve Rogers, freshly unfrozen after winning World War II for us as Captain America (Chris Evans); and Thor, who made the trip from Asgard. The team is assembled, they jockey with Loki a bit, fight each other, gain another (Jeremy Renner’s Agent Clint Barton AKA Hawkeye, freed from Loki’s mind control), and face off against Loki with the portal open and the unappealing Chitauri descending on Manhattan.

The plot is fairly uninteresting, it doesn’t take long to decipher where it is going, but it’s how director Joss Whedon, who, after writing The Cabin in the Woods and helming a number of TV and film projects is cementing his reputation as a fresh reinventer of familiar material, gets us there that makes The Avengers fun. First the story itself is a bear but Whedon is able to make it not only digestible but palatable. The characters are brought on appropriately and though we don’t get a lot of characterization (not needed in a movie where everyone is a type), it does slow down enough to let some personality conflicts develop, such as Downey’s snarkiness contrasted against Evans’ straightforwardness. Also, between the out-of-time Captain America and the alien Thor, the script has some fun making them compete for who can have the most phrases go over their head. Whedon’s wonderful comedic sense is present just when it needs to be and the movie generates some big laughs.

The design of the movie is creative as well. I liked in particular the flying aircraft character that serves as our heroes’ headquarters. It starts in the ocean, then giant propellers fan out from the side and it takes off. Jackson and Johansson have the unenviable task of playing plot point provider, but they do it well. Jackson is especially good as the keeper of the zoo, and his intensity makes some of the story’s more, ahem, outrageous aspects seem believable. He has a scene, well not a scene, there’s too much going on for scenes, but he has a moment when he tries to forbid a mortally wounded colleague from dying, and he screams at him, “Keep your eyes open!” We’re shocked when the man doesn’t.

The can of worms with superheroes is that they can’t be killed, so when they fight each other it brings a narrative to a halt while two burly men throw themselves about with no consequences. The Avengers gives us two demigods, two men with impenetrable suits, and one hulking, unkillable beast, and they all take turns beating each other up. There’s no drama in watching a pair (or more) of CGI creations hitting one another through walls and we’re subjected to a half-dozen of these fights. It goes from monotonous to tiresome to cartoonish to what seems to be intentionally cartoonish. The funniest moment in the film is Loki being in the middle of a big villain speech when he’s picked up by the Hulk and pounded into the ground from side to side like something out of Looney Tunes. The most intriguing confrontation in the movie comes between Johansson and Renner, two characters with no superpowers and therefore vulnerabilities. The movie sets up a history between them so that we actually care what happens as opposed to having our senses lightly engaged until the noise stops.

The person generating the most noise is the Hulk, who makes his first appearance around two-thirds of the way through The Avengers. The previous two Hulk movies (The Hulk [2003] and The Incredible Hulk [2008]) failed to create any justification for the beast; the respective Bruce Banners (Eric Bana and Edward Norton) pretended to be frightened of themselves but they’re really just placeholders for the special effects show. In Whedon’s realization, Bruce Banner is a man with a disease. Ruffalo has almost a sickly look to him; he’s ashamed of himself, living with this destructive force inside him. In fact, Banner is asked to join the team only for his scientific knowledge and S.H.I.E.L.D. recognizes the risk of bringing such a dangerous element into the fold. He’s a man cursed, like a werewolf, and when the green colossus finally does emerge, it’s actually frightening because it can’t be controlled and we feel for the gentle man lost inside. The movie gets less clear on how Banner is able to focus the Hulk’s rage during the final showdown, but rest assured he does.

The Avengers is a lot of fun, which is all it wants to be. It’s fast-paced and over-the-top. It’s smart enough to know that it’s silly, which is an admirable quality in a movie like this. I don’t know if the world needs five movies and counting surrounding these characters and their plights against distasteful aliens, but I do know I enjoyed this one enough. 

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