directed by Joss Whedon
starring Robert Downey, Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johannson, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner
Marvel / Paramount
With this famous, 50-year-old rallying cry, Marvel's heaviest-hitting all-star team finally makes it to theaters Friday. However, any film (let alone a superhero flick) featuring an ensemble cast faces the limitations of running time -- and the inherent question of "Is it more than the sum of its parts?"
The answer, in The Avengers' case, is thankfully "yes." A trio of entertaining, but mostly forgettable set-up films -- Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America -- have been akin to merely winning one's bets back with slot-machine pulls. This Joss Whedon-directed next pull does indeed deliver the jackpot -- but not always in the means that have been guessed at.
Most who have been following Marvel's step-by-step hype -- sorry, character development -- machine have speculated that Robert Downey, Jr. and his Iron Man would be carrying The Avengers' seemingly lopsided lineup. They would be half-correct. Contrary to many critics' projections, the film isn't exactly Iron Man, vers. 2.5... but it is the best damn "Hulk movie" to date. After being insulted, then under-portrayed in previous incarnations, the big green machine finally gets to shine; both he and his human alter-ego add huge elements to a film that would be rather ordinary without them.
On and off the battlefield, Downey, Jr's Tony Stark and and Mark Ruffalo's Dr. Bruce Banner provide the film's only real chemistry -- but it's a potent, often hilarious concoction. Recruited (along with Captain America) by Nick Fury and The Black Widow to find and battle Thor's evil brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) for possession of the Cosmic Cube on Earth (see the aforementioned set-up films for clarification, if desired), there's a stark contrast between the aggressive, rapier-witted industrialist's personality and the unassuming biochemist's. It turns out that Banner has been enrolled in self-taught anger management courses, and hasn't become enraged enough to become the Hulk in quite some time. His intellect and monstrous potential fascinate Stark, but the billionaire inventor can't get Banner to go green -- no matter how he's hilariously jabbed and prodded, both verbally and physically.
As the audience waits for Banner to blow out his pants, they're treated to a convoluted plot overseen by Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and S.H.I.E.L.D., the latter an oft-controversial comic book marriage of the CIA, NSA, and U.S. special forces. Basically, it's couldn't-care-less filler between a plethora of great one-liners and some genuinely thrilling action. Whedon's most important role in the film, possibly, was to correctly guess its audience's low interest-ebbs and insert extra humor or combat when needed.
Oh, and Whedon is an ass man. Never before has a comic book adaptation's lens lingered on so many backsides -- and the characters seem to be going as often as they are coming. Scarlett Johansson's isn't the only tightly-wrapped bottom to be dwelled upon; Stark's right-hand woman, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), as well as Fury's icily gorgeous assistant, Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) also get below-the-waistline camera time. However, Whedon (famed for his Firefly) achieves gender parity with plenty of salivating shots of super-hunky Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and super-cut Captain America (Chris Evans).
As Downey, Jr.'s Shellhead is indeed the marquee attraction, Iron Man's physical vulnerability is again interestingly explored; he spends at least as much time getting knocked around as he does doing the knocking. Additionally, Tony Stark has recently, finally acknowledged Ms. Potts' charms; they're a couple. This monogamous comfort has subtly dulled Stark's edge. There are scenes that would've benefited from Stark's notorious callousness, but instead we see a fuzzier -- albeit still wisecracking -- former playboy.
The other principals? Thor remains a spectacular, yet traditionally wooden GQ model/badass. Loki, more craftily malevolent than ever, could be one of the genre's great villains; Hiddleston is simply mesmerizing in the role. However, there's something not quite right about Johansson's accent-less portrayal of super-spy Natasha Romanova, and the script doesn't help. Oh, her Black Widow has no problem being sexy and duplicitous and dangerous -- but every time she becomes really intriguing, the story puts her back into a curiously single dimension... Black Widow and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) become cardboard cutouts, space fillers, when needed.
When divvying up screen time and development, the latter hero drew the short straw. Only hinted at in the Thor movie, he's a throwaway character; given that archer Clint Barton is one of the comic's most colorful personalities, that's a crime. Cap, still adjusting after serving a 70-year-stint of being frozen in ice, is given a new, custom Reebok costume and a team to figure out how to command. Is he up to the challenge of quelling arguments among his headstrong comrades, and leading them to victory? You can guess the answer, which is revealed in the final battle.
And that climactic clash is honestly quite impressive. The Hulk (properly presented with CGI that's pretty eye-popping throughout the film) owns and smashes every frame in which he appears, including the movie's best sequence -- truly a leap-to-your-feet moment. In the finale, there's even a distinct, believable possibility of losing... if not the world or New York City, a superhero.
The Avengers isn't the best comic book adaptation in Marvel's universe, but by it's end, it proves to be the most universally appealing. A nicely, if not perfectly wrapped up package of entertainment, presented with a 3D transfer that's neither laudable or laughable. Twenty of its 142 minutes could have been easily trimmed -- or given to Hawkeye. But minor quibbles can be ironed out in the sequels... and in the sequels' set-up films. Marvel has done some strategic planning, and with The Avengers' very satisfying payoff, audiences will be firmly on the hook for a long time to come.