Movie Review: The Avengers
The primary challenge for Joss Whedon as the director of The Avengers is combining the disparate elements of the previous five Marvel Studios films into one coherent narrative. How does Whedon seamlessly blend the winking sarcasm of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, the arbitrary destruction of Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk, the faux-Shakespeare of Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, and the aww-shucks enthusiasm of Joe Johnston’s Captain America? Frankly, he doesn’t. Not in the beginning of the movie, anyway.
The movie begins with Thor villain Loki, played again by Tom Hiddleston, stealing back the Cosmic Cube, last seen in Captain America, from the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the shadowy government agency that has been lingering at the edge of the action in the previous Marvel movies. Hiddleston throws himself into the role with gleeful madness, but it’s a bit too much. But while Hiddleston’s putting out too much energy, Scarlett Johansson is practically inanimate as Natasha Romanoff, aka The Black Widow. Johansson first played the character in Iron Man 2, where all she was expected to do was look fantastic in a catsuit. But Black Widow’s relationship with Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) calls for her to shoulder much of the film’s emotional burden. Much of the drag in the opening scenes can be attributed to Johansson’s stilted line readings.
But Johansson isn’t the only actor who seems adrift in the early going. Many of the actors seem uncomfortable with green screen work. Samuel L. Jackson isn’t quite at his Star Wars prequel awfulness (no line readings here as bad as “A sith…lord?), but he does seem out of his element, as do Renner and How I Met Your Mother’s Cobie Smulders, neither of whom get a chance to make an impression. In the early S.H.I.E.L.D. storyline only Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson and Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man seem comfortable in their characters.
Once the entire supergroup is assembled on the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier the movie changes direction—for the better. Past the clunky dynamics necessary to get everyone in the same room, Whedon lets his heroes bounce off of each other, building conflicts that grow out of each character’s nature rather than the mechanics of the plot. Of course a walking Id like Tony Stark is going to be fascinated by the genius and unrestrained power of the Hulk, and of course he’s going to clash with the professional soldier, Captain America. Whedon brings a witty snap to their verbal skirmishes.
Because the relationships develop organically (and quickly) there is a visceral tension to the film’s spectacular action sequences. The entire second half of the movie is essentially one big fight. The action set pieces are smart and well-choreographed. Whedon moves his camera deftly through the fray to find little moments that further illuminate the characters. In one particularly effective CGI tracking shot the camera swoops from the rooftop down to the streets and into the sky to find all of the heroes locked in individual battle—fighting together even when they’re alone. Moments like that make The Avengers one of the first superhero movies to truly convey the kinetic joy of make-believe battle that comic artists have captured for the better part of a century.
But above all else, this movie belongs to The Hulk. After two poorly regarded film adaptations in less than a decade (Ang Lee’s ponderous 2003 think piece and Leterrier’s thudding bore of a reboot in 2008), Hulk was the black sheep of the Marvel heroes. But both The Hulk and his alter ego, Bruce Banner, are redeemed here. Mark Ruffalo plays Banner as a man weary from the constant struggle to keep his cool. You can feel the barely concealed rage even before he transforms into the creature. Once the transformation happens The Hulk takes over the film with infectious fury. He’s everywhere on the battlefield, an unstoppable force undercutting the more hammy aspects of the space opera silliness with satisfying smashings and surprising comic timing.
The Avengers is the best of the Marvel movies yet, and a stunning capper to one of the most ambitious projects from any studio in film history. Marvel has given us six movies in four years, all entertaining in their own ways, bookended by two of the very best superhero movies ever made. The Avengers is the most fun you’ll have at the movies all summer—‘Nuff said.