The Avengers (2012)
It’s been five years in the making, with five movies produced to set everything in motion. Those five movies have brought Iron Man up to the same level of popularity as Batman, they redeemed the Hulk from a mediocre first take, they brought old-fashioned heroics back to movies with Captain America, and they somehow made Thor not look completely ridiculous. “The Avengers” is finally here, and none of those previous five movies could have prepared anyone for how excellent this culmination would turn out to be.
Anyone who has missed any of the previous movies shouldn’t worry, since the movie does a good job of bringing the audience up to speed. However, seeing “Thor” is almost a must-see so that the villain Loki’s motivations can be put into proper context. After being banished from his home-world of Asgard by his brother Thor and feeling burned by some family revelations (this all happens in “Thor”), Loki has turned to an alien race called the Chitauri to help him take over Earth (that last part is where “The Avengers” starts up). When he steals the mystical Tesseract cube from S.H.I.E.L.D. in order to bring his army to Earth, S.H.I.E.L.D. must turn to the superheroes Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Captain America, Hawkeye, and Black Widow for help.
There’s some decent action near the beginning, but the movie really clicks together once these heroes are all reintroduced (and in the case of Hawkeye, introduced) and brought together. Since these people all have wildly different personalities, there’s some bickering to settle with before the team finally comes together. These scenes provide some great character dynamic moments, and they provide the basis for Tony Stark/Iron Man to befriend fellow science nerd Bruce Banner/Hulk, and for the snarky Stark to clash with stoic good-boy Steve Rogers/Captain America. Because of their indestructible nature, Thor and the Hulk also create a bond of sorts by beating each other up. And even though they don’t have any overt superpowers, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury get their chances to shine in both the character and action scenes.
All of these scenes are absolutely essential though, as they invest us in these characters and their relationships before the big battle in the third act, and once that battle arrives it’s near impossible for anyone to not be won over by the movies charm. It is filled wall-to-wall with so many applause-worthy action and comedy moments that I’m still playing them in my head. Even though the last Hulk movie with Edward Norton (replaced by Mark Ruffalo here, who does an equally great job) was pretty good, “The Avengers” is really the third Hulk movie as he steals the movie with the most memorable moments.
Writer/director Joss Whedon (of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fame) finds just the right balance between great character moments and great humor moments, achieving a jovial comic book tone of lightness and pathos at the same time. Comparisons between this and “The Dark Knight Rises” over which will be the better movie are pointless, as they take completely different approaches to their stories. Christopher Nolan’s gritty psychology would feel out of place here, and I’m very glad that Marvel is not being afraid to tap into some of the more out-there elements of their stories.
While he may have made a strong impression as Loki in “Thor,” Tom Hiddleston is even better here. His line readings drip with venom as he intimidates and manipulates the characters, and the emotional turmoil Loki went through in “Thor” has only made him more dangerous and threatening. As the best and most powerful villain from any of Marvel Studios’ previous movies (although Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull from “Captain America” was great too), Loki was the true logical villain for all these superheroes to grapple with. Of course, the Chitauri army also aids him, but they’re really just mindless drones obeying orders and extending Loki’s domination.
While I would argue Hiddleston gives one of the better performances, everyone else gets their time to shine to. Robert Downey Jr. (Stark) is always a humorous delight and Chris Hemsworth (Thor) has movie star presence written all over him. Chris Evans (Rogers) gamely plays the stoic leader compared to his more colorful cohorts, while Mark Ruffalo plays Bruce Banner as someone who still fears “the other guy,” but has learned to be content with his green half. Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), and Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury) fill out the S.H.I.E.L.D. side of things, and Johansson is much better here than in “Iron Man 2.” The only weak link was Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill, another S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, but her role is so small that her stilted line readings are easily overlooked.
With this many characters and converging plotlines, I’m extremely surprised that I don’t really have any problems with the movie (Smulders aside). Sure I had hoped Alan Silvestri’s music score would be more memorable and maybe Whedon’s visual look could’ve been given a little more “punch,” but those are such minor nitpicks that it’s hard to hold them against a movie that does so many things greatly. “The Avengers” is the best kind of action blockbuster; it has excitement, danger, humor, and, most importantly, heart. The rest of the anticipated summer movies will have a tough time beating this one, even Batman.