Jon Favreau’s Iron Man and Iron Man 2.
Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk.
Kenneth Branagh’s Thor.
Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger.
To cull a quote from another Jon Favreau-scripted movie, “Everything that is past is prologue to this.”*
Well, “this” just happens to be the Joss Whedon-directed, gargantuan mother of all crossover movies involving all of the aforementioned Marvel superheroes - Marvel’s The Avengers.
Four years ago, the first Iron Man movie came to theaters, blowing away every expectation audiences had. It succeeded and excelled not only on a summer blockbuster level, but as one of the definitive comic book-to-film adaptations. Owing to a wonderful cast, a tight script, meaningful action (not the explosion-for-explosions’ sake type of shenanigans found in Michael Bay movies), and a winning performance by Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man, the film was the second-biggest draw at the box office in 2008, second only to The Dark Knight and beating out Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. And if you stayed until the end of the credits, you saw Samuel L. Jackson as a shadowy government operative named Nick Fury approach Tony Stark with these words: “I’m here to talk to you about the Avengers Initiative,” before the film quickly cuts to black. Fury, as we find out, is the director of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division – S.H.I.E.L.D., if you will – and his task has been to unite the various superheroes into one organization for the protection of Earth. He has appeared in all of the films listed in the opening paragraph to appeal to each of the film’s main characters to join S.H.I.E.L.D., except for The Incredible Hulk, where that duty fell to Tony Stark himself.
The Avengers, co-written and directed by cult god Joss Whedon, finally accomplishes the Herculean task of bringing all these different characters together. Along with Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Jeremy Renner) and Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), the superheroes must fight a looming threat in the form of Loki (Tom Hiddleston), an exiled Asgardian who also happens to be Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) brother. Not able to take on Loki with standard weaponry, Fury calls upon Tony Stark, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and a newly-revived Captain America (Chris Evans) to try to combat Loki before his plan for world subjugation goes any further. And that’s all the plot I’m willing to recap for you. Loki’s plan for domination, while having a large bearing on the proceedings, is not the centerpiece of the movie. The reason you’re going to watch The Avengers is because of the interplay between the Marvel superheroes. You already know going in that you’re in for a wild ride whenever Tony Stark’s involved; the lethal combination of caustic humor and genius-level thinking is undoubtedly going to cause not just ripples, but waves of tension between the other superheroes, each with their own extremely strong personalities. Can they put aside their differences in order to save the world?
Well, if you’ve seen the trailers and extrapolated that they will, you’re correct. But to quote Shepherd Book from Whedon’s television show “Firefly”, you don’t care where you’re going, because “how you get there is the worthier part”; Whedon makes it worthy, indeed. Before 2012, if you said the name “Joss Whedon” to anyone on the street, you’d get a myriad of responses ranging from the almost-standard “Joss who?” to the cult-worshippers who will squeal with geeker joy when his name gets mentioned, rushing out in one breath, “OhmygodI*love*everythinghe’severdone” and varying degrees of middle ground. With The Avengers, it’s a foregone conclusion that he will be revered by more than the cult fanbase he’s built up around his various TV shows and movies. Not only did he co-write this year’s brilliant The Cabin in the Woods, he has now hit the big time with The Avengers. Even while maintaining visual proximity to the earlier Marvel films, he makes this entity his own, which includes every one of his trademarks that his fans will recognize: whip-smart writing, well-timed and hilarious punchlines, solid character depth, strong women who aren’t just eye-candy or do-nothing wastes, masterful action… and the maddening death that hits everyone where it hurts. Not just content to have gargantuan explosions, mass destruction and bodies littering the landscape, he gives us a very damn good reason why all that stuff (and more) happens. Like much of his work, his previous film Serenity struck a huge chord with critics and “Firefly” fans, but it didn’t reach far into the mainstream; with The Avengers, he’s got the whole world watching, and people en masse are going to finally realize the talent this man has.
Unlike Michael Bay, he actually cares more about the script, the actors, and the story they strive to tell, which is why this movie succeeds on every level. In great heaping amounts, The Avengers brings an oft-overlooked facet that is so valuable in summer action movies: GRAND FUN. Whedon brings a wink and a wicked grin to everything he handles, from the actors right on down to the action. It’s got great performances from all involved, from Downey, Jr. as Stark to Cobie Smulders, a newcomer to the Marvel fold as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Maria Hill. There’s no standout performance to be had; every actor nails their characters right on the money and makes this alternate universe completely believable and engaging. My recommendation: skip the 3D, as it’s entirely too distracting. Too often, I found myself wondering about the look of the 3D and quickly having to bring myself back to what was actually happening onscreen. As it was shot in 2D, make every effort to see it in its native format. Also, there are two scenes to be found in the credits: the first happens right after the “A Film by Joss Whedon” credit, and the second happens all the way at the end of the credits. The credit roll is mercifully short, lasting the length of Soundgarden’s enjoyable new track “Live to Rise” and a bit of Alan Silvestri’s thundering score. That last scene, like the rest of the movie, will leave you laughing and thankful that you caught this one in the theaters.
FINAL GRADE: A+
* Swingers, 1997 Miramax Pictures