One of my first memories of comic heroes on the screen — indeed, possibly one of my earliest memories ever — comes from when I was four years old and watching syndicated reruns of TV’s The Incredible Hulk, terrified and exhilarated at the sight of Bill Bixby metamorphosing into a green-painted, fright-wigged Lou Ferrigno. So different from the comic, but hey, it was the best we had. Cut to several decades later, and as I sat watching Marvel Studios’ mammoth superhero jam The Avengers, bringing to life the kind of spectacle that was, until recently, the exclusive purview of the page, I kept thinking about four-year-old me and wondering what he’d be thinking right about now.
In that sense — in a very large sense — The Avengers doesn’t merely mark the culmination of Marvel Studios’ sometimes interminable, slow-burn plan (initiated with 2008′s Iron Man) leading toward the creation of a shared movie constellation comprised of its brightest stars. Rather, it’s the ultimate expression of everything superhero movies have fitfully built up to in the thirty-four years since Chris Reeve’s Superman stepped out of a revolving door and first took to the sky. As masterfully executed by writer, director, and famed geek god Joss Whedon (he of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Angel fame), The Avengers shatters the last barrier separating the printed page and the celluloid image, fully wresting the superhero genre away from the medium that birthed it.
The story has wayward God of Mischief Loki (Tom Hiddleston), last seen plummeting into a black hole at the end of last year’s Thor, returning to Earth, this time with a world-beating plot involving the Tesseract (the energy cube/McGuffin from Captain America: The First Avenger — also last year). Recognizing the impending challenge, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), head of ubiquitous spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D., pulls together the strands of the Marvel’s movie-verse and enlists the aid of Steve Rogers, recently-revived WWII super soldier Captain America (Chris Evans), millionaire industrialist Tony Stark, a.k.a Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), famed geneticist/big green monster Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Asgardian Thunder God.
Before the credits roll, this array of disparate personalities (which also includes Jeremy Renner as ace marksman Hawkeye, and Scarlett Johansson as lethal superspy Black Widow) must work through their various personal and interpersonal disfunctions and forge a team that can repel an onslaught of alien invaders from another dimension. Do they pull it off? Well, without giving too much away, let’s just say that the Avengers have continually been in print for going on fifty years now, so it wouldn’t be going too far out on a limb to expect a sequel or two down the line (and, as is customary with these flicks, it might also be worthwhile to stick around through the credits).
More than just the narrative mechanics necessary to get the story going though, what Whedon manages to pull off with breathtaking precision is to integrate these various individual franchises, so different from one another tonally, into a seamless whole. For anyone not versed in the intricacies of the Marvel Comics universe, where these characters cross paths week-in and week-out, this could just as easily have become the superhero equivalent of the old Universal “monster jam” flicks like House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula that tossed all of the studio’s hoary horror icons into one pot to increasingly nonsensical and inadvertently comedic results.
Whedon and co-scenarist Zak Penn give each character a compelling reason not only to be part of the action, but also to work with one another. Here again we see the genius of the studio spending the last several years building these characters up separately via their individual films. Without the need to ladle out each of their respective backstories, the various plotlines (Captain America adapting to life 70 years removed from the time he knew, Bruce Banner coming to terms with his big, Hulking problem, etc.) have room to breathe, and the way they’re interwoven not only provide an impetus for the characters to come together, but for the audience to retain interest beyond the promised third act fireworks (which are plentiful, natch).
As far as the cast, all are in fine form, benefitting greatly from the expanded canvas of being able to interact with one another. Downey, playing Stark for the third time in five summers, has settled on a comfortable collection of tics and mannerisms for his character that could very easily cross over into self-parody (as the actor’s interpretation of Sherlock Holmes seems in danger of doing), but the tone and tenor of his scenes with Evans’ Steve Rogers allows both actors to find new emotional terrain to mine, with Stark’s bluster and bravado masking a core of deep uncertainty, and Rogers forced to measure up to his own legend that’s grown around him while he was (literally) on ice.
Picking up more directly on threads left dangling in Thor, Hemsworth and Hiddleston don’t miss a beat in their reprisals of Thor and Loki, continuing the inter-sibling tension which began in the prior film and is amped up even further here.
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