It's very rare that a massively hyped-tentpole release like "The Avengers" lives up to expectations, but it is safe to say that Joss Whedon's big budget superhero ensemble delivers on almost every level -- a fact that is sure to delight comic book movie fans who have been waiting for this big screen team up for years.
The great thing about "The Avengers" though, is that it's not just for comic book geeks. Sure, the film was helmed by king of all geeks Joss Whedon ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Firefly"), but the movie succeeds because it is so accessible, something that is largely Whedon's doing. The writer/director wrangles a large ensemble of established superheroes, reintroduces them to audiences quickly and effectively, gives them all their own moments to shine, and still has time to tell an extremely fun story. "The Avengers" is surprisingly well-crafted popcorn entertainment.
Here's "The Avengers" elevator pitch: Earth's mightiest heroes -- Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) -- must come together to battle a planetary threat orchestrated by Thor's mischevious brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Bringing these heroes together is the mission of the secret government organization S.H.I.E.L.D., led by eyepatched director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). For good measure, Fury adds two of his own to the team: Femme fatale assassin Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and master archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). But before the superteam can battle the threat at hand, they'll have to learn to work together in the face of big egos and clashing personalities.
The personality clash is central to the dynamic of the Avengers team on the comic book page, so getting it right in the big screen adaptation was key. The two men vying to lead the team -- Evans' Captain Steve Rogers and Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark -- basically despise one another. Cap is a stubborn, by-the-book soldier, while Stark is more of a "fly by the seat of his pants" (literally) kind of guy. Interestingly, it's the constant head-butting between the two that makes the team work. Get that relationship right and you're already halfway toward creating a solid "Avengers" movie. Whedon, Evans, and Downey nail it.
Speaking of big egos, Cap and Iron Man aren't the only personalities at play here. All of the "big four" heroes (save for maybe Cap) have had to overcome their own hubris in previous film appearances. Putting these guys in a room together is definitely a recipe for disaster, but man, is it fun to watch. If they're not trading barbs over how things should be done, they're trading blows over who's right and who's wrong.
Seeing these heroes come together as a team is a blast, thanks in part to a great script and wonderful character work by all the actors, but also some incredible visual effects. If you have to make or resolve a super-powered argument, it's best to do so with snappily-written Joss Whedon dialogue and VFX house Industrial Light & Magic in your corner.
On the subject of the visual effects and action in "The Avengers," something really needs to be said. To say the film is "effects driven" would be an understatement, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Increasingly VFX-laden films like this have suffered in the story department because of the big explosions and set pieces on display. (We're looking at you, Michael Bay!) Refreshingly, "The Avengers" doesn't suffer in the same way. The film's lengthy and action-packed climax isn't just 35-minutes of mindless action; it actually feels like natural extension of the story and a culmination of each character's story arc in the film. Unlike the Bays and Bruckheimers of the world, Whedon uses the action and effects as tools to tell his story, not blow it up.
As for the performances, there's a lot to like about "The Avengers." Many of these actors already know their characters well and pick up right where they left off. This is Downey's third time out as Stark, and as a result, the actor looks completely at ease playing the brash genius-billionaire. While Downey does provide the bulk of the comic relief in the film, he does tone it down when required. Many were worried that "The Avengers" would just be another Iron Man film, but Stark is very much a supporting member at times.
Also worth noting is Mark Ruffalo. The actor is spot on as Bruce Banner, the mild-mannered scientist who becomes the Hulk when angered. He may be the third actor to play the role in the last few years (Eric Bana and Edward Norton being the others), but he makes the part entirely his own. What seems to make the difference this time out is that Ruffalo also got to portray Banner's hulking alter ego through the use of motion capture technology. Ruffalo is a great actor, period, but getting to physically play Banner and the Hulk surely aided his performance and understanding of the character.
Special mention must be given to Tom Hiddleston, the actor who plays Thor's villainous brother Loki. The Englishman played the part in last year's "Thor," and looks right at home in the role. Most comic book villains are paper-thin baddies with motivations like the always ridiculous "world domination" being their prime concern. Sure, Loki wants to rule planet Earth, but it's his reasons for wanting to that make him interesting. Put plainly, Loki has serious family issues. Taking over Earth is as much about sticking it to his brother Thor as it is about proving something -- anything -- to his estranged father Odin. Loki could have been a cartoonish mess, but Hiddleston imbues the character with a kind of melancholy menace that suits the tone of the film perfectly.
For many of the same reasons that 2010's "Iron Man 2" did not work, "The Avengers" shouldn't work, either. Several of the previous Marvel films, particularly the "Iron Man" sequel, suffered because the company chose to shoehorn in elements to lay the groundwork for this movie. The clash of Thor's mystical tone and Iron Man's comparative realism never happened until now, but having agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. show up in both movies created a strange mix. Bringing these disparate characters and tones, already well established by five years of canon, is no small task -- but Whedon somehow manages the balancing act. Seeing the heroes assembled for the first time might just be enough for most to suspend their disbelief.
Many have been picturing this film in their heads for years, and it's amazing how closely Whedon's "The Avengers" fits that picture. If you've enjoyed any of the Marvel movies made in the past half-decade, you'll likely get a thrill from seeing the heroes together in a movie. And while it certainly doesn't hurt to have seen the previous Marvel films, Whedon does an impressive job of reintroducing them all for general audiences who may have missed out.
"The Avengers" is a well made, well acted, action-packed, and surprisingly funny affair. It's summer entertainment at its finest. Go see "The Avengers" on the biggest screen you can find.