Director: Joss Whedon
Writers: Joss Whedon and Zak Penn
Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner, Scarlett Johansson, Cobie Smulders, Tom Hiddleston and Samuel L. Jackson
I don’t hate Joss Whedon anymore. Let me catch everyone up to speed. I was never a huge fan of the Whedonverse, but I’d catch the shows when they aired. But, Whedon started messing around with my beloved Marvel characters. Specifically, he screwed around with Kitty Pryde. I put Kitty Pryde on the same level as I do Spider-Man. For me, they are the male/female equivalent of the quintessential Marvel hero. Young, brash and perfect stand-ins for millions of young readers trying to read something that’s not Tiger Beat or TV Guide. But, my problem wasn’t that Whedon was messing around with my beloved characters. It was that he seemingly didn’t earn the rights to the toybox that Stan, Jack, John, Wally, Bill, Don and Ditko created. How dare an outsider that only writes genre fiction about strong teenage females touch my preferred teenage heroine?
It seems petty in hindsight, but it really just got on my nerves. There’s something about being a comic fan that fills you with this sense of entitlement to characters that were created as work-for-hire by old men decades ago. Sometimes, it’s characters that are in double digits by the time you were born. It’s a kind of magic that gets under a geek’s skin and works them into such a fervor over Asgardians and Russian Spies. You get older and the thrill of the comics stays with you, but maturity tells you to rationalize it. You claim that it’s the American mythology and you’re supporting a slowly dying art. But, then you see people talking about what was once selective among a subset of people. Kids seem excited like you used to be and adults are actually openly talking about how much they love Iron Man. Iron Man, people! Before the first movie launched, the guy hadn’t sold that well for a decade.
“The Avengers” works because it gets the Marvel structure. It gets the appeal of a fantastical world trapped in a few city blocks. Whether you’re soaring over the Atlantic Ocean in the Heli-Carrier or trying to defend Grand Central Station, the action is immediate and now. There are no Luthorian real estate schemes involving Kryptonian sunstone, no weirdly voiced British goons are threatening to destroy your city and you don’t have to worry about Peter Sarsgaard’s giant head killing you. Whedon knows for a team of heavy hitters with conflicting interests to work, the audience has to be knee deep in it. A lot of it will play like the greatest hits reel of the solo flicks, but that’s as it should be. The heavy lifting has been done by Favreau, Branagh and Johnston. This is the culmination of four years of cinematic build.
Samuel L. Jackson does his best in a role that’s been tailored for him since Nick Fury’s Ultimate line inception in 2001. But, his constant mugging for the camera mixed together with one questionably staged scene that would spoil a key moment leaves me scratching my head. SHIELD is really cool and every 5th person in the Marvel Universe seems to have been an agent at one point. How come every moment with Maria Hill and Nick Fury felt like a forced plot point for the humans to carry on when Stark wasn’t cracking one-liners? Hell, Fury has a moment near the end of the film that feels like Jackson threw a fit to get included. What of everyone else?
Mark Ruffalo manages to find a balance between his usual quirk and the control needed to portray Dr. Bruce Banner. It sounds simple, but the work done there is nothing short of astounding. The Hulk is a hard character and he’s had maybe 5 solid runs in the last five decades. When you get the character into any situation, it’s easy to have him smash and win over a dim-witted audience. But, Ruffalo’s Banner is about control vs. measured hostility. The character is always angry, but he knows that he can’t do anything other than carry on. He can’t kill himself, he can’t be murdered and nobody knows what will ever stop him. The Hulk is the burden of Banner’s life. This film is about learning how to unholster your burden and become the person you were meant to be. Ruffalo gets that and it’s why The Hulk carries the film.
What matters most about the film is that Whedon captures the true feeling of a Marvel comic. Captain Steve Rogers is awkward, but still cares about everyone he meets. Tony Stark is the smartest man alive and he wants everyone to know it. Hawkeye and Black Widow are trying to build the bridge between SHIELD and the new superhumans. We’ve talked about Banner, so that leaves us with Thor. The God of Thunder gets reintroduced to the Marvel Movieverse with what feels like a rushed scene. There appears to have been something more there in a previous draft, but I won’t speculate upon that. However, Hemsworth doesn’t drop a note as he’s developed an excellent portrayal of a character that was left relegated to Incredible Hulk TV-movies.
Then, there’s the throwbacks to genre films of old. You can’t tell me that including Powers Boothe, Jenny Agutter and Harry Dean Stanton was just convenient casting. Whedon knows what he’s doing and he’s aping something that Spielberg/Lucas tapped into way back in 1981. Our childhoods are spent finding the fictional tropes that will come to dominate the latter portions of our lives. Some of us discover music in our garage bands. Others discover a love of the theater while performing onstage. Then, there are the lucky people that get to open the rich tapestry of media that brave pioneers and unsung genius has laid before us in the previous decades. We are a richer people for living in a time when so much pop culture history is at our command. Whedon understands this and puts that love onscreen.
If there’s anything I take away from the film, it’s that it still matters to care. Too often, critics are trained to relegate popcorn cinema to the garbage bin. That campy thing is good enough for ironic appreciation, but that one movie was for dumb children. Back and forth, on and on as artistic temperament changes what is acceptable to enjoy. I can say this. I started the week with Hollis Frampton’s Odyssey and I’m closing it with The Avengers. Some might say I’m regressing, but I like to think that I’m returning to a time when Wednesday afternoons at the comic shop meant more than anything. I envy those that get to feel that way for the first time on Friday. Visions of star spangled avengers, repulsor rays and Mjolnir swings await you.
RELEASE DATE: 05/04/2012