A few weeks ago I saw “The Avengers.” The next morning, I cranked out a thousand words or so with all my thoughts, I felt, perfectly representative of what I took away from the movie. I felt good about it. Then the internet ate it.
Oh well, it happens, but the gist of the piece was this: “The Avengers” succeeds mainly because its all-star cast, playing all-star characters, gels perfectly, organically, no ego tipping the scales, no “front man” (as it were) emerging from the mix. Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner and Tom Hiddleston work wonderfully off each other and finally bring Marvel to a place DC Comics should have been a few times over by now.*
So on one hand, yeah, the headline here is a joke. The Screen Actors Guild’s nominating committee, and indeed, any “self-respecting” awards-giving body is highly unlikely to pass kudos approval on a film like “The Avengers.” But in the case of a category meant to honor well-oiled machines like this one, perhaps they should.
Truly, this film could have been a mess of mismatched synergy. I think it helps that Joss Whedon was such a singular creative force on the project, having been tapped to both write and direct it (when you’d expect a committee of writers to be credited on something like this). That certainly provides a focus of comedic timing and relationship-building on the page. But I was sort of in awe at seeing this many major forces on the screen, a number of them with their own franchises separately, blend so flawlessly while still standing out separately.
And that’s the trick. That’s what needed to happen for this film to work. At Comic-Con in 2010, Robert Downey Jr. took the stage in Hall H at the San Diego Convention Center with the massive, freshly announced cast and director behind him. He mentioned Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” which he had recently hit theaters. “I think that was probably just about the most ambitious movie I”ve ever seen,” he said. “Marvel Studios is going to take all of their top super heroes and they”re going to put them all together in ‘The Avengers.’ That”s the most ambitious movie.” An overstatement, sure, but I think it gets at the core of why the film has been so compelling in concept and why it’s such an accomplishment in execution.
Best in show? Mark Ruffalo is blessed with a lot of the low-key comedy, so it’s difficult to not say he kind of slyly steals it as Bruce Banner. Chris Hemsworth endeared me to Thor even more (when that’s always been a character I never really cared for). Downey is naturally on fire and comfortable as ever as Tony Stark and Tom Hiddleston is a delicious villain as Loki. But I’d be tempted to say it’s Scarlett Johansson who stands out, which is a huge surprise for me.
In the build-up to the film, taking into consideration the terrible “Iron Man 2” (which introduced Johansson’s Black Widow to the world) and just the overall sense of things, it seemed to me that the actress was quite out of place in this assemblage. I wasn’t buying it. But the character is integrated in a fantastic way here, layered with her own nuance that hints at the potential for a spin-off movie with Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye if they wanted to go there. And Johansson makes it all count.
It might be a weird thing to say about a movie built on the team-up of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and The Incredible Hulk, but yeah, Scarlett Johansson was probably my favorite element of “The Avengers.” (And kudos, too, to her stunt double, Heidi Moneymaker, who deserves a decent chunk of the credit.)
Is “The Avengers” the best film of the superhero sub-genre? I don’t think so. “X2” and Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise certainly remain on the top tier and the case can, as ever, be made for Richard Donner’s vision of Superman. But it’s a fierce franchise starter that does the one thing it needed to do: it establishes a strong, compelling ensemble that really doesn’t deserve to be scoffed at when mentioning awards for same as something that should at least be humored by the conversation.
“The Avengers” opens nationwide Friday, May 4. Check out Drew McWeeny’s glowing review of the film here.
*With DC being under an umbrella providing for exclusive Warner Bros. distribution since, essentially, 1968, there’s just no reason a Justice League movie shouldn’t have found itself in reboot mode already. But that’s a whole other column (most of which the internet ate).
For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.
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