Like any right-thinking nerd with no childcare or other scheduling conflicts, I made sure to see “The Avengers” during the opening weekend. Our movie team has covered the film pretty exhaustively, but as both a longtime Avengers fan (who uses this poster as part of his son’s bedtime ritual) and a longtime Joss Whedon fan, I couldn’t resist jumping into the fray. I have a spoiler-filled review (as with many of my TV reviews, designed to be read only after you’ve seen the film) coming up just as soon as I show you my vintage trading cards…
The very first comic book I can recall reading was an Avengers issue that pitted the team against the Absorbing Man. I have been waiting for this movie to be made for a very, very long time. And when you add that general anticipation to the good job Marvel Studios has done with the recent films (the first “Iron Man” and “Captain America” in particular), and then add to that Whedon as writer and director, and I started to fear that nothing short of the “Citizen Kane” of superhero movies was going to live up to my expectations. By the time I saw the trailers – emphasizing all the special effects in the final battle sequence in Manhattan and looking not too different from a Michael Bay film – I began bracing myself for disappointment. Then the early reviews from people like Drew McWeeny were ecstatic, as were the Twitter reactions on Thursday night from trusted fellow geeks who went to one of the midnight screenings. Maybe, I began to tell myself, Joss got it right?
Damn straight he did.
“The Avengers” does not reinvent the superhero movie wheel. It does not chart a bold new direction for the genre in general or for the current batch of Marvel Studios films in particular. It is just a beautifully-executed piece of work that manages to do right by the characters and source material even as it works as a kickass action movie for non-nerds who won’t automatically get goosebumps at seeing the SHIELD helicarrier brought to life or at the glimpse of Thanos in the first of the two bonus scenes.
That Whedon was able to do this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s paid attention to his work, whether on TV, in comic books or even the “Firefly” movie spin-off “Serenity,” which is itself a ripping action yarn that nobody saw for the same reasons that nobody watched “Firefly.” (And also because it was a spin-off of a TV show that nobody had watched.) The only reason to doubt at all is that when that much money is at stake, and that many egos are involved, there’s always the worry that more powerful people weren’t going to leave Joss to his own devices, and we’d get something like the early episodes of “Dollhouse.”
But he appears to have been allowed to play to his strengths, one of which is a gift for writing generously for an ensemble. Though all four of his TV shows had clear main characters, he very quickly recognized with each that things worked best when everyone got something to do. (And, with some of the shows, they tended to be better when the second bananas got more to do than the lead.) With this movie, there are six leads, and with the possible exception of Hawkeye – who doesn’t get a big intro scene like the others, and who spends roughly the first two-thirds of the movie as a mind-controlled henchman – they’re all treated as equals, regardless of how famous the actor and/or character is. They all get multiple moments to shine, as do genuine supporting characters like Nick Fury, Agent Coulson(*) and Maria Hill.
(*) RIP, Agent Coulson, who becomes the latest victim of Whedon’s penchant for impaling likable characters at inopportune moments. I wonder if the character was always destined to die in this film, or if Joss recognized that the teams’ silly name (which was never properly explained in the comics; the Wasp just thinks it sounds cool) required someone for them to avenge, recognized that the audience would be used to Coulson by now, and that they’d like him because Clark Gregg was so good with such a tiny part, and bumped him off.
And it’s not just that they all get cool action moments, though they do. In the context of the film, the long climax in Manhattan doesn’t feel like a Bay film, because it’s easy to follow most of what’s happening, and the action is always informed by character: that Hulk takes great pleasure in being in a situation where smashing is a good thing, that Cap needs to give the cops a reason to follow his orders, that Hawkeye’s been looking forward to put an arrow through Loki’s eye, etc. That long battle sequence reminded me of Buffy and the Scooby gang’s battle against Glory in the 5th season finale, where Whedon made sure everyone got a good moment (Xander with the construction crane, for instance), but on a much, much bigger scale. It’s closer to the long action climax to “Serenity,” but even here it’s vastly more ambitious. Whedon definitely gives good action.
But what makes the movie work is that Whedon has genuinely thought through who all six of these people are, what drives them, and how and why they would be a part of a team like this. His run on “Astonishing X-Men” showed similar thoughtfulness about a bunch of very familiar Marvel characters (Cyclops and Kitty Pryde in particular), and it’s clear he’s spent a long time figuring out what makes each of them tick. Some of the movie’s character arcs are more pronounced than others – Black Widow reveals the most about herself, where with Thor it’s mainly allusions to character traits we learned in his solo movie – but all six of them are very clearly established as people, and not just a combination of costume and cool powers. Whedon doesn’t really know what to do with Captain America in terms of changing and growing, for instance – he’s admitted in the past that he struggles with seemingly perfect, square-jawed heroes – but he absolutely captures who the guy is and why the others are so willing to follow his lead.
Another familiar Whedon trait that translated perfectly into this venue is his sense of humor. “The Avengers” is damn funny, early and often, whether it’s some classic romantic comedy banter between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts, Captain America being excited to get the flying monkeys reference, or – two of the biggest laughs I’ve had (or heard) in a theater in a long time – Hulk punching out Thor after teaming up with him against the aliens, and then Hulk interrupting Loki’s latest endless monologue to smash the crap out of him. Where superhero movies sometimes use humor to distance themselves from what seems like ridiculous material, the jokes here (like most of the Tony Stark quips from the solo Iron Man movies) find a way to embrace the reality of it. To these characters, these things are happening, but if you can’t joke about a giant stone alien fish flying between New York skyscrapers, what can you joke about?
The aliens themselves wound up as faceless stormtroopers, but Loki was a rich enough villain – and present enough through the climax – that I was okay with that.
This movie is a box office monster, and its success has me wondering about a few things. First, Joss Whedon has carte blanche in the movie business for at least another film or two after this. It may be that he follows “Avengers” with an idea or two that’s just as uncommercial as “Firefly” or “Dollhouse,” and he wouldn’t be the first filmmaker to squander the power accumulated by a huge hit. But before he went to television, the guy did work on the screenplays (sometimes credited, sometimes not) of some extremely commercial, successful movies like “Toy Story” and “Speed.” All I know is, he’s not returning to TV for a long time now, and based on how the last two experiences went, everyone’s probably better off for that.
Second, I know there are several solo Marvel films in the works, and I’m looking forward to Shane Black writing and directing “Iron Man 3,” but one of the things I really want to see in the wake of “Avengers” is a series of “Marvel Team-Up”-style films. I worry sometimes about superhero sequels getting overcrowded, but that tends to be on the villain side of things. One of the best aspects of “The Avengers” is seeing the chemistry between these charactes in different combinations, and I can imagine a number of these heroes working much better alongside someone else than having to carry their own film. Everyone is rightfully pleased with the work Whedon and Mark Ruffalo did with Bruce Banner – going with the approach that he’s just always angry, and therefore in some degree of control over “the other guy” – but I don’t know that I want to see another Hulk solo vehicle, even with Ruffalo, as opposed to Banner and Tony Stark as brainy bros, or Hulk and Thor getting competitive about who’s the strongest one there is, or even something more improbable like Hulk being the muscle on a Black Widow/Hawkeye spy mission. It’d be a way to keep the universe in play without having to get all six actors’ schedules to coincide every few years.
But regardless of what happens next, “The Avengers” is a terrific accomplishment. And also the best advertisement for shawarma I’ve ever seen.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org