Review: ‘Avengers’ assembles the best Marvel movie so far

I’ve seen the film twice now, and I’m going to do my best to avoid pointless hyperbole in reviewing this. 

Short version:  it’s tremendous entertainment, confident and complete in a way that none of the Marvel movies so far have been, and I say that as someone who likes the Marvel movies in general.  The company makes an incremental leap forward with this movie, and they’ve set the bar fairly high for themselves in the future.  I am pleased and impressed and feel like this more than pays off any emotional investment I made in the movies as they were being released.

When discussing “The Avengers” as a film, though, there are several ways to approach it.  You can look at it as a further evolution of what Joss Whedon does as a writer and director.  You can review it based on its place in the Marvel canon overall.  You can analyze how it fits into the overall genre of superhero films.  I think the only way to place it in the correct context is to approach it from all of those directions, because the film seems to occupy a unique place in pop culture, and considering how big a commercial product it is, there’s something sort of revolutionary about its very existence.

When Joss Whedon was producing “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” and “Angel,” I never would have called them out as rehearsals for eventually making “The Avengers,” but looking at this film now, with the hindsight of how those shows played out, it’s pretty obvious.  Each season of “Buffy” was about introducing a new Big Bad, then assembling the team needed to defeat the villain and testing that team’s integrity, putting personal pressure of each of them in an effort to find their weaknesses.  Eventually, each season would build to a genuinely world-threatening situation, and it would take great personal sacrifice and difficulty for good to save the day.  “The Avengers” is built like an entire season of one of his shows, but in two-and-a-half hours and with a budget that he could have never dreamed of during the early days of “Buffy.”  Whedon came onboard the film after work had already begun on the script, and he shares a co-story credit with Zak Penn, who was the guy Marvel initially hired to help figure out how to bring all these characters together.  The final script positively reeks of Whedon, though, and all of his strengths are on display here.  The characters are written with a specific ear that makes each of them shine.   A great example would be Black Widow, aka Natasha Romanova, aka Scarlett Johansson.  In “Iron Man 2,” she proved adept enough physically, but she didn’t really have a character to play.  She was given an attitude, and she did as much with it as anyone could, but by the end of that film, we didn’t really know anything about her.  By the end of her first scene in “The Avengers,” we’ve learned a ton about her, and she’s become far more interesting than I would have imagined.

Whedon’s fondness for pop culture references is on full display here, and instead of sticking out as Whedon writing in Whedon’s voice, they’re used to underline who these people are, with one particular moment involving Captain America serving as a particularly sharp example of how you can illuminate character with very simple ideas.  The film’s biggest secret weapon is that it is one of the funniest films you’ll see this summer, using humor to punctuate many of the big moments, never undermining the stakes but often helping to modulate the tension that Whedon slowly ratchets up from the very start.  Whedon is not afraid to highlight the absurdity inherent to a world where anger turns one man into a giant green monsters, where demigods struggle with sibling rivalry on a global scale, and where the world’s biggest spy organization uses a giant flying aircraft carrier in the sky as a base, but he takes it all seriously in all the right ways.

In the continuity of the Marvel movies, the ones actually produced by the studio as part of their larger world, “The Avengers” is easily the best of the bunch.  I wrote a piece last year about the long road the studio took to get to this point, and I think there’s been a certain level of quality that the films have reached so far.  I’ve liked things about each of the films, and I’ve enjoyed the way they’ve been trying to fit them all together even as they’ve tried to tell the individual stories.  I think they’ve hobbled themselves a bit at times with their focus on the endgame, but now that I’ve seen “The Avengers,” I’m more than happy to overlook those flaws because I think it’s worth it.  If it took some weird digressions and some awkward structuring to get Marvel to the point where they could hit the ground running with this movie, then so be it.

Even if you factor in all the other superhero movies that weren’t made by Marvel, this goes on a very short list of the very best of them ever made.  Whedon’s affection for the conventions of the genre are evident, and he makes every scene feel like a stand-alone lesson in how to treat comic book source material with respect.  He grounds things in a real and recognizable world, but he’s not afraid to indulge the weirder, pulpier side of things.  His comic book world is big enough to include the strangest corners of deep space and the most mundane stretch of New York City street, and it all feels like it works together.  Christopher Nolan has been rightfully praised for his work on the Batman films, but he’s always made it a point of pride that he has taken the more outrageous elements of that world and twisted them so that they fit into something closer to “reality.”  Whedon doesn’t do that.  Instead, he embraces the nature of the world he’s creating, and he simply treats it seriously, with respect, and in doing so, he is bound to spur the imaginations of young viewers worldwide.

Balancing this many big personalities, both in the film and on the set, has got to be difficult, but the film manages it in a way that makes it seem almost easy.  Robert Downey Jr. remade his career with his work as Tony Stark, and part of the fun of the way he plays the part is that it’s hard to tell where the character stops and the actor begins.  Stark doesn’t just wear his ego turned all the way up to full volume, he somehow makes it charming.  He seems to come by it honestly, and he always tweaks it by revealing the eccentricity and the broken pieces that make up Stark’s secret heart.  He could easily overwhelm a group movie if given free reign, but Whedon’s script manages to integrate Stark into the group quite nicely.  I like the way his relationship with Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, is given dimension by the daddy issues that seemed to be jammed into “Iron Man 2” without much conclusion.  We saw the relationship between Howard Stark and a young Rogers in “Captain America,” and there is just enough reference made to that here to create some real tension between Cap and Iron Man.  Chris Evans seems like a totally different person as Captain America than he did when he starred in the “Fantastic Four” films.  There’s a square-jawed sincerity to his work, and an unironic sense of duty that makes him feel both retro and cutting-edge at the same time.  We live in a media age where irony and sarcasm are cheap currency, a constant presence in everything we consume, and Evans deserves credit for shedding that completely and making it feel like such a strong choice.

Chris Hemsworth continues to impress as Thor, and he finds any number of ways to reveal the human heart of the Thunder God, often making subtle choices in scenes that make Thor feel more real.  His relationship with Loki is a powerful drive in the film, and Tom Hiddleston’s work as Loki is tremendous.  He reveals how much more damaged Loki has become in his exile, and he takes the moustache-twirling villainy of comic books in a very different direction, playing Loki as an open wound, a feral beast with a cultured smile.  Meanwhile, both Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson, introduced in small supporting roles in other people’s films, both benefit enormously from the way they’ve been written here.  Renner’s character spends much of the film under the hypnotic sway of Loki, so we don’t really “meet” him until halfway through.  Once he’s set free, though, his righteous anger gives him a strong motivation to stay at Ground Zero, fighting desperately so that he can score some payback.  His connection to Johansson’s character is, thankfully, not a romantic one, and it helps make both of them stronger presences in the film.

I’m a fan of both Ang Lee’s “Hulk” and Leterrier’s “Incredible Hulk,” but both films are flawed in significant ways as well.  In general, I’m interested in the different ways each film approaches the Banner/Hulk dynamic and how they use the Hulk once he’s introduced.  Having said that, neither film makes use of the Hulk as effectively as this one does, and I suspect that Hulk merchandise is going to be the biggest hit with kids this summer.  Mark Ruffalo makes Banner into a compelling presence on his own, and even if he never changed, he’d make an interesting contribution to the film.  Once he does, though, the Hulk is preposterous fun, and he delivers some of the most amazing beats in the movie.  I think the use of SHIELD here is also pretty great, and there is real awe in the way the Helicarrier is revealed.  Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, finally steps up as the leader he’s meant to be, and Jackson feels like he’s more engaged here, especially when he gets to jump into the action a bit.  Cobie Smulders and Clark Gregg make the most of their scenes, and Gregg is rewarded for his work in the franchise so far with the best overall writing for Agent Coulson that anyone’s done, turning him from “that guy who delivers some of the awkward exposition” into an important piece of the overall puzzle.

The film moves quickly, even at two hours and twenty minutes, and the final set piece is such a triumph, such a marvel (pun fully intended) of plot and character and action, that I’m having a hard time remembering the last blockbuster that satisfied with such confidence.  It’s one thing to produce mass mayhem that is visually convincing, but this film also manages to build in real emotion.  The mayhem matters because these characters believe it matters, and every payoff feels earned, thematically satisfying.

I have one major complaint, and it’s something that would have made the difference between the grade I’m giving the film and the grade I could have given it.  Alan Silvestri’s score is good here, serving the film well from scene to scene, but the Marvel films in general missed a great opportunity.  If they had managed to create a memorable and iconic score for each film, with each character getting a theme of their own that was burnt into the consciousness of the audience, then this film could have been a sonic wonder, with those scores layered on top of each other, playing off one another, doing for the ear what the film does for the heroes.  One of the things that makes the “Star Wars” films or the “Indiana Jones” films feel like magic is that they feature music that does more than just cue us emotionally… those scores evoke moments instantly for audiences, and they communicate so much about what you’re watching.  There’s a moment here where Loki is fighting Captain America in Germany, and suddenly AC/DC begins to blare from nearby speakers thanks to Iron Man patching in and playing his own theme music as part of his entrance.  It’s a very funny moment, but I wish the film could have done this for each of the Avengers, and it feels like the biggest way they dropped the ball.

If that’s my biggest complaint, though, that seems like something that I can live with.  There is no reason “The Avengers” should even exist as a movie, and it makes even less sense that it’s actually good.  It feels like a magic trick, and Joss Whedon’s feature film career is going to kick into a whole new gear after this.  I hope he stays involved in the Marvel universe on film, though, because no matter how inevitable this film feels, it was anything but.  It is impressive on a business level, and from a general comic book fan’s perspective, but more than anything, this is pure entertainment, with exceptional contributions from all involved.  “The Avengers” may not literally save the world, but they are a definite reminder that you have to aim high and dream big if you want to do something truly special.

“The Avengers” opens around the world starting tomorrow, and in the US on May 4.