The Avengers Review

To find a baseline for judging The Avenger's success, one would probably have to look all the way back to Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein to find another example of a film that integrates this many franchises successfully. Even if we all knew that this was where we were headed, there's really nothing in modern cinema to prepare you for the shock of seeing so many headlining actors playing iconic characters as an ensemble, let alone doing so as even-handedly as they do here. There are personal revelations and scene-stealing moments to be sure, but just as Richard Donner's Superman established the gold standard for origin stories, The Avengers will serve as the establishment choice for how team-up actioners should be done.

While the groundwork for this film officially started in 2008 with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk (which has been all but scrapped from memory by Marvel) it really began back in the early 1960s when Stan Lee and company started building their fictional universe in the real-life city of New York, giving its characters a strong sense of geographic place while making sure that their jurisdictions never overlapped (or that spectacular battles resulted if they did). This is probably the reason that attempts to synthesize the DC universe always felt clumsy and awkward in comparison to Marvel's, as those were always stories dominated by strong personalities not necessarily suited to compromise, while everyone from Spider-man on down was ultimately subservient to the world itself.

Joss Whedon understands this, and as a result, The Avengers is almost totally exposition free. Sure, there's some basic scene-setting, and a few characters need to exchange blows before they can actually talk turkey, but the threads from their previous films are all tied up by the time that this starts, so there's refreshingly little recap and brooding over past trauma. With the villain and his goal established, there's little to do except set wheels in motion, but even then, Avengers isn't a plot-driven film, which might be its greatest strength.

The number of people familiar with Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America from their comic book incarnations is larger than nearly anyone will admit to it being, but it's still probably smaller than the number of people who saw their films. When viewed next to this, they all seem like lengthy prologues meant to establish the rules of the game, but they were also limited by the need to build franchises on their own, and thus have sturdy leads at their center. This gave them time to familiarize us with their idiosyncrasies, but it severely restricted the level to which they were able to act on them, and thus our ability (and desire) to distinguish them.

Captain America (Chris Evans) has a 'gee whiz' quality that allows him to follow dangerous orders without second guessing them, but he's also hopelessly square. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is a technical genius, but he's casually cruel and has an ego even greater than that of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who is, it's worth noting, a demi-god. And Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), while benevolent in comparison to his superiors, has responsibilities that transcend the life of any one person, or even telling the truth. While we've been told that these are all caustic personalities by other people around them, it's only now that they've really been able to demonstrate it, probably because there was no one around to abuse save measly subordinates.

This tension, and in some cases downright unlikeability (especially Stark, who could almost be a villain were he not so charming), is what manages to keep The Avengers buoyant for its two and a half hour running time. It certainly helps that there is literally no way that the group won't all get along at some point, but it also relieves the superhero genre of the fog of dourness that's beset it in the past decade. Just as our heroes never question the righteousness of their cause, The Avengers never questions why it was brought into existence, or doubts its gifts for one-liners and staging action sequences. Through and through, its confidence is justified.

"The Avengers" opens May 4, 2012 and is rated PG13. Action. Written and directed by Joss Whedon. Starring Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Clark Gregg, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr, Samuel L Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hiddleston.

May
04
2012
Anders Nelson • Associate Editor

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