The term “geekgasm” does not go amiss here.
If you’re like me – not in every way, obviously, because that would be weird, but in the key hypothetical way required for feeling this review – there will come a point in The Avengers where you simply sit back and say to yourself: “Holy shirt. I’m watching Captain America and Iron Man fighting Thor. On the big screen. In live action. For real.” If you can imagine yourself reacting in that fashion as I did, this is the movie for you. It may also be clear by now that it’s really hard to be objective, because I’m not quite sure how to put myself in the shoes of somebody who doesn’t care about any of that, and imagine what they’d think, beyond the obligatory, “Waaaaahhhhh, I’m old and 3-D Imax hurts my head!” that will invariably emerge from some quarters (due apologies to those who genuinely cannot view stereoscopic 3D; yas, they exist).
Now, obviously it is not a given that the mere presence of familiar heroes fighting guarantees a popular movie; if it did, X-Men 3 would be better liked. And The Avengers, or rather, “Marvel’s The Avengers,” presumably so named as to avoid Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman jokes like the one I made a week or so ago, is co-written by the same dude as X3 – Zak Penn. The other major writer would be Joss Whedon, who also directs. And here is where I must lay my biases on the table: Never been a fan of Whedon’s dialogue. As those words finish being typed, I imagine the sounds of villagers and verbal pitchforks heading straight for the comment section to advocate for my head. I do think the guy comes up with great concepts, and if the “so five minutes ago” line in the original Buffy movie was his, I salute its general brilliance. But he does like to have characters use way too many words, often unrealistically so. Granted, the same could be said of Shakespeare, as he’d no doubt point out, so we’re just talking personal taste, as well as the fact that it is therefore significant that I thoroughly enjoyed almost all the quips in The Avengers. The most conspicuous groaner comes upfront, when Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury says something like, “Until such time as the world ends, we will act as though it intends to keep spinning.” Jackson has established a precedent for saying stuff sorta like this, but it’s really best left to Tarantino. Better are the more efficient wisecracks, like:
Captain America: “We need a plan of attack.”
Iron Man: “I have a plan. Attack.”
Or there’s Cap’s response when told that Thor and Loki are gods: “There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.” You’ve seen the “Hulk, smash!” bit in TV spots, but it plays even better when the full context is revealed. And there’s a wonderful cameo that would seem to be based entirely upon the viewer knowing the actor in question’s key line from another movie (yeah, I’m beating around the bush a bit to avoid spoiling something you may not get anyway; if you’d like it all cleared up, click here for enlightenment).
So…How do we talk plot without giving away more than we should? It’s quite easy, really. You’re probably wondering why, if Loki could be defeated by Thor alone, it now takes multiple heroes to stop him wreaking havoc upon the earth. The answer basically boils down to the fact that he apparently powered up and learned martial arts in the time since his last movie, as well as benefiting from an alliance with an alien race called the Chitauri (for those of you hung up on Skrulls, my limited understanding of the comics is that Chitauri are sort of like Skrulls but not, and it’s kinda moot here anyway since they never shape-shift). The Chitauri don’t really show up until the third-act blowout, however, because (a) the rest of the movie involves the heroes arguing with each other first and foremost and (b) the Chitauri look very expensive to animate and money had to be saved somewhere.
Loki kicks things off by busting into S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters to take a cosmically powered cube that ought to be called the cosmic cube, but is only referred to as “The Tesseract” because that sounds geekier. In the process, he demonstrates a new ability to possess people’s minds, and ends up bringing one of the main characters to the dark side. This in turn requires that Nick Fury (Jackson) assemble the rest of the team, while Loki goes into full-on General Zod mode, obsessing about people kneeling before him.
One thing that’s rather deftly handled is the way in which viewers of all political stripes can see affirmations in the material. Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a straight-arrow conservative soldier who follows orders and believes in self-sacrifice; he does, however, have occasional anachronistic flaws (he makes a major assumption about Fury based on skin color). Conversely, Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a libertine individualist who represents a more contemporary ideal, but his hedonism backfires at times too.
In Loki’s tirades about how humans need freedom from freedom, libertarians will find much to talk about, while the team as a whole could easily be seen as a metaphor for multicultural (and ideological!) diversity. And comic fans will delight in the fact that their heroes are show to all be geeks deep down, from Agent Coulson’s collection of Captain America trading cards to the sheer joy shown by Cap himself when he finally “gets” a pop-cultural reference (to The Wizard of Oz, a movie from his time).
But we haven’t yet talked about Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/Hulk. Let’s do that, because Ruffalo is the best Hulk/Banner ever. He makes it look easy, but it’s not – every prior actor to get the green rage has focused so exclusively on the angst that they miss the comic-book fun of “big dude breaking shirt.” Hulk utters maybe two words at most here (the same as in every prior movie, incidentally), but he’s a lot more fun, as is Banner, who has learned to deflect his angst with humor, and ride a hilariously rusty motorcycle.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is better in these movies than the character has any right to be; am I the only one who could never stand all those Thee’s and Thou’s in the comics as a kid? He’s less defined here, since his sole purpose is to find and punish his li’l bastard of a brother. More so than with Cap and Iron Man, your appreciation of Hemsworth’s thunder god may depend upon how well you liked his prior film (the lack of origin stories already told is refreshing to those of us who’ve seen the formula over and over, but may perplex the casual viewer). Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner provide eye candy in their black costumes, but the addition of a shared past between the two characters effectively moves their storyline along (my 9-year-old brother declared Hawkeye his favorite Avenger after the movie). Sadly, Jackson comes off ineffective; for a guy who should be demonstrating his m-f’ing fatigue with these m-f’ing aliens on his m-f’ing planet, he mostly just sits back and occasionally shoots things, while getting owned by Powers Boothe from an undisclosed location.
Is it fun? Yas. Very. The humor is akin to that of both X-sequels penned by Penn, while Whedon plays in the big-budget sandbox with appropriate glee. That there is at least one moment in which two major characters hit each other as if they were both action figures wielded by toddlers in the sandbox feels about right – the director is playing with his toys like we all did, just bigger and better.
UPDATE: As a couple of commenters (and coworkers) have pointed out, I misread a key scene between Captain America and Nick Fury. What appeared to be a pretty ballsy joke about Cap assuming Fury was a servant is actually payback on a ten-dollar bet that I had either missed earlier or forgotten about (understand that even at press screenings, loud and positive audience reaction can happen and render some words inaudible). My mistaken perception resulted in what I feel is a more cutting joke about perceptions of the ’30s versus now, but cast aspersions on the character of the good Captain. I regret the error.