This review originally appeared in shorter form on KSNT-NBC, KTKA-ABC, and KTMJ-FOX, Kansas First News.
Marvel’s The Avengers straddles the line between an earnest, gung-ho, corny superhero flick and a cynical movie about surrendering individuality and whether or not power inevitably leads to fascism. What wins out, of course, are the classic superhero themes of fighting for the greater good and teamwork—and even if you know exactly how it’s going to get there, The Avengers believes wholeheartedly in its pure superhero aesthetic.
The bottom line? The feeling is infectious and almost impossible to resist.
Better than any film since Sam Raimi’s excellent Spider-Man 2, The Avengers gets what makes comic books a thrill for young readers—that feeling of fantasy and family. Reading comics as a kid, I felt protected by the larger-than-life heroes but I related to them at the same time. My imagination was stoked by both the never-ending conflict and the way the characters were constantly being tested.
The Avengers benefits from five Marvel movies before it that were full of backstory and origin. With that out of the way and certain character traits already firmly established, it puts extraordinary people in extraordinary situations and lets them play out in spectacularly entertaining fashion.
I’ll make this quick: Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) are assembled by S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to fight off an alien invasion led by Thor’s spiteful adopted brother from Asgard, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who wants to “free the world from freedom.” S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), the star of many connect-the-dots sequences in the other Marvel films, is part gatekeeper and part “biggest fan.”
The Tesseract is the movie’s macguffin, a glowing energy cube from space that could either save our environment or destroy the planet, depending on whose hands it falls into. Things start out in a pretty ponderous fashion, with faceless alien voices full of doom explaining the film’s setup. But once the team is called together, they immediately clash and the verbal and physical fireworks start to fly.
In a shrewd move by writer/director Joss Whedon (no stranger to a directing an ensemble), each superhero is given his or her moment of inner turmoil, a moment of doubt and serious danger, and a moment to shine that spotlights their own unique talent.
The Avengers also makes the time-honored tradition of heroes trading quips as they fight seem fun and inspired. It isn’t surprising to find out that Whedon—the king of quirk and dramatic metaphor behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly/Serenity—has excellent Hollywood instincts. Whedon can suggest a lot with a small moment—the trademark of a blockbuster movie director who knows he has little time before the next explosion, but is smart enough to fill it with character rather than plot.
Whedon displays his considerable knack for poking fun at characters while simultaneously taking their situation dead seriously. Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is the obvious example to trumpet here, but the fact that all the characters have a certain self-deprecating charm is essential in keeping the movie from being an all-out rah-rah cheesefest.
Keeping all the moving parts of The Avengers together is a balancing act that starts off a bit rough. Thankfully, this uncomfortable feeling is gradually overcome by the same giddy sentiment that turns adults into children again instantly. For good measure (there’s always a counter-balance in The Avengers–one of its strengths), some of the heroes question the motives of the government and work multiple angles even was they tow the company line. It’s not WWII after all; not even for Captain America.
That said, The Avengers is pure formula. Besides the clunky opening, there are other too-familiar issues. Loki is a little too similar to Superman II’s General Zod at times but duller—without Terence Stamp’s mix of menace and oblivious humor. Scenes that allude to the painful past of Hawkeye and Black Widow are cut short in favor of more action. The giant snake aliens seem like they came out of a wormhole from Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and Whedon even uses a 360-degree Michael Bay camera move.
But here’s the rub: The circular Bay camera trick works. It comes at a moment where the audience is clamoring for the group to unite as a team, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t well me up with emotion. The Avengers may be pure formula, but its formula done in a way that makes you remember why formulas were created in the first place: They were successful.
Whedon has the good sense to end the movie with one amazingly extended action sequence instead of the usual quick showdown where the hero faces his demons and wins through being clever or finding some sort of loophole. (Or worse—in the Harry Potter movies, it’s just point your wand and shoot until someone wins.)
When the X-Men fight, here are a couple of astounding moments. In The Avengers’ final battle, there’s one every couple minutes. The action is spectacular and coherent, with Whedon utilizing long effects takes and a depth of field that is thrilling. Seeing all those superheroes in one shot fighting together is nothing short of remarkable.
For many comic fans, it will be the realization of their dreams.