New Arrivals: The Avengers

It shouldn’t have worked.

It sounded like a grand folly.

Creating four Marvel superhero franchises and them smash them together into a single entity? It sounded impossible and unwieldy. I was skeptical when this project came to fruition, and the end of “Iron Man” had Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury talking about “the Avengers Initiative.” Two years ago it was announced that Joss Whedon, the brilliant mastermind behind “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Firefly,” the wildly underrated “Alien Resurrection”(don’t laugh, that’s a stealthily good movie) and the controlled chaos of “Cabin in the Woods.” But even though it was in the hands of a major talent instead of Michael Bay, Brett Ratner or McG, I was still unsure if he would be able to pull off the Herculean effort required to make this work. It also didn’t help that the previous Marvel movies didn’t exactly blow me away. They ranged from very good (“Iron Man”), average (“Captain America,” “Thor”), forgettable (“The Incredible Hulk”) and the downright horrendous (“Iron Man 2”). But the trailers and early reviews reinvigorated my interest in this mammoth superhero collage. Does Whedon get this potential albatross off the ground?

The answer is: absolutely. “The Avengers” is a staggering accomplishment, a shining example of how exhilarating popular entertainment can be when given a dose of intelligence and humanity.

Now these aren’t the ravings of a comics nerd. I have no knowledge of these characters outside of the movies they’re in. The reason this movie succeeds isn’t due to the amount of fan service it provides; it works because it creates a brilliantly layered, cohesive ensemble piece out of these characters, in addition to providing thrilling, coherent action pieces.

The plot is pretty simple. God of mischief Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the younger brother of Thor, steals an alien cube called the tesseract, which gives him the power to control a massive alien army. Since he has an inferiority complex even larger than the horns on his helmet, he plans to use the cube to conquer Earth. He steals it from the covert agency S.H.I.E.L.D., ran by Jackson’s  Fury, and puts Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and the assassin Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) under mind control. As a result, Fury decides to unite Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) Steve Rodgers/Captain America (Chris Evans) Thor (Chris Hemsworth) Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) to stop this threat.

This is easier said than done. Some of these guys want nothing to do with the operation, or are unsure if this team would even work. That conflict is where Joss Whedon thrives as a writer and director. All of his previous work in TV and comics deals with damaged, unique people working in a group, and the problems that arise from this collision of personalities. All of the heroes are distinctive: Stark is the charismatic playboy who is a lone wolf and has trouble taking orders. Rogers, a cryogenically frozen super-soldier from WWII, is earnest and courageous, but doesn’t know how to adapt to the modern world. Banner sees his ability to transform into the Hulk as a curse, trying to make the best of his shattered existence. The Widow is a deadly assassin with a troubling past, trying to keep those demons at bay, and Thor is trying to balance his duty  to protect the world with the love and compassion he still has for his adoptive brother Loki. As a result, these characters literally fight each other in some of the film’s most satisfying and hilarious scenes. It beats watching them going through group therapy for two hours.

In the wrong hands, this could’ve become a poorly structured mess (like Iron Man 2, one of the worst-structured screenplays of all time), but Whedon’s gift for witty, insightful dialogue and characterization shines so brightly here, that all the characters get developed, and as a result, we come to care about them and how they are able to come together as a team; they are still people. It helps that this film is laugh-out-loud funny at times, another Whedon trademark; this all comes together to create emotional stakes that makes this perfectly-paced film so engaging.

There is not a weak performance to be found in “The Avengers” either. Downey was born to play Tony Stark, still as sarcastic and selfish as ever, until he realizes he must learn some humility to find his place on this team. Evans, who was an incredibly annoying actor early in his career but has shown great maturity in his later work, brings earnestness and a steel will to Captain America. He rises to the occasion and becomes the leader this extremely volatile team needs. Hemsworth gives Thor a warrior’s spirit with some hard-earned empathy and Hiddleston, who as Loki was more pathetic than menacing in “Thor,” makes the character a more dangerous and ambitious villain this time. He knows that the Avengers are a work-in-progress, and exploits their weaknesses at every opportunity. And Clark Gregg, who as Agent Coulson stole countless scenes in the previous Marvel movies, is also fleshed-out and given more to do.

But there are two performances that stand out even amongst this esteemed ensemble. The Black Widow was an embarrassing, poorly-written wisp of a character in “Iron Man 2,” and as a result Johannson couldn’t get the proper grasp of who Romanoff is. Whedon has a knack for creating ferocious, independent female characters, and as a result gives the Widow her due. This is one of Johannson’s best performances, finding the deadly fire behind the character, while at the same time developing a bond with the archer Hawkeye (Renner isn’t given as much to do until the end, but he’s very good anyway). But the film’s MVP is Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner. Finally, the Hulk is done right, because he isn’t treated like a superhero; the Hulk is used as a weapon. Ruffalo makes the struggle between man and beast palpable and tragic, giving major dimensions to a character that is CGI most of the time. The final alien battle in Manhattan, which is a wild, ecstatic set piece that destroys half the city, is where the Hulk shines, where he is used both comedically and destructively (literally).

Whedon doesn’t let the action, although there is plenty of it, drown out the theme of this movie, which is the evolution of this team. Each hero has a unique skill set, and they have established roles in each explosive sequence. They put aside their differences and develop bonds with each other to create the mighty force they are destined to be. Whedon had an equally large task in making this project’s elements coming together to create a substantial film, and he does, against all odds. His melding of characterization and spectacular action is reminiscent of a young Steven Spielberg. “The Avengers” is one of the greatest of all comic book movies because its creator knows  that in popular entertainment, spectacle and substance are a powerful team as well.

GRADE: A

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