Monday, May 7, 2012

Movie Review: The Avengers

The Avengers *** ½
Directed by: Joss Whedon.
Written by: Joss Whedon and Zak Penn based on the comic book by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.
Starring: Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark / Iron Man), Chris Evans (Steve Rogers / Captain America), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner / The Hulk), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow), Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton / Hawkeye), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Clark Gregg (Agent Phil Coulson), Cobie Smulders (Agent Maria Hill), Stellan Skarsgård (Selvig), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Paul Bettany (Jarvis), Alexis Denisof (The Other), Powers Boothe (World Security Council).

Marvel has been building to The Avengers since 2008 – when both Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk came out. They followed up those movies with Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America so they could introduce us to the four main heroes of this movie. Along the way, they’ve introduced to the supporting heroes – Black Widow and Hawkeye, along with their leader, Nick Fury, and the main villain, Loki. How would all of these characters – and more – interact in one movie? Finally we have a chance to find out – and the answer is surprisingly well. Yes, some of these characters have to take a backseat in The Avengers – Thor especially – but The Avengers is so enjoyable, I didn’t really care. Written and directed by Joss Whedon, best known for TV series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, he turns out to be an inspired choice. TV shows often have larger casts than movies, and often have to jump back and forth between all of those characters. Whedon is also a gifted comedic writer, and his screenplay for The Avengers is witty throughout. Some critics have compared The Avengers to the Westminster Dog Show (Roger Ebert) or decried it as just corporate product (AO Scott) – and you know something, they’re not wrong. But The Avengers was so much fun, I didn’t really care.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is back – you will remember, he is Thor’s bitter adopted brother, who thinks he is the rightful King of Asgard, the world that the brothers are from. So when he is approached by a strange Other, with the offer of  an army to invade Earth, where he can rule, he jumps at the chance. They only thing they want in return is the Tesseract – introduced in Captain America – a cube with untold powers. Loki gets what he wants, stealing the Tesseract from SHIELD – run by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) – and taking Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) along with him by brainwashing them. His endgame is unknown, but Fury knows they need something special to stop them. So, he reaches out to Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, taking over for Edward Norton), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), along with Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to track Loki down, and get the Tesseract back. Sooner or later, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) shows up to try and stop his adopted brother as well.

I couldn’t help but think of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), one of the most influential movies ever made, which of course, inspired a direct remake in The Magnificent Seven (1960), and really is the blueprint for all of these movies where multiple heroes unite (a movie like The Expendables is a more recent example). The first act introduces the threat, and brings together a group of “heroes” that seem like an odd match that will never possibly work. The second act contains an action sequence where everything goes wrong for the heroes, and they really look like a disaster instead of the only hope humanity has. Then something brings them together, and they have an even bigger action sequence to climax the movie, where the heroes finally work together as a team and defeat the threat. The Avengers pretty much follows this formula to a T.

But did you really expect anything different from The Avengers? Haven’t all four movies leading up to The Avengers pretty much followed the typical superhero formula exactly like you expect them to? The charm of the four movies leading up to The Avengers, and The Avengers itself, is not in this originality, but in the details. Like we expected, Robert Downey Jr. is the anchor of the movie – and his charm as Tony Stark shines through. The role suits Downey perfectly, and like he did with both Iron Man and Iron Man 2, he elevates the movie with his performance. Chris Evans is well suited for the square, patriotic Captain America (whose movie, by the way, is probably by favorite of the movie leading up The Avengers, and it’s disappointing to me that all of his follow-ups will be in the current era, so we’ll miss the retro feel that made the first one so enjoyable). Chris Hemsworth takes a beat seat as Thor – he’s just kind of there. Same goes for Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, who spends most of the movie brainwashed. But Scarlett Johansson elevates her game as Black Widow – she’s actually excellent this time around, as she has more to work with. The most pleasant surprise is Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner. After two decent, but still somewhat disappointing Hulk movies, Whedon and Ruffalo nail it this time. It is undeniable that Hulk has far and away the best moment in the movie (“Puny God”).

So yes, The Avengers is as formulaic as big budget blockbusters can be. But the movie was fun, funny and entertaining all the way from beginning to end. To expect more from this movie is setting yourself up for disappointing. The Avengers is exactly what it wants to be.

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