The Avengers (2012)

There’s no scenario where Joss Whedon gets the credit he deserves for The Avengers. Certainly he’ll be lauded for the cash this box-office bogart is already piling up, and critics seem impressed enough with the film to plant it firmly in the upper echelon of “comic book” movies. But the success Whedon has achieved is far loftier than that, encompassing years of Marvel canon, hoards of characters beloved to fans, and unparalleled expectations. Put another way: making this movie was an unprecedented challenge. And The Avengers isn’t perfect, though that was never really an option in the first place; there are far too many elements that would have to be handled flawlessly, far too much scrutiny from far too many directions to ever truly be called “perfect.” It is, however, as good as it was ever going to be, and considering the circumstances, that’s pretty damn good.

The Avengers kicks off with the villanous Loki (Tom Hiddleston)–last seen falling through a wormhole at the end of Thor–stealing the arcane and apparently dangerous Tesseract. S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), appreciating the threat this combination poses to the planet, sets in motion the Avengers Initiative, calling together Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to protect her: Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), along with S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Not surprisingly this collection of super-powered personalities struggles to fuse, resulting in a variety of heated discourse, sharp-tongued invectives, and punching.

What fans of the comic book (ideally, fans everywhere) are going to appreciate most is Whedon’s ability to maintain these characters’ personalities. It’s not overstating anything to reiterate just how wildly difficult this movie was to make. There are, frankly, an absurd number of characters to keep track of, and that’s just in making sure the audience knows what’s going on. The task of building these characters, and their relationships, and their ability to work as a cohesive (and believable) unit in battle? Coupled with the inevitable heat that comes when you reprocess cherished source material? That is a job very, very few individuals could handle. Yet Whedon, in his first stint with a feature Marvel production, does the job quite well. Certainly Avengers will be remembered for its bombast (as it should, which I’ll get to momentarily), but there’s no shortage of subtlety in the characters and relationships. Whether it’s Cap’s old-school patriotism vs. Iron Man’s contemporary egoism, or Hawkeye’s brash militarism contrasting Widow’s expert manipulation, Whedon makes it startlingly clear just how deeply he understands the characters he’s wielding. And that deep understanding isn’t just apparent in the discourse, but the action as well. Which brings us to the climax of The Avengers…

At a basic level, all of these Marvel films are about the live-action portrayal of characters who, while built around visual dynamism, are generally restricted to the static two-dimensionality of a comic book page (and please, don’t let that read as slander, for I am now, and always will be a huge comic book fan). Seeing Iron Man fly for the first time is thrilling in a way that can’t really be matched, and if you can add to that some strong character moments and a despicable villain, you’re set. But this is a collection of unique characters with unique abilities. The clear challenge then for Whedon–specifically in approaching The Avengers from an action standpoint–is how to maintain these characters’ unique personalities within a battle. Well, rest assured, as Joss proves more than equal to this task as well. In the film’s 40 minute climax, the role each of these characters plays as a member of a team is beautifully articulated: Iron Man is the mind, Hulk and Thor the big guns, Hawkeye the steady-handed vet, Widow the sly warrior, and Cap, quite crucially, as the leader. And not only do Whedon and co-writer Zak Penn clearly define these roles within, perhaps, one of the best extended action sequences ever put to film, but they somehow do it organically, allowing the characters to develop and grow together as the world crumbles around them. While there’s never any fear that the Earth will actually be destroyed, there is nonetheless a reasonable question mark surrounding how six individuals–and three of them plain ol’ humans!–could possibly save it. Yet when it’s all said and done, nothing about the film’s conclusion or the way this team comes together feels false. In fact, the final set piece of The Avengers is probably Marvel’s best cinematic moment to date.

As I said, the film’s not perfect. There’s some awkward dialogue and squeaky exchanges. Mark Ruffalo is great, but it’s hard not to imagine Ed Norton being just as good (if not better). And for whatever reason, Samuel L. seems to be mailing this one in, which is a shame; Nick Fury could have been a fantastic character. But besides these smallish missteps–which we’ve frankly grown accustomed to in our summer movies anyway–The Avengers is a thoroughly successful achievement on a grand scale. It is well-written, well-acted, and breathtaking from a visual standpoint, but more than all that, it’s just a lot of fun. It’s the sort of film you want to watch over and over again, because of all the stuff you know you missed. And while Joss Whedon seems destined to always fly just a little under the radar, his name is going to get quite a bit more mileage than he’s used to in the coming months.

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