In a New York living room, sometime in the early 1970s, a young boy is sitting in front of his television (possibly watching an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus) and playing with plastic toy figures of Earth’s mightiest heroes. He smashes The Hulk into Thor, zooms Iron Man around at incredible speed and makes Captain America leap over an H.R. Pufnstuf doll. Because, you know, he’s got one of those too.
Forty some odd years later, that same little boy named Joss Whedon got a chance to slam those toys together again, and he achieved something that’s made up equally of the magic of childhood and the craftsmanship of a seasoned filmmaker.
It was an impossible dream, a crazy call-out to the far left field bleachers, but The Avengers is the best movie that Marvel has made.
The premise is uncomplicated, but maybe that’s only if you already know all the players involved. Loki (Tom Hiddleston), fresh from not actually being dead, breaks into a government lab and steals an all-powerful energy cube called The Tesseract along with a zombiefied Clint Barker (Jeremy Renner) and Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) to unwillingly aid him. His plan is to use it to open a portal to deep space to allow an alien race entry to destroy the planet, so Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) only move is to pull together an unenthusiastic team of Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth). Each have their own unique powers and issues to work through, but with the world at peril, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) call them from the field, and (in their own time) they answer.
In a way, the film is both a two-act movie and the sixth act in a much longer story. On that first front, the movie is dedicated almost wholly to bringing the team together in an organic way, a way that isn’t always smooth. There’s a bit of a lag to the beginning. It’s a lack of momentum that doesn’t match the urgency of stopping a mad man with an infinitely powerful tool, but it’s a fraction of the slowness that could have plagued the screen with so many main characters and egos involved. It’s a small price to pay for an impossible juggling act pulled off with grace and a boxing glove.
In other words, even if it doesn’t feel perfect, there was probably no way to do it better.
Even with that initial inertia, everything is still engaging. That’s due in part to a highly detailed universe as well as writing and acting that takes everything as seriously as it needs to be taken. Hiddleston shines here as more than a mustache-twirling villain – he’s a presence that’s somehow both scrawny and terrifying at the same time. There’s never a power deficit, never a moment of disbelief that this slight, disturbed demi-god isn’t an even match for a half dozen powerful opponents. He’s Hannibal Lecter with a horned helmet.
And our heroes shine too. Each does some skyscraper-sized heavy lifting, although it’s no surprise that Downey, Jr. is an attention vacuum whenever he’s on screen. He’s the brightest light in the room, and he remains the center of their universe until a giant green monster steals it for the rest of the film. What Whedon has smartly done with the script is to pair off characters whenever possible to give them a foil within the group and to make it easier to follow their own progressions. The duty-bound boy next door grating on the billionaire playboy; the time-bomb scientist questioning the eye-patched soldier’s intentions; a lightning-wielding legend trying to figure out what the hell any of the humans are talking about. They switch partners occasionally in the dance, but it’s always a case of stone sharpening stone (even if they have to give each other black eyes at every turn).
Against all odds, not only has Whedon built a movie that fairly treats at least seven leads, he’s done it while giving all of them character arcs and moments to grow whether it’s while swinging fists, facing the past or finding a cohesive bond. Not to mention side characters like Cobie Smulders‘s Agent Maria Hill and Skarsgard’s Dr. Selvig which feel effortlessly sewn into the film’s fabric.
The Avengers’ biggest achievement is probably in bringing the team together. Whedon didn’t make it easy, and the pay off is both triumphant and a shocking sign that the movie is playing for keeps. Yes, it’s a superhero movie. Yes, that involves some fun physics and a bit of ridiculousness. Yes, there are real consequences to war. The emotion-driven second act is a massive battle sequence worthy of the warriors. Made up of a cement-splitting pace and a breath-stealing element of danger, it contains explosive bits of humor that will stop pace makers and bombastic action that will start them back up again.
All that the little boy in 1970s New York was missing was a camera, so it’s a joy to see that he and DP Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, We Need to Talk About Kevin) have an immense amount of fun with the feel of it all. From a (fairly steady) shaky cam element struggling to capture the enormity of the alien ships descending on city blocks to crazy shots from inside a flipping taxi cab, there are miniature roller coasters embedded in a film that’s also very capably, classically shot.
On a flat note, the score from Alan Silvestri is a weak point, never truly building or bolstering but always passable. The same goes for the sound design which consists of a ton of explosions and gunfire but never moves past the basics to engage the energy of what’s on screen. Neither feel like essential elements. Neither feel unique to the movie either, especially a score that could be dropped into any big movie that comes out during the hot months.
There’s also the situation of a fairly sparsely populated zone of New York City where the movie needed to clear the streets quickly while tossing in a few reminders of the human lives at stake. It makes good production sense that there aren’t dead bodies lying around or thousands of extras constantly running and filling the area with more chaos, but while it doesn’t make the climactic battle seem empty by any stretch, it makes it feel less full.
Still, those are all nitpicks really.
It’s rare to think that a movie could not have existed without a particular director, but this is surely one of them. Without Whedon’s comic book background, ability to craft unique voices and spartan-like structuring ability, there’s no way that The Avengers would have turned out half as good as it did. Like a jazz musician constantly striving for more flavor, he managed to squeeze in small moments that spoke volumes in tight spaces and to cheer on each hero’s fantastic abilities and human flaws. He did all of this while sneaking in clever nods to Alien’s horror elements (think Black Widow being stalked in a corridor) and King Kong (think The Hulk, a tall building, and a bunch of flying machines).
To even imagine that pot sweeteners could exist in a movie that’s already made up of wish fulfillment seems crazy, but they made it happen. The result is a kitchen sink movie that doesn’t feel confused or messy. It’s a genuinely thrilling spectacle with just the right amount of depth, laughs, humanity and maybe a few more explosions for good measure.
Even as the sixth part in a series, there’s a general-enough action movie here for the casual audience that doesn’t care to see issue #43 for more details. Still, it’s appropriate that one of Whedon’s other film projects this year was a documentary on Comic-Con because this one is also firmly for the geeks. It’s a ticker tape parade of comic book cool, an uncynical celebration of old-fashioned heroism, a bold experiment that earns the ovation.
Somehow, Joss Whedon took the adventures that we all dreamed up while playing with plastic toys on the floor in front of the television and distilled them into a wondrous movie. Maybe, then, we’ve uncovered his super power.
The Upside: Thrilling action, rounded characters, high personal and global stakes, brilliant camera work, a tight script, strong acting and a hell of an adventure.
The Downside: A slow ignition to a rocket that eventually takes off, a good-but-not-great score and another million bucks was needed to CGI in more citizens in peril.
On the Side: The original cut of the movie was over 3 hours long, and everyone should want to see that cut too.