Friday, May 4, 2012

The Avengers

Well done Joss Whedon. Ensemble casts aren't always the easiest to deal with, especially when you've got stars of several franchises who all need to be showcased. Not only does the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer succeed in giving each hero their own moment to shine, but he crafts what is inarguably one of the best super-hero movies of all-time. I don't know if The Avengers is going to be the best movie of the summer, but if it's not I can't wait to see what could possibly top it.

One thing Whedon and the numerous special effects experts used on the film get just right is scale. From the first time we see the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier to the film's final battle (which can only be described as epic) the size and breadth of it are awe-inspiring. I viewed the film in IMAX 3D, and while I think a regular screening will still be quite good, the IMAX certainly helped sell the larger-than-life aspects of the script (which Buffy fans should be glad to hear is peppered with classic Whedon one-liners and humorous asides).

With each of the separate movies doing the heavy lifting in introducing the characters and origins of all the main characters on display here, Whedon is able to lightly remind us who each of them are and then jump full speed into the story.

The movie begins with Loki's theft of the Cosmic Cube from Project Pegasus which forces Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and the shadowy Cabinet to reinstate the scrapped Avengers Protocol. Fury recruits Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to recover the Cube and save the world. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) will join the team to help take down Loki who is planning to use the Cube to open a doorway and allow an alien army to ravage the Earth.

For a movie centered around character interactions that's really the entire plot in a nutshell. It's how the story unfolds, how each character is given time to breathe, that really makes it all work. Even the characters that Marvel has had trouble adapting on-screen in the past (namely the Hulk and Black Widow) are terrific here. Scarlett Johannson, who we saw flashes of in Iron Man 2, proves she's up to the role of a Russian assassin turned American spy and even steals a scene from the delightfully evil Tom Middleton.

Much of the discussion about the film will surround the Hulk. And well it should. After two films that each struggled in their own way with mixed success to showcase the character, The Avengers finally gets it right. I was skeptical when Ruffalo was hired for the role, but this version of Bruce Banner, and this version of the Hulk, is just what the film needs. Both as Banner and "the other guy" Ruffalo gives us some great scenes, including a couple of the film's funniest moments.

Each member of the ensemble gets their moment including minor characters such as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Fans of Gregg won't be disappointed seeing the normally cool Coulson get tongue-tied talking with Cap about his vintage trading card collection.

Even though I really liked it, I do have a few minor complaints about the film. In some of the larger fight sequences they're are a few too many of those garbled quick-cut shaky-cam action sequences I hate with a passion, but much of the action (including some early Avenger-on-Avenger action) looks terrific. We're also given a couple of Zack Snyder slow motions shots that I could have done without. (Thankfully they're kept to a minimum.)

Although Middleteon is once again terrific as Loki, the Chitauri (the invading alien army) come off as little more than CGI monsters who would be perfectly at home in The Mummy franchise. They certainly work well enough for what the story needs them to do, but in a film that puts character first in every other aspect of the movie the nameless horde and their flying dragon worm ships come up a little short. You know what? They do look great getting blasted out of the sky or Hulk smashed, though.

Even with these minor quibbles, The Avengers is exactly the summer super-hero movie we've been hoping to see ever since Marvel Studios started teasing us with the idea years ago. This is a big win for director Joss Whedon and the House of Ideas. Get your friends together and assemble at your local theater (in IMAX 3D, if possible).

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