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Marvel's The Avengers
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Whedon Takes The Initiative"
4 stars

Even though it is still early enough in the year for many people to continue to deploy overcoats as part of a sensible daily wardrobe and for most fans of the Chicago Cubs to convince themselves that things will get better soon, Hollywood has decided that the first weekend of May is now the official start of summer, at least from a cinematic perspective. To commemorate this, the season generally kicks off with an eagerly-awaited blockbuster, usually of the action-fantasy variety, to start things off with a bang and in the last couple of years, that leadoff spot has been filled by a superhero epic featuring eccentrically-dressed people bashing the crap out of each other while zillions of dollars worth of property is reduced to CGI rubble around them. This is great news for those with an intense devotion to comic book creations but for those whose knowledge of that particular subculture extends only to a basic awareness of such top-level properties as Batman, Superman and Spider Man, the recent glut of superhero movies has begun to grow a bit tiresome, especially since most of them seem to be telling the same basic story in the same basic manner without offering them anything that they might find of interest. This year, summer begins with "The Avengers," the long-awaited epic that offers up an entire array of Marvel superheroes--most of whom are currently maintaining their own franchises--joining forces to battle a super-powerful enemy hell-bent on destroying mankind. For the fanboy contingent, this will no doubt seem like heaven on a multiplex screen but the surprising thing about the film is that it has been made with enough wit and style to keep viewers of all stripes entertained, even if they have never cracked open a comic book before in their lives.

For those of you who still picture Patrick MacNee and Diana Rigg (or, to a much lesser extent, Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman) whenever you hear the name "The Avengers," it is actually in reference to comic book series created by icons Stan Lee & Jack Kirby in 1963 that featured a rotating cast of characters from the Marvel Comics universe banding together to combat evil and other stuff. (At this point, I must once again remind viewers that I am not a comic book person at all and that if you are looking for a detailed examination of the nuances of every single character, you had best look somewhere else.) Heading up the group this time around is Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), the billionaire playboy industrialist who, in between drunken bon mots, regularly saves the world as Iron Man. Next up is Captain America (Chris Evans), the true-blue WW II hero who has recently been thawed out of a deep freeze and put back into commission to protect an America that he hardly seems to recognize. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is, of course, a demigod from another world who speaks softly and carries a big hammer. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is a spy/assassin whose super-ability appears to be dressing ways that assure that her victims will at least die with smiles on their faces. The wild card of the group is Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffallo), a.k.a. the Incredible Hulk, whose rage and sheer power could prove to be a valuable asset to the group as long as they can be properly harnessed. Keeping an eye--just one--one the group is Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the key operative from the shadowy group known as S.H.I.E.L.D. who has assembled the group in order to deploy them when the stakes are high enough and only one superhero simply won't do.

That is certainly the case when experiments involving the Tesseract--a mysterious and all-powerful alien energy source that also serves as a portal to other dimensions. Alas, that door swings both ways and who should turn up but Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the Norse god and adopted brother of Thor who was put into exile after trying to mess up things on Earth a year earlier in adventures chronicles in "Thor." (Oh yeah--while watching all of the previous cinematic incarnations of these characters is not necessarily required, it is probably recommended as a way of keeping all the characters and their backstories somewhat straight in your mind.) Still pissed off with both his brother and the planet, he steals the Tesseract and brainwashes and kidnaps a couple of key operatives--scientist Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and S.H.I.E.L.D. operative Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), known as Hawkeye because of his Katniss-like abilities with a bow and arrow (and, to a much lesser extent, his immaculate Alan Alda impression)--to help him make his getaway and implement his masterful plan for world domination. The gang manages to round him up with surprising ease and bring him and the Tesseract back to the giant invisible airship commanded by Fury but the whole thing turns out to be a trap designed by Loki to cripple the group by exploiting inter-group tensions and forcing them to confront why the government is so eager to get their hands on the Tesseract themselves. Of course, not even complications like these are enough to keep the superhero equivalent of the Traveling Wilburys down and after the appropriate amount of soul searching and what not, they pull together to do battle in the the streets and above the skyline of New York against Loki and the nasty aliens that he has employed to assist him in his attempted decimation of the planet.

Outside of the multiple hero conceit, the basic plot of "The Avengers" may seem like another wearying case of deja vu to viewers who come into the proceedings without any sort of vested interest in the genre. Since the majority of these comic book-inspired epics do have a tendency to follow narrative parameters slightly less flexible than the Stations of the Cross, any such film hoping to break free of the pack needs a certain unexpected element that will give the proceedings a sense of freshness--things like the off-kilter Robert Downey Jr. performance in "Iron Man" or the surprisingly and unexpectedly lovely art-house trappings that Ang Lee inserted into his wildly misunderstood "Hulk." Luckily, director/co-writer Joss Whedon realizes that and while he doesn't use the occasion to tear things up as he did with the horror genre via the likes of the TV incarnation of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" or the instant cult classic "The Cabin in the Woods"--when budgets start heading to the stratospheric levels enjoyed by a project like this, audaciousness tends to take a back seat to a certain degree of bet-hedging on the part of the producers--he nevertheless brings far more of a sense of real personality to the proceedings that puts most other recent films of its type to shame. For example, Whedon and co-writer Zak Penn have found an approach to the material that is lighter and goofier than might normally be found without ever letting it tip over into the kind of cartoonishness that marked such disasters as the Joel Schumacher "Batman" films, "Superman III" or last summer's "Green Lantern." This proper sense of balance is best exemplified in the scenes that are predicated more on the interaction of its platoon of heroes than on the deployment of special effects. In theory, placing the cynical Tony Stark, the idealistic Steve Rogers, the suffering Bruce Banner, the demigod Thor and the others might seem like too much of a good thing at best and a recipe for disaster at worst--especially since several of those characters have lacked enough personality to maintain their own individual stories--but the screenplay knows how to allow their wildly differing characterizations to bounce off of each other in amusing and interesting ways to such a degree that this is one of the rare superhero movies in which the scenes featuring the characters talking are often more interesting and entertaining than the big action beats. That said, those action scenes are staged in a manner that puts the sights offered up by their blockbuster brethren to shame--the difference between the graceless pummelings on display in the "Transformers" films and the stylish and cohesive set-pieces on display here is so startling that uber-hacks like Michael Bay and McG should hang their heads in shame at the sight of what Whedon has accomplished here.

However, perhaps the most surprising thing about "The Avengers" is that Joss Whedon has managed to somehow overcome the curse that had seemingly been placed on the Hulk that has seemingly dogged previous attempts to bring the hugely popular character to the screen. One of the key problems with bringing him to the screen is that he, at least in the form of Bruce Banner, is essentially a joyless character whose extraordinary powers are tied directly to his painful emotional distress and while that is an intriguing dramatic concept, it doesn't quite play very well in the context of a summer blockbuster. The 2003 Ang Lee film boldly wrestled with this very concept within the context of the usual escapades but while the end result was a beauty of a film, it proved to be a little too art-house for the multiplex crowd and the backlash quicjly set in. A few years later, Marvel tried to reboot the entire thing with a new cast and new approach but "The Incredible Hulk" tried so hard to satisfy only the sensation junkies that it wound up being an eminently forgettable bore. This time around, in the form of Mark Ruffalo (taking over for Eric Bana and Edward Norton), Whedon has found both the proper take on the character--introspective but not too brooding--and the proper performer as well. In human form, Ruffalo is more engaging than he has been in a while and he plays beautifully off of central foil Downey in their scenes together. In his green-skinned incarnation, Hulk not only is at the center of some of the most impressive action bits but he actually scores the two biggest laughs to be had in the entire film. Thanks to a screenplay and an actor that understand a character that is more complex than most people think, audiences may find themselves unexpectedly coming out of "The Avengers" with a taste for both "The Avengers 2" and a new Hulk film.

When "The Avengers" is good, it is really, really good but it is uneven at times and those hiccups prove to be a source of enormous frustration at certain times--if Whedon & Co. could make everything else work so well, why couldn't they fix these parts as well? As it turns out, a lot of the problems are the same ones that crop up in most films of this type--the chief villain simply isn't that interesting (which we already knew from his appearance in last summer''s "Thor"), the nuts and bolts of his plot for world domination is a bit of a bore and at 140+ minutes, it does begin to drag on after a while and bogs downs in the middle. Additionally, while the money Avengers all get plenty of screen time and carefully delineated narrative arcs, the lesser ones are given shorter shrift--Hawkeye has some kind of backstory with Black Widow that probably resonates with comic book fanatics but which will leave newcomers somewhat bewildered--and both Scarlett Johansson and Cobie Smulders (the latter playing another S.H.I.E.L.D. agent) have little to do for the most part other than to stand around in borderline-fetishy outfits and look super-hot. For myself, the biggest flaw in the film is its extended climactic battle throughout New York. Yes, it is wonderfully staged and everything but the simple fact of the matter is that this is yet another superhero spectacular ending with a sequence featuring eccentrically-dressed people bashing the crap out of each other while zillions of dollars worth of property is reduced to CGI rubble around them. Again, this is as well-done as you will ever see it but I have to admit that I was hoping that Whedon would find a slightly more creative way to wrap up a story that had already taken great pains to not simply serve audiences more of the same old stuff.

This is a serious problem but while it does prevent me from celebrating "The Avengers" as much as some of my colleagues have been doing, it does not keep me from recognizing it as a good-to-excellent entertainment in its own right. Let us assume that when ranking all the superhero movies, there is a top tier consisting of the first "Superman," the two Christopher Nolan "Dark Knight" films, "Spider Man 2" and maybe a couple of wild cards like "The Rocketeer" and "Hulk"--all brilliant and enormously entertaining works of cinema that will thrill viewers of all stripes. Then there is a second level that includes "Superman II," the Tim Burton "Batman" films, the last "X-Men" epic and the first "Iron Man"--all solid films that nevertheless lack that final spark that separates the good from the great. (After that comes all the rest and I will leave the parsing and ranking of those to others.) "The Avengers" fits neatly into that second tier, though I am certain that most buffs of this particular sub-genre will have no problem ranking it higher. It is a better film than one might have normally expected, it has been made with a lot of skill, intelligence and humor and if it does have its share of flaws, they are the kind that can easily be eradicated in future installments, especially if the team that made this one can somehow be kept together. In other words, "The Avengers" is a blast for fanboys and neophytes alike that will leave practically all of them salivating at the prospect of a follow-up film or two.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=20594&reviewer=389
originally posted: 05/02/12 13:44:12
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Marvel Characters: For more in the Marvel Characters series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/11/19 Scuderie Trafficone fa cagare il cazzo 1 stars
6/16/19 Jimmie T. Murakami The most a history astonishingly incredible movie of all-time. 5 stars
10/29/16 morris campbell over stuffed but entertaining & exciting 4 stars
5/11/15 Christian Paulson Winner winner, shawarma dinner! 5 stars
3/10/15 Nik Does anyone remember what those aliens were called? 2 stars
10/01/14 Horror Lover 4.5 stars One of the best comic book and popcorn movies in a long time. 5 stars
9/02/14 Jeff Corny and stupid "fun" 1 stars
7/30/14 turner Whedon is overrated. Terrible TV Director 1 stars
9/18/13 Ionicera standard superhero movie, slightly overrated 3 stars
4/08/13 dr.lao One of the few things in this world that actually lives up to the hype! 5 stars
3/06/13 Kurt It's loud 3 stars
1/31/13 Charles Tatum Often corny, but big and entertaining. 4 stars
12/05/12 Jason Smart, funny, entertaining, and powerfully acted, this movie was a captivating success. 5 stars
12/01/12 Aaron More holes in plot than swiss cheese, even for SH movie 2 stars
9/22/12 D This movie is completely forgettable escapism. 2 stars
9/18/12 Gabrielle Barnard This movie has uncommonly witty dialogue. Everyone in the theater was laughing aloud. 5 stars
9/07/12 Jes Mediocre kids film, good for adults who are at the level of 5 year olds though 2 stars
8/04/12 Billy why superheroes? 1 stars
7/20/12 Sean Harrison The best superhero movie since the Dark Knight. 5 stars
7/01/12 Orlando An fantastic film, The Avengers is the best comic book film i have seen 5 stars
6/19/12 Jordan Kentris Such an amazing mix of talent. This movie was captivating, entertaining and totally rocked! 5 stars
5/27/12 Mattomic Loved it. Fantastic job. Finally, the Hulk done right! 5 stars
5/16/12 Geraldine The perfect summer blockbuster. Exciting and funny with a lot of heart. 5 stars
5/15/12 puddleduck The most fun to hit the screen since Raiders Of The Lost Ark 5 stars
5/15/12 Kimberly Brown The Avengers was amazing, Whedon did a dope job! 5 stars
5/14/12 Marty Big undertaking but fun action w cool heroes all together. not deep tho, just fun. 4 stars
5/10/12 Travis BEST.....MOVIE.....EVER! 5 stars
5/10/12 davofern Absolutely sensational ! 5 stars
5/09/12 Phillip D See it! 5 stars
5/09/12 damalc new favorite superhero movie 5 stars
5/08/12 Jimmy Web Very Cool 5 stars
5/07/12 KingNeutron So many explosions, I thought Michael Bay directed it! +1 :) 5 stars
5/07/12 Toni Peluso Awesome. The dialog made the movie! 5 stars
5/06/12 The Big D Thor's the best character; he saves it from corny jokes, cheesy banter, and overdone SPFX. 3 stars
5/06/12 Koitus Very well done. A notch below "The Dark Knight," though. 5 stars
5/06/12 Adam Myles Can't wait to see this movie! 5 stars
5/06/12 Nate Stalker The perfect mixture of action, humor and interaction, topped off with outstanding CGI. 5 stars
5/06/12 Dan Not typical a friend of pop culture/mass media stuff, but this was just awesome. Good CGI. 5 stars
5/05/12 GLC Excellently done. Great characterizations and interplay. 5 stars
5/05/12 /// one of the best superhero films ever, even better than x-men 5 stars
5/04/12 mr.mike It was good. I did not do handsprings upon leaving the theatre. 4 stars
5/04/12 Darkstar Best comic movie so far. Liked it better than The Dark Knight. 5 stars
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  04-May-2012 (PG-13)
  DVD: 25-Sep-2012


  DVD: 25-Sep-2012

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