Movie review: Amazing 'Avengers' goes above and beyond comic book fans' expectations


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If you're the bearer of a "Y" chromosome, don't go into "Marvel's The Avengers" expecting to be bored for even a second. It won't happen. The rare fanboy silly enough to take a date to this film will be so preoccupied with the spectacle of superhero bonding, dysfunction and destruction unfurling on the screen that it might as well be the Invisible Woman sitting in the seat next to him.


'Marvel's The Avengers'

3.5 stars = Very Good
Ratings explained
  • Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hiddleston, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner.
  • Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, and a mild drug reference.

Let's cut to the chase: "Marvel's The Avengers" is the movie comic book fans have been curled up in their parents' basements fantasizing about for half a century. A string of recent solo summer movies featuring several of Marvel's most iconic characters have primed the pump for a film bringing them all together that could surpass $500 million in worldwide ticket sales by the weekend.

Last year, we met the World War II-era super soldier Captain America (Chris Evans) and the arrogant Norse thunder god Thor (Chris Hemsworth). Previous to that, there were two movies featuring billionaire narcissist-turned-superhero Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.).

In "Marvel's The Avengers," Mark Ruffalo has made the role of the Hulk's alter ego Bruce Banner his own after Edward Norton and Eric Bana played the tortured scientist in two critically panned and commercially disappointing films. The Avengers' roster is rounded out by the ultimate archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), both of whom had cameos in "Thor."

In the previous films, most of these prickly but powerful characters were recruited by Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury, the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., and his loyal subordinate Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) for a mysterious project called The Avengers Initiative.

The gathering of these disparate heroes and rogues is the culmination of Nick Fury's scheming. By the time he's gathered an American hero, a reformed arms dealer, a brooding god, a potential "rage monster" and the world's deadliest spy in the same conference room, the clash of egos threatens to do as much damage as the alien armada waiting in the wings.

Much of the mayhem is orchestrated by Thor's evil brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), a god with a persecution complex and a lust for a new world order based on the reintroduction of blind worship by humans. Loki and Thor have issues between them that wouldn't interest the other characters in the slightest if it didn't involve the potential for Earth's annihilation by marauders from another dimension.

Also hanging in the balance is the fate of the Cosmic Cube, a weapon of boundless power that Cap fought over in last summer's "Captain America: The First Avenger."

Although all of the characters have moments of introspection and self-doubt, "Marvel's The Avengers" is mostly a master class in smashing things and striving for cleverness while doing so. This approach has its purest expression in an exchange Cap has with Iron Man in the middle of a key battle. "We need a plan of attack," the pragmatic Captain America yells at his impetuous ally. "I have a plan," Iron Man says in response: "Attack!" Those who may have worried about the CGI for the Hulk, have no fear. Hulk is able to smash things while exuding an actual personality. Some would say he even steals the movie in one hilarious, but headache-inducing scene with Mr. Hiddleston, the film's hardest working actor.

To say more than this would be to flirt with revealing too many plot points important to longtime fans. Director Joss Whedon has a well-earned reputation as an auteur who understands the dynamics of a good story, fantastic dialogue and the primal need for old-fashioned ass kicking to maintain narrative forward movement and balance. He's also familiar with the heroes that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created half a century ago when cynicism and optimism wrestled for the soul of popular culture. He has the good sense to layer "Marvel's The Avengers" with humorous interludes that reveal character and advance the story.

The film ultimately works because Mr. Whedon remained true to the pulpy source material that Lee & Kirby stirred to perfection in those early years when JFK was president. He understands that the Avengers was conceived as the antithesis of the incorruptible superhero pantheon at rival D.C. Comics, a company that embraced the conformist ethos of the 1950s.

In contrast, Marvel was the countercultural home of misfits like Lee & Kirby. It was a place where Ayn Rand-inspired iconoclasts like Steve Ditko, the co-creator of Spider-Man, had creative freedom. The weirdness and combustibility of the creators and their characters turned tiny Marvel Comics into the industry leader within a decade.

While the Justice League featuring Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman embodied truth, justice and the American way, the Avengers was a group of dysfunctional loners who didn't reveal their secret identities even to each other for years. In fact, the classic Avengers lineup of Thor, Iron Man and Captain America didn't last long. The Hulk quit the Avengers in the first issue of the long-running series. There were bad vibes all around. The sense of youthful angst was exceeded only in Spider-Man and X-Men comics.

In either 2013 or 2014, the Justice League movie will hit the big screen and suffer unflattering comparisons to "Marvel's The Avengers" even though those once establishment-friendly superheroes will be equally dysfunctional to fit the audience's mood. Still, topping the pure adrenalized joy of the Avengers fighting aliens in the skyscraper canyons of Manhattan while occasionally smacking each other around won't be easy, especially if a director as talented as Mr. Whedon isn't at the helm.

"Marvel's The Avengers" is not a masterpiece of filmmaking. It is full of narrative holes and irritating plot inconsistencies -- especially those involving Banner/the Hulk that would have doomed a less competent filmmaker. Still, its problems don't amount to much more than stylistic speed bumps on the road to scoring the kind of box office knockout summer movies are, unfortunately, all about.

As is the tradition of films featuring Marvel characters, the story continues through the end credits with two bonus scenes. This is where it will be crucial to have a fanboy tagging along who can correctly interpret the orgasmic squeals that will erupt in the theater once the next installment's villain is revealed.

moviereviews

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631. First Published May 4, 2012 1:45 PM


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