One sentence synopsis: Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and Captain America must team up to stop Loki and save the world.
Things Havoc liked: This is it. The payoff. The final countdown. This is where Marvel, having begun this franchise of films four years ago with Iron Man, and having built up the tension through Thor and Captain America and Iron Man 2, finally had to cash in their chips. This is where all the plot threads, all the characterization, all the implied awesomeness that we've been promised for five years was supposed to finally deliver. And despite the excellence of the other constituent movies in this amazing series, there remained an unanswered question. Could Marvel, having promised so much, actually make good?
Frankly, I need to stop asking that question.
The Avengers is a masterpiece. A glorious, artfully-designed masterpiece, filled with writing, acting, and spectacle of the highest quality. It encompasses the individual strengths that made all of its predecessors great, and melds them together seamlessly to produce something truly special. Written and directed by Joss Whedon (of Firefly, Serenity, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and most recently, Cabin in the Woods), this film should, if anything ever can, silence his many critics once and for all. If not before, Whedon has finally delivered the magnum opus that many in the nerd community long suspected him capable of producing, and has, at least in my mind, catapulted himself into the ranks of such modern filmmakers as Chris Nolan and Peter Jackson.
I've waxed eloquently about these characters and actors before in their constituent movies, and to attempt to do so here would result in three pages of me gushing like a waterspout over the transcendent brilliance of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. His portrayal of my favorite comic book character of all time is, as it was in Iron Man and Iron Man 2, absolutely flawless, and Joss Whedon's trademark dialogue only serves to sharpen the character still further into a biting, acerbic genius with a buried streak of responsibility he is never quite able to completely hide. I stated in my review of Captain America that Chris Evans' performance, while excellent, was a bit unpolished for my taste, in that the character, still forming in WWII, was not yet the Cap I knew and loved. All such objections are negated here, as Evans plays, if anything, an even better Captain America than he did previously, an anachronistic, world-weary hero who nonetheless rises effortlessly to the occasion from his core of grit and iron. Chris Hemsworth's Thor has come full circle from his movie, and matured into a sobered, yet still properly viking thundergod, whose confrontation with Loki, his younger brother and arch-nemesis, now takes on an hints of the Shakespearean tragedy we were promised initially. Loki himself has darkened significantly from his incarnation in Thor (as is only appropriate), giving in to megalomaniacal dreams of conquest and rule. Yet for all his bluster and rage, when he confronts his brother in combat, he weeps.
New to the franchise is Mark Ruffalo, though his character, the Hulk, is unfortunately not. Hulk has had a bad run in film for the last decade or so, and actors as varied as Edward Norton and Eric Bana have tried and failed to portray him well. Where they failed, Ruffalo succeeds. He plays Bruce Banner exactly as he should, a man who has been living with his condition now for some time, and who has evolved effective, though not foolproof, means to manage it. Ruffalo doesn't play Banner as a shrinking violet, nor as a cannon waiting to explode, yet the undercurrent of menace is always there, and when he becomes the Hulk, the result can be absolutely terrifying. Hulk was never a favorite of mine in the comics, and yet watching this film, I at last began to understand why so many liked the character so much, and what it was that set him apart from all the other superheroes in the Marvel universe. The raw, unfettered rage of the Hulk comes across here as clear as day, and in a film packed this tightly with action, character, and superheroics, that is not a statement to be made lightly.
Also new (or at least elevated beyond their previous cameo status) are Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Both of these characters are variations on the Jason Bourne theme of ultra-badass spy/soldier, providing an interesting sense of scale for the more outlandish heroes (and gods) that they are paired with. I've been a fan of Renner's since the Hurt Locker, and this movie exemplifies why, as he gives Hawkeye an icy, professional mien that, while not groundbreaking, provides an intriguing contrast to the larger-than-life archetypes that surround him. Johansson plays her character in much the same vein, though she has more of a role to flesh it out in, and while there is clearly much that she has done that she isn't proud of, she doesn't deal with that guilt or pressure the way one normally sees movie heroines dealing with it. The scenes with Renner and Johansson together (as the token normal-if-badass humans in this fantastical parade of demigods and robot warriors) are very good, as we get a pair of people who have clearly been through a lot together. Best of all, the movie lets their relationship remain mostly unstated, without ever once hinting towards a romantic one. This may actually be unheard of for a superhero movie with a female lead, and I appreciated it.
But as with all of Marvel's recent hits, it is the writing, and beyond that, the pacing of the film that really elevates it into the next dimension. A long film (more than two and a half hours), Avengers wastes none of its runtime, barely pausing to orient new viewers before launching into its tale. With six major and a slew of minor characters to establish and show off, Avengers simply has no time to waste, and does not. The writing is snappy and distinctive for each character, with very few expo-dumps and a varied (though generally fast-paced) tempo to the many dialogue sequences. Joss Whedon has a distinctive "style" to his writing, but Avengers bears his mark somewhat less obviously than Cabin in the Woods did. This is a film that knows that its characters well, and respects the lengthy comic, television, and film history behind them, and Whedon manages to make every character sound like themselves, rather than like him.
Finally, the spectacle of the film itself is simply gorgeous. Enormous, elaborate fight sequences are crafted with such care and discretion that it melts into the background of one's consciousness. No shaky-cam, no tilt-camera, not even much in the way of slow-mo-speed-up (only one shot I can think of, and that one definitely warranted). The action is front-and-center and shot in such a way that the characterization of each character (forgive me) shines through, even when they are beating people with fist and shield and hammer. Every character is given time in and out of battle to both establish themselves and be awesome, leaving us with a sense, moreso than any other team-hero movie I've ever seen, that this is actually a team of individually awesome, interesting badasses. Thinking back on the achievement, and how easy Whedon makes it look, I'm filled with something like awe.
Things Havoc disliked: Of course, the film isn't perfect. There are a couple occasions when Whedon's tendency towards snarky one-liners misfires (usually because of timing problems). One of the secondary characters (played by Cobie Smulders, I think her name was Agent Hill) is a bit below the others in terms of performances, and does drag some of her scenes down, and there were a couple sequences (Loki's confrontation with the lone elderly German dude in Stutgart, and Fury's speech about teamwork) that I thought were blocked out a bit too obviously. Neither sequence lasts more than about ten seconds, but in a film of this overall quality, it did stand out. There were also occasions when the CG-real footage transition was a bit obvious, particularly in the climactic action sequence, though none where it was immersion-breaking.
I was also somewhat disappointed with Loki. His character was a revelation in Thor, and remains so here, a villain with a real motivation and arc to his character. But though the film does give Loki room to breathe, there isn't enough room here to really continue the arc that was initiated in that previous film. His interactions with Thor are excellent, and carry over the thematic elements that Loki previously embodied, but the movie just isn't able to push them forward at all, instead turning him into a megalomaniacal would-be dictator. Granted, he suits the movie just fine as this, but I was hoping for a little more nuance.
Finally, I had a few problems with Scarlett Johansson in this one. It's not that she's bad, far from it, but there were scenes (her expositional talk with Loki for instance) that I just didn't buy. It didn't help that, playing a Russian spy who describes herself in those terms, she has no trace whatsoever of a Russian accent (Others have pointed out that a good spy would have no accent, and I acknowledge this, but it still jarred).
Final thoughts: I don't think I'm likely to turn many heads with this review, as at time-of-writing, The Avengers is busy shattering every box office record ever produced, earning accolades from almost every reviewer online or off. I can do nothing in this case but add my voice to the collective. The Avengers was a triumph in almost every respect, a film that took my nervous expectations for it, set them gently to one side, and then showed me something great. It exceeds the bar set by Iron Man, by Thor, by Captain America, and places itself in the stratosphere of the greatest comic book films in existence. To speak of The Avengers in the same breath as the Dark Knight is not heresy.
Welcome to Blockbuster season. May it be blessed with such films as this one.
Final Score: 9/10