I’ve reviewed seasons 4-7 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (as well as the entirety of the canonical season 8 in graphic novel form). I’ve pontificated on the brilliance of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. I’m currently in the process of reviewing Angel. Give it time and I will review Firefly and Dollhouse. I’m a Joss Whedon believer. I’m also a huge comic book fan. I’ve reviewed some graphic novels here and there (though lately I’ve been on a manga kick), and obviously, I’ve taken on a super hero movie or two. So, when I found out that Joss Whedon (who I put in the same league as TV luminaries like Steven Moffat, Damon Lindelof, and Carlton Cuse) was going to be helming the long-rumored and long-labored live-action adaptation of The Avengers, I was obviously excited. Over 7 seasons of Buffy, 5 seasons of Angel, and shorter (but not less brilliant) tenures with other programs, Joss Whedon earned his crown as the king of American “popcorn science fiction/fantasy” storytelling (Lindelof and Cuse are ultimately a little more serious and cerebral though Whedon’s best moments match theirs). Much like Steven Moffat has redefined what was possible with the decades long story of Doctor Who under his tenure as the showrunner, Joss Whedon set virtually all of the precedents for modern, serialized sci-fi storytelling with Buffy and Angel. If anyone was going to be able to make The Avengers work, it was him (or Christopher Nolan though his version would have been intensely dark). So, after three weeks of waiting to see the film so that I could see it with my dad and sister after returning to WV from NYC, I’ve finally seen The Avengers. It matched my expectations and more to make one of the best superhero films yet.
While the story is admittedly threadbare and mostly serves as an excuse for Joss Whedon to explore the power dynamics among this group of extraordinary (and broken) heroes as well as set up one explosive set piece after another (which makes my mouth salivate over what he could have accomplished with his TV shows had he had network support), it more than accomplishes what it needs in order to propel this thrilling film from its beginning to its impossible to overstate as epic end. Covert government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. is studying an extradimensional object known as the Tesseract (am I the only one who immediately thought of A Wrinkle in Time?) which could be the key to sustainable, unlimited clean energy when their secret government facility is attacked by Loki (War Horse‘s Tom Hiddleston), the brother of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who is on an attempt to subjugate the Earth with the help of an alien species called the Chitauri. After Loki steals the Tesseract (and corrupts Hawkeye (The Hurt Locker’s Jeremy Renner) and others into his brainwashed slaves), S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Pulp Fiction‘s Samuel L. Jackson) is forced to call together Earth’s mightiest heroes to defend the planet from an imminent and apocalyptic invasion. But when your group includes the billionaire playboy Tony Stark/Iron Man (Two Girls and a Guy‘s Robert Downey Jr.), super soldier Steve Rogers/Captain American (Chris Evans) who’s spent the last 70 years frozen in ice, former Russian spy Natasha Romanov/Black Widow (Lost in Translation’s Scarlet Johansson), tempermental god Thor, and reclusive scientist/unstoppable force of destruction Bruce Banner/The Hulk (The Kids Are All Right‘s Mark Ruffalo), it’s a given that just getting these guys to work together is going to be as monumental a task as defeating the supernatural forces ready to destroy Earth.
The pedigree of the actors in this film should speak volumes about how well-acted it is (along with Joss Whedon’s natural ability to really bring out the chemistry in his stars). There are four Academy Award nominees in the cast (Robert Downey Jr. for Chaplin and Tropic Thunder, Sam Jackson for Pulp Fiction, Mark Ruffalo for The Kids Are All Right, and Jeremy Renner for The Hurt Locker), one Academy Award winner (Gwyneth Paltrow for Shakespeare in Love), two BAFTA winners (Scarlet Johansson for Lost in Translation and Sam Jackson), and they’ve all got a plethora of other industry awards under their belts. You’d think with this much talent in one film that there wouldn’t be enough for every one to do, but you’d be wrong. While there are a ton of huge action sequences in this film, the reason why The Avengers has become such a critical success (and at least partially why it’s been such a commercial success) is that Whedon figured out the best way to bring out through the script and the actors both the highs and lows of these characters and how to best make them clash and bounce off each other. Fans of the comics know that Iron Man and Captain America aren’t crazy about one another and putting Robert Downey Jr.’s glib anti-hero alongside the almost Superman-esque innocence and idealism of Cap makes for some of the film’s best moments. Similarly, Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner (which was my second favorite casting decision of the film) shows a man who always seems like he’s on the verge of finally losing it and Ruffalo captures both the intensity and anger of Bruce Banner along side his intelligence. I could go on all day about the scenes where Robert Downey Jr. trying to get under specific characters skins were brilliant, but there was a wonderful chemistry between the two brains of the group with him and Mark Ruffalo to off-set the heavy-handed violence the film wasn’t afraid to employ. However, the best part of the cast was easily Tom Hiddleston. He was the only redeeming aspect of Thor, and once again, he stole the whole damn show again. I still think his costume is just about the dumbest looking costume in the history of superhero movies, but Tom Hiddleston was just deliciously evil.
From a script perspective, the movie was pure Joss Whedon and contained all of the touchstones of his television programs. A minor but well-beloved character dies in a brutal and unexpected way. Dark comedy is intermixed in even the most dramatic moments. Seriously, this film could be laugh out loud funny at times (mostly involving Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Hemsworth). There’s a never-ending stream of pop-culture references. You’ve got a female character who kicks nearly as much ass as the men (especially considering that she doesn’t have any superpowers whatsoever or even a gimmick like Hawkeye’s archery). You’ve got a massive ensemble piece that explores the power dynamics between wildly different and almost inherently incompatible people. You have a story about what it means to be a hero and the meaning of sacrifice and service. The film may not be especially complicated from a plot perspective (it basically chugs around to exactly where you think it’s going to go), but thematically, Whedon hit a home run. Super hero movies whose names aren’t Watchmen (or the Christopher Nolan Batman films) are supposed to be fun, escapist fantasy, and Whedon delivers everything you’d expect from a stunning summer blockbuster, but he also fills the film with more brains, humor, and heart than any superhero film in years .
Still, all of my plaudits about Whedon’s script and his sense of humor and his encyclopedic knowledge of American pop culture would be for naught if Whedon didn’t deliver the spectacle that you’ve come to expect from your superhero movies, and to say that The Avengers is probably the most epic superhero film of all time would be the understatement of the century. There are action sequences in this film that rival some of the greatest movie battle scenes of all time. Whether we’re talking the final fight in Avatar or the Battle for Zion in Matrix Revolutions, this film’s final fights in, above, and around the streets of Manhattan has the potential to outshine them all. It was a special effects extravaganza, but with that sense of choreography and urgency that only Whedon could really deliver. There’s not a wasted explosion or a wasted second of that scene. In some way, it propels the story, speaks a little bit about the resourcefulness and strength (or weaknesses of our heroes) or just gives an excuse for Whedon to show that he was the master of intelligent action programming back in his hay day. The film has a handful of absolutely massive set-pieces and for those who grow tired of the Transformers-esque Hollywood machine of explosions with no substance, let’s just say that Whedon avoids the pitfalls of having a massive budget and wasting it on fluff. There’s a genius to these action sequences, and anyone who saw Serenity knows Whedon was going to be able to deliver.
Considering all of the negative press that Peter Jackson’s decision to film The Hobbit in 48 fps (instead of the usual 24 fps) has received as well as Christopher Nolan’s decision to put Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises, I don’t think it’s a stretch that The Avengers will come to be known as the event film of 2012. Since it broke the opening weekend record (and the second weekend record) and is tied for the fastest film to ever make $1 billion, it shouldn’t suprise anyone when The Avengers winds up being one of the top three grossing films of all time (it’s been out three weeks now and is already at sixth place). For Joss Whedon fans, this is an affirmation of everything we’ve always known about our beloved hero, and while it won’t bring back prematurely canceled brilliant programs like Firefly, it does let us know that if Whedon ever decides to make another TV program in the future, maybe it will finally have the audience it needs to survive. While I almost wish that there had been a more cerebral nature to the plot, I can’t fault Whedon for trying to make the film as accessible as possible, and if this is the moment that finally catapults Whedon out of “cult” status and into the mainstream, I must tip my hat to one of my favorite pop-culture figures of the last twenty years.
Final Score: A-