starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgard, Samuel L. Jackson, Gwyneth Paltrow
written by: Joss Whedon (story and screenplay), Zak Penn (story)
directed by: Joss Whedon
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, and a mild drug reference
As someone who’s repeatedly admitted my lack of knowledge or interest about the Marvel universe or any other comics-related franchise, I initially viewed The Avengers as an unholy amalgam of everything about summer movies that makes me feel unqualified to comment. What could be less fun that watching a movie about a comic book character you don’t know or care about? A movie about six characters you don’t know or care about! I was cautiously optimistic due to the involvement of geek god Joss Whedon, whose track record of utter commercial failure only strengthens his loser-hero reputation. It’s stunning that Marvel and Paramount even allowed this profit pariah onto the lot, let alone entrusted him to mastermind the whole indulgent mess.
Because, to be clear, the very concept behind The Avengers is the near-textbook definition of an indulgent mess. There is no intelligible reason why six separate superheroes with their own extensive mythologies — Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) — should be forced into a movie together. It is a gluttonous exercise by its very nature, kind of like when a TV network decides to do one of those nights where all four sitcoms in its 8-10pm lineup get mashed together into one line-blurring trip to Disneyland or Las Vegas. And while it’s hard not to get a kick from seeing characters you know from separate stories come together (one is almost tempted to introduce them), the plot and character arcs end up forgotten in the backseat in favor of easy fan titillation. So why bother?
Well, Joss Whedon has an answer: because it’s fun! It’s very, very, very fun! If there was ever any doubt, fans can take a deep breath and rest assured that Whedon gets it. He really gets it. He understands this kind of material from the inside out; he can tell a story that respects the legacy of each character while simultaneously standing outside of it enough to gently skewer it. He is like the anti-Christopher Nolan, never getting so bogged down in self-seriousness that he loses sight of the inherently goofy, silly nature of this fictitious universe, never forgetting that it is meant to be fun. If a movie had to be made of The Avengers, I can’t imagine a better steward than Whedon.
The story, such as it is, involves something called S.H.I.E.L.D., an international peace-keeping agency in which all these superheroes are apparently dues-paying members. When Loki (Tom Hiddleston, looking like Riff Raff from Rocky Horror as played by Michael Fassbender), the villainous brother of Thor, gets ahold of some powerful thing called a tesseract (“tesseract” is literally the second word in the entire movie; I was like, I’m not gonna understand one fucking word of this), the S.H.I.E.L.D. director, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), summons all the superheroes to come together and, you know, stop him. At first everyone is too busy bickering and trying to be the star to make any progress, but once they accept they’re more powerful as a team, the avenging commences.
It’s far from a fresh concept, but given the many ways such a hugely ambitious and star-powered undertaking could have backfired, it was smart of Whedon to create a broad enough framework for each player to have their fair share; it is nothing less than miraculous that he’s managed to make a film of The Avengers that doesn’t feel overly cluttered. This is partially due to its nearly 150-minute running time, but you won’t hear me complaining. The length isn’t because it’s overstuffed; it’s because the film needs to breathe. I’d rather watch a long movie that effectively tells its story than one that’s been cut all to shit to accommodate short attention spans and doesn’t make sense anymore. He also allows each character to make a memorable impression; this is by far the most successful cinematic outing for The Hulk thus far, and it isn’t surprising that the famously heroine-friendly Whedon gives Black Widow (such a throwaway in Iron Man 2) the attention she deserves. Renner’s Hawkeye registers the weakest, but maybe he’s just quiet.
And of course, this is also a very, very funny movie. Whedon’s self-referential dialogue jumps to a whole new level when the “self” being referenced is the geek scripture’s massively sacred Marvel canon. One can sense Whedon’s giddy excitement at being given license to put his spin on such iconic characters, to have his quips stream from their mouths. This is fanfic of the highest order. For those disappointed by the frequently mediocre nature of studio superhero movies but weary of Nolan’s funereal exercises in allegorical solemnity, Joss Whedon has found the perfect compromise of wit, thoughtfulness, and action.
The Avengers opens nationwide on May 4.