Movie Review: The Avengers

Could this be the best comic book movie ever?

In jockeying for position at the forefront of the comic book/superhero movie genre, both major comic houses (DC and Marvel) have had their share of risky ventures. The number of times the Batman universe has been rebooted pales only in comparison to the number of times a potentially great mutant film has had to risk ruin in the Marvel universe. Add to that mix the split between the Fox productions (principally X-Men) and the everybody else productions, and you have the makings of a real basis for comparison. Considering the string of so-so action from Marvel films, including some very forgettable Fantastic Four films, two Hulk movies (one dull as dirt, the other almost OK), a Thor movie that was pretty good (except for when it wasn’t), and some slightly weirdish reboots to the X-Men universe (like, say, Deadpool or Liev Schreiber), it’s a wonder the Marvel fans haven’t given up hope for a completely good flick.

Yet the result of all the Paramount lead-ups (Thor, Iron Man, and to a lesser extent Universal’s Hulk movies) has been well worth the wait. The Avengers, new to screens this month, may very well be the best comic book movie yet; and it’s my opinion that writer/director Joss Whedon has saved the comic book genre from its own pit of self-pitying personal reflections.

Yes, we understand that all these heroes have dark origins and pasts that come back to haunt them (“red in the ledger,” as Scarlett Johansen’s Black Widow would describe it). But what makes Whedon’s retake so bold and so compelling is that he makes great stories out of everything he touches. Pitying self-reflection comes secondary to action. Warriors never take a Bruckheimer break (where they have deep heart-to-heart confessions in the midst of furious battle), but the dialogue is carefully crafted to ensure you do know exactly what their personal problems are all about. And above all, it’s fun. After all, it is a comic book movie.

And there is where the strength of Whedon’s rendering of The Avengers shines through. Whedon is a master at crafting detailed conversations that don’t read like mere exposition. Characters reveal themselves without rendering a lecture to the audience. And they do it at appropriate times, like in debriefing sessions, or in, you know, conversation. Back stories are illuminated but never dwelled upon unless integral to the current plot. And timing is everything.

Having a cast of master craftsmen is essential too, and The Avengers has that in spades. This movie is not only packed with action and great storytelling. It’s hysterically funny from beginning to end; but not in a ridiculous way. There are good reasons for superhero slapstick (spoiler: the Hulk’s sucker punch is an instant classic). But the comedic timing between the characters in regular conversation is stellar. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor was a much more comfortable character this time around. Robert Downey Jr. is always amazing as Tony Stark (aka Iron Man). And even the interractions of Chris Evans (Captain America) with just about everything in the modern world are worth a chuckle even if just for their subtlety (like tacitly handing over a lost wager to Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson).

An addition to the cast (probably due to the character changing production houses in between prequels), Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, was a bit on the fence for me. On the one hand, Ruffalo is a great actor and his handling of the Bruce Banner character–rather meek, but with a profound knowledge of how much power he wields–was exceptional. On the other hand, his character had probably the worst written part on the team. A few too many times he was forced to drop lines about how bad things could get if his mean green alter ego made an appearance. It reminded me of one of those guys who thinks he gets mean when he gets drunk, but spends the duration of his first beer and a half “warning” everyone at the party how bad things could get if he has another one. It was annoying, actually. But once he turns green and starts breaking things it’s back to the awesome.

The Avengers starts slowly, but picks up its momentum quickly. There’s a lot of time invested effectively in allowing Tom Hiddleston’s seething Loki to establish not only his deeply psychotic megalomania, but also the exposition of the single major conflict of the film (an impending alien invasion through a mystical portal revealed initially in Captain America). There are just enough lulls in the action to allow you to catch your breath, but you’re never left feeling like the train has left the track. In fact, the exact opposite is true. When the action breaks to advance the plot (a typical device for good movies, and a standard for Whedon), you’re always left feeling like the train is just passing through a tunnel. The sense is always there that you’re barreling down the track to the destination.

Comic books are serials by nature, and the movies based on them crave that sense of serialization as well. Of course there’s a credit Easter egg in this one to tempt fans to whatever sequel they have in mind next (it’s practically a requirement now). But the real beauty here is that even though this film stands up very well on its own, plot lines are now laid out for some very successful continuations within the franchise. Whedon has carefully developed the individual character arcs from previous films so as to not break continuity, while setting each up for a possible sequel (and we already know that Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, and The Avengers are all due for sequels over the next three years). If the powers that be have any sense, they’ll make a point of bringing Whedon on for at least the next Avengers film, because a well-written comic book movie that not only knows what it is, but also delivers itself intelligently and with non-stop entertainment value in equal measure, is hard to come by.

Let’s hope this trend continues.