The Avengers (2012) – review

Brought together to fight a threat unlike any other, the world’s mightiest heroes face their greatest challenge as the planet is plunged into violence.

Marvel Comics’ Avengers was envisioned as an answer to DC Comics’ Justice League of America, a monthly comic starring Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Green Lantern, the Flash and Martian Manhunter. Each book has similarities; both star the best selling characters. But whereas the JLA was an adventure book centered on the most powerful heroes alive, the Avengers was something a bit different. Sure, Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, Giant Man and the Wasp were quite powerful, but they bickered among themselves and chaffed under the notion of teamwork. It wasn’t until Captain America was revived from the 1940’s that the team found its center and by then many of the heavy hitters had moved on.

The Avengers isn’t just a comic book about adventure and action, it’s also a series about conflict inside the team itself as it portrays superheroes as being people with problems. Thor may be able to fly above the city skyline, but he has similar problems to the rest of us, including an attitude that often trips him up. Iron Man may be an unstoppable one-man army, but he is full of himself and eager to show off in the heat of battle. The Hulk could be the greatest there is rather than just being the strongest, but his anger overwhelms him and causes damage to anyone near him – friend OR foe.

In developing the Avengers for the big screen, Marvel Entertainment wisely chose to take the slow and steady path, presenting each of the members individually. As each character’s origin story was screened, so too was the world of Marvel revealed in all its wondrous complexity. The proof of that statement is in the Summer’s biggest hit, the Avengers movie, which fits perfectly with the look and feel of the five previous films (Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America).

It’s important to note that nothing like this has ever been attempted. Sure, there are ensemble superheto movies such as X-Men and Fantastic Four, but each of those movies were developed within themselves. In the case if the Avengers, the very concept demands that the team is preceded by separate films that establish the members in ways that not only make viewers want to see more but also wonder how these distinctly unique personalities could possibly work as a team. No origin story, lots of action, plenty of moments when the heroes chaff against each other and a finale where they come together. Seems simple, but there are so many ways this could have gone wrong.

When I had learned that the directing post had been assigned to relative newcomer Joss Whedon I was very very worried. I’m not a fan of any of his creations (you’re probably not a fan of Sapphire & Steel, so we’re even), but it was more his lack of experience in directing other people’s properties that had me on eggshells. After all of the hard work through the lead-in projects, would Marvel blow it with their explosive finale?

In a word, no.

I will attempt to avoid specific details, but if you haven’t seen the movie, you may want to hold off on reading this review until you have.

The Avengers fits into the Marvel Universe where brilliant weapons manufacturers can make their own armor, soldiers are made into idealized versions of Man via chemicals and cosmic rays, the meek are made into monstrous creatures and gods travel to our world via a rainbow bridge. The previous movies have developed not just Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor and Captain America, but have interwoven them into a special view of reality where the fantastic was possible. It also laid down the groundwork of Nick Fury and SHIELD, a mysterious organization that watched these special individuals closely with definite plans for their use.

A mere hint in Iron Man and provider of armaments to fight the Hulk, SHIELD was much more present in Thor when they attempted to hold Thor and his hammer. They also came into possession of a relic from Odin’s armory, a weird glowing cube known as the ‘Tesseract’ (better known as the Cosmic Cube to comic book fans, capable of making dreams and nightmares a reality).

As SHIELD analyzes the Tesseract, something goes horribly wrong. It goes wild and creates a portal allowing Thor’s evil brother Loki to pass over into our world. Easily dispatching the security guarding the Tesseract, Loki steals the device and uses a mystic force to turn others to his will, including Fury’s right-hand man, the master marksman and weapons specialist Clint Barton, AKA Hawkeye. Fury and his crew try to stop the god of mischief from escaping, but ultimately fail. The ensuing destruction pulls the entire military installation into the ground.

With such a deadly weapon loose, Fury activates the Avengers Initiative, a project that would recruit several specially powered individuals and fashion them into a team. The governing body overlooking SHIELD favors another option (albeit a shady unspoken one) but Fury relents and calls another agent into action, the master spy Natasha Romanov, the Black Widow. Romanov scours the globe for Bruce Banner, needed to trace the gamma radiation trail given off by the cube. Agent Coulson, familiar with Thor and Hulk, pays an unexpected visit to Tony Stark. Stark is flying high from creating a tower generating clean energy and having his hot girlfriend as his CEO, until Coulson breaks it up and delivers a dossier on the Tesseract and the other Avengers. Fury personally talks to Steve Rogers, one-time war hero and super soldier Captain America. Frozen in time, he has missed decades of time and is a stranger in a strange land. Fury convinces Rogers that the world needs hos old-fashioned approach.

Waiting for Loki to show his hand is easy as the Asgardian seems to want to be found. Striking out at a social engagement, he strikes confusion and fear into the hearts of the population, declaring that they were born to be ruled. What he offers is not slavery, but the gift of living a life of submission, one that they would prosper under. Captain America and Iron Man team up to take down Loki and bring him in for questioning, until Loki’s brother Thor intercedes and attacks the aircraft single-handedly.

The hero vs. hero fight that ensues is legendary. Taking a page straight out of the classic Lee and Kirby comic books, Captain America, Thor and Iron Man fight like crazy upon first sight. With the Tesseract in Loki’s hands, all of the world hangs in the balance, but all Thor sees is his brother in jeopardy… and he cannot stand for that. For all of his faults, Loki is still family.

As the danger heightens, so do the odds become stacked against our heroes. Loki is empowered by a mysterious benefactor from another planet. He also has a clever and cunning plan to undermine the stability of the opposition that Fury has assembled and it’s not all that difficult as it turns out. Stark is a loose cannon who hates authority, Banner distrusts everyone, especially SHIELD who have entire arsenals of weapons designed just to take him down, Thor sees the entire situation as an Asgardian one that is far beyond the abilities of the humans. Additionally, the reasons behind SHIELD’s involvement are dubious at best and given that they are attempting to weaponize recovered Hydra weapons for future use, their intentions for the Tesseract are obviously not benign.

It is through facing adversity that the team comes together and when the full extent of the threat posed by Loki and his army are made apparent, it is clear that the Avengers have no chance of standing up to and stopping it. Nevertheless, they refuse to stand down and fight with their bare hands to their absolute limits. While other superhero movies have struggled to come up with an enemy worthy of their mettle (Batman fought mimes and Jim Carrey, Superman had Richard Pryor, etc), the Avengers finally achieves what was previously thought to be impossible, a movie with wit, heart and kick-ass action scenes.

The style of John Favreau’s Iron Man movies is retained in that it features a blend of drama, action and humor all perfectly balanced so that it flows wonderfully. But it is the cast that deserves the full attention here and they gel so nicely.

After two stints in the armor, you’d think that Robert Downey Jr. would be bored or that movie goers would be done with his routine. Rather he shines freshly, as if this were the funnest gig he has ever had and it is equally enjoyable for the audience. He not only throws quips and witty banter about as easily as mini-rockets and lasers, but he finds new depths to his performance when he connects to fellow genius Bruce Banner.

As Banner, Mark Ruffalo had quite the challenge. The third actor in a line to take on the part on film, he honors the work of Bana and Norton while adding his own touches. Bruce Banner has been shown to be nervous, desperate and weak but finally achieving a kind of peace within himself at the close of the most recent Hulk solo film. I had my doubts about Ruffalo and to be honest really miss Norton’s Banner… but he really owned it here and established himself as the actor Marvel had been looking for all this time. The fact that he recently signed a multi-picture deal confirm that he’s the man for the job.

In a film full of humor and sardonic wit, Chris Evans has the difficult role as the straight man of the team. Captain America takes things at face value and treats his duty very seriously. As such, he attempts to keep the team on track while struggling to find his place in the world. When all Hell breaks loose, he is in his element, commanding the Avengers and NY’s finest as if he was born to do so. His acrobatic skill and indefatigable endurance are matched only by his demeanor and honorable strength of character.

Chris Helmsworth once more plays the noble Thor, a prince of the realm from the land of fantasy with a rebellious streak and a heart of gold. Even after learning of Loki’s plans, he nonetheless tries his best to preserve his brother, believing that he can put this behind him. Thor is a magnificent hero from another age when warriors were brave bold and honorable… we need more of them.

Bringing up the rear are two new characters, Hawkeye and Black Widow (shoe-horned into Iron Man 2 but allowed to blossom in Avengers). Through half of the movie, Black Widow plays concierge to the Avengers while Hawkeye works as Loki’s chief assassin (under mind control). Once they are reunited, however, the pair show their true potential and come off as superb combatants. Armed with little more than her own martial arts skills, a pair of hand guns and her own unique stingers. she holds her own against a massive army of alien soldiers but also keeps her cool and sees the solutions that no one else can see.

Personally, I am a huge fan of Hawkeye and was overjoyed to see the archer in his full glory. His customized quiver, controlled by a palm-mounted interface calling up the ideal arrow tip for the situation was an ingenious notion… but the physical performance by action hero Jeremy Renner is second to none. As he fires at one target, he eyes another… always cooly thinking of the next move.

The fight sequences are executed in stunning quality with so much precision that it makes Tranformers look like a home video release.

After the release of the Spider-Man movie, Stan Lee made a statement that his characters were so dynamic that he it took decades for special effects to catch up with the ideas on the page. He evidenced the woeful results of the Spider-Man TV series made in the 1970’s (of which I am a fan, but nevermind). He’s right of course. Computerized graphics have made Iron Man believable and exciting, bit the Hulk has been much trickier to nail for some reason. The fact that he is a gigantic green ogre may be part of the problem. Where to draw the line between realistic and reflective of the comic book design is a difficult decision.

Finally, the Hulk looks perfect and can stand beside human characters without looking like a cross between Shrek and Jar Jar Binks. It’s a wonderful thing and the reception has been deafening roars of excitement from movie goers. Every scene that he is in, he steals. He is the biggest draw in this movie and it is so so wonderful.

As a monthly comic book series, the Avengers has been going strong since the 1960’s. I have heard it described as an economically sound comic book as it stars so many heroes all in one issue. What makes it so appealing isn’t just the star power, though. It’s their interactions. Stark has a huge ego, Thor wants Hulk to wear some pants and Hulk hates everyone.

The Marvel Comics of the 1960’s were huge with the college crowd as they depicted ‘heroes with problems’ and that is still an important component of their success today. It isn’t just the action scenes, it’s the banter and quirky personalities that maker it all work. You really don’t see this in the JLA or other DC Comics. Luckily Marvel translated this quality to the big screen with sophisticated characters who were flawed yet noble, heroic yet neurotic. It’s a great mixture of personalities that obviously appeals to the masses (comic book fans or or not) as it has broken all records in its 200 million plus opening weekend.

What’s next? A third Iron Man movie will be released next year alongside the second Star Trek reboot, a Superman revival and more. Sequels to both Captain America and Thor are planned along with a few unknown properties.

I do hope that there are more opportunities for Jeremy Renner to shine as Hawkeye outside of the inevitable Avengers sequel, but mostly I think we really need another Hulk movie. Almost everything that old purple pants did elicited the loudest applause from the audience of the midnight showing I attended. If he didn’t have an army of fans before, he does now.

This is also the first movie I have seen in a dog’s age that I wanted to see again almost immediately… in the theater. An awesome experience that challenged the senses, it is a real pleasing movie that entertained even this jaded grouchy comic book fan. There was a lot riding on the Avengers, but Marvel is riding it into the annals of Hollywood history with a resounding reception that demands more.

It’s a good time to be a Marvel Zombie.

I have heard some grumblings about the brief reveal at the close of the film but honestly I don’t think it ruins anything. It also reminds viewers that Loki’s superior was a mystery throughout the movie. The character shown at the end is so obscure that even my friends were eagerly asking me in the theater who that was. I’ve also seen others state ‘wow, I saw Apocalypse at the end! Cool!’ so there is a knowledge gap even for the initiated. So great was the need for info that I drafted a quick post with said character’s background.

I had lots of worries about the Avengers but in the end I was overjoyed… and am eager to stand in line again for a repeat viewing (just not at midnight… please).

(The beautiful Avengers character posters in this post are by Val Cabadonga)

2 thoughts on “The Avengers (2012) – review

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