Marvel’s The Avengers | Movie review
Joss Whedon makes a superhero movie worth its weight in mint-condition comic books.
The pivotal scene in The Avengers, Joss Whedon’s zippy and overstuffed comic-book extravaganza, appears around the halfway mark. Earth is in crisis mode, an archvillain has designs of world domination, and at last the cavalry has arrived. Among the Stan Lee creations assembled at this late hour are square-jawed soldier-out-of-time Captain America (Chris Evans), hammer-wielding space warrior Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and, of course, cocky flyboy Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). It’s taken four years, five movies and probably weeks of contract negotiations to get all these heavyweights into one room. Yet Whedon treats their iconic powwow as a pissing contest between petulant children. For all the godlike abilities among them, the one superpower they share is Olympian ego.
It goes without saying that Earth’s greatest heroes will eventually put aside their differences to defend the planet from warmongering space invaders. Until then, though, The Avengers scans as unusually neurotic summer entertainment, built on conflicts more interpersonal than intergalactic. That’s a specialty for Whedon. The creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and one of the writers of the original Toy Story, the director has made a living generating comedy and pathos out of shifting team dynamics. Here, he portrays the titular justice league as a band of mismatched misfits—just another of his bickering surrogate families.
Entrusted with tying together no fewer than four running franchises, Whedon condenses the endless exposition of The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America and both Iron Man movies into pithy walk-and-talks. Those previous Marvel films often felt burdened by their origin-story obligations. The Avengers blessedly hits the ground running, opening with a sequence in which Thor villain Loki (Tom Hiddleston) gets his hands on the cubic superweapon from last summer’s Captain America. Fearing the end times, secret agent man Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, still rocking the eye patch) begins putting together a superhero supergroup, at which point The Avengers starts skipping across the globe as excitedly as an adolescent reader flipping pages.
Whedon has great fun with these titans, even as some of them—Jeremy Renner’s flinty sharpshooter Hawkeye, Hemsworth’s golden-locked gladiator—struggle to find a place in the film’s narrative. Treated as little more than eye candy in Iron Man 2, Scarlett Johansson reinvents the Black Widow as an ass-kicking femme fatale. (Strong women are another Whedon specialty.) And then there’s Mark Ruffalo, stepping in as tortured man-within-the-monster Bruce Banner. The third actor to play the part in less than a decade, Ruffalo lends Banner a Zen calm tinged with flickers of scarcely suppressed anger. (When and where he’ll finally hulk out becomes one of the film’s better-seeded dilemmas.) It’s Downey, of course, who seems best equipped to deliver the filmmaker’s lightning-quick banter. He punctures the seriousness of the genre with each barb. It’s a writer-star match made in fanboy heaven.
The action, a flurry of CGI busyness, occasionally veers into incoherence. Still, Whedon invests each set piece with a playfulness, a puckish slapstick frenzy, that feels ripped from the pages of his source material. Once the movie relocates to Manhattan for a showstopping battle royale, the director orchestrates splash-panel onslaughts of city-leveling warfare. The movie, in turn, gains a gee-whiz, atomic grandeur its predecessors never achieved. The real battle at the heart of The Avengers is the one Whedon wages against the monolithic mediocrity of comic-book cinema. Here, true believers, is the rare spandex spectacle that feels like a real marvel.