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I mentioned in my review for the meta-cynical anti-comic book movie Kick Ass that I didn’t read comics, and that comic book movies were not really my thing. Part of the reason why I do not care for comic book movies is that they try to cram in a lot of mythology and canon into a single film, while still trying to create a story of its own. So, when Joss “Emperor of the Fanboys” Whedon announced The Avengers movie, I was a little curious as to how his approach would be. Knowing full well that being able to please everyone would be unlikely, I still wondered how he would, erm, assemble some pretty iconic characters and how he would treat them on the screen. Aside from that mere curiosity, I was not terribly interested in seeing it. Preferring the darker, nihilistic, revisionist Nolan Batman trilogy, I knew that The Avengers was created with the primary intention of giving fans, and maybe guys in general, the same incomparable sense of ecstasy and euphoria that, say, Martin Scorsese and Lars von Trier releasing their remake of Taxi Driver would give me. I knew it was going to be an “event film”, or more cynically a “water cooler movie” and I was ambivalent about the film for the most part. Though, upon hearing of its $207 million take in on its opening weekend, I thought that, rather than be left out of the conversation, I should cave in and go see it. After all was said and done, I would say it was worth it.

The storyline is fairly simple, using your typical North by Northwest/Lord of the Rings/cliché comic book MacGuffin: one man, um, I mean demigod (Tom Hiddleston) not only wants to rule the world, but harness the power of the Tesseract., a smoky cube that, as far as I could tell, had a lot of energy and also acted as a portal between worlds. Said demigod, Loki, so gloriously burdened by Hiddleston, decides to wage war on the planet. And, in order to stop him, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) of the super-secret agency SHIELD, calls in a bunch of powerful misfits to stop him, all the while trying to control his new band of heroes from tearing each other apart before they can save the world from total destruction.

It was not as if coming up with the storyline itself was particularly difficult. Whedon is able to remain true to the characters and their mythology while at the same time weaving in some his own personal brush strokes in character and background. The worst part of the screenplay is the mumbo jumbo Whedon writes in about the science and technical terms, little details that probably only hardcore fans understand. Much like Star Wars, these details and the esoteric science talk serve little to the story. Yes, the film’s main purpose is to be all “explosion-y” and whatever, but what drew me to the film in the first place was Whedon’s characterization of the chemistry between the Avengers themselves. Prior to the film’s release, I had had an argument with someone about why someone might go to see the film. I acknowledged that, yes, a majority will be the built in audience that Marvel has and people (mostly guys) who like explosions. But I asserted that what was interesting about the film would be its approach to the flawed interpersonal relationships of each of the characters and their interactions with one another. The discussion went nowhere, but I maintain the position that those relationships and chemistry was the high point for an outsider.

Those relationships were handled pretty gracefully by Whedon, who wrote and directed the film. You have a set of giants in their own right fighting to remain together as a team so they can get a job done. Whatever the symbolism behind this, it was interesting to watch. Ego driven Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) clashed with Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), their ideals almost being polar opposite. While the former lusts after fame and style, the latter is the human personification of American Nationalism. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), of Norse mythology, also clashes with Iron Man. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) clashes with Bruce Banner/the Hulk (newbie Mark Ruffalo). Et cetera, et cetera. Robert Downey Jr. is most often the instigator of these arguments, but it’s fascinating to see them happen. The dialogue is quick and terse, like something out of a screwball comedy. Yes, the come together and work as a team and whatnot, but their struggle to deal with everyone else’s flaws is no different than any audience member struggling with that same dilemma in their life. What these arguments show, without going overboard, is that there is a very human quality to all of these characters. (Sadly, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye does not get the opportunity to participate in these fun arguments.)

That, however, does not make up for the lack of character development. Despite the fact that Whedon is excellent at character development, everyone remains fairly static throughout the entire thing. Or, they remain at two stages in terms of their development: easily annoyed/trigger happy and in control and ready to be part of the team. The concept of development will probably get eye rolls from anyone else who’s seen the movie, and comic book movies have never been great at doing that anyways, so it might as well be a prerequisite to forget the idea altogether. Granted, the approach to each character’s world outlook makes up for it to some extent. Captain America is a little disillusioned at the state of America; Iron Man is cynical; Banner has some hope, cautious nevertheless; Black Widow is nihilistic; Thor is strangely protective. While these ideas are explored as deeply as one might hope, the mere exploration at all is good. In terms of their mythology, enough is explained so that anyone who is foreign to the various universes can pretty much keep up for most of it. Also impressive is the amount of screen time each character got, which was, more or less, equal, which makes it a true ensemble. One of the most interesting things about the cast is the inclusion of mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner. Ruffalo is the third actor to portray Banner, and he probably does it the best. It is pleasantly controlled, which is ironic, since his character often lacks that quality. And the sparse use of the Hulk was also good, because, as they say, there is such an idea as too much of a good thing.

The stars delivered with what they needed to, and that was definitely a factor in how enjoying the movie was. While Johansson, with her sexy and badass style; Hemsworth, with his holier than thou growl; Renner, with his, uh, arrows; Evans, with his nationalistic determination; Ruffalo, with his fantastically restrained Banner; and Downey Jr. with his usual Stark persona, are all superb, it is the Medieval English spewing, power hungry, hysterically bratty Loki, King of Asgard who is the movie’s best actor. I suspect that why Loki stands out as being such a bad ass villain is because the classically trained Tom Hiddleston, or as I like to call him “The Best F. Scott Fitzgerald Ever”, breathes fascinating life into him. There is a sense of wit and, as aforementioned, brattiness that makes his character incredibly entertaining. There isn’t the same smugness or self-indulgence that you get from Downey Jr.’s Stark. Loki’s quest for power is rooted in the whole “Cain and Able” kind of relationship he has with Thor, although Loki is adopted. Hiddleston’s sneer alone is a highlight in and of itself.

The best thing this movie has to offer is a sense of humor. There was a Stephen Hawking Joke, a Legolas joke, and Wizard of Oz joke, and, while the audience I sat with did not laugh (very sad, I know), it was a pleasure to have them in there. Like 2008’s Iron Man, it isn’t incredibly self-serious about what it’s portraying. There isn’t as much meta-humor as there was in Whedon’s excellent The Cabin in the Woods, but it recognizes its clichés sometimes and plays with them, but in a very subtle way. All of the characters involved are fun to watch, both speaking and in action. Fun and humor, which is pretty much the only thing the film needs to offer.

And it offers fun in spades. Rather than watch some sort of mind numbing action sequence constructed with ADD by Michael Bay, the action scenes realized in The Avengers are breathtaking and, a majority of the time, coherent from an editing standpoint. The visual effects, brought to life by the wonderful people at ILM, are realistic and insanely enjoyable to see on the screen. With all the carnage on screen, especially in New York City, you have to wonder how they repair all of it. (This question is fleetingly commented on at the end of the movie.) The film’s use of 3D (I saw it in IMAX 3D) was used fairly well, although it did not crate as much of an immersive experience as maybe was intended. I am glad it was not gimmicky, it several notches above Lucas’s 3D re-release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. The point is, though, that it got its main point across, that all of the explosions explode with gusto.

Whedon may have done the impossible and made a fun super hero movie that a) does not take itself too seriously b) treats its characters with equal respect c) explores the interactions between those characters and their consequences and d) made all of it a pretty damn good time. While the film is still flawed, its positive aspects outweigh any negatives. The Avengers brings together some iconic characters together and went out with a bang, making nearly every moment thrilling and exciting. With a fun and riveting turn from Hiddleston and good performances from everyone else, some superb action sequences, and great banter between all of the characters, the film met and exceeded my expectations. Though, with the film crossing $1 billion already, you can bet that there will be a lesser sequel released in the near future. Until then, watching all of The Avengers will make for pretty good brain candy.

Grade: B+



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