Technically, the big movie kicking off Summer 2012 is called “Marvel’s The Avengers,” to distinguish it from the embarrassing attempt to bring the spy adventures of John Steed and Emma Peel to the big screen several years ago. I can’t wait for the Marvel film to come out on DVD, so I can freeze-frame the crowd scenes and look for Steed and Mrs. Peel. I wouldn’t put it past Joss Whedon to have stuck them in somewhere as a joke.
The Buffy and Firefly creator chose to bring Marvel’s premiere super-hero team to the screen – in a project that assembled itself through years of blockbuster warm-up acts – as an action-comedy. It’s got plenty of action, plus a few moments of quiet introspection, and the conflict between Thor and his villainous brother Loki that spills over from Thor’s movie is genuinely moving… but above all, this movie is hysterically funny. Think of it as a buddy-cop film, with seven buddies, some of whom pack magic hammers or lasers instead of guns.
I was a huge comic book fan in my college days, and Whedon’s take on the Avengers reminds me of nothing more than a beloved run of D.C.’s “Justice League” from the early 90s, when the ploddingly serious adventures of Superman and Batman were re-imagined as a wacky buddy comedy filled with snappy comebacks and witty put-downs.
One of the reasons this approach works so well with The Avengers is that it performs a kind of storytelling judo upon the basic absurdity of heroic high-tech engineer Tony Stark, and tragic victim of science gone wrong Bruce Banner, hanging around with Norse god Thor and a bunch of super-spies. Oh, and they do much of their hanging out on a flying aircraft carrier. It’s crazy, and Whedon gives the craziness a great big hug, using his trademark sense of humor to ferret out the common humanity of these legendary figures.
Humor also helps ease the discomfort that might be felt by audience members who don’t normally like superhero movies, or those generally unfamiliar with the earlier films starring Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and the Hulk. You’ll get all the information you need about them during The Avengers, and it’s painless because it comes during some amusing conversations.
The Hulk is funny without witty banter. I’ll warn you in advance: he’s going to leave you doubled over with laughter at least twice during this film. He cuts right through the sturm und drang with his fists, serving almost as an in-movie critic of everyone else’s dramatic excess.
The Hulk is even awesome when he’s Bruce Banner, his tormented human alter ego. Mark Ruffalo triumphs where Eric Bana and Edward Norton couldn’t quite succeed, despite making fine efforts. Whedon does something fascinating with Banner, making him preternaturally calm instead of jittery and angst-ridden. It’s very unsettling, particularly during an early scene that also gives Scarlett Johansson her best moment, as it becomes clear the uber-confident action girl is scared to death of being in the same room as Bruce Banner. The secret of Banner’s eerie serenity is dropped like an atomic bomb in a line of dialogue that hits even harder because it’s surrounded by so much high adventure and merry humor.
There’s also a literal atomic bomb. If you count the Hulk, three different weapons of mass destruction are deployed during the finale. It’s that kind of movie.
Everyone from the previous Marvel films gets their moment to shine, or at least make a game effort to keep Robert Downey Jr. and Sam Jackson from devouring all the scenery. Jackson, whose patented tough-guy verbosity is deployed to excellent effect, recently got into an online spat with New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, whose somewhat tepid review of The Avengers said “Mr. Whedon’s playful, democratic pop sensibility is no match for the glowering authoritarianism that now defines Hollywood’s comic-book universe.” He went on to dismiss the band of super-heroes as “dutiful corporate citizens, serving a conveniently vague set of principles.”
Jackson, via Twitter, scowled that Scott “needs a new job,” one that “he can actually do.” It’s the sort of flap that often arises when the critical community encounters popular entertainment, and ends up telling all those happy ticket buyers they’re Philistines for enjoying a movie that contains repulsor rays and cosmic cubes. In this case, Scott’s particular lament about “authoritarianism” is puzzling, since the animating spirit of the Avengers team is anti-authoritarian. As the snark – and occasional mountain-smashing scuffles – indicate, these guys don’t initially like each other very much, and they’re all invested in the battle against Loki and his alien army for different reasons. One of the two things that unite them is their answer when Loki announces he’s come to “free us from freedom,” and insists his subjects kneel before him.
The other unifying factor among the super-powered Avengers is their mockery of the very notion of centralized control, in a world where a billionaire capitalist can build himself a suit of armor that defeats entire armies, and the legendary hero of World War II can appear to save a room full of terrified hostages from alien terrorists. As it turns out, super-spy Nick Fury had a Plan B for dealing with out-of-control paranormal threats, but it stinks. Plan A was the right idea all along: calling upon the better nature of extraordinary men and women, to band them together in the defense of liberty.
As Tony Stark explained to the Senate in Iron Man 2, you can’t take his property away… but you can count on him to be there when the chips are down. In this movie, he answers a challenge from no less than Captain America, and proves just how far he’ll go to protect the innocent.
The Avengers isn’t perfect. The alien menace is a little vague, with a shortage of marquee villains to duel the heroes in the finale. Basically, everyone gets to take turns facing off against Loki, until a very satisfying final encounter. Loki himself has a simple plan that seems needlessly complex in execution – he’s a super-genius petulant child, which is interesting and amusing, but not as terrifying as the demonic brilliance Heath Ledger brought to the Joker in the second Chris Nolan Batman film. The Joker was genius shrouded by madness, in the service of chaos. Loki is a mean-spirited S.O.B. whose goal in life seems to involve committing atrocities until Thor and Odin stop loving him.
But the imperfections are trifles compared to a fantastically entertaining summer movie that, contrary to Scott’s grumbles about “submissive audiences,” works very hard to show everyone in the theater a good time. It’s amazing this movie happened at all, and in an age of easily abused computer-generated effects, it manages to show us a few things we’ve never seen before. The non-comic-book fan will encounter only a single moment of genuine confusion, halfway during the end credits, when the menace awaiting us in the inevitable Avengers 2 is revealed. Trust me, folks: you want to see what they’re hinting at.