With “The Avengers,” the summer Big Movies have officially arrived, even though May Day is still fresh in our minds. Featuring half a dozen comic-book heroes—all of them having made appearances in earlier Marvel blockbusters—this one sets the bar pretty high. In terms of both star power and production values, this first one will be hard to beat, even considering there’s another chapter of the ongoing Batman saga yet to come.
Director/writer Joss Whedon has openly declared that he considers his gang of heroes to be social misfits, their proclivity for saving society notwithstanding. Perhaps the most obviously out of synch is the brilliant, egomaniacal Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, played with verve and panache by Robert Downey, Jr., who is rapidly becoming my favorite contemporary actor. In a cast that includes the estimable Samuel L. Jackson, Oscar nominees Mark Rufalo and Jeremy Renner, and the talented Scarlett Johansson, Downey gets all the best laugh lines. (It has to be noted that Ruffalo, when he erupts into The Hulk, gets the film’s two best and funniest action bits.)
Though Whedon has taken an unusual approach, the plot is pretty ordinary fare: a super hero or two has to save the world from a human or alien threat. The villain in this case is Loki (Tom Hiddleston), spiteful and envious half-brother of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), from last year’s movie of the same name. When he is vaunting and fleering against the various good guys, Hiddleston is terrific; when he has to mouth the clichéd dialogue Whedon gives him and the other Bad Guys, not so much.
Not much point in going over why the evil ones want to take over the Earth—doesn’t everybody?—and its querulous denizens. Their attempts to do so provide the excuse for lots of action sequences, of the sort that don’t have to be translated for foreign audiences. I found myself drifting off during these: they are overlong and overdone, stuffing the movie out to nearly two and a half hours.
Paradoxically, and happily, the best parts of this action flick come in the banter amongst the superheroes. Whedon plays off the various personalities of Stark, Captain America (Chris Evans) and Dr. Bruce Banner (Ruffalo) to constant and surprising comic effect. As the group goes after a cube dubbed the Tesseract which will provide an unlimited source of power—for energy or weaponry—they duel verbally and physically over both means and ends. The internecine quarrels provide more entertainment than the pitched battles with the extragalactic nasties, which basically follow the script of, say, the Transformer movies. Watching New York City get trashed always maintains a certain appeal, but it’s old hat by now, no matter how nifty the latest state of the art special effects may be.
“The Avengers” is appropriately rated “PG-13” for what is usually called “comic book violence.” (Not sure how that differs from the other kinds, but it’s pervasive and frequently graphic. Parents of pre-teens take note.) It has already proved to have enormous appeal to audiences foreign and domestic, and its ferocious ad campaign, along with word of mouth, will likely keep it rolling for weeks, until the Next Big Thing hits town.
As a side note, I eschewed seeing it in 3D: enough is enough. Fans of renting the recyclable plastic glasses may report a different, perhaps even better, experience than mine.