The Avengers,
directed by Joss Whedon
(Marvel, 2012)

Some critics wonder when the time for superhero movies will pass.

Not ever, I hope, so long as they can make them up to -- or, frankly, even somewhat close to -- the standards of Marvel's The Avengers.

The team-up flick, the culmination (so far) of various big-screen appearances by Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the Hulk, exceeds its predecessors handily -- a feat for which director/screenwriter Joss Whedon deserves much of the credit.

Let's face it, a team-up movie had the potential to rev up the cheese factor and flop miserably. But Whedon, leading a sterling cast, artfully dodged any missteps along the way.

The film begins pre-Avengers. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and S.H.I.E.L.D. are working with a blue cube of power that leads into another part of space -- or another dimension. Oddly, despite all the big brains on the project, it takes the muscle -- Clint "Hawkeye" Barton (Jeremy Renner), the archery-obsessed security operative -- to point out that a doorway in space can be opened from the other side. From his lips to Whedon's ears, because that's precisely when Loki (Tom Hiddleston) makes his violent intrusion into the world, and scratch one S.H.I.E.L.D. base.

Then it's time to meet the band, starting with undercover operative Natasha "Black Widow" Romanoff (Scarlett Johannson), followed by Bruce "Hulk" Banner (Mark Ruffalo, the third actor to play the role in recent years), Steve "Captain America" Rogers (Chris Evans), Tony "Iron Man" Stark and Thor (Chris Hemsworth).

Bear in mind, some of these heroes haven't met before, and as is the way in comics, some must fight before they can become fast friends and stand nobly together against their common foe. It's a tiresome conceit in comics ... but Whedon made it cool. Iron Man vs. Thor was pretty badass, but Thor vs. Hulk ... wow.

The movie sets up the threat -- and, by the way, it's not just Loki, but an alien invasion force that is just waiting for Loki to unlock the door to Earth -- and then spends a while building the pitch as the characters stumble around and become teammates. There are signs of Whedon's trademark wit in the dialogue -- and Whedon's habit of taking out a popular character when you least expect it, too. Yes, there is a loss in this movie, and it actually hurts a bit when you see it.

Then, several mighty climaxes later, the conflict goes intergalactic.

Ultimately, a movie like this lives and dies by its effects, and they are satisfyingly spectacular. But true success depends on caring about the characters and writing a script that makes you want to see how it all plays out. Whedon and his cast succeed on all counts; they approach the material seriously and perform strongly across the board, so the special effects end up accenting the story rather than carrying it.

The good news is, there's no end in sight for the Marvel heroes. Sequels for Iron Man, Captain America and Thor are on the shooting schedule, stand-alone features for the Black Widow, Nick Fury and Ruffalo's Hulk are in the works, and yes, The Avengers 2 is in the pipeline as well. It's a good time to be a Marvel fan.

by Tom Knapp
19 May 2012

The story for the superhero team-up of a lifetime seems as though it would write itself. Get the most awesome team of heroes (after the X-Men) ever assembled and have them defend New York City against alien invaders. But Joss Whedon doesn't phone it in. The Avengers ranks right up there with the original Superman: The Movie, Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, and X-Men: First Class as one of the best superhero movies ever made.

Mark Ruffalo gets better with age (and yes, after two previous attempts and two previous failures, they finally get this incarnation of the Hulk right), Robert Downey Jr. gets to fire off one wisecrack after another as Iron Man's alter-ego Tony Stark, Scarlett Johannson kicks ass as the Black Widow and Chris Hemsworth steals the scenery as Thor, playing him with an infectious sense of humor. The seven-year-long blockbuster-after-blockbuster tease is over with. This movie more than lives up to its promise.

Half the fun is in the nonstop clash of personalities. Superheroes are a dysfunctional lot, so putting all of them together is a bit like throwing some superpowered cats into a bag. Of course they will all come together, but half the fun is in getting there via the incidents created by their egos rubbing up against each other. It creates a terrific tension that helps to drive the plot forward.

The enemy they have to team up against is Thor's brother, Loki, who, with the help of some outer-space invaders, comes to Earth via a Tesseract that is the key to unlimited energy. Nick Fury, director of the super-secret spy organization known as S.H.I.E.L.D., brings the heroes together to defend Earth after the Tesseract opens up, allowing Loki to sneak into the world and plot to take over from the inside.

The only disappointing thing about the movie is the weakness of its villain. There's nothing impressive about Loki, who seems very pale and washed out next to the far more charismatic, squabbling but witty heroes. Other than that, the movie, like an eager Labrador retriever, exists to please, and does so. It goes down like hot apple pie, and it's just as uncomplicated while being just as comforting. The big action climax is like falling through one splash page after another. It's as grand as it is geeky and in that respect it gets everything right.

I can't help but love the way it gives grand helpings of everything, and seconds, without ever once compromising its witty charm, making it one terrifically fun movie.

by Mary Harvey
19 May 2012