Monday, May 7, 2012

Marvel's The Avengers

MARVEL'S THE AVENGERS: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner (138 min.)

After four years and five films, we have reached the payoff for Marvel fans, superhero fans, and comic book fans.  The Avengers have assembled to catapult the 2012 Summer box office into the stratosphere.  It is a good start to the year.  Since 2008, Marvel has banked on this film, putting all their chips on the table over a span of four years where we met these characters individually and tossed in some set up each time.  It has to be the most ambitious strategic maneuvering from a studio (technically, Marvel wasn't a studio until last year) in the history of film.  So, needless to say, this pinnacle film could not fail.  It had to succeed on a financial level, and thus must be good enough to satisfy fans from the casual to the fervent.  I can't imagine anyone being unhappy with this finished product as a whole, which is not to say we are done with these heroes by a longshot.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the evil brother of the Norse God Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the adversary in the 2011 film Thor, is the villain stirring up trouble in The Avengers.  As the film opens, he boldly strides into the base camp of SHIELD, led by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, being so very Samuel L. Jackson here), and swipes the Tesseract, a cube holding the power to open up time portals.  Loki plans to open up a portal and release and army of aliens on the planet, therein becoming supreme ruler of the world.  You know, the usual.  After the attack leaves the SHIELD compound in shambles, Fury goes against his bosses, "the committee," and re-activates the Avengers Initiative.  This leads us to an obligatory introduction of our heroes who are currently spread across the globe... and beyond.

The collection of scenes introducing our heroes is mandatory, but done with patience and style by director Joss Whedon.  There is Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, the billionaire playboy and wisecracking genius who is reluctant to join in the fight.  There is also Steve Rogers, Captain America, who we saw most recently of the team in last July's Captain America: The First Avenger.  Rogers is still living in his manufactured forties environment, afraid of the new world.  And there is Dr. Bruce Banner, hiding out in the far reaches of the earth trying to keep his, ahem, anger issues in check so he doesn't get big and green and wreak havoc.  Replacing Edward Norton here is Mark Ruffalo as Banner, and he somehow fits the character better than Norton.  And of course there is Thor, who appears from Asgaard with his own hammer to grind against Loki.  Along for the ride is Black Widow, a spy and martial arts expert played by Scarlett Johansson, and Hawkeye, an expert archer played by Jeremy Renner.

The Avengers are assembled on SHIELD's backup base, a nifty aircraft carrier which doubles as a hovercraft with a cloaking device.  Of course, with these egos in the room, it's tough for everyone to simply get along from the start.  These heroes butt heads and each try to posture for positioning.  But they soon discover there is no time to battle each other, as Loki positions the Tesseract and opens up a portal to bring ultimate death and destruction.  These heroes put their egos aside and learn to work together to bring down Loki and foil his plan.

The final act of The Avengers is what you would expect.  There are explosions on top of explosions and faceless attackers coming at our heroes from all sides.  While Hiddleston as Loki has significantly more to do here than in Thor, and is more effective as a villain, I would have liked more definition on the evil side from him and from his army that is difficult to make out in the fast-paced battles.  The action is perfectly balanced as each of the Avengers are given their moment to show off.  My personal favorite has always been The Hulk, and once Banner can no longer keep his anger in check the appearance of the not-so-jolly Green Giant is a delight.  We have reached a point now where big-budget CGI is really not an issue anymore, it is that seamless, and the appearance of The Hulk is evidence of technology reaching a satisfying point for the character to be legit.

Robert Downey Jr. is, naturally, the most entertaining of the bunch.  Part of that is his character Stark, and a larger part of it is probably Downey's undeniable charm.  Evans is solid, Hemsworth the same, and as I mentioned Ruffalo is an upgrade as the brain Dr. Banner.  A large portion of the opening scenes are filmed at night, which I felt was odd.  I always like day time in a film like this.  But Whedon shows patience with his directing, building a story under the action like a bed of pathos so we are engaged by the time Manhattan is under fire.  Marvel's The Avengers is a more-than-satisfying payoff for fans of these franchises, and quite a wonderful entertainment for even the most casual Marvel student.