Tuesday, May 8, 2012
The Avengers Movie Review: Come for the Amazing Action, Stay for the Large Cast of Super Characters
It has finally arrived. The Avengers, the ultimate live-action superhero crossover movie that Marvel has been setting up since 2008, has taken the box office by storm during its debut weekend. With its smart script, balanced direction, capable cast and breathtaking action sequences, The Avengers is the summer blockbuster to see this summer. Here are a few of my thoughts about the movie, along with some speculation about what this movie means in terms of future superhero cinema. Read on ....
The Avengers picks up where Marvel's previous stand-alone superhero movies ended. After failing to conquer Asgard, the banished Norse god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) returns to Earth to steal the Tesseract, an infinitely powerful energy source, from Col. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and SHIELD. Loki plans to use the Tesseract as part of a plan to reign over the world, which prompts Fury to assemble a group of heroes under what he called the "Avengers Initiative". The roster of Avengers Initiative heroes includes Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson).
Before I go any further, I want to say that I have seen many excuses that Hollywood has put together over the decades to dump wads of money and casts of well-known actors on the big screen. Even though the term "summer blockbuster" didn't appear before the 70s, there have always been "event" films--usually musicals, disaster movies and extravagant historical films that feature a cast of thousands--where emphasis was placed on popular actors and amazing spectacles. In contrast, pulp fantasy and sci-fi largely remained relegated to cheaply made serials and B-movies, and it wasn't until Star Wars proved in 1977 that fantasy and sci-fi could be just as popular and profitable as a Ten Commandments or a Towering Inferno. I mention this bit of cinema history because The Avengers is tailor-made for the post-Star Wars, CGI-driven era of event filmmaking.
The Avengers isn't just another superhero movie; it is a gigantic superhero movie that covers a large portion of Marvel real estate. As I sat in the theater watching this colossal crossover film, I kept thinking about how many things could have gone wrong with its production. A mediocre script, poor casting, hokey special effects, or incompetent direction could have easily turned The Avengers into an over-budgeted, overcrowded mess. That didn't happen and because it didn't, it allowed The Avengers--and in turn Marvel Studios--to set a new standard as to what can be done with superhero stories on the big screen. Other superhero movies with smaller plots and smaller casts have fallen apart before, so the success of The Avengers as a film experience is hardly modest feat.
I think that great deal of The Avengers' success is due to Joss Whedon, who co-wrote and directed the movie. Whedon is quite talented in his own right, but what makes him ideal for this particular Marvel movie is his understanding of the fantasy, horror and sci-fi genres. He knows how to balance the amazing, the absurd and the mundane in order to create a narrative that feels emotionally honest and grounded no matter how fantastic it gets. In keeping with Whedon's style, The Avengers takes itself seriously enough to keep the story compelling, and the humor that punctuates the story adds the right amount of levity without descending into camp. (Be sure to keep watching after all of the end credits roll--if the scene at the very end of the movie doesn't convince you that The Avengers is a Whedon film, nothing will.)
Essentially, each of Whedon's most ambitious TV projects--Buffy, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse--featured ensemble casts, and those experiences prepared Whedon for a project as enormous as The Avengers. None of the cast and characters in the film feel wasted; each are given a chance to present themselves as unique personalities who are actively involved in the story, no matter how big or small their screen time is.
Of course, The Avengers wouldn't be the film it is without the support of Marvel. Marvel did a commendable job in setting up this crossover film, and its success opens up some new questions regarding the future of superhero movies. After all, Marvel doesn’t just publish a group of superhero comic books; they publish comics that feature superheroes who share the same fictitious world and share adventures from time to time. Crossovers and teams that consist of popular characters are common occurrences in superhero comics, but they were never translated to the silver screen until now. I can only imagine how Marvel will capitalize on The Avengers' success to bring more of its superheroic world to the movies, and I wonder if DC Comics will be capable of doing anything similar to this anytime in the near future.
Even if you watch The Avengers without any prior familiarity with Joss Whedon and Marvel Comics, there is still plenty to enjoy. Each cast member turn in great performances, including Mark Ruffalo, who took over the role of Bruce Banner after Edward Norton's turn in The Incredible Hulk (2008). The action scenes and special effects are thrilling and mesh nicely into the film's overarching narrative. Of particular note are SHIELD's massive Helicarrier (which serves as major setting and is a wondrous creation to behold) and the confrontation scene between Hulk and Loki (which alone justifies the ticket price). I should also mention that I saw The Avengers in 3D--RealD, not IMAX--and I was impressed with its quality. In fact, the 3D made the movie fell even larger in its scope, so I highly recommend seeing it in 3D for those who want the complete superhero experience.
Given Hollywood's tendency to pack the movie theaters with special effects-driven action movies during the summer, it's tempting for some to write off The Avengers as yet another CGI effects reel that's thinly disguised as a feature-length movie--another Transformers, another Independence Day, or another 2012. My recommendation: Don't. The Avengers is the real deal, a perfect example of how a talented cast and crew can take a larger-than-life story and make it even bigger while at the same time emphasizing the human dimensions that make a story--any story--worthwhile. Excelsior!