(No longer in theaters)
Walt Disney Pictures
May 4, 2012
Apart from being supersmart, Joss Whedon has the perfect credentials to write and direct a colossal commercial construct like Marvel’s The Avengers: He plainly loves the opportunity to put these comic-book icons—Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth)—in one room and let them hang out, spar (with words as well as hammers, shields, etc.), and weigh the merits of individualism versus teamwork. Really—debate is as important to him as “Hulk, smash!” The movie would be all over the place if not for Whedon’s centrifugal seriousness. And it would be overbearingly pompous if not for his nifty ability to spoof his subjects without devaluing them. Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other Whedon wonders, The Avengers is both campy and reverential. Comic-Con nerds will have multiple orgasms. I had a blast.
I also, as I watched, thought, Wow, that must have cost a lot of money … money … money … waves of money. There aren’t many shots without fancy CGI or mighty sets occupied by dreamy men and women with finely sculpted bottoms. Even if scenes of superheroes whooshing around Manhattan and battling an armada from the realm of Asgard look like video games, you have to admire a hot-dog shot like the one in which the camera zigs and zags to catch every single Avenger in midair, bashing and crashing and hammering for all they’re worth (plenty). The frames have the thrust of good comic-book illustrations without overdoing it, and Whedon picks his moments to come at ya with 3-D: Here and there, a spear will tickle your nostril hairs. On the human front, the stunt doubles—especially Scarlett Johansson’s, whose name is, I swear, Heidi Moneymaker—are gratifyingly elastic. You might as well revel in this thing. It’s like all-day room service at the Ritz.
The villain, introduced in Thor, is called Loki and played by Tom Hiddleston, whose name invokes dyslexia—I always type, “Tim Huddleston.” By any name, he’s a magnificently theatrical presence. He’s after a tesseract that will open a portal to Asgard. The larger point is that he wants to “free the world from freedom.” He thinks that, deep down, humans long to follow orders, reminding Captain America—transformed from a puny dork to fight the Nazis—of another mad Fascist. The Avengers have a hard time focusing on Loki, though, since they drive one another loco.
We all like to play the game, “Who would win in a fight, Dracula or Frankenstein? King Kong or Godzilla? Palin or Bachmann?” Here, you get shield versus hammer. Hammer versus iron suit. Shield versus Hulk. Nobody wins, but a lot of trees, windows, and expensive-looking control panels lose. Samuel L. Jackson’s S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Nick Fury lectures his wayward charges like the world’s dullest headmaster. (Jackson brings nothing to the part.) For some reason, Whedon has the obnoxious Tony Stark (Downey) work on Bruce Banner (Ruffalo), who’s diligently practicing anger management, to let out his inner Hulk, as if their flying battleship is some kind of est seminar. Shambling, attractively mussed Ruffalo ignores him and steals every scene. Whedon gives some sweet moments to Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson, now part government liaison, part fanboy. He gets especially moony around Evans’s rather colorless Captain, whose most expressive feature is his muscular torso. Multiple protagonists means that by the time you’ve had your fill of snotty Iron Man you get the wooden Captain, and when you’re bored with the Captain, you get the Norse hottie. Or Johansson, who comes into her own. Over the years, Johansson’s once-refreshing self-confidence has become an irritant (the vibe is now snobbish), but her Natasha Romanoff–Black Widow is a treat, her deadpan prickling with rage and hurt.
The Avengers is full of terrific comebacks (Captain: “We need a plan of attack.” Iron Man: “I have a plan—attack!”), and Whedon never lets us forget that, in the words of one bureaucrat, the fate of the human race has been left to “a handful of freaks.” The problem is, what now? Can we watch another Iron Man flick without thinking, “Why doesn’t he get on the phone to Banner? Natasha is rested and ready. Thor is just a portal away.” We’re spoiled. We’ll always be thinking, “Show me the money!”