An avenging assemblage of superheroes

Despite the enraging experience of having to see the film a promotional screening — at which they tagged and bagged my phone out of the absurd fear that I would use it to record the whole movie and then sell it, even though the movie has been out in international markets for a week — I loved The Avengers.

I just saw a headline online that asked, “Is The Avengers the greatest comic book movie ever?” It’s the one of the click-here-and-argue-in-the comments sort of headlines that websites love because it gets readers to stick around and earn the site advertising revenue. I don’t know what the writer’s answer was, since I do my best not to read reviews before I write mine. But I know what my response to the question would be: No, it’s not the greatest comic book movie ever. I think there’s a case for The Dark Knight and possibly the original Superman; those are profound films that are also fabulous popcorn movies. The Avengers is about as deep as its superfluous 3-D effects, but it is the most entertaining, and most expertly made, big-budget action movie of the year. It’s a great way to start the summer movie season.

Marvel, the comic book brand that controls The Avengers, has been building up the movie for several years by foreshadowing it in the two Ironman movies and last summer’s Thor and Captain America. Samuel L. Jackson, playing Nick Fury, the director of the CIA-like SHIELD, pops up in all of these movies to hint at creating a group of superheroes to fight supervillains. In The Avengers, he finally succeeds, assembling Ironman (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), The Hulk (this time played by Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to fight the combined forces of Thor’s evil brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and an army of nasty aliens called the Chitauri.

They’re all fighting over a glowing mysterious cube of unlimited power called the Tesseract. But who cares? Unlike the truly great comic movies such as the ones mentioned above, movies that had something to say about heroism and evil and power, the plot of The Avengers is pretty irrelevant. It was mostly constructed to get all of these iconic characters on screen together, participate in a great deal of witty repartee, and then get involved in massive, extremely destructive battles. However, because Marvel hired the fanboy god Joss Whedon – the guy who gave us Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and last month’s Cabin in the Woods – what could have been a silly, muddled slog is instead a sharp, smart, and expertly choreographed showcase for more than half a dozen beloved superheroes.

In two hours and twenty minutes, Whedon managed to develop the character of each of the heroes, doing the best with Ironman, the Hulk, and Black Widow (probably because Downey, Ruffalo, and Johansson are far and away the best actors). Whedon has long been adept at directing complex comic ensembles, and he does those in The Avengers with great results. But he doesn’t have experience with long, CGI action sequences. Nevertheless, Whedon’s direction of the battle between the Avengers and Loki and his aliens is sparklingly clear. The destruction of New York during the battle reminded me of Michael Bay’s destruction of Chicago in last summer’s Transformers 3; the difference was that in The Avengers, I could follow all of the action, the impossible physics made sense, and it wasn’t cruelly violent. It was thrilling and fun, and it was even funny. In particular, Whedon has a lot of fun with the Hulk.

Not everything in The Avengers works. If you haven’t seen the precursor films, you will probably miss out on the some of the plot points. Hawkeye is barely a character, which is disappointing since Renner can be such a crackling screen presence. The aliens don’t have a point – they don’t seem to have a reason to want the Tesseract or destroy the world. And then there’s Samuel L. Jackson, who has never been worse: dull, lacking all charisma. He seemed bored. This is especially weird since no one who is watching him in The Avengers could be bored. They’re too busy having fun.

The Avengers
Written and Directed by Joss Whedon
Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, and Scarlett Johansson
Rated PG-13
At your local multiplex

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