Emboldened by the successes of the Spider-man and X-men franchises, Marvel Comics in 2005 took the unusual step of forming their own movie studio for the express purpose of developing their properties for the big screen. The first endeavor Iron Man (2008) garnered abundant praise from critics and fans alike. Then Marvel erased the stigma of the terrible Ang Lee Hulk (2003) with The Incredible Hulk (2008). With those two films, Marvel established a link between the movie realities of their characters, an unusual cinema tack.
By introducing common characters and elements, it allowed the stories to mirror the framework of the Marvel Comics universe as first envisioned by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby back in the 1960s. Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), and Captain America (2011) further strengthened these bonds, ultimately culminating in Marvel's The Avengers.
For this momentous event, Marvel went to cult director/ uber-geek Joss Whedon to helm the project. While he did create the iconic teen vampire hunter with the long running show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, most of Whedon's career is a wreckage of financially-failed, critically-acclaimed projects. At every turn, his fervent imagination seemed crippled by the Hollywood system. His only previous feature film directorial outing, Serenity (2005), became a critical and fan darling, but flopped at the box office.
From a business standpoint, Whedon seemed to be an odd selection to head the project. Thankfully, Marvel looked beyond the dollar signs and focused on the quality, because Whedon with The Avengers rises to not only meet the expectations of the fans, but in many ways far exceeds them. He manages to encapsulate the promise evident in the earlier movies into an entertaining story, reliant upon yet wholly different that its antecedents.
The story launches as The Tesseract (previously seen in Captain America and Thor), an energy source of unknown potential, activates itself, opening a portal through which the exiled Norse god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) appears. In response, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) activates the Avengers Initiative, a plan to gather the greatest heroes to combat extreme threats.
Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johannson) seeks Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), while S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Philip Coulson (Clark Gregg) approaches Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Fury assigns Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) with the task to retrieve the Tesseract from Loki. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) joins the group looking for his foster-brother.
Whedon, who also penned the screenplay, smartly relies on the classic super-hero team-up story structure. Distrust and misunderstanding leads to the heroes fighting among themselves. They come to their senses and reconcile. Then achieve a victory that can only be accomplished as a team. Along the way, Whedon employs his trademark wit and banter, mixed some truly epic fights, to propel the engaging tale.
Beyond the shallow and somewhat stereotypical depiction of Clint Barton (who is never referred to as Hawkeye in the movie), the film delivers adequate depictions of the ensemble. Three of the characters really shone under Whedon's careful ministrations.
When Black Widow/ Natasha Romanoff first appeared in Iron Man 2, she lacked any depth and beyond the idea of a beautiful woman kicking ass, offering nothing particularly memorable. In her first scene in The Avengers (an excellent interrogation sequence), the super spy demonstrated more character and nuance than the whole of her previous appearance. Given Whedon's predilections, the emergence of a fully-realized Romanoff should not be that surprising. She is essentially the movie's central character, the barometer of the tale's morality and heart.
Through a popular 1970s TV show and two feature films, no one ever truly captured the true essence of the comic book Hulk on film. Whedon changed all that. Far more than a mere monster, this Hulk comes across more as an angry, sometimes cruel child. He receives a measure of joy from smashing. He can be reasoned with in a limited child-like fashion. Banner's mind functions as a suppressed self-consciousness that steers the creature from mindless killing and just wanton destruction. Hulk still bashes things but primarily aimed at the bad guys. This is by far the finest Hulk incarnation, bar none.
Making a better use of Loki than in Thor, Whedon amped up his mischief and evil nature. Chaos rules supreme. The film cleverly obfuscates the reasons for Loki's actions and motives. Plus, the dressing of the god of lies and trickery in business suit throughout much of the picture lends further credence to his diabolical machinations.
The new Captain America suit actually looks worse on the big screen than in the trailers. A reject from the 1990s, the ugly costume at times screams kitsch as opposed to the nostalgia the displaced character requires.
The fast moving story spends little time explaining things, which might bother those who haven't seen the previous movies. No effort is exerted to catch newcomers up to speed. And as with the previous Marvel movies, stay through the credits for a surprise that will excite old time Marvel fans.
The movie's biggest sin is the exclusion of Jack Kirby, who receives no credit. Without Kirby, Marvel's The Avengers simply would not exist. The Black Widow and Hawkeye, both of whom Stan Lee created with Don Heck, initially appeared as villains in the pages of Iron Man, a concept conceived by the Lee-Kirby team. Kirby, alongside his longtime collaborator Joe Simon, first introduced the world to Captain America in 1941. The Lee-Kirby tandem were responsible for Hulk, Thor, Nick Fury, S.H.I.E.L.D., and the first appearances of The Avengers. Not only should he get a creator credit, but his estate royalties. This lack of respect is simply inexcusable.
Remarkably, Whedon managed to meld the diverse collection of characters, combined with just the right touch of humor and action, to create the ultimate Marvel movie, a joy for both the comic book geek and the lovers of the movies. Marvel's The Avengers excites the inner ten year old while supplying enough maturity for the more cynical adult. Can't wait to see what's on tap for the sequel.