Comic book mavens rejoice, for Marvel Studios has concocted a heady and wonderful sensory brew in “The Avengers.” Weaving together the origin stories of Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, and Captain America, “The Avengers” packages a star-studded cast, one that could easily have imploded under its own weight, into a fleet-footed, yet cohesive, plotline.
Nefarious forces from other worlds threaten Earth, led by the sneering and magnetic trickster god Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Their machinations revolve around a MacGuffin called the Tesseract, a dark energy source that doubles as a portal to dimensions unknown. Nick Fury (a growling Samuel Jackson), leader of top secret organization S.H.I.E.L.D., loses custody of the Tesseract when Loki breaches a top secret S.H.I.E.L.D. facility. Facing world-ending calamity, Fury summons the ensemble cast – gee-whiz action follows.
Audiences by this point expect a certain level of F.X. amazement in superhero flicks. In this regard, “The Avengers” predictably offers big fights, loud explosions, and discomfiting scenes of New York City getting disasterized. These elements capture the moviegoer’s immediate attention, but amount to far less than a good movie (sorry, “Battleship”). “The Avenger” transcends the blockbuster bloat, however, with Zak Penn and Joss Whedon combining efforts to forge a screenplay that offers more than colorful destruction. In fact, you may find yourself wanting more of the interstitial moments of dialogue than said mayhem.
As an example, Captain America (square-jawed Chris Evans, spandex included) dovetails surprisingly well into the 21st century story. When the Captain asks if his stars and stripes uniform is a bit too much, Nick Fury frankly replies that “I think everyone could use a little ‘old fashioned’ right now.” This could have just been a throwaway chuckle, but the theme percolates through the story and emerges in resonant moments, like when the Captain orders a few NYPD officers to “establish a perimeter” amidst alien-induced chaos. The officers smirk at first, but after seeing the Captain in action, cynicism gives way to belief.
Similarly strong development occurs for the other superheroes as well. They may not be fully fleshed out personae, but their flaws and virtues are crystallized with a precision that honors their Marvel comic origins. Robert Downey, Jr. reprises his role as a wisecracking Tony Stark; Chris Hemsworth as a nigh-Shakespearean Thor; Scarlett Johansson returns as the Black Widow. In a switch from Edward Norton, Bruce Banner is played by Mark Ruffalo, who brings a subdued, oddly Marlon Brando-like intensity to the role. The Hulk, of course, is a green C.G.I. mirage but while ludicrous-looking, this green giant provides some of the most crowd-pleasing moments, smashing things and people with a ferocity that turns the vicarious into the refreshingly immediate.
“The Avengers,” of course, is not be-all, end-all perfection. The hectic pace can become too much, feeling like director Whedon is rushing us along a series of required steps that get us to not only the ending, but the obligatory glimpse of a forthcoming sequel. And unlike the other recently released Whedon title, “Cabin in the Woods,” the storyline here is straightforward, and thus forgettable. It would also be best not to think too much about the phenomenon that is “the Avengers.” Consider the movie as a global revenue-generating machine with marketing tie-ins that even include augmented reality apps for Walmart, and you may feel more unsettled than wondrous.
Gripes aside though, this is an Experience worth the capital letter. We now live in an age where the icons of comic books can be breathtakingly conjured on screen, from flying aircraft carriers to bow-and-arrow-wielding superheroes.
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