It begins horribly.
Yeah, the most expensive superhero movie ever made—combining characters from four different Marvel Comics franchises in an unprecedented feat of fanbody-friendly overlapping storylines— unfortunately kicks off with a listless, indifferently photographed action sequence during which a bunch of nameless, faceless characters are dispatched to little effect.
Lucky for us, it gets better.
Everybody is after something called The Tesseract—that gleaming cosmic cube you might remember showing up now and again in Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. Thor’s jerkoff brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) was banished to some sort of tacky netherworld in the Norse God’s sadly Crocodile Dundee -ish outing last summer, but here returns aching to take out Earth for no discernible reason. Basically, he’s just around to make the Avengers finally assemble.
I’m assuming you remember the post-credits stingers from umpteen Marvel movies over the past couple years, in which Samuel L. Jackson intrudes on superhero origin stories, wearing an eye patch and a leather coat, setting up this picture?
Well, it’s finally here. Thanks to Loki’s shenanigans, we’ve got Robert Downey Jr. as a flippant, insouciant Iron Man who is always impatiently awaiting cocktail hour. There’s also Chris Evans’ sad, soul-sick Captain America and Chis Hemsworth’s god of thunder Thor, drifting in from Asgard just fine, despite his last picture leaving him stranded. (A single line of dialogue undoes that entire film, so kiss continuity goodbye, comic-store gents!) Also, Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner wear a lot of black leather and seem to work for the government.
Then there is my favorite, the sad-eyed Bruce Banner. He may have been renowned across the world as a brilliant scientist, but every time he gets angry the poor guy turns green and smashes things. We’ve already seen two pictures in which The Hulk failed to impress, with Eric Bana and Edward Norton failing miserably to convey this dude who has unique difficulty controlling his temper. Kudos to writer-director Joss Whedon for recasting Mark Ruffalo, the most laid-back, easygoing actor in movies right now. The conflict between Ruffalo’s easy-peasy line readings and their inevitable aftermath is, frankly, hilarious.
The Avengers is a juggling act, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s auteur Whedon knows his way around recurring characters from television. The downside to this is that the picture is often hampered by flat, sitcom staging. But that hardly matters when you’re watching a big-screen version of every dorky kid’s hypothetical questions: What would happen if Thor fought The Hulk? And could Captain America beat them both?
The movie is barely four scenes long, with Whedon gathering a bunch of separate franchises together and forming a formidable army of costumed superheroes who all kind of hate each other at first. Good thing he knows his way around dialogue, as the banter is the real reason to go see this movie.
There’s some to do about a portal that opens up over New York City, where alien invaders can cruise in and get knocked off by our gang with barely a moment’s interest. The movie contains a bit too much fan service, with Whedon pausing for applause breaks every time a famous character does something cool.
But despite the rocky start, it’s eventually one big payoff after another. A little boy’s dream project in which Earth’s Mightiest Heroes all get together and break stuff.
I just wish there was more to it. A friend jokes that Judd Apatow could make a two-and-a-half-hour movie out of Downey’s playboy Tony Stark teaching Thor and Captain America how to be pimps. He’s not wrong, as the spectacle here is strictly so-so, and what works best is the character interactions.
I adored Downey and Ruffalo, having a quiet Zodiac reunion and talking technical gobbledygook about gamma rays when they both should probably be doing Beckett on stage somewhere. I also dearly love the way Chris Evans underplays Captain America as a lost soul adrift in modern times, a walking anachronism who simply can’t believe how disappointing everybody has become since the 1940s.
Whedon even elicits a terrific performance from Johansson. His camera does her no favors, but the dialogue does.
The Avengers is a big, splashy movie in which stuff blows up a lot. Still, you go home talking about the actors.
Director: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson