Puny God ("Marvel's The Avengers," Reviewed)

Yes, I've been away writing that book you've heard so much about. Let's remedy that, shall we?

Like many of you, last weekend I went to my local movie theatre to see what's being considered one of this summer's premier events: Marvel's The Avengers, a two-and-a-half hour roller coaster ride of a film starring the headliners from the comic company's five recent in-house productions. In addition to the invincible Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), the incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, taking over for Ed Norton), the mighty Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Captain America (Chris Evans), several other characters seized the spotlight, including SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson).

There was an indefinable energy filling the theatre when my friend Harold and I entered. Of course, I didn't go for just any screening of the film: We bought tickets to the all-day "Ultimate Marvel Marathon" put on by AMC Theatres, wherein all of the previous films were screened back-to-back from 11:30 in the morning all the way through the grand midnight Avengers premiere. The theatre was jam-packed with comics fans in their various T-shirts and other regalia recalling the heroes who were to appear on the screen all day long. (My choice of attire: You need to ask?) Each fan who attended received a special lanyard granting them access in and out of the building, a special release Avengers comic book, and one of four styles of Real D 3D glasses (available in Captain America, Hulk, Iron Man and Thor designs...again, guess which?).

The excitement level started out high, and only elevated throughout the day. Unfortunately, this theatre didn't receive the special introductions by Clark Gregg in his role of Agent Coulson that other AMC Theatres screened. I understand they were quite fun, and I'd like nothing more than to actually see them. Alas, the movies were draw enough. Up front were 2008's Iron Man and  The Incredible Hulk, followed by 2010's Iron Man 2 and 2011's tag-team of Thor and Captain America. In between some of the screenings, theatre employees gave away goodie bags and other special odds and ends to fans who answered depressingly easy trivia questions.

And then, the curtain rose on the final film at midnight. The moment of truth had arrived: Would writer/director Joss Whedon rise to the challenge of directing an action-packed feature filled with the heart and soul we knew was at the core of the mighty Marvel Universe?

You're damned right he would!

From the very first frames--a markedly slow beginning which served to introduce the Cosmic Cube Tesseract, the "MacGuffin" of the piece, locked away in the SHIELD and NASA-sponsored Project: PEGASUS (which any reader of seventies series Marvel Two-in-One will recognize)--I knew something special was happening. And when Loki (Tom Hiddleston) arrived, absconding with the Tesseract and narrowly escaping the Project's destruction, the stage was set. Fury began to assemble his team, and it was a sight to behold, having the stars assembled from the previous films begin to interact and their personalities begin to grate on each other.

Joss Whedon admitted he modeled much of the movie after The Dirty Dozen and Black Hawk Down, war movies which centered not on an overly labyrinthine plotline but on the characters that made up their respective groups. In many ways, Avengers is as much an origin story as Iron Man or Captain America, but instead of showing how the characters got their powers, it's a tale of how they learned to all tolerate each other's annoyances and shortcomings in order to beat the big bad. Yes, Loki is a scenery-chewing antagonist, and yes, he has a rather generic plan to enslave Earth's populace. He has an army which is generally ill-defined but who attack in such terrific numbers that any single super-hero would feel overwhelmed. The characterization of the villains really isn't as important as the scope of their operation. Whedon knows the best way to attack the narrative is in bringing out all the heroes' unique and sometimes grating personalities, and watching the fireworks.

Robert Downey Jr. has the majority of the film's best lines as "genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist" Tony Stark, once eliminated from consideration in Fury's Avenger Initiative but now recruited just the same. He's got a bone to pick with just about every member of the team, but learns to work with them just the same. (Especially brilliant is his line to Ruffalo's Banner about just how he's able to control his inner monster. I cackled for a good few minutes afterward.) As any fan of Whedon's television programs (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, et al.) will tell you, the writer/director is an expert at intelligent, snappy dialogue, and here it's no different. The movie is intensely quotable, from Stark's commentary on Thor's cape, to Thor's admission that Loki is his adopted brother, to Loki's quite misogynistic insult toward the Widow. (Yes, let's do look up "mewling quim" and gasp at what we find.) The bottom line is that the snappy dialogue works not just because it's smartly written by Whedon, but because in virtually every case, it all rings true with the characters involved, which is no mean feat in a super-hero film.

Such character moments don't often occur in an action extravaganza like Avengers, and let's make no mistake: This is an action-packed film. And while Downey's Stark may be the master of the witticism, he's physically upstaged in virtually every way by the ever-incredible Hulk. As motion-captured by Ruffalo himself, he steals literally every scene in which he appears, without exception. He may not talk much--and in fact, the theatre was so loud during one of his biggest moments that one could scarcely hear his clearest and perhaps only line of dialogue--but he more than makes up for that economy with the sheer, visceral thrill of seeing him match up against Thor and all manner of alien creatures, cutting loose as only the Hulk from the comics previously could. If you've been upset by the Hulk's seemingly lower strength levels in previous films, you'll find that issue remedied here. This is the Hulk you've been waiting years to see, and I'm hoping against hope that Mark Ruffalo gets to star in his own Incredible Hulk film sooner than later, penned by Whedon or one of his many traditional accomplices. Between actor and writer/director, they have given the character such a synergy that it'd be criminal to not have this character burst free into his own film once more. The formula is just right.

I don't want to go on too long about the movie because I really feel it's important that you see it, and so I'm really holding back on the spoilers. Suffice to say that by the time the ending credits roll, most diehard Marvel Zombies will feel like they've seen the be-all, end-all of super-hero movies. By sharp contrast with Christopher Nolan's Batman cycle, Whedon's Avengers is an unabashed celebration of the super-hero genre rather than a deconstructionist, "real-life" take. Since everyone knows I'm one of the biggest Hulk fans there is, I relish the larger-than-life qualities of that character and the remainder of the characters in Avengers. There are precious few issues with the story--I still don't like Hawkeye's status throughout the first half of the film--but they're outnumbered so greatly by "stand-up-and-cheer" moments that it's hard to remain upset.

And that ending? Stay all the way to the end, folks! You'll see not only the setup for another Marvel film (likely Avengers 2, the threat so great), but also a humorous payoff to what you'd likely believed was a throwaway line in the final battle.

I don't mean to gush, but this is one staggering sci-fi super-hero epic. It really doesn't get any better than this. The Avengers have assembled, and comic book films will never again be the same.


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