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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

As you are no doubt aware, I make my judgement of how any particular summer at the movies will be, quality wise, based on how well the first BIG movie is. Last year, the Marvel train was in full force, kicking things off with Thor, which I loved. And luckily, my prediction was right on the money. Summer 2011 was a great season, but if my prediction now is accurate, then it will in no way touch this summer. Let me just get it out of the way right now. I am expecting great things from Prometheus, cannot wait for Brave, am stoked for Ted and for GI Joe, and, of course, am anticipating the hell out of The Dark Knight Rises. But if any of those films can beat The Avengers for my number 1, then I will be floored. What Marvel studios, along with writer/director Joss Whedon have done is truly marvelous, a triumph of character mixed with spectacle mixed with humor mixed with emotion mixed with action. After five films and tons and tons of teases and build up, the wait is over. The Avengers have assembled, and they defy every expectation there was or could have been.

Tony Stark/Iron Man is busy inventing new, energy saving technology. Bruce Banner/The Hulk is living an isolated existence in India, continuing to repress the "other guy". Thor is still in Asgard, watching over Earth as its protector. Steve Rodgers/Captain America is attempting to adjust to the culture shock of being woken up after seventy years. Neither of these men give the other a second thought, until Loki returns and prepares to unleash hell on earth. The demigod steals The Tesseract, the cube that Rodgers fought the Red Skull over in WWII, which has been in the hands of S.H.E.I.L.D. ever since. Loki intends to use its power to summon an army of aliens to Earth, with the intention of conquering the planet. To combat this new threat, Nick Fury reactivates The Avengers Initiative, bringing Stark, Banner, Rodgers, and Thor together as a team for the first time. Egos clash, bonds are tested, but soon, these men realize the seriousness of their mission, and unite to stop Loki before he forces all of humanity to its knees.

The plot here is merely a means to an end. There is so much being shoved into one movie, and so much that could have gone wrong, that a convoluted and complex story would have hindered the film rather than helping it. But fear not. Though it's not the most interesting of set ups, you won't notice, because The Avengers has an absolutely fabulous screenplay, full of fantastic characters and superb dialogue. And though some pretty serious stuff goes down, the film never takes itself too seriously, always inserting a joke or funny line to ensure that things never get too dark. However, and this is the truly marvelous thing about the script, all those jokes and zingers never, not once, detract from the character moments or arcs. Where most comic book movies not directed by Christopher Nolan focus on the action and only put menial effort into the characterization, The Avengers realizes the simple truth that all the explosions and screaming in the world means nothing if you don't care about who is screaming. And you'll care here. You'll absolutely care.

All the people we've been introduced to over the last few years return, and are all given moments to shine. Robert Downey Jr. is better than ever as Stark, always ready to drop a sarcastic line or spew some condescending rhetoric, but he displays even more humanity in this one. He really has grown as a character since Iron Man, and this version of Stark is the most interesting, still kind of a dick, but one who has fully embraced his responsibilities as a super hero.

Downey Jr.'s wit and sarcasm is balanced out perfectly by Chris Evans' Rodgers. I thought Evans was better than the material he was given in Captain America, and he is even more impressive here now that the script and characterization are up to the task. You can really tell that the confusion brought on by suddenly waking up in a new decade, with everything and everyone he knew gone, is weighing down on him as he boldly and stubbornly charges forward into the fray. He's just as morally steadfast and firm as we remember, leading to some heated exchanges between him and Stark.

Chris Hemsworth returns to his over the top, Shakespeare-esque antics as Thor, who, unlike the rest of the team, is in this fight for personal reasons. Hemsworth brings plenty of conflict to the table, as he's not really there to fight Loki, just to take him back to Asgard so he can stand trial. Hemsworth was fantastic in Thor, and he's just as good here, offering plenty of humor and ridiculousness, while simultaneously giving plenty of heart.

Mark Ruffalo is the new guy, taking over for Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, and he almost steals the show. No one has really gotten The Hulk on screen yet, but Ruffalo nails it, perfectly embodying the fear and suspense that comes with playing a ticking time bomb. He's also the first person who has actually gotten to play The Hulk in all his green glory on screen, thanks to some impressive motion capture.

Scarlett Johansson returns as Black Widow in a much expanded role. Whedon is clearly having great fun with her, as he has always championed strong female characters. Whereas she was nothing more than eye candy in Iron Man 2, she really is given a lot to do here, and ScarJo performs beautifully. Jeremy Renner is promoted to full on cast member here as Clint Barton/Hawkeye, following his brief but sweet cameo in Thor. His is probably the simplest character. He's not given much to do, and, in fact, spends much of the movie as a mindless henchmen. But when he is given something to chew on, Renner does not disappoint. And Samuel L. Jackson, naturally, returns as Nick Fury, and he's just as badass as you remember.

Special mention to Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson. That man is a god!

But the guy you'll all remember at the end of the day is villain. Tom Hiddleston as Loki is flat out amazing. Loki here is very different than Loki in Thor. You can tell from the second he steps on screen, as he flashes one of the creepiest smiles ever, that he has been through some shit and is full bore evil now. And even though he wields untold amounts of power and has control of an army capable of leveling New York, his true villainy shines through when he starts to get into everyone's head, causing them to doubt themselves, and testing the limits of their partnership. Hiddleston is having a grand old time, and instantly rockets into the higher echelon of screen villains.

Everyone here deserves praise for their work, but the real star is director Joss Whedon. There is not enough credit in the world with which to give him. Everything about The Avengers just works so well by itself and in tandem with everything else. No one working in Hollywood today knows how to handle the idiosyncrasies of a team or making relatable, yet fantastical characters better than Whedon, and he pools every little bit of talent into this. We'll get to action in a minute, but let's focus on the thing that Whedon does best of all, the talking. Whedon knows how to make fast, fluid, dialogue that is fun to listen to, but is always driving the plot forward. To hear Stark and Banner banter as they work in the lab, or Coulson get starstruck by Rodgers, or Loki taunting Black Widow about her inability to save Barton; it's all a pleasure because Whedon's writing is so good. The fact that he is willing to step back and let his characters talk is something sorely lacking in these types of films; as I said, it's so much scarier when the villain can sow chaos using his words instead of his fists. And don't worry. There are still plenty of the trademark, Whedon jokes. Seriously, there are some really hilarious moments in this film.

I would say that the moments of talking are the most enjoyable part of the movie, but the action is too good. I'm sorry, but this is easily some of the best action I've ever seen on screen. Though the first few set pieces are nothing major (there's the tense opening sequence, and the crazy ass fight between Thor and Iron Man), the two big action scenes are truly marvelous. Well shot, inventive, and always exciting, once the action gets going, it never fails to impress. Until the final battle, the team doesn't really work together all that much, sometimes even fighting each other. But when they finally put aside their differences and become one unit, it's one of the biggest "FUCK YEAH" moments you will ever see. The highlight comes at the halfway point in the finale, which consists of one, super long shot through the war torn streets of New York as every member of the team effortlessly uses their powers in tandem with everybody else's to become an unstoppable juggernaut. Moment after moment after moment had me in a state of slack jawed amazement, so that when the battle is finally over, you are just as exhausted as they are.

Every member is given a moment to shine in the finale, from Thor using the Chrysler building as a super conductor to conjure up a devastating lighting storm, to Hawkeye pulling off some mind boggling archery moves, to Iron Man and Captain America coming up with an amazing way of combining their powers, but it's The Hulk who steals the show here. I don't want to give anything away. Just be prepared to cheer your ass off.

You really get the sense that there is a war on, despite the fact that the battle focuses on six people. The camera will slowly sweep across the destroyed streets and wave after wave of enemy come charging at them. It's not like they go in, kill a few guys, beat down the big bad, and then they are done. Oh no. The finale goes on and on as the team struggle to reach their goal, and are continuously beat back. And this brings me to the thing I find most wonderful about The Avengers. It is only 142 minutes long, an average length for an event movie like this. But it feels longer. It feels much longer. And I in no way mean that as a nitpick. In fact, it's a complement. It's so epic, but so well done, that I didn't want to leave the movie. I wanted it to keep going, to see how Whedon would wow us next.

Marvel, Whedon, and everyone else involved with this project deserve a thunderous applause. What started as a mere easter egg in Iron Man has grown into a full on game change for the world of movies. Every installment in this odyssey stood out in some way, but The Avengers is the true achievement. A film that nails every element of its being, it singlehandedly sets the new standard for comic book movies. Step aside Batman. There's a new champion in town!


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