Tuesday, May 15, 2012


Since the epilogue in “Iron Man” (2008) when Nick Fury broached the idea of the Avengers Initiative to billionaire, playboy, and philanthropist Tony Stark, Marvel Comics has been patiently whetting our appetites for “The Avengers.”   This imaginative ensemble epic assembles not only Iron Man and Hulk, but also Thor, Captain America, Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Nick Fury.  Agent Phil Coulson returns, too.  Ostensibly, these paragons of virtue are all that stand between Thor’s scheming step-brother Loki and the fate of mankind.  Happily, Loki brings more to the table than he did in Kenneth Branagh’s anemic “Thor.” Indeed, Thor and Loki seem to have matured considerably during the interim.  Loki ranks as a first-rate, diabolical villain; he is ready, willing, and eager to kill anybody who confronts him, and actor Tom Hiddleston relishes every moment with glee.  Ultimately, “The Avengers” (**** out of ****) qualifies as Marvel’s ambitious attempt to deliver an all-star, no-holds-barred, alien invasion thriller to rival the “Transformers” franchise.  Of course, we know already that our heroes won’t capitulate, but this PG-13 extravaganza takes everything down to the wire.  Inevitably, the extraterrestrial villain--only hardcore Marvel Comics fans may recognize him—who boasts about subjugating Earth is as presumptuous as audiences who fail to appreciate the artistry of “The Avengers.” “Serenity” director Joss Whedon gives every super hero an opportunity to perform an integral role in this larger-than-life smackdown.  Reportedly, Whedon shot more footage of Captain America than reached the screen.  Nevertheless, the fish-out-of-water, World War II hero still participates in a major way.  Melodramatic, with more humor than you might imagine, but just enough tragedy to make things bittersweet, “The Avengers” doesn’t wear out its welcome.  Moreover, this 142-minute, far-fetched nonsense holds up under repeated showings.  I’ve seen it four times, and it loses none of its spontaneity.  The 2-D version is better than the 3-D version. 

“The Avengers” opens with audacious Asgardian exile Loki (Tom Hiddleston of “Archipelago”) cutting a deal with malevolent aliens elsewhere in the galaxy.  Afterward, he materializes on Earth and snatches a formidable source of energy, the Tesseract, from Nick Fury's (Samuel L Jackson) SHIELD outfit. If you’re interested, the Tesseract appeared initially in “Captain America, the First Avenger.”  Once Loki gets his power-hungry hands on the Tesseract, he plans to use it to unlock a portal in space.  Since science isn't Loki's strong suite, he recruits Professor Erik Selvig (Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd of “Thor”) with the use of his glowing scepter to handle the mysterious cube.  Loki wants to open the portal so an extraterrestrial barbarian horde, the Chitauri, can storm Earth.  The Chitauri are merciless reptilian warriors who resemble humans but wear silver armor and careen across the skies in trios on chariots.  Before he leaves with the Tesseract, Loki also recruits Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner of “The Hurt Locker”) to do his evil bidding. Meanwhile, Fury sets out to recruit his own team.  First, he recruits Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans of “The Fantastic Four”) who hasn’t quite grown accustomed to the 21st century.  Chiefly, Captain America doesn’t know what most of the popular phrases mean.  Former Russian spy Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) lands in Calcutta to round up Dr. Bruce Banner whose alter-ego is the Hulk. Fury needs Banner because he is an expert in gamma rays. Agent Coulson calls on Iron Man with specific requests.  Eventually, Thor barges him when he learns about Loki's treachery.  Everybody boards a futuristic aircraft carrier that does more than ply the high seas.  Throughout "The Avengers," Whedon does a masterly job of interspersing comedy with suspense.  "The Avengers" contains some brilliant comic moments, but Whedon doesn't allow things to turn campy.  Moreover, Whedon manages to muster enough time for each hero to make a contribution as they contend with Loki.

 Whedon's “The Avengers” emerges as the climax to several recent Marvel Comics super hero escapades.  Thor and Captain America toplined their own respective origins stories and generated well over a $100-million in box office receipts.  If you’ve been keeping track of Marvel movies, you know the least successful super hero of the quartet is the Hulk.  Unlike “Iron Man,” “Thor,” and “Captain America,” the pugnacious green gargantuan never formulated the right mix of leading actor, atmosphere, and narrative tone.  Marvel’s two “Hulk” movies failed to forge a charismatic hero after Marvel’s major success with him on prime time television.  Director Ang Lee’s “Hulk” (2003), with Eric Bana as the title character, took itself far too seriously and tackled unpleasant issues such as child abuse.  Marvel rebooted the character with director Louis Leterrier’s “The Incredible Hulk” with Edward Norton as the eponymous character.  This adventure surpassed “Hulk,” but remained half-baked.  Unfortunately, actor Edward Norton feuded with the studio over the film’s interpretation of the material.  Happily, for Hulk, lightening strikes the third time.  Mark Ruffalo looks ideal as Dr.  Bruce Banner and Whedon literally has remade the Hulk in Ruffalo’s own image.  Hawkeye and The Black Widow aren’t exactly in the same league with luminaries like Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, or Hulk.  These two are conventional agents of SHIELD with special skill sets. Neither, however, possesses Herculean prowess.  Lastly, ubiquitous Agent Phil Coulson hasn’t changed an iota.  Like Nick Fury, Coulson has appeared in most of the films.  More than any other character, Coulson makes the greatest impression in “The Avengers” when Loki throws down the gauntlet.
There are two kinds of super hero movies.  First, you have those brawny, exciting sagas, with sparkling verbal repartee, like “Iron Man” and “Captain America,” that are lightweight but suspenseful.  Second, like “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight,” you have those that are ominous, sophisticated, literate, and rely as much as possible on realism.  “The Avengers” belongs to the first category, and Whedon’s opus ranks as one of the best.  The action rarely sacrifices its momentum for expository information about either the heroes or the villains.  Iron Man has lost none of his quirky, irreverent personality. He has the best lines and his nicknames for his companions are hilarious.  He calls Thor “Shakespeare in Park” and refers to Hawkeye as Legolas. Captain America maintains his stiff upper lip.  Hulk acquires a mystique lacking in prior Marvel incarnations, and Thor becomes the hammer wielding equivalent of an intergalactic lawman.   Again, Loki’s evil machinations keep thing interesting.  “The Avengers” is the kind of movie where you need to stick around even as the end credits roll to learn more about the villains and the heroes.