Since Iron Man (2008), many have patiently waited as Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) slowly assembled (tee hee hee) a team of far-flung superheroes, one at a time. We knew this was coming. As much fun as those post-credits recruitment scenes were, I regarded them with dread. In my mind, I skeptically visualized the poster; these costumed celebrities posed like action figures and frankly, the real posters were not far off. I cynically expected fast food tie-ins and countless sequels. I even expected the lengthy 143 minute running time. But I did not expect that I would love this movie. And yet, I really do.
The plot: Thor (Chris Hemsworth)'s pesky adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), up to his usual hijinx, steals an all-powerful glowing cube in hopes of opening a portal that would allow him passage to peaceful planet Earth. So Nick Fury rounds up his team of super powered egomaniacs to save the day. I could go on describing the story but, I won't. Be honest, do you really need a plot summary? Put it this way: Director Joss Whedon has made the best comic book movie since The Dark Knight.
Let's just skip to the important part. The entire cast is spectacular. Robert Downey Jr's Iron Man continues to delight as he effortlessly embodies the suave smart-ass Tony Stark, clearly enjoying every quippy minute. The same goes for Thor. Hemsworth understands that a key facet of Thor's likability lies in his obliviousness to the common ways of humans. In an inventive twist, Chris Evans' Captain America is cast this time around as some kind of naïve Rip Van Winkle. Steve Rogers is now a man out of time, attempting to enforce his outdated 1950's views on an unfamiliar modern world. These scenes run the gamut from amusing to painful but, the character always remains consistent. Thanks to these performances, The Avengers manages to pull off more than a few big laughs along the way.
The newcomers also shine, fitting effortlessly into their roles. Mark Ruffalo is undoubtedly the best Hulk ever and that is simply because he plays the best Bruce Banner. For the first time, I felt true sympathy for this well-trodden (remember Eric Bana and Edward Norton?) creature. An utterly tortured man, Banner really, really doesn't want to turn into that giant, green angry monster, hurting everyone around him. You feel his pain. To recall that Ruffalo was booed at Comic Con when he was introduced as an Avenger, now seems ludicrous. Those fans couldn't have been further off-base. Likewise, Jeremy Renner underplays the mysterious Hawkeye to great effect. We do not know him yet so by not immediately showing all of his cards, a wonderfully shaky tension is felt each time he is on-screen.
On the other side of the gender spectrum, Scarlett Johansson is excellent as Black Widow. She beautifully snaps her dialogue like an old school film noir femme fatale. Uncharacteristic for such a fanboy-centric film, she is not the only strong female character that Whedon places center frame. Cobie Smulders as SHIELD Agent Maria Hill is an anomaly in this genre. She is strong, whip smart, courageous and get this: She is not a sex object. Even Johansson (who admittedly spends most of the flick doing elaborate Kung Fu in a skin tight cocktail dress... not that I'm complaining) refreshingly sidesteps the usual clichés, by giving us a woman who cleverly uses the fact that men do not see her as an equal --to her advantage.
Much credit should be given to screenwriters Whedon and Zak Penn (creator of the underrated mockumentaries Incident at Loch Ness and The Grand). They know the pitfalls that often plague this type of movie and gracefully sidestep them all. Apart from being remarkably well scripted, The Avengers also manages to deliver some of the best crowd pleasing moments in recent memory. Without spoiling anything, the beloved Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg)'s moment of glory is short lived but very sweet. That scene and Loki's encounter with the Hulk are amongst the best and most surprising moments of 2012, so far. (Also: Three words- Security guard cameo.)
Many people will compare the quality of this film to Christopher Nolan's aforementioned Dark Knight. And so they should. When it comes to comic book movies, this level of achievement is rare. But the key difference lies with the villain. Tom Hiddleston's Loki falls short of the genius that Heath Ledger embodied as The Joker but, that's because he never had a fighting chance. Don't get me wrong. It's an unfair comparison. Hiddleston (who is hilarious in Midnight in Paris and genuinely likable in War Horse) nails each and every moment but, in a far less flashy manner. Besides, Loki has ambitions that far exceed what The Joker had in store for Gotham. An early scene, set appropriately in Germany, foreshadows Loki's sinister master plan.
As expected, the film climaxes in a massive and spectacular action sequence that dominates the closing 45 minutes. This kind of denouement often fails in my estimation, notably the Pearl Harbor attack being one particularly stinky example. Even that huge battle in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King bored me to tears. But here, the geography of the action sequence is brilliantly handled. You never feel confused or unsure where you are in the carnage. Unlike some of Michael Bay's work on his Transformers flicks, the back and forth of who is winning and why/ how they're winning -- is deftly conveyed. These may sound like fairly standard expectations for a big budget film but, it never ceases to amaze me how muddled and indecipherable most battle scenes of this magnitude can be.
This is another example of an extremely talent artist (Joss Whedon) finally getting the chance to make something on a very large scale. And it pays off. After the recent (and well-deserved) success of the Whedon produced/ co-scripted gem The Cabin in the Woods, I'm hoping Hollywood gives him carte blanche to make something even bigger and better next time. Even if that film has to be the sequel, I'm on board. Above all else, The Avengers is one of the finest examples of popcorn cinema ever made.
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Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to ShowbizMonkeys.com, Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine and The Uniter. You can find Tony on Twitter.