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In 2008’s Iron Man, the Easter egg reveal of superhero playboy Tony Stark’s tête-à-tête with the enigmatic Sgt. Nick Fury about a secret new government project, started fans buzzing for what they knew would be more.  It seems such a long time since Marvel Comics began its cinematic journey to place all the pieces of its grand chess game.  We’ve had a quad of getting-to-know-you features for The Hulk, another Iron Man movie, Thor, and finally Captain America.  The films were generally well-received and all were box-office hits.  This four-year trip led audiences down a road that has culminated in the big screen version of one of Marvel’s best-loved properties, The Avengers.

Dark forces are rising, threatening the Earth from far, far away.  Battles from the past and dimensions beyond our grasp have brought forth a very curious prize; a cube of energy so mysterious no earthly technology can fully understand or harness it, and so powerful that creatures will reach across galaxies to possess it.  The only boots on the ground aware of the Tesseract is a pitch-dark black-ops outfit called S.H.I.E.L.D., led by a man with one eye and a penchant for long leather dusters called Nick Fury.  Sgt. Fury has watched the cube like a nervous chicken waiting for an egg to hatch; he knows this is no earthly contraption and to that end, he has tried to put in place measures to defend against any eventualities that having a coveted object of unimaginable power might create.  This would be the Avengers Initiative, Fury’s attempt to gather a team of “remarkable people,” each with their own unusual attributes.  Unfortunately, Fury isn’t a law unto himself; a shadow cabinet that calls the shots for the agency put the kibosh on the project.  This couldn’t have been a dumber move because an impromptu visit from the Norse god, Loki, who would like the cube as well as the brilliant minds analysing it, renders S.H.I.E.L.D. minus one HQ.  Loki has a taste for fabulous headgear and world domination; his previous attempt to take over his home kingdom of Asgard was stopped by his brother, Thor, the thunder god, in a battle that made a bit of a mess back on Earth.  This time, Loki’s made an alliance that will allow him to be master of the little blue planet after working the Tessaract for his new pals.  Fury, along with the earnest Agent Coulson and his best persuader, Agent Natasha Romanov, cross the globe to gather the potentials from the failed Avengers Initiative.  From atop a hideously ugly skyscraper bearing his name, Tony Stark’s interest is piqued because of the scientific potential of the Tesseract.  In a barracks somewhere in New York City, a mourning, lost Captain America can only punch and obliterate sandbags as the resuscitated World War II hero remains a hermit, trapped out of time.  Cap may be a Super Soldier, but the operative word there is “soldier,” and after receiving his orders from Fury, is still willing to do his duty.  Somewhere in India getting his “Om” on, Bruce Banner has gone back to the simple life of a physician, treating denizens of the slums and staying as far from the stresses of the material world as possible, lest he transform into the not-so-lean, green fighting machine that as he puts it “kinda broke Harlem” after his last ride on the A train.  Though he refuses to Hulk-up even for the good of the planet, Banner, like Stark, is also intrigued by the mysterious power source and each man agrees to meet with Fury about this new threat.  Sadly for Fury, their personalities mix like oil and water, and joined with a healthy mistrust of S.H.I.E.L.D., the men don’t take the prospect of working together very seriously.  Relations become even more contentious when Thor comes flying in out of the blue to apprehend his brother, Loki, from under S.H.I.E.L.D.’s collective nose.  The Avengers Initiative seems like a lost cause until the results of Loki’s imprisonment onboard S.H.I.E.L.D.’s airborne fortress hits at the heart of the men, causing them to face their own responsibilities and join forces.  Just in time, too, because while he’s been tied up, Loki’s brainwashed minions have created a machine that opens a dimensional portal for the trickster god’s new friends and their massive army to conquer the Earth and announce their domination by destroying (Where else?) New York City.

There are few successful filmmakers that fly their fanboy flag as freely as Joss Whedon. Whedon came to prominence creating his own superhero, a teenaged Valley Girl who killed bloodsuckers whilst reeling off lines of pithy, postmodern wit, otherwise known as Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  His tales of the high school Van Helsing reenergised the vampire genre and gave audiences an incredible - if unlikely - female superhero.  Whedon also has science-fiction cred through his outer-space TV Western, Firefly, and the cloning opera, Dollhouse.  He’s also a respected comic book writer (X-Men is amongst his titles.) and had tremendous viral success with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.  All that to say when making a movie about one of Marvel Comics’ greatest super teams, he gets it.   Whedon knows what fans want from this movie because it’s exactly what he wants and he does a good job delivering it.  To quote the great Jim Kelly in 1973’s Enter the Dragon, “Man, you come right out of a comic book.”  Here, that’s not such a bad thing.  Instead of placing his characters in a more realistic world, Whedon embraces the fantastic; giving them endless “hero” moments with tons of quotable dialog that would only seem to work in a comic (“I am Loki of Asgard, and I come with glorious purpose.”), but is never overly earnest or takes itself too seriously (“Clench up, Legolas”) and is framed perfectly to make the audience cheer.  The Avengers is packed with thrilling action as one might expect, but of course Whedon gives viewers the slam-bang, bonecrushing kind that literally makes the seats rumble.  There’s hand-to-hand combat, gun battles and all sorts of CGI flights of martial fancy that strike awe and captivate.  While it’s his third go-round on the big screen (Not to mention his immortal 1970s live-action TV series), The Avenger’s Hulk is by far the greatest rendering there’s been; a very literal monster of rage that for the first time is actually quite frightening.  Yet the one aspect of The Avengers that sneaks up on the viewer is how funny it is.  Whedon’s wit is in full bloom and even his scarier Hulk has hilarious moments in the midst of wanton savagery.  Mark Ruffalo is great as the latest Bruce Banner, delivering lines full of self-effacing, gallows humour.  Ruffalo’s such a perfect fit as the Hulk; they even kept the star’s formidable chest hair on the CGI creature.  With Iron Man, Whedon gives an endless reel of gags and one-liners to Robert Downey Jr., whose Tony Stark may have settled down somewhat, but is still the jaded, spoiled genius, casting a jaundiced eye and the sharp edge of his tongue against all comers.  One worries that it might be too funny, but that’s when Whedon (Who co-wrote the film with Zak Penn) chooses to drop in another scene of full-throttle action.  For all the laughs and bombast, Whedon handles his actors wonderfully, particularly the aforementioned Ruffalo, and Chris Evans, who gives the character he portrayed so well in 2011’s Captain America even more depth and purpose.  It helped me understand why Cap’s the leader of this powerful, ego-ridden gaggle.  The other outstanding performance is by Tom Hiddleston, once again taking up the mantle, and indeed, one of the most fabulous hats in cinema history as the green and gilt-laden Loki.  Hiddleston perfectly balances Loki’s wry observations about the human race that amuses him so, with the simmering pathos of an eternal misfit that can’t accept help or forgiveness from his loving brother.  With his flippy, greasy black hair, sallow complexion, billowing cape and caustic wit delivered in the tones a tragic Shakespearean hero; I predict Hiddleston is about become the focus of many fans’ love for misanthropic quasi-villains, filling in the huge gap left by Alan Rickman as the Harry Potter films’ Severus Snape.

It would be too much to expect a perfect film and though very good indeed, The Avengers is not quite that, so here are the downsides.  The pacing: Boy, this is movie is long.  Granted, it covers a whole lot of ground to bring together the stories of the various heroes and villains, but also fills in the lesser-known Black Widow, who appeared in Iron Man 2 as a third-string character, and super-marksman, Hawkeye, who had a cameo in Thor.  In an attempt to make us feel something for the pair, a clumsy backstory is inserted and referred to throughout, which literally put a pause on the film’s momentum.  It seemed a waste to cast the excellent Jeremy Renner as the archer and have him spend so much time mostly playing Loki’s brainwashed zombie.  Whedon has always been known for creating amazing action roles for women, but try as hard as he does here, I still felt nothing at all for Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow.  I simply don’t believe her.  She’s given a lot of well-staged, hand-to-hand fight scenes, but something’s just lacking.  Natasha is one of Marvel’s most beguiling women.  She was the perfect spy; a cold-blooded killer and clean-cut seducer so mysterious that even the men she loved were unsure of her.  She was also Russian, which one would never glean from Johansson’s lethargic New York drawl.  As if the discrepancy were being acknowledged, at one point she even says, “I’m Russian… or I used to be,” which drew laughs from the audience.  For all the great set-ups Whedon gives her, Johansson simply has no swagger.  Being poured into a duller version of the Widow’s signature catsuit and her permed, soccer-mom hairdo further cancels the slinky effect.  She does make an effort and Whedon gives her an awful lot of screen time, but I guess playing a superhero onscreen requires a larger-than-life presence, which isn’t what we’re given.  Ironically, I thought Cobie Smulders, who plays Sgt. Fury’s right-hand (wo)man, was more fitting, having more of a physical likeness to the comic’s Natasha (with a little padding here and there) and being more compelling in her scenes.   While I praised some of the hero moment dialogue earlier, Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson  veers on this side of eye-roll with his constant fortune-cookie-like pronouncements that all begin to sound like his big speech from Deep Blue Sea.

Trifles aside, The Avengers is quite the undertaking.  It takes a steady hand and a real love for the characters, world and fandom to do it right and happily all those things can be found in the direction of Joss Whedon.  Riddled with the off-hand humour that marks a Whedon project, The Avengers provides all the exciting action one could hope for with all the faithful details for fans of the beloved comic.  The movie is pure entertainment and fun and a great way to start the summer movie season.

More, please.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

May 4th, 2012

 

Click here to read our interview with Tom Hiddleston from 2011's New York Comic Con.

 

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Photos

(Courtesy of  Walt Disney Pictures)

 

 

 

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