It all leads up to this, “The Avengers.” Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, assembled in one massive movie, based on the must-read comic book that tied together the vast Marvel Universe like the quickest game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, month after month for decades. And still going strong, print-wise. Cinema-wise, after two hit “Iron Man” films, two “Hulk” movies (one in 2003 now disowned, the other in 2008 that was just OK), “Thor” and “Captain America,” we now have the comic book movie of the year.
The Avengers is an unlikely team of super heroes: Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Hawkeye and Black Widow, joined by SHIELD Agent Nick Fury in one massive film. (Classic B-side comic book characters such as Ant-Man and Wasp must wait for a sequel.) The plot follows the book’s lead: The team fights intergalactic threats, a power-mad super villain, and/or more likely each other or another Marvel hero.
Does the “Avengers” movie live up to the years of hype? Never could. This comic book nerd dreamed about such a movie throughout his childhood, and it’s a work of pop-art summer flick beauty for a boy who got himself happily lost inside three-color panels and myriad crossover cliffhangers for hours upon hours. It contains the single greatest ripped-from-a-comic-book-scene ever on film: The Hulk smashes a villain around as if he were a sock monkey, and drops a one-liner as he walks off, satisfied with his big, green, angry self. Cheer!
But that comes at the end, and I need to start at the beginning: We open in space – evil mumbling abound about the destruction of Earth, by a freakish, hooded alien of some sort. Loki – the villainous brother of Thor, both the hero and the namesake 2011 film, played by Tom Hiddleston – is to lead the charge. He zaps to Earth through a portal that opens at the headquarters of the super-secret spy group SHIELD, the latter tinkering with a glowing blue Cosmic Cube thingy that promises unlimited energy. (Confused? You have not watched the earlier superhero films.) Loki wreaks havoc, taking prisoners and under-mining a furious Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).
The first 20 minutes is all SHIELD, an odd introduction, but director/ screenwriter Joss Whedon (TV’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly”) is easing us into this massive universe, bringing in his team one member at a time. We hop from America to Germany then to a massive floating aircraft carrier (straight out of the comic books) and then to New York City for a 40-odd minute battle finale, complete with massive creatures reminiscent of the sandworms in “Dune,” floating above the skyline.
So, yes, it’s a Michael Bay “Transformers” finale with smashed buildings and fleeing extras, but Whedon whets our appetites (mine anyway) with long shots of the heroes, standing in a circle, backs to each other, ready to fight, and every hero -– even the relatively unexplored Hawkeye and Black Widow – gets a shining moment. Captain America, in the middle of the battle, takes charge of the team as the only man with real-war experience. Iron Man blasts his way through canyons of skyscrapers. Then there’s that beaut scene with Hulk and sock monkey Loki. It’s everything you want in a comic book, outlandish action with wit as Loki lays hyper-ventilating and thinks, “What am I doing?”
The real Whedon coup, though, is fitting all these heroes and actors into one film and making it work – Chris Evans as Captain, Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, and Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk. Major names mixed in with minor names, and of course Downey rules the roost with his Tony Stark strut and outsize ego, but Ruffalo uses nerdy charm to win scene after scene. When minor-league Evans — he can’t compete with Oscar nominees -– steps up to the plate to take over the team, we’re cheering for the actor as much as we are the character.
I never thought a live-action film of the Avengers could be pulled off, but Whedon has done it. It’s not perfect — that plot is weak, in case you didn’t notice, Loki’s lizard baddies are faceless and void of personality, but Downey’s Stark can drop a shawarma reference out of the blue, and make it sing. “Avengers” is bright, bold fun, with the inner-fights of heroes, and their coming together against a world threat a reminder of the best of all humanity. As Stan Lee always said, “Exclsior!”
–Steven Mackay, volunteer for Lyric