by Tony Dayoub
Captain America. The Incredible Hulk. The Invincible Iron Man. The Mighty Thor. As a kid, I remember watching Jack Kirby and Stan Lee's angst-ridden superheroes, then not much more than a dozen years old, on an umbrella cartoon (because of its limited motion, you couldn't really call it animated) series called The Marvel Super Heroes. Though it was rewarding enough to watch these heroes' early stories play out onscreen, for most viewers, one of the coolest parts of the show was when some other super character would pop in to the storyline unexpectedly, a crossover. Hawkeye, Black Widow, Quicksilver, the Scarlet Witch and many others would rear their head, and one imagined that the Marvel Universe was an expansive setting in which anyone could be the recipient of a metahuman power infusion.
What works on the comic page, or on children's cartoons, doesn't always work on the big screen, however. Marvel has spent a lot of creative and monetary capital on establishing their individual superhero stars as the most special and most powerful characters in their respective franchises. Iron Man 2, the weakest link of the interlocking series of films that preceded Marvel's newest release, fails mostly because its star is eclipsed by what feels like an interminable succession of characters with powers as unique as his (or in the case of War Machine, nearly exactly the same as his). In a world with gadget-laden assassin Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), the electric-tentacled Whiplash or even the crafty superspy Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), what makes Tony Stark's Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) so special? As anticipation built for The Avengers, a culmination of Marvel's dream to unite its most recent moneymaking franchises, the film critic in me was going in with a skeptical eye.
For the overlong, talky first half of the 140-plus-minute The Avengers, things seem to go about how I expected. When there are any spikes in the action quotient comic book cliches rule the day, as we're treated to the inevitable infighting that usually launches any superheroic team-up in the funny pages. Iron Man battles Thor (Chris Hemsworth). Thor swings at the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). The Hulk terrorizes the Black Widow. Black Widow stuns Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). The perpetual stalemates seem to stall the movie's flow to its over-the-top finale while doubling for exposition, filling in the blanks on a hero's personality and abilities for any viewers still unfamiliar with their backstory. Here's one example:
This setpiece demonstrates what's wrong with the first half of The Avengers. The forest looks like a cheap set. There's virtually no story reason why these two superheroes should be fighting when a simple conversation would end their misunderstanding. And entirely too much time is spent establishing each character's powers and personality when another better film would trust its audience to catch up along the way.
But, for the little child inside of me, there is something undeniably neat about finally getting to see these comic book titans interact onscreen. All the money (roughly $220 million) they seem to have forgotten to spend in the first half of The Avengers seems to have been saved for the movie's climax, a protracted Midtown Manhattan brawl where the Avengers contend with Norse god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and his Chitauri—they're-not-the-Skrulls—alien force. The locales look real; no backlot soundstage a la Superman II's climactic Phantom Zone villain attack on New York. In this segment, there's an unexpected visual panache that occasionally pays homage to The Avengers' comic book roots. One memorable shot, a low angle capturing Captain America's reflection on a broken side-view mirror lying in the rubble, recalls Alex Ross's painted artwork from Marvels. Like in that comic series, the composition serves to make the unreal feel a tiny bit more human-scale. Of course, that feeling is fleeting, as we finally let to see Captain America (Chris Evans) let it rip with shield-flinging, balletic somersaults and witness the full extent of archer Hawkeye's expert marksmanship. Best of all, we get the most exciting, lengthy Hulk-out ever (if there's one franchise that shall benefit the most from this film, it's the much maligned Hulk's... dude's got style in this one).
All stunts aside, though, one shouldn't underestimate this summer movie's attempts at verisimilitude. The Avengers' saving grace is director/co-screenwriter Joss Whedon's uncanny ability to distill the essence of these eclectic characters into their dialogue. It's easy enough to credit Downey—a clever, jaded actor (who is nevertheless fully invested in the at times silly proceedings)—for Stark's sarcastic witticisms. "You've been tiptoeing, big man," he tells Ruffalo's downcast Bruce Banner about holding back his rage, "It's time to strut." But how do you account for Black Widow or Thor, whose respective performers are, ahem, more limited of range? Or Hulk, a CGI-creation whose physical performance is captured off of Ruffalo, the third actor to play the beast in as many films? Whedon makes each protagonist the epitome of him or herself. That is, for lack of a better way to express it, Iron Man is the most "Iron Man-like" Iron Man Downey's ever played, thanks to an assist from Whedon.
In that sense, The Avengers fulfills on the promise that Stan Lee's early comics made with their fans. What's important about a Marvel hero, The Avengers affirms, is not his unique superhuman powers but the quality of his character. And The Avengers has enough room between its bouts of superheroic histrionics to illustrate this point, in spades.