Review by Art Schmidt

Overall this is probably one of the best Marvel Studios has produced thus far.  Despite the multitude of heroes and personalities on the screen, which could have easily lent itself to a convoluted, overly-busy and confusing plot, the movie sails right along with only a few minor bumps in dialogue or story.  The tight script by director Joss Whedon manages to bring out the individual personality of each character, as well as showcasing each ones strengths and, in most cases, their weaknesses, without anything feeling like it was shoe-horned in the middle of a scene or duct-taped onto the end of a conversation.  It all flows exceedingly well, to both Whedon and Zek Penn‘s credit.

Early on, many questioned Whedon’s ability to transform from a televised series format where he’s had his greatest critical and commercial successes with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Dollhouse, to the big screen, despite having written stories and/or screenplays for several films including Toy Story, Alien: Resurrection, and Serenity.  Well, The Avengers have assembled for what is currently Earth’s Mightiest Movie, and Whedon has answered all of those critics with a guttural roar heard all across America yesterday:

“Joss SMASH!”

Smash, indeed.  It appears some records are about to be smashed, judging by the movie’s world-wide tallies and first-day numbers in the United States.

In fact, it may very well be Whedon’s experience with television’s shorter episodic format that enabled the director to write such crisp, fast-paced exchanges between the characters, expressing multiple points of view in relatively short conversations without feeling pithy or trite.  Of particular note is a scene mid-way through the movie, as the Team wrestles with each other’s hidden objectives and priorities, trying to make sense of how they can possibly agree on even one thing, much less begin to work together.  S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury’s agenda is questioned, as is Thor’s long-term plans for his captive brother Loki, played again with devilish delight by Tom Hiddleston.  Steve Rogers (a.k.a Captain America) questions Tony Stark’s patriotism, and Bruce Banner tries to remain out of the fray altogether, because in reality he doesn’t trust any of them.  And it is Banner who aptly frames the team’s troubles with the quip showcased in the previews: “We’re not a team…  we’re a time bomb.”

Of particular note is newcomer Mark Ruffalo, taking up the role of Bruce Banner formerly portrayed by not one but three other actors, the fairly straight-forward scientist on the run character (“David” Banner) that Bill Bixby gave us in the seventies TV series, the brooding scientist with the weight of the world on his shoulders as portrayed by Eric Bana in Ang Lee’s The Hulk, and the mousy, sensitive fugitive we were shown by Edward Norton.

Ruffalo gives us a character more true to the Banner of the comics, nerdy and analyzing, shy around people and reluctant to get involved, with much hand wringing and avoiding eye contact, even when the camera isn’t squarely on him.

The Hulk himself, finally, comes into his own in an odd way, with hints that Banner now has at least a tiny bit of control over the beast.  The CGI Hulk is a rare cinematic treat, fun to watch, exhilarating with his combat acrobatics and both vicious and funny to behold in all his rage.  He definitely grabs both some of the movies best action sequences and its funniest sight gags.  Whereas many studios anymore give away the best parts of their movies in the previews in an attempt to trick an audience into the seats, The Avengers saves the best stuff for the theater, and I won’t be so callous as to spoil one single juicy bit of it here.  I will say that when Banner tells his “big secret” to Black Widow and the rest of the team during the finale, it drew some the biggest cheers of the night.

Although now in an apparently steady relationship with Pepper Potts, played in a few brief scenes by Gwyneth Paltrow with the warmth and grace she brings to every role, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is at his most self-centered and narcissistic throughout the entire film.  Which of course is to say at his most fun, especially for the audience.  His cooler-than-thou attitude grates against almost every other member of the “team,” and much of the early in-fighting amongst the team is either attributed to, or enflamed by, Stark’s ingratiating self-importance.  Again, to the audience’s delight.

Despite the excess of charisma, Iron Man does not end up leading the team, of course.  That honor goes to Captain America, although next to the high-flying and alien-smashing abilities of the other “big three,” the star-spangled man in blue tights seems, as times, a bit under-powered.  But the Captain’s confidence and, ultimately, loyalty to his teammates is what brings out his leadership skills, and the others end up swallowing their pride and prejudices and looking to him as their quarterback, their general, their Captain.

Chris Evans does a skillful job of maintaining Cap’s Boy Scout innocence amidst the highly experienced and jaded folks around him, even when faced with deadly threats and other-worldly beings.  Steve just pitches in and helps, whether it’s assisting Iron Man in getting a rotor repaired, sneaking around S.H.I.E.L.D.’s vaults to uncover their secrets, or directing New York’s finest to execute their duty to protect and serve.

“Why should I take orders from you?” one veteran police sergeant asks dubiously.  The response is pure popcorn delight.

Chris Helmsworth recites Thor’s Olde English dialogue with clarity and ease, and though at times you can almost see the words in your head in the fancy font used in the comics, it rolls off of his tongue naturally.  The God of Thunder actually feels more real in this movie than in his own, partially because the other heroes bring him down to Earth a bit (no pun intended), but also because of the balancing effect of the Hulk.

As Black Widow, Scarlett Johansson has enough to do and gets plenty of screen time, even discounting the shots of her character walking away from the camera, but compared to those who have super-natural (or super high-tech) abilities, her martial arts and weapons skills seem flashy but inadequate.  As one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s top operatives, however, she in right in the mix and given some tough assignments, like dealing with Banner / Hulk and figuring out how to ultimately stop the bad guys at the end.

Hawkeye suffers from a similar fate (played by Jeremy Renner), although his trick arrows do bring some surprises and satisfying butt-kicking moments.  His arsenal isn’t as tricked-out as in the comics, but his skill comes across (especially when he’s eyeing his targets a full forty or fifty degrees from where he’s aiming his bow) and his automated quiver is a fairly neat addition to the Avenger’s arsenal.

Samuel L. Jackson has been playing Nick Fury with his own unique brand of quiet cool through almost all of the Marvel movies leading up the this, and I was looking forward to seeing him in some action sequences in The Avengers.  Though Fury does unleash some on a few bad guys, his role is mostly as the S.H.I.E.L.D. administrator and liaison to those in power calling the real shots.  Too bad, maybe next time.

All in all, the movie aims to please and hits the mark dead-on, with tons of thrills, laughs, great action sequences, characters who sound intelligent and a story that makes sense.  Usually with superhero movies, you’re lucky to get any three of those things and call your money fairly spent.  Well, Joss Whedon and company have assembled the entire team and anyone who enjoys action / adventure movies should walk away with a huge grin on their face.

Be sure to wait until after the credits for a great nugget!  I won’t give it away, but it is unlike any of the others Marvel has planted at the end of the movies leading up to this one.  And joyously so!

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