So, that happened.
Five days and two hundred million dollars later, THE AVENGERS holds the record for the most profitable opening weekend of all time, and director Joss Whedon is unquestionably Hollywood’s newest 800-pound gorilla, the man whose next career move is as close to “anything he wants” as any director has ever had it. (And next will come the inevitable backlash that will put forth the ridiculous notion that AVENGERS was a can’t-miss proposition that had little to do with Whedon’s efforts, that it would have succeeded regardless on the strength of its concept. Don’t you believe it. There were a million ways this project could have gone wrong, countless pitfalls that could have prevented this kind of runaway success, and Whedon expertly avoided all of them. Think a movie like this is a guaranteed success? Just ask the guys who made last year’s GREEN LANTERN.)
And for me, all of this industry talk is secondary to the fact that THE AVENGERS is a really, really good movie. Like, insanely good. Is it the best comic-book movie ever made? I’m not prepared to say “no.”
What Whedon did here is nothing short of remarkable, building on plot threads from five previous films and carefully balancing nine main characters in such a way that none of them feel short-changed, each has several spotlight moments that show them at their best, and has a real character arc that informs their actions. And all of this at a breakneck pace over the course of a two-and-a-half-hour movie that doesn’t feel bloated or padded in the least.
There’s just so much to like here, I don’t even know where to start. It’s hard to even imagine that we get both an Iron Man/Thor fight and a Thor/Hulk fight in a single film, not to mention that the biggest-grossing-opener of all time has Hawkeye the Marksman in it. First off, the Hulk practically steals the movie, which came as a delightful surprise. This is by far the best cinematic vision of the Hulk, a much more Kirby-inspired design that blends seamlessly into scenes with his flesh-and-blood counterparts. Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner is without a doubt the definitive interpretation of the character, over Eric Bana’s lifeless lump and Edward Norton’s tense repressive. Ruffalo plays Banner as sardonic and resigned, with a self-deprecating sense of humor and flashes of a truly dangerous rage.
Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is wisely held back, instead of being allowed to steal the movie as lesser filmmakers would have been tempted to do. The relationship between Stark and Banner is one of the movie’s highlights; I highly recommend reading this essay about the way Whedon develops the Stark/Banner dynamic; it says it better than I could.
Whedon picks up where all the previous characterizations leave off, fleshing them out and bringing them to new places with their interactions with each other. Scarlett Johannsen’s Black Widow is much improved over IRON MAN 2 in both acting and action; making the distinctly non-super Widow and Hawkeye seem valuable and formidable alongside powerhouses like Thor and the Hulk was no easy trick, but it feels totally plausible. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki worked just fine for me in last year’s THOR, but he’s much more threatening and watchable here, surprisingly a strong enough antagonist for a roomful of superheroes. And rather than push Captain America into the lead right away, we see him slowly find his place and his confidence in this new world until by film’s end he’s naturally recognized by all as the Avengers’ leader.
Even though this feels like a Marvel movie first and foremost, it still has many of the trademarks of a Joss Whedon production: the crackling dialogue and biting banter, the willingness to shock the audience and hit them where they live. There’s one sequence in particular between Loki and Black Widow in which Loki is warning the Widow of why the Avengers will ultimately fail, and under his voiceover Whedon cuts back to Cap in one scene and Stark and Banner in another, each making disturbing discoveries about what’s really at stake, and the way the images and the narration play together is vintage Whedon.
Sure, the action scenes are amazing and the effects are first-rate. Practically the entire third act is one prolonged action sequence featuring the Avengers in team combat against an innumerable alien army, and it’s like nothing I’ve seen in a superhero movie, ever. There’s one prolonged tracking shot that zooms between and around the concrete canyons of Manhattan, showing all six Avengers locked in battle with their alien foes at various places in the city, and it’s mind-blowing. But that’s not why this movie is getting the incredible audience reaction it’s getting. It all comes down to one thing: the words on the page. THE AVENGERS is really funny with a lot of heart, written by a guy who loves the characters and understands what makes them tick.
Funny how that works.
Scott Tipton is going back to the theatre this weekend. If you have questions about the Avengers or comics in general, send them here.