Several Marvel comic book heroes have already gotten their own movie franchises over the years. But although Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the Hulk have their own series, it was always in service of a much larger franchise. Although “The Avengers” is labeled as the first movie of its kind, it is really “Avengers 6” with the past five Marvel films as nothing short of teaser trailers.
Yet although the sixth movie of a franchise is usually far from the best, “The Avengers” is a different kind of animal – one that has laid the gauntlet down for the rest of summer to top.
The official excuses that finally bring all of Earth’s mightiest heroes together include Thor’s power-mad brother Loki, an all powerful cube, and the alien army that Loki wishes to unleash on Earth. After he decimates S.H.I.E.L.D to get the cube and unleash his army – and turns relatively new hero Hawkeye to his side in the process – director Nick Fury finally puts “The Avengers Initiative” into action. But bringing together Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Bruce Banner, Thor, Natasha Romanoff and all their alter egos – and stopping them from turning on each other – turns out to be a bigger challenge than Loki himself. At first.
The Marvel movie universe has gone through fits and starts to finally get here, with the original “Iron Man” setting an early bar that hadn’t been matched yet – least of all by “Iron Man 2.” But those earlier movies didn’t have geek God Joss Whedon at the helm. The cult TV mastermind has already created his own “Whedonverse” made up of “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” “Firefly” “Angel” and “Dollhouse” so handling the most famous heroes in comic book history is nothing to him.
Whedon is not only the right director for the job, he may have been the only one that could have pulled all this off. This doesn’t excuse how “The Avengers” starts out as a hodge-podge of scientific and mythological gobbledygook, in which some may be impatient to see the world get on the brink of ending. But although Whedon creates these problems, he still knows how to paper over them before he really lowers the boom.
It is a lot easier to sit through the nonsense when all of the super heroes are at the top of their game in a way they weren’t in their own movies. It is also easier to be patient when Whedon gives them funnier material than they’d had in their own movies – and gets Tony Stark back on track after his stumbles in “Iron Man 2.” For good measure, he makes the much maligned Hulk a movie star at last, fleshes out supporting, franchise-less heroes Black Widow and Hawkeye, and makes all those who waited years/decades for “The Avengers” to share the screen get their money’s worth.
Once Whedon gets this out of the way, he makes “The Avengers” an orgy of ear-splitting, pulse pounding, jaw dropping, childhood dream fulfilling action that would make Michael Bay envious on a Loki-esque level. While there have already been negative comparisons to the “Transformers” films and their own orgies of non-stop summer destruction, there is a difference between putting Bay and Whedon in charge of it.
When these spectacles are put in the hands of the wrong people like Bay, they become too grating and too insulting to be truly thrilling. With Whedon and his team of heroes and villains, you can throw your hands up, give in to the madness and be fully blown away by it without feeling too guilty. In fact, the massive set pieces in the second and third act alone pretty much surpass all of last year’s thrill rides, and will probably beat out the ones to come for this summer as well. Plus, all those who’ve dreamed to see the Avengers fight each other on screen will NOT be disappointed.
The original “Iron Man” bordered on “Transformers” lite at the end too, but Jon Favreau still made it soar and gave us a reason to care about it, just as Whedon does here. Favreau then got too tripped up by his various subplots, “Avengers” teases and characters in “Iron Man 2” – yet Whedon is much more adapt at juggling all his toys here. This is his first time out handling a summer blockbuster, but he still shows the veterans how it’s done, in both action and substance.
Just as 3D only really works with the likes of Martin Scorsese and James Cameron in charge, madcap, unwieldy summer behemoths like “The Avengers” only really come together when someone like Whedon holds the reigns. For a contrasting view on how it can go wrong, “Battleship” may provide an example next week, as Peter Berg seems to be doing his best/worst Bay impression with his own alien invasion.
Yet Bay and Berg are at an unfair disadvantage by not having the likes of Iron Man, Cap, Thor and the Hulk to bail them out – or having the actors who play them. On the other hand, Whedon lets Robert Downey Jr. return to original “Iron Man” levels with a recharged Tony Stark, gives Mark Ruffalo far more to take advantage of than Hulk predecessors Eric Bana and Edward Norton sadly got, and allows Scarlett Johansson to make a smashing second impression as Black Widow.
Chris’s Evans and Hemsworth continue to be perfect fits as Cap and Thor, and Jeremy Renner fits right into his latest new franchise in between “Mission Impossible” and “Bourne.” On the dark side, Tom Hiddleston seethes, snarls and speechifies to even more delicious effect than ever as Loki. Meanwhile, Clark Gregg, Stellan Skarsgard, and even Gwyneth Paltrow and Cobie Smulders chip in valued contributions – and then of course, there’s Samuel L. Jackson to sound the charge as Nick Fury.
“The Avengers” reinvigorates the Marvel universe, if not the comic book movie genre, by raising the bar in destruction, chaos, action, humor and super heroics. Yet this bar may only stand for two months after the far different “Dark Knight Rises” arrives to steal the spotlight – just as “The Dark Knight’ stole “Iron Man”‘s buzz in 2008 and “Inception” dwarfed “Iron Man 2” in 2010.
Christopher Nolan has a bit of a habit in stealing Marvel’s thunder – but Whedon’s “Avengers” have just made it harder than ever for him and the Bat this time around.