Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
SPOILERS AHEAD! SPOILERS AHEAD! SPOILERS AHEAD!
The Avengers doesn’t get started until Mark Ruffalo shows up. Thankfully, after his arrival, it never lets up.
Let me pause and enlarge on what I mean by “let up.” Typically, that kind of breathless movie-critic yammering is reserved for action movies, and to be sure, The Avengers delivers some excellent action, including a beautifully executed central setpiece aboard SHIELD’s failing helicarrier.
But when I say The Avengers doesn’t let up, I’m referring to its commitment to character — a commitment that Marvel Studios has made their prime directive over the course of six movies that, despite their uneven quality, have all featured excellent casting and intriguing interpretations of some of Marvel’s venerable pantheon of superheroes. At the top of the heap is Robert Downey Jr.’s still-stellar take on playboy-industrialist Tony Stark. Rising from the ranks are Chris Hemsworth’s classically tinged Thor and Chris Evans’ square-jawed Captain America.
And then there’s Mark Ruffalo. There’s already been a lot of hoopla made over the repeated recasting of Bruce Banner, and while I think it’s a shame that Ed Norton couldn’t have reprised his role to maintain continuity, Ruffalo’s the better choice. He’s hands-down the best Banner of ‘em all, and — if you’ll indulge a cliche — he’s the heart of the movie.
He was also its catalyst, at least for me. First, let me cover the movie’s opening, which by a few accounts, strikes an off-note. I found it a little inelegant, as everyone was running around explaining everything in constant gouts of exposition while Loki snatched the cosmic cube, which is what I’m going to call it. After that, Black Widow’s first scene moved us clearly into comfortable territory for geek-maestro Joss Whedon – a woman clobbering a roomful of men who appear to have the upper hand — but despite some funny dialogue, the poorly staged fight choreography weakened the scene for me.
It’s wasn’t until Widow was sent to retrieve the reclusive Dr. Banner that the movie lurched to life for me, and here’s why: I think Whedon — as he’s wont to do — smuggled some pretty shocking imagery into his movie, and he used the vehicle of genre storytelling to do it. Specifically, I’m talking about the moment when Banner lunges across the room at Widow to “see what [she’d] do.” Clearly, we as the audience know the stakes: If Banner gets angry, he’ll destroy everything in sight.
But for me, I saw an abusive man and a battered woman, if only for an instant. Widow’s shocked reaction — which I’ll come back to later — told a tale of a woman who had tangled with some rotten men before, and Banner’s use of his inner-monster to manipulate the situation rang some weird bells for me. I might be projecting, but it would be consistent with Whedon’s established M.O., which is to explore all manner of heavy themes — among them: gender, power, abuse, redemption — through high-concept storytelling.
After that moment, we finally had a movie, and what a movie it is. Thousands of words have already been written about it, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better positive review of it than Drew McWeeney’s over at HitFix, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better negative review of it than A.O. Scott’s at the New York Times. I don’t have much more to add, but here goes:
In praising Whedon’s achievement, I have to also praise the Marvel Studios philosophy, because it meshed extremely well with his script, which includes a satisfying number of rambling, talky scenes; intra-team strife; allusions to wars fought and loves lost; and a lot of goofy jokes — all of it in Whedon’s signature style, which expertly combines well-drawn characters with high-stakes action.
That said, I could say the same thing about all of the Marvel Studios movies. They’ve all featured appealing leads, decent-to-good scripts, strong supporting players, and a sublime lineup of directors who all brought their own flair to the characters. Kenneth Branagh brought Shakespearean majesty and a jester’s wit to Thor; Joe Johnston (of The Rocketeer fame) conjured some appealing WWII jingoism in Captain America; Jon Favreau turned out to be the perfect guy to harness Downey Jr.’s prodigious charm in Iron Man and the less satisfying Iron Man 2. Louis LeTerrier (and apparently Ed Norton) crafted a pleasing, if slight, homage to the old Hulk TV series in their reboot, The Incredible Hulk.
But in all cases, the Marvel Studios movies (except for The Avengers) have one curious trait in common: I don’t really care about their action scenes.
No kidding. The characters are so strong in all of them that I’ve always found the inevitable third-act shift to action and heroics a letdown after the engaging human drama (and comedy) that came before. To be fair, there’s been some variance. For example, I enjoyed the action sequences in Thor a bit more, mainly because the relationship between the thunder god and his tragic brother was so well drawn. (That compelling relationship lends weight to the proceedings in this volume, too.) But in Iron Man, the imbalance was far greater, the third-act blowout a huge drag after the kooky character study that Downey Jr. put together.
Somehow, Whedon and his story-partner Zak Penn manage to craft the most balanced of the Marvel movies, and I suspect that the very exigencies of the project helped them do it. Whedon had no choice but to write a script that gave everyone something to do, and because the characters he was starting with were so strong, the very act of giving them something to struggle against as a team made for some memorable action, to say nothing of the movie’s crackling, off-kilter dialogue.
There are many, many moments to praise, but I want to single out two:
• I said earlier that I would circle back around to Black Widow’s reaction to Banner’s fake threat. One of this movie’s real pleasures is how it delivers so many matchups between the heroes and villains, including a lot of satisfying mismatches. As any comics fan worth their weight in vibranium can tell you, Captain America is physically no match for an Asgardian, but he can still hold his own in just about any fight. (Cap’s even engaged the Hulk in battle and done well, as I recall.) But nevertheless, he takes on Loki in a rousing scene.
Trapped in the shattered innards of the plummeting SHIELD helicarrier, we get another striking mismatch. Banner finally Hulks out in the presence of Black Widow, and her stark terror sells the scene. It actually reminded me of a dream I had once about, of all things, the Transformers. I remember running from one of them — Starscream, if memory serves — and thinking that if it laid a hand on me, I wouldn’t just be hurt; I would fly to pieces. That kind of terror powers Black Widow’s encounter with the Hulk, and even more powerful is the aftermath; Whedon’s camera lingers on Widow’s trembling face, and again, I flashed on the image of a broken household.
• Another great moment with the Hulk comes near the end, just as the final battle is getting underway. I’ll admit — I was starting to tune out, and then Banner came puttering up on his moped and delivered the line of the movie to explain how he keeps the Hulk in check: “That’s my secret. I’m always angry.” He delivers this line as he turns, Hulks out, and delivers a punch to the prow of one of Loki’s massive alien attack-ships.
Whedon went out of his way to directly link a stand-up-and-cheer action beat (the Hulk’s punch) with a melancholy admission from Banner. And then the whole final sequence leveled out for me. To be sure, there are a few mindless action joygasms — Hawkeye firing off a no-look killshot, Cap hurling Black Widow onto a flying hovercraft — but thanks to Whedon, Ruffalo and the entire Marvel Studios philosophy, the final action sequence bubbles with character, tension, strife and the appropriate amount of high stakes, right down to Iron Man’s almost-sacrifice and a terrific denoument. (How great was it seeing Stark and Banner ride off together as new best friends?)
There’s much, much more I could say in praise of The Avengers, but I’ll close with this: It feels like a Joss Whedon movie. Somehow, some way, Whedon managed to maintain his wonderfully quirky voice amidst such an enormous project. The result is one of the best superhero movies ever.
Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.