Joss Whedon looks poised to become the king of American pop culture, and I don’t mind it one bit. Having already established himself as a high-powered scriptwriter, a comic-book author, and one of the great TV show creators of all time, he still had yet to direct a truly great movie, even though we all knew him to be capable of it. He scales that particular summit with The Avengers, a superhero extravaganza that has everything you could wish for: action, brains, humor, and great actors doing their thing. Based on the Marvel Comics series created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, this film marks the culmination of a project four years and five blockbuster movies in the making, and it repays that long buildup in spades. It all adds up to a giant heap of delicious popcorn goodness that’s just what we need at the start of the summer movie season, or any other time.
The story begins with fallen Norse god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) cutting a deal with an alien race to invade the Earth and install him as its ruler. In the face of an overwhelming threat, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) exercises his power as director of a U.S. government agency called SHIELD and calls in Loki’s nemesis Thor (Chris Hemsworth) as well as Bruce “The Hulk” Banner (a subbed-in Mark Ruffalo), Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans), and Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to repel the invasion. Joining them are two SHIELD agents who haven’t yet headlined their own movies: archer extraordinaire Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Jeremy Renner) and stealth operative Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). The human race’s only hope is for these wildly different superheroes to work together.
Giving all these characters enough to do is a formidable logistical challenge. Whedon is exactly the right man for the job — his TV shows have all been structured around teams of disparate, unbalanced misfits coming together as a unit. The filmmaker’s known for writing clever wisecracking dialogue, and while he brings that here, his attention to character turns out to be much more important. You can see this in an early scene when Romanoff tries to strike her own bargain with an imprisoned Loki (which packs a wicked sting at the end) or a sharp and well-played exchange when Stark encourages Banner to embrace the green monster within, whom Banner fearfully refers to as “the other guy.”
Whedon’s attention to acting also helps the Avengers’ combustible mix of personalities come off. Johansson, who has always had more range than most people give her credit for, not only shows unexpected chops as an action heroine here but also turns in a vivid performance as a stony killer with just enough of a conscience to make her vulnerable. Romanoff steals away a good chunk of the movie, but it’s the narcissistic maverick Stark (and Downey’s jazzy, offhand wit) who stirs this cocktail, emerging as the group’s psychological tactician, turning the group’s suspicions on director Fury (who is indeed pursuing his own hidden agenda) and getting under the skin of the idealistic, by-the-book Rogers. These characters are often compelling when there’s no action going on, which is a heartening accomplishment.
As for the action, the movie hits its stride midway through when SHIELD’s flying fortress is attacked by its own soldiers and Barton, who are all under Loki’s mind control. Within the main plot (the giant airship is threatening to fall out of the sky) are numerous subplots that engage everyone. (Thor tries to survive a 30,000-foot drop, Iron Man keeps the ship airborne while Captain America holds off his assailants, and Black Widow runs for her life from a rampaging Hulk while trying to subdue Hawkeye without killing him.) This lengthy sequence is mind-bogglingly complex, and Whedon seems to be everywhere at once, managing it all effortlessly without losing track of anyone. The same holds true for our heroes’ climactic stand against the aliens in Manhattan. Even more than the special effects and the actors, it’s the director’s skill at juggling locations and superheroes that makes these set pieces so breathtaking.
To be sure, not everything in this 142-minute epic works so well. The sibling rivalry between Thor and Loki yields nothing new, and Romanoff’s emotional attachment to Barton needs a bit more explanation than it receives. Still, The Avengers surpasses the best of its predecessors (Iron Man, which was pretty good) while making even the least of them (The Incredible Hulk, probably) seem worthier in retrospect. Best of all, as soon as I finished watching this movie, I wanted to see it again. That’s the highest recommendation I can make.
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, and Mark Ruffalo. Written and directed by Joss Whedon, based on Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s comic book series. Rated PG-13.