Summer Movie Season Explodes with ‘The Avengers’

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CHICAGO – When I was a kid, summer movies were an event. They weren’t just marketing tricks, young adult adaptations, or unnecessary sequels. They were blockbusters that you put on the calendar and counted the days until their arrival. Something of that summer movie magic has been lost in recent years – the sense that you weren’t just seeing a movie, you were experiencing something special. I felt that again watching “The Avengers,” a high quality, incredibly entertaining, joyous summer event. If I was 12, it would be my favorite movie ever made.

If you liked “Iron Man,” “Captain America,” or “Thor,” I would be baffled if you didn’t love “The Avengers.” It’s really that simple. It’s, by far, the best movie involving these characters and rivals for placement on the list of the best superheroes movies ever made. The first half is a bit talky and the film is naturally crowded but all criticism falls away during the final hour, which is quite simply one of the most impressive and entertaining hours of action in movie history. Writer/director Joss Whedon eschews the typical rollercoaster action formula of peaks and valleys for what is essentially one giant hill. He takes you up slowly for about ninety minutes and then plunges you through some of the most well-choreographed, well-written, and riveting action in years for the last sixty. Overall, Whedon has gotten so much right here where other Marvel directors did not. Kenneth Branagh, Jon Favreau, and Joe Johnson should take notes.

The Avengers
The Avengers
Photo credit: Disney/Marvel

Naturally, the first act of “The Avengers” has two goals – set up the villain and get the band together, something that good Marvel movie fans know has been in the works for years. Where the villains have been weak in most of the Marvel films, Whedon is not about to give short shrift to his bad guy, giving Tom Hiddleston’s Loki some of the best dialogue and most remarkable scenes in the film. This is a great superhero villain and Hiddleston completely delivers, playing Loki as both charismatic and remarkably weak. He is a villain who feels he is born to rule but knows deep in his character that he is unable to do so. It’s a great big bad and a stellar performance.

But you don’t go to “The Avengers” for the bad guy. You go for the heroes. And you know most of them by now. Robert Downey Jr. returns as Iron Man/Tony Stark (with a cameo by Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts), Chris Evans does the most charismatic work of his career as Captain America, Chris Hemsworth appears as Thor, Scarlett Johansson really delivers as Black Widow, Jeremy Renner plays Hawkeye, and Samuel L. Jackson moves from cameo player to regular as Nick Fury’s role is notably beefed up here. Mark Ruffalo steps into the oversized shoes of Bruce Banner as the third actor to play The Hulk on film and is fantastic, better than Eric Bana or Edward Norton.

The Avengers
The Avengers
Photo credit: Disney/Marvel

All of these characters work together more interestingly as an ensemble than they ever did on their own. One of many wonderful surprises in “The Avengers” is the interplay between the major players. Whedon emphasizes the team aspect of the film, never letting one character become more interesting than the others. It’s hard to believe but they ALL work both in their own individual arcs and as a team. It’s a testament to Whedon’s writing and directorial abilities that he could keep so many arcs and characters under this much control. And so many of the film’s best moments come courtesy of this new team attitude from the wonderful alpha male interplay between Downey & Evans to the fascinating dynamic between Renner & Johansson to the amazing interplay of characters in the final act. Whedon has crafted a film that feels like it has no superfluous characters – like everyone on The Avengers is actually essential to the safety of the universe.

More than anything else, it’s the scope of “The Avengers” that is truly stunning. Whedon treats this movie like the event that it should be and his comic book background truly helps. There are no punches — there are smashes. There are no collisions — there are explosions. Everything is bigger, louder, and more intense, which may sound aggravating to some but Whedon’s ability with character grounds the extreme qualities of the film where it matters. It’s the end-of-the-world intensity of a “Transformers” film (something that has been missing from most Marvel movies) with people you actually care about and stakes that feel like they matter.

The Avengers
The Avengers
Photo credit: Disney/Marvel

The structure of “The Avengers” allows for an amazing final hour but it also creates a long set-up. Those not completely loyal to the Marvel universe will get a little squirmy during the many conversations in the first hour and a half about the safety of the universe, power, teamwork, science, etc. There’s way more talking than most will expect in a film like “The Avengers” (although Whedon fans shouldn’t be surprised…the man loves dialogue). There are times when I feel like “The Avengers” over-explains itself. “OK, we get it. Loki is crazy, he’s bringing some alien creatures to destroy Earth, and only the world’s greatest heroes can stop him. We got that from the ads. Now let’s get on with it.”

However, I do wonder if the explosive New York-set finale would work as well without all of that set-up. There’s something more satisfying about the way Cap and Iron Man work together in the conclusion after their verbal barbs in the second one. Watching the Hulk finally be a hero is more rewarding because Ruffalo was allowed to convey Bruce Banner’s pain before. What I’m saying is that even as you feel the length of the first half, go with it. Let the rollercoaster climb the hill and don’t complain. The ride down the other side is worth the wait. And rarely have I wanted to take the ride again more than I did when this thrilling summer event was over.

“The Avengers” stars Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, Stellan Skarsgard, Cobie Smulders, Clark Gregg, and Tom Hiddleston. It was written and directed by Joss Whedon. It is rated PG-13 and opens on May 4, 2012. content director Brian Tallerico

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