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The Avengers

It’s been coming a long time…

Flash back to 2008, when “Incredible Hulk” rebooted the big green monster after Ang Lee’s misfire, and “Iron Man” breathed new life and energy into the superhero movie after “Spiderman 3” and “X-Men 3” had sucked all life out of the genre. (Another big movie that summer: “The Dark Knight.”  It really was a great year for superheroes.)  Then there was another “Iron Man,” not as good as the first one, then “Thor” last spring and “Captain America” last summer.

Now, they all come together in what’s called in the comic books a “team-up.”  Even in the comic books “The Avengers” was the granddaddy of all team-ups; seldom did heroes who commanded their own storylines combine for more than an issue or two.  And the comic books had it easy; to get Captain America and Thor in the same place, you just have to draw them on the same page.   Things get a big more difficult in the movies, with all those actors and contracts and egos in the same place.  The fact that “The Avengers” exists at all is a small miracle; the fact that it’s a solidly entertaining movie and not a trainwreck of personalities is a much bigger one.

Joss Whedon writes and directs this meeting of the muscles. Whedon’s reputation is odd; he’s known as a veritable god of the fanboys, but in all reality, most of his endeavors have been pretty mainstream and commercial, from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to “Serenity” and”Firefly.”  Most people would recognize his work, especially in TV, even if they don’t know his name.  Whedon’s also written a number of comic books, and he brings that sensibility to the script of “Avengers;” it’s a fantastically fun movie full of enough great, hilarious, and action-packed moments that you’ll overlook its ridiculous plot and lapses in reason and judgment.

The bad guy here is Thor’s brother Loki, who, when we saw him last, was banished to a space hole.  He’s found his way out somehow, made an alliance with lizard people, and is now seeking to conquer Earth.  He’s pretty full of himself, and prone to given Shakespearean-toned speeches.  He’s also in possession of some pretty cool toys, including a staff that allows him to control the minds of whoever he touches with it.  He’s after the Tesseract, which is a lot like the Allspark in the “Transformers” movies; Alfred Hitchcock would call both objects a MacGuffin (meaning anything that both sides of a conflict want.) He steals it with relative ease, and the Avengers spend the majority of the movie trying to figure out what he intends to do with it, and where he’s hidden it.

“Avengers” gets a lot of traction out of the clash of egos amongst the team of superheroes; billionaire playboy Tony Stark naturally doesn’t get along with straight-as-an-arrow Captain America, and isn’t afraid to say so.  The same goes for Hulk and Thor. Most of the action sequences in the first half of the film involve good guys fighting other good guys, and I have to say, it’s a ton of fun watching Thor and Iron Man square off.

Mark Ruffalo steps into Edward Norton’s shoes to play David Banner, aka Hulk, when he gets mad, and he steals most of the scenes he’s in, especially when he’s big and green.  Scarlett Johanson gets a lot more to do this time around as Black Widow; she made an appearance in “Iron Man 2,” but seemed extraneous to the storyline there.  Here she’s right in the middle of things.  Jeremy Renner is Hawkeye; he also was briefly in “Thor,” but gets to play both bad guy and good guy here.  Featuring Hawkeye so prominently might have been one of Whedon’s biggest missteps in making this film.  His superpower is that he’s really good with a bow, and it never stops being cheesy to see him whip that thing out and fire off a grenade-tipped arrow, or some such nonsense.  You can get away with a lot of nonsense in comic books.  You can get away with a lot of nonsense in summer blockbuster movies too, but not quite as much.

The film culminates in a battle in, over and around New York City, pitting the six superheroes against a horde of lizards on flying motorbikes, and a few giant caterpillar looking things.  The bad guys viciously attack office buildings, breaking a lot of glass, and the heroes do their best to a) fight them off and b)get innocent  tie-and-business-suit-wearing people to safety.  It’s a great showdown, even if the bad guys are a little underwhelming (sure, six superheroes can take them on, but I think a battalion of Marines could probably do just as well) and Whedon does a fine job of cutting between four or five (or six) different battle scenes without completely confusing us.  The climax is wonderfully satisfying, and elicited a huge laugh out of the audience; it’s a brilliant moment in a movie full of very good moments.

What makes “Avengers” work above and beyond most superhero movies (and let’s be clear, this is one of the top five superhero movies of all time) is the wit and energy Joss Whedon brings to the script and the screen.  He clearly loves these characters on beyond their cool abilities, and knows how to write them so that we will love (or at least like) them too.  “Avengers” is about as close to a perfect summer movie as you’re bound to get; it’s big and loud and funny and clever and fast-paced and just really, really fun.  And it’s only just the beginning of May.  This sets a high bar for the rest of this summer’s movies — there’s plenty of things coming to be excited about (including a couple of other superhero/comic book adaptations) but if anything else manages to be as good or better than “Avengers,” 2012 will be a summer to remember, as 2008 was.


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