I mean, really. Heavens, what a movie.
The Avengers doesn't quite take the top prize as my favorite superhero movie of all time, but at this point, I just don't think that Superman is likely to be dislodged from that spot in my heart, ever. But the spot for number two? I think that Spiderman 2 is in that spot...but I'm not sure if The Avengers didn't just take it over. Or at least tied it.
I loved this movie. It's thrilling and exciting. Its story is epic in scale, but fairly simple in its particulars. Its characters are all well-drawn and sharply written. Its dialogue crackles. Its action sequences are full of effects that look amazing even in this day and age, and the sequences are not impossible to follow. The Avengers is pretty much a joy from start to finish.
I'm a fan of Joss Whedon's, although I'm not an obsessive one (I have yet to watch much of Buffy the Vampire Slayer at all), nor one who believes he is infallible (I watched four or five episodes of Dollhouse before I gave up). I do rank Whedon above the other great God Emperor of Geekstuff, JJ Abrams, though; Abrams is a fine director, but his writing just leaves me wanting. I was never a big fan of the Avengers during my own comics reading days, but when I learned that Whedon was writing and directing the film toward which all the Marvel superhero movies of recent years had been building toward, I was terribly excited. And I'm glad to report that this excitement has paid off.
The films leading up to this have, admittedly, been a mixed bag...but a generally likable mixed bag. Iron Man was a lot of fun; Iron Man 2 a bit less fun, but enjoyable. Thor was a blast, although its blend of New Mexico desert and an Asgard that looked made of freshly-painted plastic felt odd. Captain America was probably the best of all these; I enjoyed the hell out of that one. (Did I ever blog about it? Oh noes, I didn't! Especially since I didn't see it until just a month or so ago.)
So, along comes The Avengers. This movie has to reintroduce all these heroes, and do it in such a way that it reminds those of us who saw their individual movies what went on, but doesn't bog down in reminders for people who didn't see them. It also has to set up the villain (Loki) and explain what he's up to. Whedon gets all these various pots boiling, and he does it with flair and confidence. Where lots of superhero movies falter is in their various first acts, but Whedon is able to keep all this pretty interesting. He doesn't spend too much time in explanations, and gives pretty much exactly as much information as you need to make sense of what's going on. (And, frankly, he honors the longstanding tradition of superhero comics that everything makes sense as long as you don't really think about it too closely.)
This isn't a perfect movie. The pacing is pretty relaxed in the first act, but each act picks up steam, until by the end of the movie, I was left pretty breathless. Whedon is able to make the film large in scale; this feels like a genuine epic, and it doesn't feel artificially inflated. Here are some great things that Whedon does along the way:
- He raises the stakes a little at a time. Early on, in the first skirmishes, a given fight might need one hero, maybe two. This changes as the nature of the threats becomes greater and greater.
- He establishes that in any battle worth fighting, a price will be paid. Anyone familiar with Whedon's work over the years will know that he definitely likes to do this, and there are moments in this film where I found myself wondering if the price had just been paid, because I know Whedon and his lack of fear when it comes to putting his characters through hell.
- The battles take their toll on our heroes. Whedon makes them work for it. This is a hallmark of all the great Marvel Comics team battles over the years. Sometimes the team -- any team, whether it's the Avengers, the X-Men, whomever -- even loses. And the battles themselves have acts! It's just classic Marvel Comics storytelling that our heroes have to work to exhaustion just to beat the first wave of attackers, and just as you're wondering how they can ever defeat what's next...what's next comes upon the scene.
- Whedon gets that superhero teams are not inherently given to teamwork. He knows that there are egos at work, and he shows this. Best of all, he's able to show all these clashing egos without making us think that any one of them is a complete jerk. I loved that.
I love the acting in the film, as well. All the leads are superb, just as they were in their respective films before. Chris Evans is still able to portray Captain America's earnest goodness without making him an insufferable boor to be around; Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man gets all manner of great lines. The best part of the cast may be Mark Ruffalo as Dr. Bruce Banner, who also has to turn into the Hulk on occasion. He's able to portray Banner as brilliant and cursed, a man who is wounded by his inabilities to always control who he is.
As I mention above, the action sequences are filmed perfectly. Despite the fact that New York City is exploding left and right, Whedon establishes what's going on and shows it without filling his frame with so much mayhem as to make the shots impossible to follow. And I liked that he engages in minimal cross-cutting, so that when he takes us to see what, say, Black Widow is up to, he stays with her long enough that we know what's happening.
No, The Avengers is not perfect. It does have moments of slowness, and the motivations of the villains aren't always obvious. And as much as I've enjoyed Alan Silvestri's music in the past, I don't think he turned in the best score here; I'd hoped for one big, memorable theme for this film, but it just wasn't there. In a very real way, if forced to choose one factor that keeps this film (and Spiderman 2) behind Superman in my heart is that Superman boasts a score by John Williams at the height of his powers. But to my mind, there is no flaw in The Avengers that keeps it from being what it is: one of the most entertaining films I've seen in years.
A couple of random notes:
:: Yes, Stan Lee has a cameo. But my favorite cameo was from character actor Kenneth Tigar as the "German Old Man", who talks back to Loki. I've always liked Tigar (he was the bomb squad guy in the Lethal Weapon movies, and he was one of the more notable killers against whom Thomas Magnum matched wits on Magnum PI) , and I'm glad to see that he's still active and acting!
:: Reportedly, Joss Whedon wanted Cobie Smulders as Wonder Woman, back when he was attached to whatever Wonder Woman movie was in development. I'm glad that he managed to get her into the superhero movie world here, as a SHIELD agent.
:: A lot of reviews I've seen accuse Samuel L. Jackson of just doing his standard glower through the movie. It's not like his role didn't really call for him to do much else, but he did allow his Nick Fury to show what little vulnerability he would.
:: There's an airplane in this movie that bears a small design similarity to the Serenity. It's a blink-and-you-miss-it kind of thing, but I sure saw it.
:: If you see it, stay for the very, very end. All the way to the end of the credits. Trust me.
:: Bring on The Avengers II! (And while we're at it, let's get the Serenity out of mothballs, shall we?)