Marvel Comics fans relish a “shared universe” where all the superheroes and villains populate the same world. Chance meet-ups make great fun.
But in “The Avengers,” one of the slickest and most satisfying comic book adaptations, the shared universe suggests more dire meanings.
Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his covert agency SHIELD have discovered a brick-sized device called the Tesseract. Unsure of its origins, they believe it can harness “energy from space” into an unlimited power source.
Loki (a superb Tom Hiddleston) has other plans. The Asgardian god of lies and mischief wants to use it as a dimensional portal to lead an alien invasion of Earth, mainly as a way to exact revenge on his hated brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth).
So Fury invokes the Avengers Initiative, recruiting Thor, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Captain America (Chris Evans) to join agents Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) as Earth’s last line of defense.
They represent quite a collection of damaged individuals: assassins trying to outrun their murderous pasts; a Jekyll and Hyde-type scientist; a soldier transplanted from another century; a demi-god adrift in a mortal world; a selfish, spoiled playboy who “doesn’t play well with others.”
What makes this anticipated film so absorbing is how the heroes’ internal battles are often more pronounced than their external ones. And when these troubled people interact, it’s electric. The dialogue absolutely crackles, whether it’s Downey’s throwaway insults (he nicknames the muscular, long-haired Thor “Point Break”) or Hiddleston’s iambic arrogance (told that humans have no quarrel with him, he responds, “an ant has no quarrel with a boot”).
Writer/director Joss Whedon (creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” who co-wrote the story with “X2” scribe Zak Penn) proves equally gifted at orchestrating adventure. An early brawl featuring the cat-suited combat virtuoso Black Widow dispatching Soviet thugs is spectacular. But it’s an extended sabotage/takeover scene aboard the SHIELD heli-carrier — a remarkably designed composite of aircraft carrier and helicopter — that is the movie’s showstopping centerpiece.
No viewer will question why this movie cost a reported $220 million.
What prevents “The Avengers” from being considered the greatest superhero movie of all time? Mainly, the third act.
While the heli-carrier skirmish is a masterpiece of tight action filmmaking, the finale offers more of a “let’s throw everything at the screen” approach. Sure, it’s well-orchestrated chaos, but this is yet another contemporary blockbuster where hordes of computer-generated aliens bushwhack a U.S. metropolis while the heroes attempt to deflect the onslaught.
It’s hard to make cutaways of scampering citizens trying to dodge falling chunks of debris all that interesting.
Although Whedon found ways to deftly connect each Avenger’s powers and personality with the others, the finale confirms he couldn’t solve the fundamental problem to plague comic book writers of all-star teams: It’s tough to find villains mighty enough to pose a threat. That usually means introducing an anonymous alien race to be used as cosmic punching bags.
And as Captain America proves during an early scene in “The Avengers,” it takes a whole lot of punching bags for superheroes to work up a sweat.
• Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
: “If the film is more solid and satisfying than terrific, so be it. Cleverly, writer/director Joss Whedon combines and recombines its various intramural rivalries.”
• Karina Longworth, Village Voice
: “ Every time the movie hints at something rich and evocative, Whedon undercuts it with a punchline — his instincts as a big-picture storyteller crippled by his short-term need to please the crowd.”
• Christy Lemire, The Associated Press
: “Whedon keeps a tight rein on some potentially unwieldy material, and the result is a film that simultaneously should please purists (one of which he is) as well as those who aren’t necessarily comic-book aficionados. He also stays true to the characters while establishing a tone that’s very much his own.”
• Andrew O’Hehir, Salon
: “In trying to cram in enough plot and backstory and increasingly incoherent action sequences for at least three summer movies, Whedon never finds a confident or relaxed narrative pace, and the results are exhausting, a picture that pushes three hours and feels like five.”
• Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
: “I have one word for ‘The Avengers’: Wowza!”