Hollywood and comic books have long had a strained relationship. Some big-budget adaptations of the print-and-art medium have been widely accepted, and even hailed as good interpretations (1978's "Superman", 1989's "Batman" and the more recent 2002 "Spiderman" film come to mind), but by and large, movies based upon comic book characters have been a mixed bag. Some comic fans are hyper-sensitive to the way their favorite characters are portrayed, so if the wrong actor or actress plays a particular hero or villain in a way they see as "wrong", or the characterizations and dialogue don't match what the reader has come to expect from their printed counterpart, the result can often be maddening for those who know the story lines already from the books. In reverse, however, comic books based on movies are probably a much more forgiven medium, because the framework they start from is comparatively small. Indeed, basing a long-standing comic book on a 2-hour movie with very little back story is far easier a feat to accomplish than taking a beloved character 20 or 30+ years in the making and try to translate them to the big screen.
How fitting is it, then, that Marvel has taken the steps toward this film as lovingly and accurately as they could have done, albeit with some mistakes? Rather than jumping in with both feet and hurrying through the story of how each superhero got their powers (Fantastic Four, anyone?), or making a first movie far too long with too much expository dialogue and not enough action to satisfy fans. Or they could pull a Dune and confuse everyone by not including enough detail about the characters or their story to truly do them justice in that setting. So I applaud Marvel for taking much more care in their approach by introducing each main hero or character in a somewhat sequential fashion, even if some of the primary characters were included in other films (such as Black Widow in Iron Man 2). This approach gives them the ability to build and develop each character as an individual, rather than just a "teammate", and provides the necessary introduction, character development, personality, and overall direction necessary to move them into a setting that requires them all to work together for a common goal.
Before I get into the film's content itself, can I just take a moment and gush about its director? Hollywood has FINALLY recognized the genius of Joss Whedon. Who better to direct this movie than he? No one, I say. Comic books contain many elements, all of which Whedon is familiar with. His previous TV experience is invaluable here, not only with the combination of drama, horror, action, comedy, and "high art" storytelling as was evidenced by both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, but also in his short-lived, overlooked series Firefly. Add to that Whedon's expert handling of ensemble casts, and you have someone who is well versed in providing enough screen time for each major protagonist while balancing all the elements you expect from this kind of production. Whedon has an uncanny knack for undercutting serious situations and dialogue with humor as well, which provides further balance of elements.
*POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT*
The basic premise of the movie is simple: Loki, brother of Thor and self-proclaimed rightful ruler of Asgard, has come to earth seeking the Tesseract, a cube of extraordinary energy and power. This cube is sought by an alien race known as the Chitauri, who pledge to help Loki conquer and enslave Earth for his own. Once he gives the Chitauri the Tesseract, they plan to use it to travel to other galaxies and worlds to battle with them. Loki quickly uses his power to exert mind control over several people within the S.H.I.E.L.D. complex, including a couple key figures, namely Agent Hawkeye, and Dr. Erik Selvig (who you may remember from the Thor film). With their help, Loki plans to find a way to tap into the Tesseract for his own purposes, either prior to handing it over to the Chitauri, or perhaps as a means of keeping it for himself. Director Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson), in the meantime, tries to sway the council he reports to into allowing him to re-activate the shelved "Avengers Initiative". Ignoring their protests and directives not to, he calls upon active agent Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to help him recruit other superhero types in an effort to build a force potentially capable of combating the threat posed by Loki and the Chitauri. As would be expected, the plot develops around the gathering of heroes and their assembly (sorry, pun intended).
We're a team, doncha know?
As luck would have it, Captain America is already on board, since his whole purpose in life is fighting for freedom. Black Widow seeks out Dr. David Banner (aka the Hulk) to persuade him to enlist, while Agent Phil Coulson (who appeared in Iron Man 2 as well) visits Tony Stark to get Iron Man himself onto the team. Thor happens to show up at the right and wrong time, sparking a conflict with Iron Man and Captain America without even realizing they're on the same side. Once the pleasantries are out of the way, the team assembles (sorry, gotta stop doing that!) on the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier craft to formulate a plan. While they try and do that, Loki plots against them while they try and sleaze information out of him, all while his plan to escape and take the Helicarrier down is in motion. During this time, Stark and Banner hack the S.H.I.E.L.D. computers to find out the whole story behind the Tesseract, and though against it at first, Captain America joins in with a little recon to get to the bottom of things. They discover the research that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been doing to harness the power of the Tesseract, in part to create "weapons of mass destruction" (oh current event political subplots, how we love thee). Of course, Fury has a plausible explanation for this, and soon the team's concerns become situation-ally irrelevant when Loki busts out and the ship is in danger of falling from the sky.
Though Loki gets away, it quickly becomes obvious that the heroes will have to do some major ego-checking at the door in order to work together, and these are the first building blocks that they use to start actually becoming a team. This sets in motion a series of events that brings the Avengers to New York, because Loki plans on using Tony's new Stark Tower (or more specifically, it's new self-sustaining power reactor) to power the device he will use to leverage the Tesseract in opening a dimensional portal to let the Chitauri in. Once the portal is open, epic battles ensue, and the Avengers begin to coordinate their efforts and actually work as a team. As Chitauri enter the Earth's skies, it's up to the Avengers to hold them off and prevent the imminent destruction of mankind, while simultaneously foiling Loki's plans and finding a way to breach his device and shut off the portal so the Chitauri can be sent packing.
C'mon, Tony, we got this Thor guy on the ropes - let's clean his clock!
While some casual viewers may think this epic battle scene toward the end is what viewers have been waiting for (and to an extent, they have), the thing that is exciting about this film is how it takes the culmination of all the previous Marvel/Avengers superhero films and brings them together in as logical a fashion as possible. I like that they included Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts (and not just for 30 seconds on-screen), and though she didn't actually appear in the film, they referenced Natalie Portman's character Dr. Jane Foster (from the Thor film). This kind of continuity helps tie all the films together into this logical next step, something that I think all fans of the characters can appreciate. I also like how each character's cultural backgrounds and make-up are part of the picture. In one scene, Black Widow is warning Captain America about Thor and Loki (since he isn't up to speed yet) and explains that "they're basically gods." He fires back by saying, "There's only one God, ma'am, and I'm pretty sure He doesn't look like that." Being that Steve Rogers (aka Captain America) grew up during a time when "God and Country" were primary societal pillars, it makes sense to have this kind of cultural cornerstone present in the film from his perspective. This attention to detail is evident elsewhere, from the typically egotistic dialog of Tony Stark, to the self-effacing and cautious nature of Dr. David Banner in non-Hulk mode. In addition, the inter-hero conflicts are done well (and not overdone), and serve to show the "humanity" of each character as much as to help propel the storyline.
The film is not without flaws, however, as nearly any major winner has a few chinks in its armor. It's no secret that Robert Downey Jr. was paid more for being in The Avengers than any of the rest of the cast, and it shows, as he is given perhaps a bit more screen time than Iron Man needs, despite his excellent portrayal of the character. In addition, though the film is a bit longer than the average super hero romp, I felt like it could have been a few minutes longer to help bring even more teamwork and story in, though I know that we'll have plenty of time to see further teamwork and additional character development in the next film (kudos to Marvel for signing Whedon on for the second round). Hawkeye is used well during both his "evil" phase, as well as during his redemptive time in returning to the S.H.I.E.L.D. fold, but I get the feeling he could have been more developed as a character. The flaws here (at least from my vantage point) are relatively minor, however, and don't hamper the enjoyment of the film.
How did I get lucky enough to look like that Mark Ruffalo guy?
Other than a few minor issues, I feel as though The Avengers is the best ensemble cast superhero film of all time, at least up to the point of its release. No other film has been able to successfully capture the essence of an entire array of heroes from both their own individual perspectives as well as from the perspective of the team as a whole, with heroes individually laying down their own goals to serve the greater good. Never before has a film like this been done with such accuracy and completeness. I don't mean to say this is the be all, end all of multi-hero adventures, but it certainly sets the bar quite high - not only for its own sequel, but for any future "hero team" movies based around established characters. The Avengers will be a tough act to follow for any comics house looking to do the same thing. There are small rumblings about the possibility of a Justice League film, given the success of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, as well as his up-coming Superman reboot Man of Steel. My only hope for that series would be if they decide to go ahead, to tread cautiously and follow Whedon's lead, despite the more serious tone of the Christopher Nolan films thus far. Now my only question becomes, will Spiderman be integrated into the Avengers team at some point? One can only wonder...
I started writing this review after my second screening of the film, then unwisely shelved it due to getting busy with "life stuff". Subsequently, during a new review I was writing, I noticed this unfinished draft and decided I had better finish the job and post this review. Sorry about the lack of timeliness of this post, but I felt it still warranted publishing.