“Marvel’s The Avengers” has everything you could ask for in a summer superhero movie. There are people in snazzy costumes. Well, OK, not the Hulk. No costume for him (other than ripped, stretchy pants). “I’m exposed,” Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) says of his mean, green alter ego, “like a nerve.” There are wall-to-wall special effects. Duck! Here comes a gigantic flying silvery centipede from outer space en route to do a skyscraper-shattering number on the Big Apple. And beware the cosmic wormhole, a-boil with lightning zaps, through which an alien army pours downward to poor old Earth. And there are explosions. Seems like something, or someone, is going Ka-Boom! every 10 minutes.
All that, and more besides.
Like humor. In the midst of mayhem, writer-director Joss Whedon has slipped in some pretty clever quips – although the best and funniest moments in the picture are wordless bits that come courtesy of, believe it or not, the Hulk. In the ruins of Grand Central Station, he has a split-second, uh, interaction with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) that’s a showstopping hoot. And he doesn’t even have to roar “aaarggh!” to put the joke across.
Hollywood and the Marvel comics people have been building up to this epic for years now, laying the groundwork with the “Iron Man” movies, with a couple of “Hulk” pictures, and with last year’s “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Expectations have been sky-high, as fans of the comic book-based series have wondered how successfully filmmakers would be able to shoehorn all those outsized characters into one movie.
Those fans can relax. Whedon has done just fine.
Having established his pop culture cred as the creator of TV’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the sci-fi cult classic “Firefly” series, Whedon confidently wades into the Marvel universe and provides enough back story to put the diverse characters in context, then builds on the attributes of those characters that had been established in the earlier movies.
Captain America (Chris Evans) is the doughty innocent of the bunch, an unabashed straight arrow with his attitudes and morality, a product of the 1940s, still intact as a result of his having been flash-frozen 70 years earlier and thawed out in the present day in last year’s “Captain America” movie.
Banner is a do-gooder genius scientist who constantly struggles to keep his inner anger in check so as not to unleash the raging Hulk. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is a svelte superspy with great martial arts moves (and a dynamite catsuit), while the high-tech archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), a character not seen in any of the previous movies, is a dour loner.
The ultrabuff Norse god Thor has sibling issues with his half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) that make him a bit ambivalent about taking on the sneering baddie.
Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), leader of the supersecret S.H.I.E.L.D. organization, is an enigmatic, devious presence who slyly manipulates these contentious, cantankerous and just plain cranky personalities into joining forces to save the Earth from Loki’s invading army of extraterrestrials.
With the exception of Hawkeye, who is a relatively monochromatic presence in the picture, Whedon gives all the main characters ample opportunities to assert their individuality. That’s particularly the case with Iron Man. If any one of the folks can be said to dominate “The Avengers,” it’s Robert Downey Jr.
His performance as Tony Stark/Iron Man is loosey-goosey and wholly engaging. It’s at least on a par with his work in the first, and so far the best, “Iron Man” feature. Whether he’s dishing up a throwaway put-down of surfer-toned Thor (calls him “Point Break”!) or giving attitude to Captain America (Captain: “Big man in a suit of armor. Take that away, and what do you have?” Stark: “Uh... genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist ...”) Downey has bulletproof confidence and total command of the character.
He and Ruffalo are well-matched and seem to be having a ball in their roles, and the exchanges between the two geniuses, full of rapid-fire science-speak, are among the movie’s best bits. At first, these heroes don’t play well together. But once they work through their interpersonal disputes, look out, Loki. They’re ready to put the Big Hurt on that evil being from another world.