Friday, May 11, 2012

'Avengers' is a smart, funny, thrilling summer smash

"The Avengers," which brings together several of Marvel comics biggest heroes, is, as the Hulk might say, a smash. It is critically hailed, publicly loved and blasting its way through box office records.

In just three days it has made $200 million in the United States alone. There have been plenty of summer blockbusters that have made huge money at the box office that have been rather odious, but "The Avengers" is not just another loud, special effects machine akin to the headache-inducing "Transformers" franchise.

While, like the "Transformers" films, "The Avengers" concludes in chaotic action and effects, the huge difference is there are characters that we are emotionally invested in and a sharp sense of humor that doesn't rely on juvenile jokes that a 10 year could write. Basically, the filmmakers behind "The Avengers" actually respect the intelligence of their audience.

The film's hero roster includes Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). They are brought together by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the director of the secret government agency SHIELD.

Each of these characters have either starred in their own film or at least featured in another film, even if only in a cameo. For each of the films feeding into "The Avengers," Marvel Studio has been smart in choosing directors that not only fit the material, but have a real love for the comic book mythology.

With "The Avengers" they found an ideal match in director/co-writer Joss Whedon. As the creator of the shows "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel," "Firefly" and "Dollhouse," Whedon has a key trait important to making a film like this work: He knows how to juggle ensemble casts.

For a film so loaded with characters, Whedon has pulled off a neat trick. Everyone gets their moment to shine. There is an even dispersal of dialogue and scenes between the characters that never feels forced. The interactions and scenes flow naturally.

The plot isn't particularly special. It is a standard superhero origin story, which follows these beats: A character gets powers, struggles with these gifts and then faces first challenge. The difference here is the characters have their skills in the beginning, so the conflict is for this group of big egos to learn how to work together as a team.

Their adversary is the demi-god Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the adopted brother of Thor, who has been banished from his home world of Asgard. In his banishment, the heartbroken Loki has turned bitter and vengeful and has set his sights on Earth, the planet Thor fell in love with during his own banishment in last year's "Thor." Loki has an alien army at his disposal and, naturally, he wants nothing less than world domination.

Before facing Loki, there will be a lot of infighting between the Avengers, often spurred on by a captured Loki. Comic book fans will thrill to see such match-ups as Iron Man versus Thor, Black Widow versus Hawkeye and Thor versus the Hulk.

What rises the film above the standard plot is that it is told exceptionally well. Whedon's script, co-written with Zach Penn, is peppered with clever lines and unexpected hilarious moments, particularly from the Hulk in the climatic battle. The banter between the characters has a real spark and the actors are given interesting things to do dramatically. While this always stays a popcorn entertainment, there are still moments of weight.

The acting across the board is top tiered. Downey continues to ooze charisma, as the quick witted "genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist," who despite all his snarkiness has a huge heart.

Downey's cocky charm is nearly matched by Hemsworth, who shows flashes of Thor's arrogance alongside the humility he learned in his own film. Evans, who comes across earnest and sincere, continues to be a good match for Captain America

Ruffalo, coming into the role of Bruce Banner after Eric Bana and Edward Norton, gives a compelling performance. He is a man no longer comfortable in his own skin because he knows "the other guy" is lurking below.

Hiddleston is a fantastic villain. He brings a genuine sense of menace to the screen. Hiddleston is particularly unsettling in an exchange with Johannson that recalls scenes from "Silence of the Lambs."

The bottom line with this movie is this: If you have eagerly been anticipating this film, you'll love it. If you've seen and enjoyed at least once of the previous films, you'll have a good time. If you have no interest in any of these characters, it still won't be your cup of tea. If you're on the fence, give it a go, you may be pleasantly surprised.

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