Friday, May 4, 2012

"The Avengers" (2012)

Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans and Samuel L. Jackson
Written and directed by Joss Whedon
Rated PG-13 - Superhero violence and action
Running Time: 143 Minutes

"We have a Hulk."

There's a reason why that line is featured so prominently in the advertising for Marvel's "The Avengers."  And I'll get to that in a little bit.

Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Director of SHIELD, is called to a secret facility where Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) is experimenting on a strange alien energy source known as the Tesseract.  But the Tesseract is acting strangely, and soon enough a portal opens from within it, and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) arrives on Earth.  But Loki is not here by accident.  Using the powers of his special scepter, he begins to turn SHIELD agents into his own brainwashed henchmen, including Selvig and Clint 'Hawkeye' Barton (Jeremy Renner).

Fury sends Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Natasha 'Black Widow' Romanov (Scarlett Johannson) to recruit his special team of super-powered heroes to help him locate Loki and the Tesseract. Romanov convinces Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to come in and use his special knowledge of gamma radiation to help them find the Tesseract, while Coulson tracks down Tony 'Iron Man' Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Steve 'Captain America' Rogers (Chris Evans).  Soon enough, Loki and Hawkeye surface in Germany, and Captain America and Iron Man manage to capture him.  On the way back to SHIELD's flying headquarters, however, Loki is broken out of their custody by his brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth).

After a brief fight, everyone realizes they're all on the same side, and Thor accompanies the others back to SHIELD, where Banner and Stark work on a way to locate the Tesseract while Fury and Black Widow attempt to get information out of Loki.  What they learn distresses them: Loki wanted to be caught.  His army of alien warriors, under the care of the Other (Alexis Denisof) is headed to Earth for the Tesseract, after which Loki will rule the planet as he sees fit.

But Fury knows that the team of heroes he's assembled is anything but.  They can't work together - at all.  Several of them downright don't like each other.  But if the Earth is to have any chance against the invading alien forces, this group of weirdos, gods, geniuses and assassins will have to put aside their differences and work together as one.

Let me just get this out of the way: The Incredible Hulk owns this movie.  What writer/director Joss Whedon has done here is make the Hulk cooler and more badass in considerably less screentime than in the entire two previous movies that were dedicated to just that character.  Mark Ruffalo's performance as Banner is pretty key to the whole thing.  Everyone walks on egg-shells around him, and Ruffalo seems to revel in it, almost playing with the expectations of the people around him that he'll suddenly go apeshit and tear the entire place apart.  But ultimately, when he does, and when we finally get what Whedon and Ruffalo are doing, it is glorious.

Though the film clocks in at a generous 143 minutes, and does at times seem every bit as lengthy, for the most part Whedon keeps things moving along.  The script is full of Whedon's trademark wit.  This is probably one of the funniest superhero movies you're likely to see (with, again, the Hulk getting some of the film's biggest laughs and cheers).

And the film is most definitely an ensemble piece.  Robert Downey Jr. lays it on thick for Tony Stark, as he often does, throwing out quips at an incredible pace.  Chris Evans doesn't get much time to lament his lost life or love, but is given a few moments in which his sense of being lost in this strange future is palpable.  If anyone gets the short shrift in this film, it's Hawkeye.  Certainly, once he's put into play, he gets some fine action beats, but for the most part he's almost a non-presence.  He functions better as a development device for Black Widow than he does as a character on his own.  Lou Ferrigno once again voices the Hulk, which is just great to see.  There are also appearances by Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts and Paul Bettany as the voice of JARVIS, Iron Man's artificial intelligence system.  Natalie Portman's character from "Thor" is referenced, as well.

In terms of character development, there's not a whole lot of it.  Each character essentially has the same arc, wherein they must figure out what they're fighting for and how to fight alongside the others effectively.  The film's structure allows each of the Avengers to fight the others.  Iron Man and Captain America fight Thor, Thor fights the Hulk, Black Widow fights the Hulk and Hawkeye, and so on.

Ultimately what this means is that the character development isn't for the individuals - but for the team as a whole.  Think of the Avengers as a singular character, a unit, and that's where the development lies.  All these characters were put in place - they were developed to this point - by their previous movies.  "The Avengers" is essentially the third act of a story that's been building since "Iron Man" in 2008.  This is where we were being led through "Iron Man," "Iron Man 2," "The Incredible Hulk," "Thor" and "Captain America."  So to complain that the film lacks character development is both valid and invalid.  There's solid character work on display for pretty much everyone, but what's important is the team.

The action sequences are first-rate, and bigger than anything in the previous Marvel films by far.  The film's third act is a siege on Manhattan by Loki's army and the mayhem on display is damned impressive.  And, by god, the Hulk is incredible.  Whedon stages a fantastic one-shot which soars around multiple city blocks to show off the Avengers finally working together side by side that brought a huge smile to my face.  He stages some really badass shots, the kinds of iconic comic book imagery that will have any superhero fan jazzed up.

"The Avengers" might seem slight in depth, though deceptively so.  But it is fun, it is hilarious, it is action-packed, it is huge, and it is must see.