The Avengers (***½)

The first blockbuster of the 2012 summer movie season also happens to just plain old be one of the best films of the year so far. ‘The Avengers’ could have gone wrong in a ton of different ways, but almost inexplicably it’s a massive success. With only a few small flaws to blemish its record, this film is a testament to how much of a coup it was to hire Joss Whedon to write and direct the project. He gets to the core of what this movie should be about. It’s not about explosions and fights, but instead about community, loneliness, and the need for teamwork in the face of long odds. This is not only the best film to come from Marvel’s production company, but it’s easily one of the 5 best superhero films to date (it’s your move, ‘The Dark Knight Rises’). Whedon has taken the best of each previous Marvel film and, with one or two flaws aside, cobbled together pretty much the ideal Avengers film, rife with strong performances, surprisingly effective humor, and more than a touch of heart. It’s like a great comic book come to life, and you’re left just as giddy as a young child first discovering the tales of heroism within those books and diving right in. Between this and co-writing ‘The Cabin in the Woods’, Whedon is the man of the hour in many parts of the film world. ‘The Avengers’ isn’t perfect, but then again, neither are heroes tasked with saving the Earth, and we still love them. I have no doubt that you all will love this film when it opens on Friday.

Only talked about and planned for in prior films, the Avengers Initiative comes full circle here when the Trickster God Loki (Tom Hiddleston) comes to Earth looking for the Tesseract (or Cosmic Cube from previous Marvel flicks), a source of limitless power. After initially stealing it from S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, team leader Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) decides that a team of superheroes is the only solution to the problem of Loki and the promise of interstellar war that he brings. He already has master assassins Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) on his payroll, with the now unfrozen super-soldier Captain America (Chris Evans) in his employee as well (not to mention Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson and Cobie Smuthers’ Maria Hill)). Fury sends out Coulson to fetch the previously disqualified Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Black Widow to bring in Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), as these brilliant men may be able to help locate Loki and the Tesseract. Complicating things is the arrival of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the God of Thunder, who is seeking to stop his brother Loki on his own. When it appears that they will all have to work together to stop Loki, they join up…only to let infighting and their own issues threaten the mission. All this leads up to a brilliant third act battle with Loki’s army where the Avengers, well…they assemble. And it’s amazing.

The acting here is surprisingly good, with everyone doing their part but never making it all about them. We get exactly what we expect from Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and Chris Hemsworth, but they each are improving on what they did in prior films, and the same goes for Tom Hiddleston as well. With beefed up roles, Clark Gregg, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, and Jeremy Renner flesh out their characters a bit and each get their moment in the sun. Renner is given a bit of the short straw here, but that’s more due to a plot development than anything else. Cobie Smuthers is underused, but she serves her purpose. We even have the return of Paul Bettany, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Stellan Skarsgard. The true standout, however, is Mark Ruffalo, who makes the character his own. The first actor to really get the Hulk AND Banner right, he steals the show. Downey Jr. may get the best lines, but the best acting is from Ruffalo.

Joss Whedon is the first filmmaker to get to both write and direct a Marvel Studios feature, and he makes the case that this is the route to go with next. Whedon’s direction is superb, making the movie feel truly epic, and his writing is smart and honors all that’s come before him. With the exceptions of the opening scene (it feels too rushed), Loki as the villain (he feels recycled and his motivation isn’t that great), and the removal of Hawkeye from the proceedings for a sustained amount of time, Whedon does a nearly flawless job. None of my issues are major ones, and he more than makes up for it with one of the best third acts of any action film in a long time (go figure, he co-authored an amazing third act last month with ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ as well). Somehow, the action packed finale also manages to be filled with emotion and humor as well. In fact, the funniest moment in the film comes right in the middle of a major battle. Whedon deserves credit for the success here, managing to take the type of thing that Michael Bay has made into a calling card and do it about a thousand times better. He makes it look effortless. Joss Whedon has found a way to right the Iron Man ship after the disappointing ‘Iron Man 2’, find a way to properly use the Hulk after two failed attempts by other filmmakers, and he gives every character a time to shine (not to mention using 3D in a way that enhances the action, not blurs it and dilutes it). It’s truly yeoman’s work by Whedon here.

Could ‘The Avengers’ be an Oscar contender when all is said and done? In the tech categories for sure, but I think you’re dreaming to be thinking Best Picture here. Honestly, it’s most apt awards consideration would be for a Best Ensemble nod from the Screen Actors Guild awards, but even that is an amazing stretch. This is brilliantly executed popcorn entertainment, but it’s still just that in the end and voters will see it as such. I’d love for the Academy to consider it, but I think consideration is where it ends for the flick, for better or worse.

Rarely does an action film work as well as ‘The Avengers’ does. It’s nearly perfect and a guaranteed good time at the movies. Tremendously acted, well written, well directed, and amazingly fun, this flick pretty much has it all. When it opens in a few days the box office is likely to be staggering, and this is one film that deserves that type of success. It’s a home run for Joss Whedon and all who were involved. You should make sure you don’t miss ‘The Avengers’…oh, and stay for the credits, as there’s a post credits sequence that strongly suggests where the eventual sequel will go. Count me in!

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