THE AVENGERS (Dir. Joss Whedon)

Verdict: 4 stars (out of 5) – Opening Weekend

By the time this review is up, most of us have already seen this movie…twice. The Avengers hulk-smashed all box-office records and will undoubtedly become one of the most successful movies of all time – and it should. The Avengers successfully brings together separate Marvel heroes (and their franchises) by refusing to be overburdened with their separate backgrounds and character arcs. The main plot concerns Thor’s divine brother Loki, who was defeated in Thor and is now in the service of some alien priest-thing (known as the Other) who promises Loki an army of unbeatable alien warriors with which he can become ruler of Earth. In exchange, Loki must give him the Tesseract, a cube which is an endless source of energy. Simple end-of-the-world type stuff, right?

The movie has an infectious enthusiasm about its opportunity to put so many heroes in one film, and this makes seeing each character in action fun in a giddy, comic-book geek kind of way. Who needs to see Captain America cry over lost love when we can have the Hulk pummel a god of Asgard through five different layers of concrete! What are these aliens and why are they here? Who cares! They all just get their heads blown off by a thousand Stark Industries rockets fired from Iron Man’s shoulders, so stop asking critical questions!

Instead, lets nerd out and review each superhero that makes up The Avengers!

Thor: The most positive thing I can say about Thor in this movie is that he’s not the petulant god-child that we had to sit through Thor with. Thankfully, Thor isn’t imbued with as much emotional gravitas, which allows Chris Hemsworth to do what he does best: avoid emotional drama by speaking with an Old English affect in a deep, exaggerated voice (which at least makes him a great target for Tony Stark’s quips) while swinging around his hammer and literally bringing some thunder to the action set pieces. Besides fighting his fellow heroes and an alien race, Thor is at his best in this movie when he’s being set up to be the brunt of Tony Stark’s jokes. And since the movie avoids artificially manufacturing his character development or dramatic depth, Thor is one of the ways in which The Avengers maintains a continuous, enjoyable sense of humor about the serious posturing of its characters. Forget a love interest, I want to see a Deadliest Warrior competition between Thor and the Hulk! And The Avengers gives me that!

Captain America: Being imbued with a serious sense of moral duty along with his super-soldier serum, Captain America is one of Marvel’s more tiresome and irrelevant superheroes. Again, The Avengers sets the Captain’s self-righteousness against the less-righteous and more sarcastic personalities of the other heroes (i.e. Tony Stark). The Captain’s whole backstory is referenced for about ten seconds, which also means that there’s no real attempt to provide a contrived, empathetic depth to the character. He does what we expect him to do: try and get everyone to play nicely, make sure there is little collateral damage as possible, and make flat jokes about modern-world references he doesn’t understand (since he was frozen in ice for decades). The movie also makes sense of his obsolete name and costume by having Nick Fury explain a need for nostalgia and tradition in the anarchic age of hostile alien invasions.

Hawkeye and Black Widow: These two members of the Avengers team are by far the least compelling – they don’t even have their own movies (or review paragraphs)! Hawkeye is a super-assassin with a quiver that can arm his arrows in innumerable ways (to act as explosives, grappling lines, etc.), and Black Widow (who was in Iron Man 2) is a Russian super-agent who apparently knows every martial art and thinks the best weapon to use against an alien horde is two small pistols. These characters are the movie’s weakest point, as they both make references to past missions they shared together and troubled histories, but since their backgrounds are given no context these references leave us wondering what the hell they’re talking about. The Avengers’ aversion to the other heroes’ emotionally-contrived backstories in favor of fist fights and sardonicism is abandoned here as it attempts to bring dramatic depth to the two Avengers members we care about the least. Let’s get back to the heroes with actual powers! No one cares about your ‘ledger,’ Scarlett Johansson!

Iron Man: How would a movie be able to poke fun at Captain America, Thor or the Hulk without Tony Stark? Whenever The Avengers threatens to get serious and dramatic with its characters or scenes, the man in the iron suit is there to save the audience from tedium with sarcastic wit. And while Iron Man’s sarcasm gets overextended at times (yes, we are aware that Tony Stark is irreverent!), Robert Downey Jr. always shows an underlying seriousness about the Avengers’ tasks that brings some actual poignancy to his sacrifices later in the movie. Along with the Hulk, Iron Man is one of the more complex and developed heroes that is shown to be more human than comic-book caricature. Having a robotic suit as a power also balances the more biological (or divine) powers of Iron Man’s teammates, as we get to witness super-tech fighting along with super-strength. How can we not love Iron Man?

The Hulk: Surprisingly (at least to me), Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk becomes perhaps the best hero of The Avengers. Instead of being obsessed with Bruce Banner’s childhood traumas and anger issues so that we empathize with a “green rage monster,” The Avengers presents a Banner that is much more focused in the present: he wants to help those in need and wants to avoid turning into “the other guy.” Why? Well…because then people get hurt. This also allows Mark Ruffalo to create a more interesting Banner that is concerned with something other than avoiding the Hulk alter ego and an American military interested in his power. Bruce Banner initially arrives as a member of the Avengers for his knowledge about gamma radiation and his ability to tract the Tesseract cube, not for his ability to hulk-out. Ruffalo brings a quiet, sarcastic apathy to the team (and also plays the Hulk through motion capture), which makes us connect with Banner before we see the Hulk – who, thanks to Johansson, we sometimes fear and even wish to not appear. Banner’s condition is initially presented as something the team must avoid triggering, which means that when he arrives in full control of his power (which isn’t really explained), we actually move from fearing the Hulk to rooting for him. Banner’s ambiguity extends to how we feel about his alter-ego, which means that this is (finally) the Hulk done properly. So it isn’t surprising that some of The Avengers’ more humorous and kick-ass moments come from Ruffalo’s ‘other guy.’ From the moment that Hulk is told to “smash,” we watch him tear apart an alien army and everyone (including the audience) breathes a little easier knowing that he’s on our side. I’m actually hoping that Ruffalo gets his own Hulk movie franchise.

Oh, and we of course have Samuel L. Jackson as the Avengers’ coordinator Nick Fury, who reports to a nameless human ‘council’ that wants him blowing up New York to prevent an alien invasion instead of depending upon a superhero team. Plot device, anyone? Jackson is fine in the role, and like every other character in The Avengers, fits in his proper place to produce a coherent and entertaining blockbuster.

While most superhero movies take themselves seriously enough to make us unintentionally laugh, The Avengers avoids the routine, flashback-heavy scenes that attempt to neatly and empathetically explain the characters’ motivations by subjecting all the tired – but necessary – tropes to a sarcastic self-awareness. By shrugging off any responsibility to be serious or poignantly dramatic, The Avengers becomes an actual fun movie to experience in that old-fashioned sense reminiscent of when we went to summer movies to be awed by spectacle. It’s the perfect movie with which to get out of the classroom and prepare for a summer filled with what will (probably) be the less fun, more serious The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spiderman films.

Movies that do it better: This is the epitome of simple, comic-book fun, but Kick-Ass and Nolan’s Batman movies are at least on par, as is the first Iron Man. Transformers is also a similar, earth-shattering blockbuster. The Matrix is action-heavy but also makes you think, and Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men movies are excellent superhero films – X-Men: First Class is also surprisingly good and worth watching.