After years of planning and audience baiting through individual Marvel superhero films, the massive Marvel team-up finally arrives in U.S. theaters tonight. Thankfully, the film delivers, offering a great team, sufficient focus on each individual, as well as a perfect and classic villain. It’s a true popcorn film, an unapologetic comic book movie that never forgets its origins, giving it broad appeal and a smattering of welcome, uncheesy humor thanks to director/co-writer Joss Whedon.
The movie gets off to a bit of a shaky start, mostly due to some surprisingly wooden acting from Samuel Jackson, Scarlett Johanssen, and Cobie Smulders. There’s no massive action set piece at the start, just the somewhat subdued reappearance of baddie Loki (Tom Hiddleston) on Earth as he snags a coveted source of amazing cosmic energy called the Tesseract and brainwashes some good guys to join him thanks to his magical scepter, most notably ace archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and brainy scientist Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard). Sure, Loki caves in a massive underground S.H.I.E.L.D. base, but I found the scene to be somewhat lifeless.
From there though, the film starts to find its feet, especially when sassy Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) joins the fray. Whedon clearly loved writing the Stark character as he saves most of his Whedonisms for Stark to dole out to delicious effect throughout the film, belittling his teammates and enemies alike. Thor is labeled “Point Break”, the recently thawed out Captain America is a “capsicle”, and so on.
Once the team is assembled to battle the intergalactic threat on their doorstep, they seem more likely to tear each other (and their host S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier) apart than learn how to work together as a team. That friction sets up what I found to be the most rewarding moments of the film: Avenger vs. Avenger throwdowns. Iron Man battles Thor before Cap steps into the fray and begs Thor to throw down his hammer. Throw down he does, right on Cap’s shield, setting off a senses-shattering shockwave that knocks down all three heroes and the surrounding forest. The unstoppable force of Thor’s hammer meets the immovable object of Hulk’s chin. Nearly every conceivable matchup happens, and they are glorious. It’s like the writers got together to recapture the fantasy superhero matchups of their youth determining who’s stronger, then giddily captured them on film.
The trickster god Loki eventually drives the team apart and makes his escape, creating the inevitable break up to make up that causes the individual heroes to realize that they have to work together to win. That leads into a massive final battle in and above Manhattan, with hordes of alien warriors arriving from space into the not-so-welcoming arms of the assembled Avengers. There’s no question about the outcome, but the trip to get there is extremely well done with impressive effects (although not very immersive 3D) that amaze without losing the film’s humanity, a marked difference from the similar action overload of Transformers films.
Whedon can rest easy: he delivered the goods, and greatly burnished his reputation in the process. He managed to develop the individuality of each character within the limited time allowed for each one, maybe not adding much dimension to any of them but giving them real voices rather than just throwaway action one-liners. Mostly though, he made the film great fun, providing thrills and humor without getting bogged down in needless exposition or heightened drama. It has appeal for the Marvel uninitiated as well the most hardcore fanboys, and fully deserves its destiny as one of the biggest box office champs of the year. Stick around for the requisite end credit sneak peek of what’s to come, this time a surprising galactic threat that should prove to be a head-scratcher for all but the most ardent Marvel fans.