Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Avengers (2012)

The Avengers (2012)
Dir. Joss Whedon

3.5 out of 5

A lot of things fall into place with The Avengers, the culmination of a historically expensive promotional campaign that included feature-length advertisements like Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America. It's the ultimate payoff to Marvel Studios' efforts to build a cohesive cinematic universe for its well-known comic book characters, an ambitious project reliant on a volatile mix of anticipation and expectation. Marvel upped the ante even further when it tabbed Joss Whedon - a geek icon who has inspired equal amounts of devotion from his fans and indifference from the mainstream - to write and direct. The result is a movie with real-life stakes almost as big as the fictional ones: when Earth is threatened by the Norse trickster god Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the planet's greatest heroes (including franchise keystones Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), and a bevy of other slashable names) must pull together and stop Loki from opening an interstellar portal to facilitate an invasion of hostile aliens.

When you have as many headliners as The Avengers does, the difficulty lies in giving each of them their due without making it seem like you're just spinning plates. Whedon turns this potential weakness into a strength by devoting a good chunk of the film to the team's wrangling of egos and questioning of allegiances. Predictably, there's an alpha struggle between the sarcastic Stark and the straight-laced Rogers, but Thor (Chris Hemsworth) seems to be the biggest wild card, as it isn't obvious that joining an organization devoted to protecting a foreign planet is in his best interest. Whedon gets a little overzealous in creating quips for the famously witty Stark, but he nails the flavor of each team member's personality without leaning on their one or two stereotypical character traits. A simple scene like Stark and a show-stealing Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) commiserating over their shared love of science perfectly captures the appeal of a movie about a supergroup of superheroes and validates the laborious process that made it possible.

But while much of Whedon's script has a satisfying snap, there are still plenty of places in The Avengers' two and a half hour running time when things start to drag. There's a glaring contrast between the film's intriguing exploration of character dynamics and its more conventional fistfights-and-explosions portions. Although the action is bold and colorful, it has a tendency to exhaust with its frequent cross-cutting, especially in the film's climax around the streets and skyscrapers of New York City. Such divided attentions mean that super-spy Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) and expert archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) don't really get a chance to shed their ancillary labels, though at least there's no shortage of other, more compelling characters. Despite its slightly uneven quality, The Avengers successfully raises the bar for successive superhero adventures, impressively tying up the first batch of Marvel films while suggesting that there's still much to be explored.

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