Suited up to save the world: Chris Hemsworth is Thor and Chris Evans plays Captain America in “The Avengers.”
Updated: May 3, 2012 8:36PM
THE AVENGERS ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Reacting to fan-verse criticism that he might be a bit too cerebral and a bit less-than-desirably marinaded in testosterone to direct the much-anticipated Marvel superhero extravaganza “The Avengers,” writer-director Joss Whedon responded with admirable style.
“Step up to me in a bar and say that,” the creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is reported to have said in a blog post somewhere. “I’ll toss my Apple-tini right in your face.”
He had good reason to be feeling his oats about “The Avengers,” it turns out. Whedon, an inventive and entertainingly thoughtful pop-culture spin artist, whose only previous feature film was the modest 2005 sci-fi adventure “Serenity” (based on his short-lived cult-TV effort “Firefly”), delivers all the spectacular action a summer-movie audience could possibly hope for — and he does it with intelligence and humor to spare. If you’ve been paying even the slightest attention to developments in the Marvel superhero movie universe the past few years, you’ve no doubt been aware for a while now that “The Avengers” was heading for a multiplex near you. It has been foreshadowed by a handful of superhero hits the past few summers, beginning with two Hulk movies (in 2003 and 2008) followed by two installments of “Iron Man” and last summer’s introduction to “Captain America” and “Thor.”
Remarkably, Whedon’s superhero roundup fulfills the promise of those earlier incarnations in seemingly effortless fashion, giving fans (Whedon himself is a mega-fan) all the super-thrills and super-melodrama they desire, while making his mark on the proceedings with occasionally devastating comic interludes.
That might not be a surprise if you’re familiar with Whedon’s work (such as his co-scripted screenplay for the hilarious, though outrageously grisly “Cabin in the Woods”). But are you prepared for the possibility that the funniest thing you’ll see in a movie this year might come courtesy of the Incredible Hulk? One of the most successful ideas in “The Avengers” is Whedon’s decision to use the Hulk (mostly in the form of Mark Ruffalo making wry observations as the Green Behemoth’s world-weary human counterpart Dr. Bruce Banner) as both an ultimate-weapon deterrent and as 800-pound-green-gorilla comic relief in the war against alien invaders that more or less drives the plot. Robert Downey Jr.’s irreverent, billionaire playboy arms dealer Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man) keeps things rolling along with witty repartee, but it’s the Hulk who scores the boffo laughs.
The plot? Thor’s adopted half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) attempts to subjugate mankind by utilizing the Tesseract — a universal energy portal that opens the doors to an army of intergalactic invaders who promise to make him king. And the only thing standing between him and success is the highly volatile team of superheroes more or less organized by eye-patched Samuel L. Jackson as director of the super-secret security agency SHIELD.
No one seems to take this alien invasion thing too terribly seriously — least of all Whedon — since the madman-intent-on-world-domination thing has been done hundreds of times before. Whedon doesn’t dismiss the plot, as might be expected given his standard M.O. of going meta with commonly established genre conventions. But he tables it, more or less, during the second act to introduce us to the individual members of the Avengers team (Downey Jr. has a nice moment of embarrassment about the name in a showdown with Loki) and to give them time to butt heads a bit before the grand, Earth-saving finale. Which, by the way, lays waste to downtown Manhattan in mind-boggling fashion, complete with satisfactory 3D effects.
It’s natural enough that a group of superheroes with almost god-like abilities might have a hard time occupying space in the same room, and Whedon has a great deal of fun with that idea. He paces the story in a way that gives each character, including the less-well-known Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), both excellent, a moment in the spotlight — and also an opportunity to rub each other the wrong way.
Who would win in a fight between Thor and Iron Man, Thor and the Hulk, Thor and Captain America? (Thor has a hard time fitting in, it seems, but Norse gods often do.) That’s a big part of the fun in “The Avengers,” but the real enjoyment comes from watching them set aside their squabbles and take care of business when the time comes.
It’s always a pleasure to see someone do what they’re good at, whether they happen to be superheroes or writer-directors on the verge of a probable worldwild smash hit.