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“Hulk: Smash!” Josh Reviews The Avengers!

Well, here we are at last.  The brilliant post-credits scene of 2008’s Iron Man (click here for my original review) promised the beginning of a bold experiment by the fledgeling Marvel Studios — launching stand-alone films starring several of their major characters (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America) which would then be followed by all of those characters teaming up in an Avengers movie.  It was a gloriously outrageous idea, one common to comic-books but never before seen in movies.  Marvel Studios was actually planning on making a super-hero crossover film, and one featuring all the same actors who starred in the individual films!  And not only that, but the individual films would actually connect, with story-points and characters overlapping to create a building momentum for the eventual climax in The Avengers.

It was a bold plan, and I am so happy and relieved to report that Marvel Studios has stuck the landing.  Not only does The Avengers work, it works crazily well, and I think it’s the strongest Marvel Studios film since 2008’s Iron Man (and I say that as a big fan of both Thorclick here for my review — and Captain America: The First Avengerclick here for my review).  It’s hard to believe that I live in a world in which a film version of The Avengers actually exists!!  And that it not only exists but that it kicks so much ass makes the whole thing the stuff of beautiful fantasy.

There is surely a huge list of people who must be given credit for the success of this enterprise, but at the top of the list is co-writer and director Joss Whedon.  I am a huge, huge, huge fan of his film Serenity (which he wrote and directed) and that film clearly showed that Mr. Whedon was the perfect man for the job of helming The Avengers. Serenity not only looks amazing, boasting some fantastic visual effects sequences and completely selling the reality of a futuristic, sci-fi world despite being made for a relatively small budget (FAR less than The Avengers).  But more importantly, in that film Mr. Whedon was able to balance nine main characters, giving depth and life to every one of them, presenting them as very different people with different goals and different attitudes and different ways of speaking, and also giving each one of them moments to shine in the course of the film, without one character overshadowing the others.

Mr. Whedon brings the same deft touch to The Avengers. The greatest pleasure of the film isn’t just that the characters are all appearing in the same film (though just the sight of, say, Captain America grasping hands with Thor on the battlefield, or Tony Stark and Bruce Banner working in a lab together, is enough to make me gleeful) but how distinctly drawn each character is and the way that causes them to totally drive each other crazy.  There’s a huge chunk of time in the middle of the film, after SHIELD has drawn the super-heroes together, in which the Avengers are all butting heads with one another.  Each character thinks HE is the star of the movie, and has little patience for the others.  Some of the best scenes in the film come in this section — it’s great fun watching the characters bounce off of one another.  Those interactions all feel so right, and they make the characters feel like real people, with all the ego and foibles genuine men and women at the top of their fields have.  How boring would it have been if they all liked one another right from the beginning!

Although I was very excited by the early rumors that the Skrulls (a classic alien race from the Marvel comics) were going to appear in the film, I worried that the strife between the Avengers characters in the film would be caused by the actions of those shape-changing bad-guys.  I could easily imagine scenarios in which a Skrull did bad things while impersonating one or more of the heroes, causing them each to think the others were villains.  Thank goodness, the film didn’t go that route at all.  The conflicts between the Avengers aren’t caused by silly misunderstandings, but by genuine differences in the worldviews and characters of the different heroes.  I love the interactions between Bruce Banner and Tony Stark.  (It’s so perfect that Tony would be a bit threatened by Banner, another brilliant mind, but that in the end the two men would find they have far more in common than they do with the fighters like Captain America and Thor.)  Speaking of Tony and Cap, I love Robert Downey Jr.’s delivery of the line to Captain America, late in the film: “We are not soldiers.”  It so perfectly encapsulates the differences between the two men.

The continuity that has been building between the Marvel films pays off in spades here, but in a way that never overshadows the over-all story.  The Avengers succeeds wildly as a stand-alone film, but if you’ve been paying attention to the previous films you’ll find so many more layers of depth to the movie.  Iron Man 2 was all about Tony Stark’s issues with his father, and in one simple line of dialogue we’re reminded that Howard Stark was involved in the creation of Captain America (which we saw in Captain America: The First Avenger), and that throws a shadow over Tony and Cap’s relationship when they meet.  Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg, who has popped up in almost all of the Marvel films so far and who gets some GREAT moments in this film) describes the Hulk to Captain America by commenting that Bruce Banner was trying to re-create the super-soldier serum that had created Cap.  I was delighted to discover a major supporting character from the two Iron Man films had a role in the movie.  The Cosmic Cube (introduced in Captain America: The First Avenger — and let me comment again how awesome it is to see that zany cosmic concept from the comics featured in these movies!!) proves to be central to the plot of The Avengers. And, of course, Thor’s brother Loki returns as the main villain of the film, back from exile with a major grudge against Thor and the planet Earth.  (I loved that the film takes the time to acknowledge the issue of Loki’s true lineage, a revelation that came at the end of Thor.)

Then, of course, there’s Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, finally stepping into center stage.  I’ve been a little iffy with how SHIELD has been portrayed so far — it was super-cool to see them introduced in Iron Man, but in films like Iron Man 2 and Thor they’ve seemed a little hapless for a supposed super-spy organization.  In the opening minutes of The Avengers I was feeling the same way, but as the film progressed I was delighted to see the agency finally presented as I’d wanted them to be presented: as a smart, well-trained group with some phenomenal technology.  I can’t believe I have actually seen the SHIELD helicarrier (such a staple of SHIELD stories from the comics) realized on screen!!  Amazing!!

I was worried from the trailers that The Avengers was going to be smaller-scale than I had hoped.  (I was troubled that all of the action shots in the trailers seemed to take place on the same New York street.)  But as the film unfolded, my concerns in this area were put at ease.  The film is big, taking place in many different locales, and it’s chock full of action.  There’s an extended sequence in the center of the film that depicts an assault by the bad-guys on the SHIELD helicarrier.  It’s a tour de force sequence that is masterfully told.  The sequence just builds and builds and builds, with things getting progressively worse for our heroes.  All of the characters get some fabulous moments, and I loved the sense both of epic scale and of intensity and menace, as the villains really do seem to be a true match for the heroes.

And when the big action climax finally arrives, it is extraordinary and well-worth waiting for.  A lot of the action in that final battle DOES take place in a fairly contained area of New York City, but it’s so jaw-droppingly cool that I was astonished.  I had a big, big smile on my face watching the last section of The Avengers. This could be the best super-hero slugfest ever put on film.  We spend a long time in this fight, and it is brutal and intense and epic.  The film darts from character to character, and every Avenger gets some super-cool moments of ass-kickery, and there are some amazing mini-team-ups as the characters move around, helping one another and fighting as a team.  There’s one shot in particular that zooms from the city streets to the tops of skyscrapers, without a cut, pausing to highlight each Avenger in turn in the midst of furious combat.  It’s astounding.  This entire final segment of the film is a visual marvel (pun definitely intended), and that thirty minutes or so of mayhem feels like the culmination of the five previous movies.

What else is great about The Avengers?

Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner.  He’s just perfection, and he makes us forget that this is the one character who was recast on the road to The Avengers. (Edward Norton played Dr. Banner in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk.)  It also helps that Banner is better written in this film than in either of his two solo films.  Had he never turned into the Hulk, he would still be one of my favorite things about the movie.

The Hulk.  But, of course, he does turn into the Hulk, who is easily the biggest surprise of the film.  The Hulk is just ridiculously awesome in this movie.  He’s a central part not only of some of the most crowd-pleasing action sequences, but also some of the film’s funniest moments.  Major praise to Joss Whedon and his team for finally figuring out exactly how to use the Hulk.

Tony Stark’s new Iron Man armor introduced late in the film.  (The circle returns!!  Bye-bye to the stupid triangle!  Yaaay!!)

Stark Tower, and the last shot we get of the tower post-battle.

The Iron Man-Thor fight early in the film, and Tony Stark’s hilarious taunting of Thor.

The Hulk punching Thor.

The mention of Tony Stark’s life model decoy.

“You and I remember Budapest very differently.”

The Hulk versus Loki.

The moment when Tony Stark says “call it, Captain.”

How I Met Your Mother’s Cobie Smulders as SHIELD agent Maria Hill.  Hill has been a major character in Marvel’s Avengers comics these past few years.  Ms. Smulders doesn’t have much to do in this film, but she’s well-cast and I’m excited to have the character be a part of the movie universe.  I expect she’ll have a larger role in future installments.  (Though personally I do wish they had used Carol Danvers instead of Hill…)

The Black Widow and Hawkeye.  When the cast of the movie was first announced, I wasn’t sure why these two non-super-powered characters were included in the group.  But they are absolutely indispensable to the story.  Both actors are great, and in particular I was impressed by how much more interesting Scarlett Johansson was here as the Black Widow than she was in Iron Man 2. As with Dr. Banner, it helps that she’s much-better written in this film.  In just a few scenes we learn so much about her as a character.  Her scene with Loki late in the film is dynamite.  I loved the non-romantic relationship between the Widow and Hawkeye, and the way that relationship pays off towards the end of the film.

The mid-credits scene.  The reveal of the behind-the-scenes villain is a tantalizing promise of the direction of the next few years of Marvel movies, one that has me almost as excited as that first post-credits glimpse of Nick Fury in Iron Man. And for the real comic book geeks out there, we know that the line about “courting death” has so much more meaning in connection to that villain!  What a genius choice of words!!

The post-credits scene.  Yes, Virginia, even after the mid-credits scene, I advise you to stick around until the very end.  If you leave early you’ll miss a wonderful moment of Joss Whedon comedy brilliance.

What didn’t I like?  Very little!  I do have a few quibbles, of course, but they’re all pretty minor and didn’t affect my enjoyment of the film.

I was a bit bummed that the alien race allied with Loki had so little to do in the movie.  They’re awesome cannon-fodder during the action climax, but we don’t get to know anything about those aliens, their motivations, anything.  I was also bummed that the rumors of the Skrulls proved to be false.  And since for whatever reason the filmmakers decided not to use the Skrulls, why choose the Chitauri?  (Yes, I know that in the Ultimate universe the Chitauri is another name for the Skrulls, but in the film the aliens didn’t look or act at all Skrullish.)  Other than the name, the aliens had no connection to any Marvel comics, they were just generic alien bad-guys.  Seeing as how there are so many amazing Marvel alien races from the comics (the Skrulls, the Kree, the Shiar, the Brood, etc.) it seems like a huge wasted opportunity not to have used one of them for Loki’s allies.

I had assumed that this film would take place after Thor 2, but by the end of the film I was starting to doubt it (since things with Thor seemed to return to the status quo for him).  The ease with which Thor seems to be able to zip to/from Asgard/Earth seems to really undermine the ending of Thor, and if Thor 2 starts with Thor still anguishing over being separated from Jane Foster, it’s going to ring false.  Speaking of Jane, considering how well-intergated the supporting players from Iron Man were in the story, the one passing reference to Jane wasn’t quite enough for me.  I would have loved for an actual scene with Natalie Portman, or failing that at least a line in which Thor could say to Agent Coulson or whomever, “hey, can one of you get a message to Jane to tell her that I’m still alive, it’s just that I got trapped on Asgard??”

I have been complaining in almost all of my reviews of the Marvel films how disappointed I’ve been in the soundtracks.  None of the films have given their super-heroes the type of iconic super-hero theme that John Williams gave Superman or Danny Elfman gave Batman.  That weakness is only exacerbated in this film.  How cool would it have been if, each time one of the heroes appeared, we’d have heard their theme woven into the soundtrack?  How much more awesome might that have been in the final battle, particularly??  I did recognize some music from the Captain America film playing over some of Cap’s moments in The Avengers, which was cool, but a) that music was hardly the type of hummable super-hero theme I’m talking about, and b) it only made me notice the absence of themes for the other characters all the more-so.  I love Alan Silvestri (his score for Back to the Future is one of my favorite movie-scores of all time) and I’m thrilled to see him involved in this big blockbuster, but I wish he had done more to create character-specific themes, seeing as how the earlier movies had dropped the ball in that area.  A lot of the action music in The Avengers sounded OK but a little generic to me, lacking the specific themes that the best action-movie music has.

That’s it.  Those are really my only complaints.  Maybe upon re-watching the film some more things will pop out at me, but for now I am still basking in the glow of how much fun I found the movie to be, and how happy I am that it lived up to my expectations.

But remember, my friends:  Joss Whedon kills beloved characters.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The Avengers is a magnificent achievement.  It’s definitely one of the better super-hero films ever made, and a wonderful pay-off to Marvel’s great experiment of creating an inter-connected movie universe.  That the film succeeds so well validates and elevates the earlier films.  But forget those earlier films — go see The Avengers because it is a ridiculously entertaining time in the cinema, end of story.

“Have you got a suit?  Then suit up!”

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