This film is made of so much win that no winometer can even measure it. These iconic Marvel Comics characters finally come together as a team, and it lives up to all of the expectations and hype.
SHIELD Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) brings together Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to defend the planet from Thor’s adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and his alien allies.
Writer/director Joss Whedon, best known as the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, finds the ideal balance between characterization and action in the most epic superhero film made to date, and also one of the very best. His noted styles of humor and dialogue are on full display here, along with some perfectly constructed large-scale action scenes. For the first time in three films, the Hulk has an actual personality beyond mass destruction, and even a sense of fun. This is what Whedon has always done best, build characters and tell exciting stories with them, and for the first time he has the opportunity to demonstrate it to a mass audience, and he doesn’t waste the opportunity. Everything one could want–drama, humor, action, characterization, and epic battles–is here, and then some. This is how you do a superhero team-up film.
As a comics fan, I wish Whedon could have found a way to use the “Avengers Assemble!” battle cry, but that’s an insignificant quibble in the grand scheme of the film. It exists within the Marvel film universe continuity established in Iron Man (2008), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), but in one way it’s consistent with the Marvel comics universe continuity: in The Avengers #1 in 1963, the team first comes together in response to the machinations of Loki. Some of the events in the film are loosely inspired by the events in that first issue. Of course, in the comics, the original Avengers team was Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Ant-Man, and the Wasp (who coined the team’s name).
Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (World Trade Center, Atonement) shot the film digitally using the Arri Alexa camera system to achieve a look that can best be described as polished realism, which suits the material well. Production designer James Chinlund (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain) puts together several big set pieces, including SHIELD’s Helicarrier and New York City under siege (which was mostly filmed in Cleveland, Ohio), and it all looks believable. Costume designer Alexandra Byrne (Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Thor) is largely working with pre-existing designs for most of the characters, but nicely updates Captain America’s costume for the 21st century and adds a realistic screen costume for Hawkeye (no purple tights, unlike in the comics). The score by Alan Silvestri (Forrest Gump, Captain America: The First Avenger) is appropriately epic and heroic.
It took fourteen visual effect companies, lead by Industrial Light & Magic and Weta Digital, to create more than 2,200 visual effects shots for the production, including a motion capture-based CG Hulk, and the finished effects are as good as they get. There’s not a single shot that draws you out of the suspension of disbelief.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Jackson, Downey Jr., Hemsworth, Evans, and Johansson honed their characters in previous films, but still manage to explore more facets of their characters with Whedon. It’s especially nice to see Jackson’s Nick Fury get more screen time. Ruffalo replaces Edward Norton, who played the Hulk’s human alter ego Dr. Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk, and between his acting and Whedon’s writing makes the best screen Banner yet. The Hulk is CG based on motion capture of Ruffalo (using the same technology as Avatar), and his voice is a mixture of Ruffalo and Lou Ferrigno (who played the Hulk in the 1970s television series). Renner briefly appeared in Thor as Hawkeye, but here he gets to build an actual character and play him two different ways. As was previously demonstrated in Thor, Hiddleston makes a magnificently villainous Loki.
The cast also includes Clark Gregg as SHIELD Agent Phil Coulson (reprising his role from Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and Thor, and Whedon gives him some fun character stuff here); Cobie Smulders as SHIELD Agent Maria Hill; Stellan Skarsgard as scientist Dr. Erik Selvig (reprising his role from Thor); Gwyneth Paltrow reprising her Iron Man and Iron Man 2 role as Pepper Potts, the executive assistant turned CEO turned love interest of Iron Man’s alter ego Tony Stark; Paul Bettany also reprising his Iron Man and Iron Man 2 voice role as Iron Man’s artificial intelligence assistant JARVIS; and Alexis Denisof (Wesley on Whedon’s television series’ Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel) as the Other, Loki’s ally. Cameos include Avengers co-creator Stan Lee as a man interviewed in a news report, Harry Dean Stanton as a security guard who encounters the Hulk and Dr. Banner, and Polish film director Jerzy Skolimowski as the Black Widow’s interrogator in an early scene.
The Avengers is already the most successful superhero film ever, and it’s easily one of the absolute best, too. It’s not the bleak revisionism of The Dark Knight or Watchmen, but in its own way it redefines the superhero film genre, and most definitely throws down a challenge to future films in the genre. More, please!
[5 out of 5 stars]