'Avengers': Ambitious Achievement
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"You lack conviction." So pronounces a peripherally heroic figure to uber-villain Loki at the start of one of this film's several climaxes, explaining to the Asgard-raised mischief maker why he's bound to lose the semi-cosmic war he's started. I'm glad to be able to say that this damning observation cannot be leveled at the filmmakers behind "The Avengers," who attack their task of creating a comic book superhero epic with not just conviction, but something almost resembling panache.
The humongous scale of the task (I don't even want to think about how much this massively effects-laden movie cost, or what a pain it must have been to make) is of course a given. Obviously, it's no small task to even conceive of a movie that's the culmination -- the first culmination, of course -- of a series of superhero movies good, indifferent, and rather bad, each of which was in some way designed to provide a portal by which the individual superheroes therein depicted get to this particular place. To form a family, if you will. OK, not a family, but a team.
You know most of the names of these Marvel comic book heroes: The Mighty Thor (his movie I found pretty bad), Tony Stark, aka Iron Man (first movie refreshing, second meh), Captain America (very good first contemporary feature!), The Incredible Hulk (let's not even get started), and then there are the obscure ones whom only mavens know, Hawkeye and the Black Widow, and between those poles is Nick Fury, who changed ethnicity from the comic character but retained the eye patch. (And is, of course, portrayed, as he has been in all those after-the-credits "stingers" of Marvel movies, by Samuel L. Jackson.) And they are all here, along with a raftload of familiar and semi-familiar and brand-new supporting characters.
Since setting up the whole backstory of this Epic Meeting of Heroes would take up rather more space than this review -- and perhaps the Internet entire -- can accommodate, let me cut to the chase and the assessment. "The Avengers" starts off none too promisingly with the usual "Look, it's the desolate depths of deep space" and a portentous echoey voice-over that had me half-expecting the opening bars of the Crazy World of Arthur Brown's '60s hit "Fire." Yeah, yeah, I'm-a real scared, scary intergalactic threat to life on Earth. Then we're in a lab with a few of the crew we know from prior Marvel movies, and there's a lot of science going on, only, oops, soon the very evil Loki shows up and takes over the minds of the arrow dude (yeah, I know, Hawkeye, played by Jeremy Renner) and a couple of others and steals the big blue cube with the impressive name that's in fact nothing more than a Greek-derived word for a cube, and off he goes to start war against the Earth and its puny humans by using the cube to open a portal to let hordes of super-gnarly aliens and their creatures into our world. Check.
It doesn't help that Tom Hiddleston's Loki continues to come off like a vexed offspring of Richard E. Grant who's determined to get everyone to take him a lot more seriously than they did Dad. Further pro-forma moves come with the in media res re-intro of Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow: Oooh, look, she's tied to a chair and being tortured by ... Jerzy Skolimowski? Why, yes, Jerzy Skolimowski ... but bet she's just playing possum, yup, she is, and look at her go. (In the meantime, I hope Skolimowski took points on this picture. The great Polish director could probably finance a half-dozen films of his own from them.) Then she recruits doc Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, both droll and intense and the most, um, credible Hulk ever, as far as I am concerned), chilling half a world away ...
Things pick up with the reintroduction of Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man, whom screenwriter-director Joss Whedon (who co-wrote the story with Zak Penn) uses as a kind of "Mystery Science Theater 3000"-style Greek chorus; his near-constant zingers draw the movie's cosmic-war-and-its-ethics themes well away from the brink of pomposity. But Whedon and company -- and here's where the conviction, not to mention the comic-book love, comes in -- do quite a bit more with Stark and Captain America and the Hulk, the three heroes who wind up the main focus of the movie.
The plot is deftly arranged so that each of these guys has to embrace or reject a particular facet of their characters in order to get the job done. The stolid, out-of-time Cap (who's nicely drawn by Chris Evans) has to shoulder leadership responsibilities he thinks he's no longer asking for. Stark has to confront his relentless self-absorption. And Banner/Hulk? Well, you'll see. I assume. This is all done with no sacrifice of very forceful and very loud action, and if the New York Panics! shots are a little reminiscent of "Ghostbusters" for my tastes, the combination of 3-D and weird-ass alien creature design does get its particular job done. And the movie brings together Robin from "How I Met Your Mother" and Richard from "The New Adventures of Old Christine," how about that.
Granted, this is not going to be everyone's cup of tea, and for myself, I do find it a little ironic that despite being adapted from a group of comics that were trying to bring a slightly more adult tone/sensibility to the form at the time, the dominant ethos of these films is relatively, well, "droolerish" is one word for it, I guess. But I can't complain too much, particularly if I want a clean email inbox. So I'll close with a quote from a 20-somethingish guy whose cellphone conversation I heard on the way out (and whom I inferred was not a virgin): "Without telling you anything, it was the single most enjoyable two-and-a-half-hours I've ever spent in a movie theater ever ever ever."
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.