What can they do but burn: PAR reviews the Avengers
Everyone worried about a movie that featured so many well-known and beloved superheroes, but that's the wrong angle to take when thinking about The Avengers. What you should have been thinking, and this is why The Avengers was so exciting to watch, was that once you have every character set up and properly introduced by their previous films you can do anything. The script doesn't have to spend time and dialog explaining who everyone is and where they came from; director and writer Joss Whedon assumed you knew what you needed to about these characters. They each arrive on the screen fully formed, without the dullness of a well-worn origin story weighing them down. The Avengers isn’t the top heavy mess I feared, and Whedon treated the script as a playground. The budget had to have been astronomical, and you can see every dollar spent; there may not be a single moment that goes by without something amazing happening on the screen. Creating a movie of this size and scope is an inhuman process, filled with hundreds of artists, animators, and technicians that stretch across dozens of disciplines. It’s hard to imagine organizing a crew that large while still maintaining some sort of human heart in the end product, but to its eternal credit The Avengers loves its characters just as much as it loves its explosions. Some of the best scenes involve rooms filled with flickering screens and amazing technology, but the focus is always on the dialog and what these people are saying to each other. Everyone is in some way damaged: These heroes know each other’s weaknesses, and aren’t scared to pour salt into the wounds.“Everything special about you came out of a bottle,” Stark tells Captain America during one scene, and Rogers responds by telling Iron Man to put on his suit so they can duke it out. That's Captain America for you; even when he’s furious at someone on his “team” he wants to give them a fair chance to defend themselves. Thor remains haughty and hard to take, but that’s tempered by his knowledge of his own people’s shortcoming and warlike nature. Thor is better defined in The Avengers then he is in his own movie, and that’s no small triumph in a summer blockbuster that is trying to juggle so many heroes and plot points. The heroes spend as much time fighting each other as they do fighting the enemy, and when they do either it makes sense. Even Black Widow, a character who stands out like a sore thumb in the movie's advertising, has things to do that actually make sense. Every character is there for a reason. Let's take a look at two that could have gone tragically wrong.
There have been two stabs at Hulk movies, starring Eric Bana and Edward Norton, and while they were both watchable in their own way, both fell flat. Mark Ruffalo is the only actor to come into the The Avengers without a successful Marvel film of his own to back up his performance, but the Hulk comes to life under Ruffalo's guidance. Motion capture meant the actor had to play both roles: Bruce Banner is much more subdued and deliberate in this version than he was in the previous two films, and this version of the Hulk is angrier and moves in a more direct, brutal manner. Watch how Ruffalo holds his hands throughout the movie, and how he deals with everything that's going on around him. These are the actions of a man knowing that he's just waiting to explode, and he's well aware that it's going to happen sooner rather than later. He jokes about things, but it's clear he's a man whistling through a graveyard. Whedon didn't just show us that a good Avengers movie could be made, he also laid the groundwork for future films built around the Hulk with this definitive version of the character. Some of the best moments of the movie happen when Tony Stark and Bruce Banner hang out in the lab. They may bond over their shared passion for science, but Stark is always prodding him about what Banner calls “the other guy.” Banner has some of the driest lines in the movie, but Ruffalo has a unique sense of comedic timing as well. This is the sort of character that's very hard to do well, and you can tell Whedon wanted to dig into what makes both sides of the character tick. Mark Ruffalo was more than up for the job. I will not blame you for walking out of the theater with a new favorite Avenger.
Steve Rogers, or Captain America, was another character I worried about. It would have been too easy to spend time with Rogers as he “humorously” tries to deal with the modern age, but instead we see very early on that it's duty and decency that propel him. He doesn't seem upset or put upon when things go wrong, and he takes all the goings on with the air of a soldier who has a job to do. He butts heads with Tony Stark early and often, but that only makes the final scenes where the team comes together to fight as one much more satisfying. Everything about the character feels earned, and nothing about this back story is played for easy laughs. He's also the only character who dresses in what looks to be an actual super hero suit, which is something that is remarked upon in the movie. Whedon doesn't shy away from the “for God and Country” aspects of the character, nor should he. Listen to Cap's reaction when he's told that Loki and Thor are more or less gods. Captain America is, in all things, a true believer.
To sum it up
Even the villain is often portrayed in a sympathetic light at times, although Loki's biggest weapon in the movie may be his smile. There are times the movie feels more like a procedural than a blockbuster, but it's impossible to become bored during The Avengers, even if the running time exceeds two hours by a good margin. I'm still digesting the story, complete with one or two plot holes that I'm interested in discussing when more people have seen it, and the whole thing is so damn dense that it's hard to see and hear everything during your first viewing. Every moment is filled with a good joke or action sequence, and the special effects don't leave much room for a breath. Everything you want to see in a movie with these heroes is shown to you. There is not a dollar or second wasted. There are two bumpers that take place after the credits. The words are just as good as the action, and the action is damn good. This is going to make a billion dollars, and it's hard to imagine how it will be topped in the inevitable sequel. I left the theater satiated.