The Avengers is out today, the culmination of a lengthy setup that spans five years and five blockbuster movie releases: Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger. Over the course of those releases, the seeds for an epic story have been planted. We’ve learned about the characters, their motivations, and their interpersonal relationships. We understand the bigger picture forces that are bringing these characters together. We’ve even learned about the new movie’s central MacGuffin, the source of power that Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are trying to neuter.
The Avengers is a summer season tentpole blockbuster made by and for fans of the comic books. Director Joss Whedon is a self-professed fanboy, and he applies that knowledge alongside co-writer Zak Penn to craft a story that simultaneously references and stands apart from what’s established in the comic books. Both of those guys also have a deep background in creating works of mass entertainment, and The Avengers works marvelously well on that level too. This is a true-blue blockbuster, an effects-heavy, explosions-fueled high concept adventure that stands as a work of quality on its own while also embracing some decidedly new methods for telling a story on the big screen. Check out our full, spoiler-free review of the film for more details.
Read on as we look at what there is to be found in this new release that appeals to the different flavors of fan. Whether you’re a movie nerd or you just love comics, you’ll have no problem finding something to enjoy about The Avengers. Needless to say, there are some very minor spoilers ahead. I’ll try to keep them minimal and rooted in facts that were established before The Avengers was released.
Fanboy Wish Fulfillment
Comic book geeks: you’re in for a treat. Whedon and Penn continue to explore Marvel Studios’ live-action take on the Ultimate universe. The Avengers is in many ways focused on bringing fanboy wishes to life. You will see Cap use his shield as a springboard for his fellow heroes, and heroes combining their powers for more powerful attacks. A playful nod to “Hulk smash!” and Cap at odds with Tony Stark. Hawkeye’s rotating arrowhead quiver. The S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier in all its glory. The movie is filled with moments that are utterly faithful to the spirit of the original comic book creations, even if they diverge from the established stories.
And really, what’s wrong with telling a new story for the new format?
The movie’s central item that threatens all life as Earthlings know it is called the Tesseract. It popped up briefly in Thor, and played an instrumental role in Captain America: The First Avenger‘s plot. Comic geeks can take one look at the thing and know its true identity: this is the Cosmic Cube.
We’ve known for some time that the Cosmic Cube would play a central role in the plot of The Avengers. In a nod to the Ultimate line of Marvel Comics, the movie’s Tesseract opens a galaxy-spanning gateway that makes the introduction of the alien Chitauri possible and understandable within the rules of the Marvel movies. While the sequence of events that leads to this sharply diverges from what’s in the comics, it immediately feels like an authentic piece of Marvel lore.
Two of the strongest nods to the comics lie less in the action and more in the characterizations. The tension between Cap and Iron Man is established early, and it becomes a running theme. Never to the point that the two superheroes come to blows — in fact, their shared fight scenes are pretty magical — but in a way that definitely lays the seeds for future rivalries that Marvel fans know all about.
Even better than the Cap/Iron Man tension, however, is The Avengers‘ characterization of Bruce Banner and the Hulk character as a whole. This is by far the best representation of Banner and his alter-ego, “the other guy,” on film. Mark Ruffalo is a perfect bit of casting; his talents are put to good use in establishing Banner as the tragic character that he is, without ever framing him as pathetic or powerless. And the Hulk moments are pure, gleeful spectacle. No spoilers, but when Ruffalo finally does Hulk out for the finale’s big blowout fight, it’s fan-favorite moment after fan-favorite moment.
There’s one final comic fan nod that amounts to a nuclear-level spoiler. All I’ll say is: don’t leave during the credits. You knew that already. There are two scenes to see. The one after the credits offers an entertaining little epilogue. But there’s also one that pops up midway through, one that nods to an immediately recognizable Marvel Universe villain. The Avengers is in no way a closed book on the story that Marvel Studios has been setting up. If anything, it’s just opened the door into a much, much larger universe.
Pleasing the Masses
With so much money behind The Avengers, what with it being a huge blockbuster on its own as well as the culmination of a narrative that’s five years in the making, it couldn’t possibly have just been one for the comics-loving fan-folk. There’s a very real need to plant butts of all shapes, sizes, and fan leanings in theater seats, even the wide world of movie-lovers who don’t know the difference between a Skrull and a Chitauri.
At the highest of levels, The Avengers is a filmmaking achievement the likes of which Hollywood really hasn’t seen. Whedon and Penn get a lot of credit for having an expertly crafted story, but they were aided by the fact that much of the groundwork has already been laid. There’s no need to spend lots of time establishing who these characters are. The Avengers isn’t exactly a sequel but it also isn’t the first step in a series. The storytelling sensibilities on offer here have more in common with the iterative approach taken with serial narratives on TV than they do with traditional Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking.
To put it more succinctly, The Avengers is advantaged in not having to waste too much time on character development. Most people seeing the movie have likely seen one or more of the previous Marvel Studios releases. They know these characters and the world that they dwell in. Of course they would get Joss Whedon wrote and directed this movie. Who better than someone with an extensive and successful background in television?
And let’s talk about Whedon. For fans of his work, this is the real deal. Whedon has a hardcore following, but his efforts aren’t always universally praised, even among those fans. He’s known for being a bit inconsistent, even if it’s not always his fault. With The Avengers, he flat-out nails it. Not only does the action hit all of the right bits, it’s also interspersed with plenty of the lighter moments that Whedon is known for. There is comedy within the action and action within the comedy. This is what happens when you give a guy like Whedon a virtually limitless budget and some of the most talented stars on the planet.
In addition to all of this, you’ve also just got a straight-up excellent blockbuster action movie. The plot is a lean beast, and easy to follow. The action moments come frequently and hit hard, building up to a crescendo that is the entire third act’s explosive climactic showdown. Fair helpings of individual character moments are doled out among the star-studded ensemble cast, but never at the cost of a slowed-down pace.
The Avengers isn’t necessarily a flawless movie, but it is a superior blockbuster that capably straddles the line between pleasing die-hard Marvel fans and the wider, less comics knowledgeable audience. Even if it’s not the absolute pinnacle of filmmaking, it’s got a little something for action fans of every stripe and inclination. That’s as much “perfect” as anyone could ask for with a summer blockbuster.