I mean… Wow.
Whether you were a total Whedonite, or just a Buffy or Firefly fan, or someone who knew he did that vampire thing but didn’t know about the comic books or web shows, or you just weren’t a fan of Joss Whedon at all, it was impossible not to kneel before The Avengers as though it was an all-powerful demigod demanding your allegiance. In a good way.
What a remarkable achievement this movie was on each and every level. Never before has a franchise been born character by character before being pulled together into one massive, all-conquering whole. For that we can thank the unswerving vision of Marvel Studio’s head honcho, Kevin Feige. From 2008 through 2011, he shepherded Iron Man 1 & 2, Thor and Captain America into production, setting up the title characters, and weaving in Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, and Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow. Each movie not only set up its lead, but also evolved the Avenger Initiative backstory a little more, through one-liners, brief glimpses of the S.H.I.E.L.D. world, and crafty post-credits stingers.
With that heavy lifting taken care of, the biggest task still remained: how to take all those characters and synthesize them into one fast-moving, massive spectacle of an event movie, while retaining the humor, soul and smarts of each of the previous installments.
Which is where Joss Whedon came in.
It’s no easy thing, to keep so many characters in the mix, giving each their moment(s) to shine, without losing any of them — this is especially true when the characters in question are iconic; are all (or have the potential to be) stars of their own movies & franchises. At least, it’s usually no easy thing in the movies. In TV, on the other hand, keeping multiple character arcs rolling and interweaving as you escalate stakes and understanding is simply business as usual. Todd VanDerWerff made this point in a brilliant piece for the Onion’s AV Club. He talked about how J.J. Abrams, another TV superstar-turned-movie-god, also had the same intuitive understanding as Whedon: focusing on the good guys and their interactions and emotional connections is a powerful foundation, especially in a huge movie. There are exceptions, of course, most notably Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, which are dark and extraordinarily focused odes to isolation and loneliness (also, they’re works of utter genius). However, in the case of The Avengers, which is a high-energy, brightly-colored rock-n-roll universe, focusing on our heroes was a brilliant move on Whedon’s part.
Everyone got arcs and awesome moments (although Robert Downey Jr may have had a few more than most, knocking them all out of the park). Whedon found a way to humanize each of his heroes (most poignantly using “the cellist” and the trading cards to make us care about Agent Coulson), which drew us in all the more: such care is rarely taken in tentpole pictures, and even when care is taken, it’s rarely done with such skill and charm.
The script really is a force to be reckoned with; this is writing as superpower. It begins with a boom, then rides that momentum easily as it swoops from character to character, using one to segue to another, never losing pace as it builds up the cast; then it ratchets up the stakes, the conflict, the sheer size of everything — bringing the team together then breaking them down then finding a nuanced yet brutal emotional lever to launch the massive, rollicking final third of the movie.
This juggernaut of narrative pace is shot through with constant soul, emotion, and, most importantly of all, a relentless and brilliant sense of razor-sharp wit. This may just be the greatest comedy of the year, even as it lays an early claim to blockbuster movie of the year, and possibly even highest grossing movie ever made.
Whedon brought other great grace notes to his performance as writer & director, flourishes that made the performance even more his own: casting the iconic rebel Harry Dean Stanton as a janitor (to Hulk: “son, you have a condition”); using Lou Ferrigno as the voice of the Hulk; ending the movie with Soundgarden’s first song in fifteen years.
On so many levels, The Avengers is basically a glorious expression of everything I’ve ever loved about genre and pop culture. As a child, bringing together multiple characters was simply how I did it; that’s what toys were for. In my childhood games, it wasn’t unusual for Captain Kirk to join Spiderman, Superman and the Daleks for a face off against dinosaurs (f**k off, I’m copyrighting that, it’s mine!)… so the notion of superhero team events is basically wish-fulfillment on a massive scale: thank you, Mr. Whedon, for making this match-up so much more than the sum of its parts.
But that’s enough about Joss and the boys. Let’s talk about Scarlett.
As the lone female, Scarlett Johansson had her work cut out. But she had Whedon on her side, one of the great feminists of pop culture, a true believer in the awesomeness and awesome power of women. Who better to make Black Widow unique and memorable, soulful and strong, kickass and funny? But having Johansson bringing Whedon’s words to life on the big screen was a truly special thing. She brought a stormy, sensual quality to the Black Widow/Natasha Romanov, playing her with a quiet strength interlaced with a hurt soulfulness, and a sharp intelligence, hidden like a knife, wielded with deadly precision and speed.
Yes, she kicked ass with the best of them, but her shivering, shaking vulnerability after just barely avoiding being killed by Hulk is just one example of what makes Natasha Romanov so human, and is one of the reasons this movie has so much heart and soul. Johansson gave the movie its warm yet broken & tortured soul. In the process, she made an airtight case for a standalone Black Widow movie.
I could keep going, but then the run time of this review would almost match the movie.
In conclusion, The Avengers was a majestic blend of humor, soulfulness, intelligence, mad thrills, and a visceral, always-building visual crescendo.
An extraordinary pop culture rush, in other words.
Final rating: five out of five quippy one liners.