It’s Ass-Kicking Time

Thank god, it’s finally here.

 We have been waiting for this movie since 2006, when Samuel L. Jackson waltzed into the last thirty seconds of Iron Man like an eyepatch-wearing portent and first uttered the word “Avengers.”

It has all the pyrotechnics of a blockbuster comic-book movie, but explosions alone do not a compelling storyline make, and that is where writer and director Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) triumphs where so many others run into trouble. His movie’s primary conflict isn’t the arbitrary good-versus-evil blowout that characterizes these kinds of productions (fortunately for him, because his “evil” is pretty forgettable). Instead, Whedon’s main point is that the Avengers aren’t yet a team: they’re a “time bomb.”

The personality clashes are epic and provide the driving force of the movie. Whedon clearly sacrificed an engaging plot line for the sake of giving each of the larger-than-life heroes a little more depth, but superhero comic books have always been driven by personality, not nuance. It suits his medium.

The flick opens in a SHIELD research facility where the Tesseract — the magical, all-powerful glowing cube of death from Captain America — is acting up, much to the alarm of SHIELD Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Before you can say “deus ex machina” the cube’s twitching turns into a full-blown interdimensional portal, spitting out the unhinged Trickster god Loki (Tom Hiddleston). He slaughters the cube’s guards, uses his magical boom stick to brainwash a SHIELD agent or two — including future Avengers member and archer extraordinaire Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) — then nabs the cube and flees.

This is Fury’s cue to kick-start the Avenger’s Initiative. As he rallies the troops — bringing in fellow SHIELD agent Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson), getting Captain America (Chris Evans) out of semi-retirement, retrieving the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) from his hideout in India and bullying Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) into leaving Stark Tower — Thor (Chris Hemswoth) reappears from Asgard to deal with the black sheep of the family. 

Now is the time for the Avengers to assemble. Unfortunately for Fury, it’s not that simple — Evans’ straightedge Captain clashes with Stark’s braggadocio and daddy issues, which mesh nicely with Thor’s man pain over his genocidal baby brother. Hulk’s problems are all personal, but explosive enough to be a collective concern. Whedon’s trademark snark reigns throughout their interactions, keeping the dialogue fast-paced and genuinely funny through a lot of exposition. I shudder to think how he will up the one-liner ante if Spiderman (the undisputed comic-book king of quips) joins the team in the next movie.

Downey Jr. brings the same wry wit to his character that made Iron Man so fun to watch six years ago. SHIELD agents Widow, Hawkeye and Phil Coulson (Gregg Clark) have some of the most interesting teases of the movie in terms of their shared past (Please, Marvel, say that a super-assassin backstory movie is in the works?) and their give-and-take support system provides a nice foil to the isolated insecurities of the rest of the team.

But the true sleeper favorite is Ruffalo’s Hulk, much in the way that Downey Jr.’s Stark was in the first Iron Man. He’s perfect and a surprise standout because you didn’t expect him to be. His sheepish self-awareness contrasts beautifully with the Hulk’s sheer destructive rage — after years of bad movies and worse CGI treatment, Whedon and Ruffalo have finally found a sweet spot and brought the un-jolly green giant to life. 

The aliens themselves are generically, and unremarkably, evil. Whedon makes a good call, then, by personalizing the movie’s “evil” with Hiddleston’s Loki. The conflict of the movie is driven by his megalomaniacal one-man circus of insecurities. Hiddleston displays his character’s psychoses brilliantly, and even manages to garner some sympathy for Loki’s daddy issues despite the fact that you watched him pluck a man’s eye out the frame before. His big ol’ ball of crazy makes his doomed campaign interesting enough to keep watching once the Avengers get their act together.

The comic-book influence bleeds through into the cinematography from time to time in the kind of heroic, backlit lingering shots that wouldn’t look out of place in paper and ink. One sequence in particular pans through the ruins of downtown Manhattan to each of the scattered Avengers in turn, as they struggle from their different vantage points to hold off the alien invasion. It’s a slow shot, lovingly done, and the kind of staging that comes straight out of a comic book.

Overall, it’s a paragon of its genre — genuinely funny, with characters that have honest-to-god layers, and enough explosions to keep the most diehard of Michael Bay fans happy. It’s an excellent payoff after years of waiting. But then again, if you’re a diehard comic book fan (especially of the Infinity Gauntlet) who’s not satisfied, stick around after the credits; looks like the Avengers franchise will have one more chance to get it right. (B+)

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