Summer has begun, and “The Avengers” has established itself as the blockbuster to beat with a record box office of more than $200 million in its opening weekend. That is an astounding return by any standard and sets the bar impossibly high. The remaining superheroes with summer movies will have to do super business to even come close.
This is a whiz-bang joy ride from start to finish with an exceptionally balanced mix of action, humor and pathos to fascinate filmgoers of every age. Yes, this is for fan boys as well as families – and anyone else who wants to see what all the fuss is about. Marvel Films’ plan to roll out the Avengers one by one with their own films leading up to this one was a controversial move that had plenty of doubters as to whether the interest in the franchise could be sustained over a period of several years.
First came “Iron Man” with Robert Downey Jr. playing the billionaire playboy turned action figure, Tony Stark. This was followed by the “Hulk,” (played by Edward Norton and in a previous outing, Eric Bana), followed by “Thor” (Chris Hemsworth) and “Captain America” (Chris Evans) last summer. In between, Iron Man earned himself another movie, and along the way we were introduced to other characters such as Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), all agents of S.H.E.I.L.D., the shadowy international law enforcement group headed by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).
Now they all come together in “The Avengers” as Thor’s adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), seething with envy and driven by a lust for power, comes to earth to take the Tesseract, the crystal found at the bottom of the ocean in “Captain America.” With it he can control the universe and have revenge on his more popular sibling, and with all of his resources he is a formidable foe who must be stopped.
His secret weapon turns out to be a hunch that this super group of folks will not be able to get along well enough to work together to save the planet. And he’s proved right as they are summoned to Fury’s fabulous headquarters in the sky, a floating, invisible aircraft carrier, where they squabble like children.
This is where the brilliance of writer/director Joss Whedon is evidenced as character development continues to factor in, giving each of these seven super men and women more depth. As in previous outings, Downey’s Iron Man is glib and snarky, while the earnest Thor and Captain America’s patriotism provide a continuous flow of fodder for him to poke fun at. The more intriguing aspects are the back-stories of Black Widow and Hawkeye as more is revealed about their troubled pasts. The newest member of this group and their secret weapon is Hulk, and, hopefully, Marvel and all concerned will stick with Mark Ruffalo, who seems to grasp the inner fury and intelligence of the conflicted character.
The final battle for earth as Loki unleashes his intergalactic army is a wonder of CGI and 3D technology. While it is a marvel to see, in an almost two-and-a-half-hour running time, this felt prolonged and fatigue set in for me.
Whedon’s specialty is not in the big show but in the more nuanced interplay between the characters and that, more than likely, will generate the fantastic word of mouth about this film. It is nothing short of genius to take this genre and turn it on its ear — again. It’s been done before when Christopher Nolan took on Batman, driving the character into a very dark place. If any film can beat “The Avengers” at the box office this summer, it will be the third and final installment of the “Batman” trilogy, “The Dark Knight Returns.”
But Whedon’s approach emphasizes substance over style, and if he can sustain this, it should keep audiences coming back for more. If you doubt that there is more, do not leave your seat before the final credits role.