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Review: ‘The Avengers’

Well Assembled Summer Package

Credit: Walt Disney

Above: Some assembly required... finally, "The Avengers."

Marvel's epic plan of assembling "The Avengers" (opened May 4 throughout San Diego) has finally paid off. This is how you make a summer superhero movie.

I will confess up front that unlike my guest blogger Miguel Rodriguez I am not a comic book geek who has consumed all the volumes of Avengers lore leading up to this film. In fact, I haven't read any Marvel comics since elementary school but I have fond memories of doing so, and that's why I asked Rodriguez to write his review from the perspective of a fanboy. Now I'm here to tell you that even if you are not a fanboy who can identify the new super villain in the teaser treat at the end of the film you will still love this film.

Marvel -- or someone -- smartly realized that the only way to ever assemble a superhero ensemble on film was to make sure all the entities and franchises were under one roof, in this case Marvel Studios. One of the main reasons you'll never see a Freddie vs. Jason vs. Ash film is because that would require a lot of studio cooperation (plus Bruce Campbell is too smart).

The Avengers Trailer

Trailer for The Avengers

So Marvel had the vision or the business savvy to plan a series of films leading up to a mega-superhero blockbuster called "The Avengers." Starting in 2008 with "Iron Man" and "The Incredible Hulk," and continuing with "Iron Man 2," "Thor," and "Captain America," Marvel has been building to this epic ensemble of Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (newly added Mark Ruffalo), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) all under the supervision of Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson). By getting all the origin stories out of the way in the lead up films, "The Avengers" could just get down to business and that's precisely what it does.

Credit: Walt Disney

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Captain America (Chris Evans) saving the planet in "The Avengers."

"The Avengers" dovetails off of the two most recent films, "Thor" and "Captain America." The villain, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), comes from "Thor" while the "Captain America" film brought in the final big name superhero. The job of bringing together all these superheroes, falls to Nick Fury, the director of S.H.I.E.L.D, a secret espionage agency. When the earth is threatened by Loki and his alien henchmen, Fury assembles his team in the hopes that their super powers will be enough to save earth. The only problem is getting all the super egos to get along.

Writer-director Joss Whedon has a huge fanboy and fangirl following from his highly successful TV shows "Buffy," "Angel," and "Firefly." But feature film success has been more elusive. He has worked as a writer on successful films like "Toy Story" but his one feature directorial gig, "Serenity," made fans happy but failed at the box office. But with "The Avengers" (and to a lesser degree with "The Cabin in the Woods" that he wrote and produced) all that will change and rightfully so.

"The Avengers" does everything right for a summer blockbuster. It's a perfect balance of humor and action, accessible fun and geeky insider jokes. The casting is spot on and the effects are integrated into the story rather than existing solely as eye candy. Plus Whedon is a master at ensemble casts and snappy banter.

Credit: Walt Disney

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow.

As an avid fan of "Buffy," I was happy to see him carry over a lot of what made that TV show good onto the big screen for "The Avengers." First of all, Black Widow, even though she doesn't have the superpowers of her male co-horts, gets to do something and not just sit around and look pretty. She has a great introduction scene where she gets to display not only her mental prowess but her impressive gymnastic skills. As with "Buffy," "The Avengers" proves that Whedon knows how to create female action characters that are smart, sexy, tough, and not whiny or window dressing.

The other thing Whedon is so good at is balancing the outlandish with the mundane. Sure Buffy would kill vampires and demons and save the world but she still had to do homework. Similarly, these superheroes may be fighting to save the earth but they can also be petty and bickering. So while I would hesitate to say that Whedon keeps it real, he definitely keeps his superheroes human. But without ignoring the fact that they do have amazing superpowers, it's just that they don't make a big deal about it. Watching "The Avengers" made me feel like a kid again because I was pulled into a universe where I immediately believed that these characters could stop an alien spacecraft with a fist or jump off building. These are superheroes where you are really made to see that they have super powers and it's something to revel in. Whedon strikes just the just balance between flaunting the super powers and downplaying just how outlandish it all is. Whedon's "The Avengers" does what the best films of this genre do: create a fantasy world that you accept as totally real. And then provides a kick-ass good time as well.

A good sense of scale also helps with the action scenes. On the surface, some of the action -- with alien creatures/vessels tearing through a major American city wreaking havoc -- look similar to scenes from the god awful "Transformers" films. But here's the difference: "Transformers" focused only on the epic scope of the action, on the immense robots ripping apart a city. It was simply big and noisy, and created no tension and engaged no emotions. "The Avengers," on the other hand, conveys the epic scale of the battle as whale-like alien ships swim through New York City leaving destruction in their wake but it also takes the time to remind us of the human lives down on the ground. The Avengers are concerned with fighting the aliens but also with making sure that civilians are guided to safety. By doing this, Whedon engages our emotions and creates tension. It's harder for a superhero like Captain America to fight an enemy while he's also looking over his shoulder to try and protect people fleeing an office building. This changes up the scale as well as the pace in the action, and makes it so much more engaging and exciting.

Credit: Walt Disney

Chris Evans and Robert Downey, Jr. balance each other well in Joss Whedon's "The Avengers."

A sense of contrast also helps in terms of the characters. I always found Captain America a bit bland and tiringly patriotic. But his all-American attitude plays much better in contrast to Tony Stark's flippant arrogance. And Hulk's simple smash agenda plays nicely off of Black Widow's more subtle mind games. All in all it's a well-rounded team in which each members brings something different to the table, and Whedon makes that mix fun.

I could quibble about the film's length, nearly 2 and a half hours. It could have used a little trimming but even at that run time, it never dragged or felt overly long, that's a credit to Whedon's script, pacing, and cast. Downey's Tony Stark is my favorite. Downey is just perfect as the snarky billionaire philanthropist who plays by his own rules because he literally can afford to. As I mentioned earlier, Downey's Stark is the perfect foil for Evans' Captain America. Evans may occasionally be the butt of a joke -- because he's a man out of time and doesn't always fit in -- but he never plays Steve Rogers or Captain America as jokey. Ruffalo is a nice new addition as Bruce Banner/Hulk. Thank god they dropped Edward Norton (who played Hulk in the 2008 film). Norton is definitely not an ensemble player and would not have fit in. Hulk may be CGI but he proves there is such a thing as well used CGI, and when he finally gets to smashing, it's well worth the wait. The rest of the superhero cast -- Hemsworth, Johansson and Renner -- are all solid as is Jackson as Fury (although I wish he had more to do than stand around). Middleston's Loki may not be the most exciting super villain but he serves the film well and Hiddleston masters an evil smirk.

"The Avengers" (rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, and a mild drug reference) is pure superhero fun and sets the bar high for the superhero films still to come this year, "The Dark Knight Rises" and "The Amazing Spider-Man." Thanks Joss Whedon and I hope this means we'll be seeing more of your work on the big screen.

NOTE: Make sure to stay for BOTH post credit scenes!

Companion viewing: "Iron Man," "Captain America," "The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes" (especially the Captain America episode, which had the best animation of the series)

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