2012: The Avengers
Written & Directed by Joss Whedon
You wouldn’t think so, but The Avengers had somewhat of an uphill battle to win me over. The batch of Marvel movies leading up to it didn’t exactly blow me away. I liked the first Iron Man just fine, although I didn’t fall in love with it as much as some did. The second one felt like nothing but set-up for The Avengers, Thor plodded away too much time stuck on Earth, and Captain American reached a grand and fitting climax about two-thirds of the way through but kept on going. And I’ve still yet to see The Incredible Hulk in its entirety. I didn’t hate any of the films, but as the linchpin for The Avengers, I wasn’t quite certain they’d properly set the table. Throw in Joss Whedon, who, outside of Firefly, had generally done nothing for me up to that point. I was definitely going to see The Avengers, and thought — no, hoped — that with all the origins out of the way, it could just cut loose and be the Marvel Comics-style epic I remembered from the 70s and 80s.
I wasn’t prepared in the slightest for what unfolded that late night in May 2012.
And I’m not talking about the midnight screening accidentally starting up in 3D when it was supposed to be a 2D showing, requiring that the theater restart the whole shebang all the way back to the previews and resulting in the actual film not getting under way until nigh on 1:00 AM. That could have easily dampened whatever enthusiasm I’d had. Fortunately, once the film finally started, all technical glitches went out the window, and what followed was 142 minutes of four-color bliss that could have ended as the sun came up and not found me the least bit tired.
What Whedon excels at — even in things of his that I don’t love, like Buffy — is not just giving each member of his ensembles a distinct personality, but providing them their own individual moments to shine. And nowhere is that more apparent than here. As the true breakout star of the preceding films, it would have been easy to make this Iron Man and Friends and coast by on Robert Downey, Jr. the whole way. He does have a good share of the spotlight, but every member of the team gets a chance to prove their worth, be it Cap’s calm leadership or the sheer brute force of Thor and the Hulk. And Whedon smartly puts the team at each other’s throats initially, in the tried and true comic book tradition. You know there’s no way the group doesn’t end up together fighting bad guys by the end, but the sense of team comes about naturally, through shared hardship (and some dirty pool from Nick Fury regarding a certain one of his Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). Seeing the camaraderie formed makes us root all the more for them once the final battle begins.
And oh that setpiece in New York. That’s spectacle done right. Firm sense of geography. Action that’s easy to follow. Scale that’s epic but not overwhelming. There’s one scene that perfectly encapsulates all of this, as Whedon wheels his camera from Cap fighting on the ground to the Black Widow battling atop one of the Chitauri speeders to Iron Man flying by blasting enemies to Thor and the Hulk smashing everything in sight atop one of the flying monsters over the city. It’s a breathtaking run that really cements the scope of what the Avengers are up against. Not a necessary shot in the slightest, and to be honest, it’s probably a bit of showing off, but it’s absolutely glorious showing off, and just what a comic book movie should be doing.
We’re in the run-up now to Avengers: Age of Ultron. Like before I was underwhelmed with an Iron Man sequel — despite everyone going nuts over it — although I really enjoyed Thor: The Dark World, and am very much looking forward to the next Captain America and the gonzo-looking Guardians of the Galaxy. But none of this is likely happening — at least not on this scale — without the home run Whedon hit with the first Avengers film. The sheer joy of it, the embrace of the pure comic bookness of it all, stood in such stark contrast to what Christopher Nolan was doing with Batman (The Dark Knight Rises never stood a chance with me in the wake of this). When The Avengers first came out, I called it, “the Super Bowl, Mardi Gras and Christmas all rolled into one.” It’s a celebration. And that’s what makes it so great.