This past weekend was a good one for superhero fans. Janice and I visited four comic book shops on Free Comic Book Day, including the Comic Stop in Watertown, Massachusetts. I hadn't visited that store before.
It's smaller than my usual haunts of the Outer Limits in Waltham and New England Comics and Newbury Comics in Needham, but it was well-organized, and the proprietors were hospitable. I was glad to see that lots of families visited all of the shops for the event. I picked up several free issues for myself, nephews and nieces, and David I.S.
On Sunday, 6 March 2012, I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H., Josh C. & Sara F., and their friends Rob & Ginger and their young son for lunch at Italian restaurant Piattini in Boston's Back Bay. We then met Beruk A. at the AMC Loews 19 on the Boston Common to screen The Avengers, which we all enjoyed.
Is The Avengers the best superhero movie of all time? I still prefer the 1978 and 1980 Superman films, Pixar's The Incredibles, and last year's Captain America, but The Avengers is definitely one of the best live-action adaptations of a team-based comic book so far. I'd put it on par with Watchmen or X-Men 2 in terms of being both faithful to the spirit of the source material and still entertaining.
Disney/Marvel has been building its shared cinematic universe toward The Avengers since at least 2008's Iron Man. I'm not sure the movie would be particularly accessible to viewers who are unfamiliar with its predecessors or with Marvel's characters, but for those of us who are fans, The Avengers is a long-awaited reward for our faithfulness.
The Avengers manages to compress several decades of fictional continuity, adhere to comic book tropes such as superheroes fighting when they first meet, and provide enough explosions to launch the summer 2012 movie season. I'll try not to give away any "spoilers" here, but note that a few of the links in this review may have some.
The basic premise of The Avengers, in both print and film, is that the world's greatest and most powerful heroes band together to fight a common threat. Of course, getting there is half the fun, at least for the audience, if not the battered costumed characters.
A major strength of recent superhero movies has been in casting good actors and treating the material seriously, without the campy excesses of the 1960s through 1980s. (Since then, we've suffered through angsty melodrama with the X-Men, Batman, and others.) It's no surprise that Robert Downey Jr. is witty and charismatic as "genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist" Tony Stark/Iron Man.
Chris Evans holds his own as supersoldier Steve Rogers/Captain America, the team's moral and tactical leader. Chris Hemsworth is mighty as Thor, Norse god (OK, extradimensional entity) of thunder, and Tom Hiddleston is delightfully smarmy as mischievous nemesis Loki. Scarlett Johansson returns as superspy Natasha Romanov, the only woman in this version of the group (founder Wasp is absent, and Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts has a brief supporting cameo).
Mark Ruffalo joins the merry band as Bruce Banner/the Hulk, the third actor in as many movies to tackle the dual role of compassionate scientist and rage monster. Even though I liked Ed Norton's paean to Bill Bixby's TV version, I think Ruffalo did fine with the computer-assisted role, and the Hulk gets some of the funniest scenes in the movie.
Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg are joined by Colby Smulders as SHIELD agents Col. Nick Fury, Agent Phil Coulson, and Agent Maria Hill, respectively. The Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division is the shadowy organization that initially gathers the high-profile metahumans. Jeremy Renner is no-nonsense as expert marksman Clint Barton/Hawkeye — he's not quite as flamboyant as his comic book counterparts — a former circus performer or DC's Green Arrow.
The Avengers sticks pretty close to the original comic book storyline about how Loki's machinations inadvertently unite a diverse group of heroes. The movie also takes some cues from more recent storylines such as The Ultimates, showing the collateral damage from superpowered beings engaging in fisticuffs in Manhattan.
I did like that the colorful vigilantes eventually found a way to work together to protect humanity from the invading Chitauri. The "Earth's mightiest heroes" may not see eye to eye –leading to some drama and humor, as seen in previews and trailers — but both their squabbles and eventual teamwork are impressive to watch.
Director Joss Whedon is popular with genre fans for Buffy: the Vampire Slayer/Angel, Firefly/Serenity, and more, and he juggles the many moving parts of The Avengers fairly well. Whedon's trademark snarky dialogue, strong female characters, and an appreciation for print comics are all present. As the set-piece battles increase in scale and stakes, the movie's pace quickens somewhat.
As expected, the visual special effects are especially spectacular, with SHIELD's helicarrier, the Hulk's rampaging physique, and numerous powers all rendered more realistically than many artists or kids in Halloween costumes could have ever dreamed. The costumes were redesigned to be harmonious, and I've long maintained that spandex or tights, if handled properly, can be just as good as the black leather of the X-Men movies. I picked up the HeroClix miniatures, and I look forward to seeing more action figures and Lego sets based on The Avengers.
The soundtrack is evocative, but individual character themes aren't as memorable as the AC/DC clips that accompany Iron Man. The Avengers has gotten mostly good reviews and has done very well at the box office so far. I doubt that The Amazing Spider-Man reboot or even the dour Batman Rises finale will be as crowd-pleasing as The Avengers.
As with any "juvenile" entertainment, a few critics in the mainstream media gave The Avengers negative reviews. Some of their points are valid — mostly around pacing, some frenetic scenes that are hard to follow, and more characters than time to develop them equally well — but they assume falsely that popcorn entertainment and high art must be mutually exclusive.
As with the other recent Disney/Marvel movies, it's worth staying after the credits roll for two epilogues (spoiler alert) that tease inevitable sequels. If the quality of the writing, acting, direction, and effects can be maintained while also allowing the characters to develop in their individual movies, I'll definitely be interested.
We also sat through 20 minutes of previews. I was already interested in Disney/Pixar's Brave, and I'm now a bit more curious about The Amazing Spider-Man and Alien prequel Prometheus. I am not interested in shoot-'em-up Battleship, Tim Burton's quirky Dark Shadows, or 1980s flashback Expendables 2. As Stan "the Man" Lee says, Excelsior, true believers!