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Review: Marvel's 'The Avengers' Is Immensely Satisfying, Entirely Thrilling & Possibly The Best Superhero Movie Yet

Reviews
by Oliver Lyttelton
April 19, 2012 7:05 PM
33 Comments
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The Avengers Samuel L. Jackson Chris Evans Robert Downey Jr.

The first scene of " The Avengers" is not very good. Deep in a secret S.H.I.E.L.D. base, scientist Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) is conducting experiments on The Tesseract, the blue cube that powered the Red Skull's experiments in "Captain America: The First Avenger." Experiments that, unfortunately, bring to earth Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the vengeful brother of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), last seen plummeting from Asgard into oblivion. Loki manages to take down S.H.I.E.L.D's best -- Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) -- with ease, and soon the base is decimated. It's a perfectly acceptable place to start, but there's something off about the execution: it's stilted, awkward and humorless, and the action is pretty uninvolving, with a TV-level of scope.

We're not quite sure what happened, because that opening scene is by some distance the worst thing in the film. In fact, it's a complete anomaly, because for 95% of its running time, "The Avengers" (or as it is called in the U.K, where we saw the film ahead of its opening next week, "Marvel Avengers Assemble") is thrilling, hilarious and brilliantly executed. It's not just the best Marvel movie to date (although it is that), and it's not just in the very top tier of superhero movies (although it is), but it's one of the most all-around satisfying summer blockbusters since God-knows-when.

Once Loki is out in the world, things move quickly. S.H.I.E.L.D., on the backfoot, go about bringing together their super-team: Captain America (Chris Evans), in the care of S.H.I.E.L.D. and still trying to adjust to the 21st century, is brought on board. Top covert agent Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is sent to track down Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a scientist whose expertise they hope to use but who also has the advantage/possibly-cataclysmic-downside of turning into a giant green beast occasionally. Billionaire inventor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is persuaded to take time off from opening his new, self-sustaining Stark Tower HQ, and don his Iron Man suit for the team. And before too long, Thor himself is on Earth, looking to bring back his brother and dispense some Asgardian justice. Unsurprisingly, the team fail to gel at first, but soon the stakes are high enough that they're forced to work together to save the planet from Loki and the mysterious army that he's putting together.

The Avengers Scarlett Johansson

Marvel's approach to hiring their directors has been an interesting one; a diverse mix, but so far, they've generally felt like employees, serving the Marvel factory rather than getting to put their own stamp on a picture. But Joss Whedon becomes the studio's first writer-director here (working from a story by Zak Penn), and it's undeniably and thoroughly a product of the man behind "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Firefly" and "The Cabin in the Woods." Whedon's a writer first and foremost, and he does a superb job at juggling his expansive cast and with a couple of minor exceptions (more on that below), every member of the ensemble gets an arc, moments to shine, and feels like a living, breathing character. Whedon's written for Marvel comics in the past, and clearly knows these characters like the back of his hand, but develops them with an impressive economy: he rarely tells when he can show.  

Indeed, much of the fun comes in seeing them rub against each other, thanks in part to Whedon's typically snappy, witty dialogue, from Stark's pop-culture jibes (calling Loki "Reindeer Games" is one of the ones we feel less bad about spoiling) to Banner's weary asides. The other thing Whedon's historically proven strong at is stakes. From 'Buffy' to "Serenity," when the world needs saving, it really needs saving, and that carries over here; unlike in the earlier Marvel movies, you're never entirely convinced that all the characters are going to make it out alive, as Whedon mounts threat upon threat upon threat upon them.

Because at the same time, Whedon is adding to his toolbox here. We'd feared from trailers and clips that the film wouldn't have the kind of scope that you'd expect from a movie that teams up four stand-alone superheroes, but scope is exactly what Whedon delivers. This thing is huge, as though Marvel had been skimming 40% off the budget of each of their earlier movies to add to this one. It spans the globe, with action that -- arguably for the first time in a superhero movie -- feels like it's lifted from the pages of a superhero comic. When kids run around pretending to be Thor and Iron Man, this is what plays out in their heads. At the same time, there's a heft and weight to it, because you care about the characters.

Joss Whedon Mark Ruffalo The Avengers

And this all adds to perhaps the most surprising thing about "The Avengers." Like fellow TV legend J.J. Abrams on "Mission: Impossible III," Whedon's big-screen debut, "Serenity" had its moments, but felt more like television than a movie. But like Abrams did on "Star Trek," Whedon has stepped up his game in a major way: the action is clear and coherent, the pacing is tight (it's 140 minutes long, but flies by) and the technical contributions are top-notch across the board, from the Bond-movie production design of James Chinlund ("The Fountain") and the razor-sharp cutting of Jeffrey Ford ("Public Enemies") and Lisa Lassek ("Cabin In The Woods") to Seamus McGarvey's bright cinematography and Alan Silvestri's firmly listenable score (although the latter could, it should be said, use a more distinctive theme).

And it's funny. Did we mention it's funny? God, it's funny. As serious as the stakes get, Whedon's never afraid to let a joke out (the final action sequence has more than one gag as funny as anything we've seen in a comedy for a while), and it gives the film a light, bouncy tone that makes it such a pleasure to watch. And his cast members are clearly having just as much fun as the audience will be.

Casting's been a strength of the Marvel movies, and everyone who's returning matches their earlier engagements -- any fear that Downey Jr. might be phoning it in is misplaced, as he's actually stronger here than he was in the last "Iron Man." For the first time, Samuel L. Jackson feels engaged, rather than cashing a paycheck, and Scarlett Johansson's gone from dead weight to one of the highlights of the film (honestly, she's almost revelatory here). Most characters get to show new sides, even Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson, while the new additions mostly fit in just fine. Indeed, the film's M.V.P. is a newcomer: Mark Ruffalo, taking over for Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, brings his trademark offbeat energy to the role, quietly walking away with scene after scene as he does so. And it helps that the Hulk (played for the first time through performance capture) is the most fun he's ever been on screen.

The Avengers Tom Hiddleston

There are, inevitably, issues. As well as Whedon juggles his principles, some of the supporting characters, particularly Cobie Smulders' S.H.I.E.L.D. second-in-command (who's oddly humorless for such a talented comedienne), aren't given much to do. More problematic is Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye: He's fine when things get going (he's got great chemistry with Johansson), but spends much of the movie in the background, thanks to a plot contrivance we won't give away here. Had he been established by anything other than an obviously-reshot cameo in "Thor," maybe you'd feel more attached, but he feels underdeveloped on the whole.

That also leads to the film's biggest problem: the villain. It's not that Hiddleston is bad -- far from it, in fact. But the film relies on you having seen "Thor" to be able to read into his motivations, and even then, both what he's doing and why he's doing it remain a little opaque. It's far from a deal-breaker: the film moves fast enough, and the stakes are clear enough, that you remain invested. But one feels that even one extra scene with Loki might have made him a more satisfying antagonist.

That this is the film's biggest problem, however, is sort of extraordinary. "The Avengers" should never have worked. Too many characters, too many egos, an inexperienced director, an interference-happy studio. That it works as well as it does -- that it's as satisfying a tentpole movie as you could hope for -- is something close to a miracle. [A-]

"The Avengers" opens in the U.K. and elsewhere in the world on April 26th, and hits U.S. screens on May 4th.

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33 Comments

  • Dasphoto | April 30, 2012 1:36 PMReply

    "But the film relies on you having seen "Thor" to be able to read into his motivations, and even then, both what he's doing and why he's doing it remain a little opaque."

    I have a problem with this quote because shouldn't you have seen all the other movies before seeing this? Or isn't the reason people are going to watch this is because they have seen the other Marvel films?

    Good review though, the more I read about the film, the more I want to see it.

  • [A] | April 27, 2012 1:11 PMReply

    Great fun, this movie. See it in a packed theater for full experience.

  • Tom | April 22, 2012 6:24 PMReply

    Best summer block buster since... Star Trek 2009. Good, but nothing extraordinary.

  • Mr Anonymous | April 20, 2012 11:51 AMReply

    Oliver - Great review but no mention of this special extra scene that that Robert Downey Jnr leaked to the media when the world premiere was held. Did you see this scene? Was it included? What was it without spoiling?

  • Oliver Lyttelton | April 20, 2012 12:31 PM

    It wasn't included in the version I saw -- they'd only shot it a night or two previously.

  • cory everett | April 20, 2012 9:53 AMReply

    Good review. I was also pretty worried during the opening 15 minutes or so but it definitely got up on its feet after that. And the last 30 is pretty great. I still wouldn't put it anywhere near the same league as the Nolan Batman films though.

  • Wash | April 20, 2012 8:21 AMReply

    I love that when a reviewer gives a detailed description of what they liked about a film and what they didn't, justifying their particular grade on the overall enjoyment of the film, everyone goes apesh!t and critics the review. This dude gives his opinion, you read it, and then bash it? If you're going to disagree with the review one way or the other, why bother reading?

    Also, if the comments are to be believed, after The Dark Knight, apparently the studios should have all just closed their doors and admitted defeat. Who knew that once a great movie happens in a particular genre, we should shut that genre down. That does explain why there hasn't been any gangster movies since Godfather, though...

  • paul | April 20, 2012 8:17 AMReply

    what was that bracelet Tony Stark wore that magnetized his latest prototype suit? It looks real cool.

  • Jack | April 20, 2012 12:30 AMReply

    I haven't seen Thor or Captain America. So will that matter if I go see this?

  • Kirby | April 20, 2012 9:08 AM

    Jesus, just watch them. They're on netflix, you're world will honestly not come tumbling down if you just watch the movies that lead up to this.

  • Glass | April 19, 2012 11:01 PMReply

    Alright, who are you, and what have you done with Oli? It sounds like a good movie, but wow! This reads like an adjective-heavy high school newsletter review...

  • swell | April 19, 2012 11:00 PMReply

    The quality of the user comments on this site is getting ridiculous. You guys ever think about closing the comments section?

  • Cinematic_high | April 20, 2012 1:02 AM

    I love reading the comments...makes you feel like the smartest person in the room......on a side note....this devoted "fanboy" / movie fiend can't wait!!!!!

  • Rohan | April 19, 2012 9:50 PMReply

    This is by far the worst review I have ever read. First of all, it starts with a spoiler. Who in the world cares if the opening scene is weak? - Just because you got the opportunity and watch it, Oliver before everyone else and just because you felt special that does not mean you can ruin the film for everyone else. The review states the weaknesses and then states that is extraordinary. Then in the end he gives it a A-. And then the review also states it is the most satisfying summer bluckbuster since God-Knows-When. - Since God Knows When?

    I just didn't get the point of this review. Can we understand the moral of your review? Is there a moral to it? Writing a review shouldn't always be about the film itself, but about its storyline and its impact on the society. COME ON!!!

  • a | April 20, 2012 9:51 AM

    What in fuck.

  • akira | April 19, 2012 9:41 PMReply

    "an inexperienced director" ?

    You realize Joss has directed over 25 hours of TV right? Pretty sure that counts as "experience"

  • 2 Cool 4 School | April 19, 2012 8:48 PMReply

    Yea but will The Avengers win any Oscars? nope!! ha!

  • Anya | April 19, 2012 7:59 PMReply

    I saw The Avengers today at a London pre-screening and was absolutely astounded by how awesome it is. I usually avoid superhero movies (haven't seen any of the Iron Mans or Hulks, Thor or Captain America) but I LOVED The Avengers. It's so much fun and so well done. I was really impressed and will definitely watch it again as soon as it comes out.

    Also, it was the best use of 3D I've ever seen!

  • Berk | April 19, 2012 11:59 PM

    Does Marvel pay you in British pounds or Euros?

  • ASH | April 19, 2012 7:36 PMReply

    @Mr Menfolk, Alot of people have seen the film early; The American Premiere was last week and the Russian one was like yesterday.

    Great review, SO EXCITED!

  • Zack | April 19, 2012 7:31 PMReply

    Who the fuck are you and what did you do with the staff of The Playlist?

  • Dean | April 19, 2012 7:26 PMReply

    Is every new superhero movie the best ever made

  • Mr Menfolk | April 19, 2012 7:24 PMReply

    When did you see the Avengers?
    Dick head trololol

  • Kindred Spirit | April 19, 2012 7:21 PMReply

    The Avengers is not better than Batman Begins or The Dark Knight so no, not the best superhero movie yet. FACT.

  • Knative | April 20, 2012 12:45 AM

    Please stop badmouthing the Dark Knight. You know you wrong.

  • Kindred Spirit | April 19, 2012 10:46 PM

    @Peter- is this your first time on the internet?

  • Peter | April 19, 2012 10:03 PM

    How is it a 'fact' when it's your personal, subjective opinion? What makes you right and someone who disagrees with you wrong?

  • Secular God | April 19, 2012 8:20 PM

    There's plenty of room to surpass Nolan's Batman movies. The poor use of Scarecrow and Two-Face are just one of the things that leave a sour taste in your mouth.

  • Kindred Spirit | April 19, 2012 8:17 PM

    Dan- Yes. Joki- What kind of rationale is that? Makes zero sense. How could a movie make me feel insecure? Zack- You must have only seen Flowers of War or some nonsense like that... dude has had many great performances. And don't bring the prez into this!

  • Rotch | April 19, 2012 7:56 PM

    We have to start pointing out that Batman Begins hasn't aged well.

  • joki | April 19, 2012 7:41 PM

    typical whinny response from nolanites. Feeling insecure? Ha ha.

  • Zack | April 19, 2012 7:33 PM

    The absence of Christian "I have one passable performance per decade" Bale doing his best Marge Simpson voice in costume and sounding like Barack Obama on Quaaludes out of costume improves any movie. FACT.

  • Dan | April 19, 2012 7:22 PM

    Have you seen The Avengers?

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