Review: “The Avengers”

Marvel Studio’s “The Avengers” is the culmination of what may be the most ambitious project in film history. For those movie fans who have been living in a cave for the past several years, Marvel has been releasing several individual superhero movies that have all set the table for this huge event film. Two “Iron Man” pictures, “Captain America”, “Thor”, and “The Incredible Hulk” have all been linked together through brief reoccuring cameos and hidden after-credits scenes that refer to something called “The Avengers Initiative”. As any comic book geek could tell you, that’s a reference to the Marvel superhero team that first debuted in comics in 1963. On the surface, the idea for an Avengers film that’s directly tied into other individual superhero movies sounds great. On the flip side, even though the other films have been good, there are still plenty of areas where “The Avengers” could go off track. Well as a movie and comic book fan, I’m happy to say that “The Avengers” not only meets the challenges of it’s vision, but it’s an action packed adrenaline rush that offers some of the most fun I’ve had at the theater this year.

To handle this rather large undertaking, Marvel placed the project in the hands of Joss Whedon. Whedon was a good choice mainly due to his variety of experience. He’s found success in television, film, and comic books and he uses his knowledge of each combined with Disney’s deep pockets to create a movie that would appeal to the fanboy and the casual moviegoer alike. One thing that helps Whedon is that the film doesn’t require your traditional origin story. While we do see the generation of the team, we know all of the characters from the previous Marvel movies so Whedon is able to dive right into the story. That being said, don’t mistake this for a deep, engaging story that will challenge the audience. But I’ll also say that anyone going into “The Avengers” for that has already missed the point.

Throughout the other Marvel films, particularly “Captain America”, we learned about a cosmic energy source known as the cosmic cube. In “The Avengers”, S.H.E.I.L.D. head honcho Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has a team of scientists led by physicist Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) trying to harness the power of the cube, now known as the Tesseract. But suddenly the cube activates and opens a portal allowing the evil Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to entire the facility and steal it. Knowing the immense threat associated with the Tesseract being in the wrong hands, Fury activates the Avengers Initiative. But getting such a diverse group of superheroes to cooperate and coexist proves to be a lot harder than expected.

Fury starts by contacting Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). He sends her to India to find Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) while sending Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) to Stark Tower to speak to Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.). While the two are gone, he approaches Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and sends him on a mission to retrieve the Tesseract. Upon hearing of Loki’s involvement, the thunder god Thor (Chris Hemsworth) also entires the mix as does the marksman and assassin known as Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Each of the heroes have their own baggage and their own personalities which often times clash to the point of dysfunction. But their disagreements give us some of the movie’s cooler and often times funnier moments. As you would expect the situation worsens and it’s up to the team to pull together or the world will be taken over starting with New York City.

It’s a pretty cut-and-dry story but it really works because Whedon understand his characters and he knows what kind of movie he’s trying to make. His familiarity with the Marvel comic book universe is clearly seen throughout the picture but nowhere more than in his treatment of the characters. As a comic book fan, I was really impressed with how they all felt right and it’s clear that the source material played a big role in shaping the on-screen versions. But Whedon never falls into the trap of taking things too seriously. The movie is filled with laugh out loud funny moments that are cleverly used and they never feel cheap or forced. They mix perfectly with the razor-sharp dialogue and the jaw-dropping action sequences. But the fantastic action and special effects shouldn’t surprise anyone. Afterall, “The Avengers” is a superhero action picture and Whedon knows it. The action comes at a furious pace and I can see where some may view it as relentless. Personally, I was completely wrapped up in it. The movie sells the superhero action through some of the most spectacular visuals and editing that you’ll see. I was blown away.

I can’t write a review of “The Avengers” without mentioning the incredible cast. One of the reasons the Marvel films and particularly “The Avengers” works so well is because of the amazing casting. Everyone is invested in their character and not one single performer phones it in. Downey, Jr. continues to be the perfect Tony Stark mainly due to his natural ability to use sarcasm and fire off funny quips without hesitation. Chris Evans, known more for his goofier roles,  is also quite good as the serious and straight-laced Captain America. I also really liked Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner. He’s the third actor to take on the role and he nails it. Much like Downey, Jr., Hemsworth is the perfect Thor and he shares some of the film’s best scenes with Hulk. Renner and Johannson also handle their roles very well. But I have to give special time to the wonderful Tom Hiddleston. He’s a remarkably diverse actor and he shows it here. His Loki is mysterious, mischievous, and evil and Hiddleston slithers through his scenes stealing many of them. There are also nice smaller performances from Gregg, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cobie Smulders that are just icing on the cake.

I can see where some people may not respond as positively as I did to “The Avengers”. The action is pretty much start-to-finish and if you’re not interested in the characters you’ll have a hard time embracing the story. There are also a few shortcuts taken with the story for the sake of convenience that could have been done a little better. For me, I have a connection to these characters through all my years of comic book reading and this film exceeded my expectations. But being a comic reader isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying this movie. If you’ve liked what Marvel has put out leading to it, you’re going to love “The Avengers”. Sure, it’s a loud, energetic summer popcorn flick, but it’s also a really good one. It’s honest and it never tries to be something it’s not. Featuring one of the better ensemble casts and some top-notch directing from Joss Whedon, “The Avengers” is a big budget blockbuster that actually deserves all the money it’s going to rake it. When’s the next showing? I’m ready to see it again.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

COMIC BOOKS 101 – WHO ARE THE AVENGERS? PART 2

“The Avengers” movie event is upon us and we’ve been celebrating it all week on Keith & the Movies. Yesterday we looked at the comic book backgrounds of Captain America, Iron Man, and Hulk. Our intent was to give moviegoers who may not be familiar with the source material a look at the comic book histories that make these kinds of movies great. Let’s take a look at three more heroes you can expect to see on the big screen this Friday.

THOR

Thor, also known as the god of thunder, is the son of King Odin the All-Father. Thor was raised by Odin and his wife Frigga in the mystical city of Asgard. Thor would later learn that his true birth mother was an Earth goddess named Jord. Thor grew up alongside Loki, Odin’s adopted son. Loki, the god of mischief, was always jealous of Thor and his close relationship to Odin. Loki always desired his father’s throne and viewed Thor as a threat. He also was jealous that Odin had created the enchanted hammer Mjolnir to be used only by Thor. His jealousy eventually grew into hate which caused a great deal of animosity between the two that continues to this day.

Over time Thor become the mightiest warrior in all of Asgard. He defended the city and battled all sorts of threats including the Frost Giants. He also developed a close relationship and romance with a goddess named Sif. Their relationship had it’s share of ups and downs and they were an on-again off-again item. All of the accolades eventually went to Thor’s head. He became arrogant and prideful and Odin believed he heeded a harsh lesson in humility. Odin stripped him of Mjolnir and banished him to earth. He forced him to take the form of a handicapped doctor named Donald Blake. Blake had no memory of his Asgardian alter-ego. But after a long period of time, Odin soon put things in motion that would cause the memory of his identity as the thunder god to reemerge. Thor’s time as Donald Blake was instrumental in developing his love for the planet Earth. He also fell in love with a nurse named Jane Foster. Odin was infuriated that Thor would care so much for a mere mortal. Much like his romances with Sif at Asgard, Thor’s relationship with Jane met many complications often times due to Odin’s meddling.

Thor’s story is one of the more complex ones in the Marvel Universe. His troubles on Earth as well as Asgard often times overlapped. He found himself both ruler of and exiled from both Earth and Asgard. At one point he sought to merge Earth with Asgard and cause humanity to worship the Asgardians as their gods. Asgard was brought to Earth eventually settling near a small rural town in Oklahoma. His actions eventually led to tension between him and the rest of the Avengers. After a series of conflicts Thor soon found himself back in the good graces of Earth and was fighting alongside his Avengers friends against threats from Dr. Doom, Loki, and more. Perhaps the biggest threat was from Norman Osbourne’s Dark Avengers. Osbourne ordered Sentry, who was possessed by the evil Void, to level Asgard. During the siege on Asgard, Sentry was accomplishing his mission until Loki sacrificed himself by magically empowering the heroes to repel the Void. The Void killed Loki after seeing that he was responsible for the heroes heightened powers. An enraged Thor struck the Void with a massive lightning blast killing him and also the helpless Sentry.

Loki has since been reborn, Asgard has been rebuilt, and Odin has been brought back to life. Such are the storylines you can expect from Thor. More father and son trouble followed in the recent “Fear Itself” storyline and currently Thor is back with The Avengers to face off against the X-Men in the current series “Avengers vs X-Men”. Thor’s history is almost impossible to cover in such a small space. He’ll continue to have father issues with Odin and trust issues with Loki. He has a great assortment of side characters such as Sif, Balder, Heimdall, Volstagg, and more. He also is a very complex individual which guarantees that his story will see it’s fair share of bumps in the road.

HAWKEYE

Clint Barton was orphaned after his parents were killed in a car accident. He spent several years in a children’s home but eventually ran away and joined a traveling circus. He worked around the circus but also developed incredible skills in archery thanks to some intense training from Swordsman. After leaving the circus his life still didn’t have much direction. After witnessing Iron Man fighting crime, he decided he would use his archery skills to become a costumed hero. But his first night out didn’t end well and he was mistaken for a thief. While on the run he encounters a beautiful Soviet spy known as Black Widow. Barton blindly follows her and helps in several criminal acts which puts them at odds with Iron Man.

Hawkeye decides that criminal life isn’t for him and he goes to the Avengers wanting to prove himself to be a force for good. He was accepted as a member of the team and was an Avenger for many years. Hawkeye wasn’t always the easiest to get along with. He could at times be a hot head and he’s very outspoken. His attraction to fellow Avenger Scarlett Witch caused problems with her brother Quicksilver. He also found himself at odds with Captain America by constantly questioning his decisions and leadership. But the two were an amazing force in the field and over time they developed a close, close friendship. But Hawkeye soon found himself in trouble again due to his affections for Scarlett Witch. It led to some serious issues with Vision and soon he left the team.

Hawkeye would come back to the Avengers several times. But he also spent a lot of time away trying to develop a solo career. It was during one of these leaves that he met and eventually married Mockingbird. After returning to the Avengers yet again, he was assigned the job of creating a second Avengers team based in Los Angeles. He and Mockingbird established the West Coast Avengers and fought evil for several years. But it was also there where his relationship with Mockingbird deteriorated. They eventually divorced but soon reconciled until she was killed saving Clint from Mephisto. He also spends time leading the Thunderbolts, a group of sketchy ex-criminals. Clint was sympathetic to the group mainly due to his own checkered past. He trains them and establishes them as a legitimate crime fighting team. After joining the Avengers yet again Clint is killed during Scarlett Witch’s reality altering breakdown (The House of M storyline).

Once reality is put back in place, Clint is reborn. He is asked to join The New Avengers and he assumes the identity of Ronin. He played a big role in the war against Norman Osbourne and his Dark Avengers. He also was reunited with Mockingbird who was alive and had been held captive by Skrulls for years. He eventually goes back to his Hawkeye identity and was a member of several different incarnations of Avengers. He played a key part during the siege in Asgard, teamed up with Black Widow again, and almost lost his sight. He continues to be an Avenger today and also serves as a teacher at The Avengers Academy. Hawkeye is a great character. He’s a fireball who doesn’t mind sharing his mind and even though he’s considered a lower level hero, I’ve always loved him.

“BLACK WIDOW”

Natasha Rominoff’s parents were killed in a fire when she was just a little girl. She was rescued and raised by a man named Ivan Petrovitch. Revisions to her history add that she also in the “Black Widow Ops” program as a child. Throughout her childhood she received training in espionage, martial arts, and weaponry. She was groomed to be a top-notch spy. She was also given scientific enhancements which explain her long life and amazing agility. Her first mission to the United States put her at odds with Tony Stark. The two face-off several times as she tries to ruin Stark Industries. She runs into a young Hawkeye and manipulates him to help her fight Iron Man. Iron Man prevails and she soon heads back to the Soviet Union.

After some failed attempts, Natasha finally defects from Russia to the United States and spends a brief time working with the Avengers. During this time she forms a close bond with Nick Fury from S.H.E.I.L.D. and does several independent missions for him. Her involvement with S.H.E.I.L.D. forced her to decline membership to the Avengers once it was offered. She also had a fling with Daredevil and spends time fighting crime with him. Black Widow fought against and was captured by HYDRA only to be rescued by Spider-Man and she was poisoned to the point of near death by The Hand. Her relationship with Daredevil fell apart and she decided she was better fit to work alone.

She carried out several freelance missions for several years before she was asked to join Iron Man’s task force during the Civil War. As the Civil War ended, she fell in love with Bucky Barnes who was serving as Captain America after the murder of Steve Rogers. She helped him through his personal struggles with his past sins as The Winter Soldier and helped him cope with the death of his life long friend. She also continued to do undercover work for Nick Fury including infiltrating Norman Osbourne’s  Thunderbolts. As the Avengers splintered off into several groups, Black Widow was asked to join Captain America’s black-ops Secret Avengers team. She was an intricate part in several key undercover missions.

Black Widow has always had a mysterious side to her. He early spy work made it hard for the other superheroes and the United States government to trust her. But over time she became an important player on many missions against many villains. She has never been a top-tier Marvel Comics character but she’s always been intriguing. Over the past several years she has obtained a more prominent role in the Marvel Universe and the movies are taking advantage of it.

There you have it, a crash course on the Avengers and their comic book history. As I mentioned, this only scratches the surfaces of what is a long history for each of these characters. Hopefully the upcoming movie will take these great characters and present us with one amazing film.

“THOR” – 4 1/2 STARS

The summer of 2011 was all about superheroes. The summer movie season started with “Thor”, the first of four superhero film’s that were released between May and July of 2011. The idea of a Thor movie changed hands multiple times but Marvel Studios would finally green-light the project after the strong success of the Iron Man film. “Thor” was another movie that led to this week’s much-anticipated Avengers movie.

Of the four big superhero releases that year, I always felt “Thor” had the biggest chance fir failure. While I understood how a great picture could be made considering the wealth of quality source material available, I couldn’t help but question how it would look on-screen. I was thrilled to see that it’s a cleverly crafted film and Marvel Studios did a nice job placing it in the hands of director Kenneth Branagh. Now Branagh wasn’t the first name that I thought of when it comes to directing superhero movies. He’s better known for his Shakespeare movie adaptations but don’t let that scare you away. He does a great job here with some tricky material.

Australian actor Chris Hemsworth plays Thor, the tough but brash god of thunder and heir to the throne of Asgard who is banished to earth after bringing war to his home and losing favor with his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Thor’s banishment opens the door for his brother Loki (wonderfully played by Tom Hiddleston), also known as the god of mischief, to rise to power. Upon crashing down to earth, Thor is found by a group of scientists led by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) who can’t determine whether Thor is from another “realm” or truly insane. To make things worse, Thor finds himself to be without  Mjolnir, his mystical hammer and ultimate power source, making his ability to return to Asgard virtually impossible.

Perhaps the greatest thing about Thor is that it’s just so much fun. For me personally, it was a fantastic movie theater experience. The cast is having fun and easily passes it on to us. Of course it’s filled with spectacular action sequences and special effects but also the perfect amount of humor that never goes too far. The movie never takes itself too seriously and that’s a key to it’s success. “Thor” sticks close enough to the comic book source material to satisfy any fanboy like me but also has a strong mass appeal that anyone could easily appreciate. I also loved the portrayals of Thor’s great assortment of side characters such as Heimdall, Volstagg, and Sif. Almost everything works well. There are moments that had me wanting to clap and others that had me laughing out loud. It’s that well done.

Hemsworth really brings it with his performance. He proves to be a great casting choice and his bulked up, Norse warrior look combined with a genuinely funny, self-deprecating humor does Thor justice. Portman, fresh off of her Academy Award win, is also very good as Jane Foster. She has a nice, believable chemistry with Hemsworth that’s pretty easy to buy into. Hiddleston’s Loki was one of the trickiest roles (no pun intended) but he pulls it off masterfully and Hopkins is as strong as always. I also enjoyed Jaimie Alexander’s Sif. Unfortunately she isn’t given much to do and I would have loved to have seen more of her in the picture.

There isn’t a lot to say negatively about the film but I do have to mention the 3-D. There are very few scenes that really stand out and at the end of the day the 3-D seems tacked on and pointless. As is the case with many conversions, it adds a darker look to the screen and I could have done without it completely. I also wasn’t really taken Kat Dennings’ Darcy Lewis character. She’s mainly in there for comic relief and honestly some of her lines are pretty funny. But I could think of a few better ways to use that screen time. But these things do nothing to ruin what’s a really good film.

“Thor” was a great start to the summer season and a true accomplishment for fans of the comic book movie genre. It’s strong cast is complimented by a well written story and sharp direction. As I mentioned, it never takes itself too seriously but does have enough drama to draw you in. It trips up in a few small places but as a whole “Thor” was a joy. As a comic book fan it met nearly every expectation I had. It’s an obvious attempt to start yet another Marvel movie franchise and ties in nicely to the upcoming Avengers film. It moves at a perfect pace and maintains a great balance between it’s parallel stories. It a fun, exciting, and often hilarious popcorn picture that I’m ready to see again.