If you like “Marvel’s The Avengers” (there’s almost nothing to dislike; it’s as close as a movie can come to the fantastical reality of a good comic book), stick around for the closing credits. By this point, your grandfather knows to stick around for the scrap of preview awaiting the last disclaimers and thank-yous (the scrap is called an Easter egg). “The Avengers” puts the egg before most of the credits — it just feels like the natural end of the movie.
Yes, getting the egg out of the way gets you out of the theater sooner (the movie runs about 2½ hours). But it also invites honest appreciation for the hundreds and hundreds of technicians who bring off these extravaganzas – the effects and sound people; the folks who devise and design and build the props and costumes; the men and women who helped make the destruction of midtown Manhattan (by your standard cavalcade of shimmering reptilian evil) a ridiculous pleasure. It’s tempting to envy the civilians watching Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man) and Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) flying around the neighborhood from a window of their skyscraper, even after the Incredible Hulk barrels past all the cubicles and through the glass. We have 3-D glasses. They’re actually there.
So it’s truly gladdening to listen to actors like Downey, Johansson, Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury), Gwyneth Paltrow (Iron Man’s lady-love and lifeline, Pepper Potts), Mark Ruffalo (Dr. David Banner/the Hulk), and Clark Gregg (S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson) speak the banter and asides in Joss Whedon’s script, which is tight and – by the measure of what tends to occur in a Marvel Comics title – perfectly logical. But it’s the craftspeople you want to hug. The reason we keep going to these movies is to experience what I’ve always called the Saturday-afternoon high of taking in a comic book. You don’t read them, per se. You savor them – the succession of bright, handsome frames, the simmering pace of the plot, the ideas. The great comic books made you want to be inside them. The great comic books were better than the movies. They could do what the technician couldn’t.
What we’ve seen since Richard Donner’s original “Superman” from 1978 is the steady closing of that gap. “The Avengers” is state-of-the-art, in that sense. At some point in this movie, the Hulk grabs a character by his leg and whips him into the floor like he’s beating the dust out of a mat. This happens all the time in a comic – the defiance of physics. When it happens here it brings down the house – the movies can really do this now. This movie, which Whedon also directed, is full of these sorts of OMG set pieces. You don’t need to be a “comic-book person” to find the set pieces exhilarating. But if you are such a person, or a fan of the movies that comic books turn into, “The Avengers” feels like the moment you’ve been waiting for.
For me, at least, there’s some irony in that. “The Avengers” evolved into a good series, with the addition, in the 1980s, of some very strange characters and terrific writing. The incarnation of the group in the movie – Iron Man, the Hulk, Black Widow, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Captain America (Chris Evans) — always felt like an incoherent shrinking of the Marvel universe.
The movie is one of the few that makes a case for revisiting and rethinking its source material. Whedon makes the group make sense. The movies that were devoted to individual stars – Iron Man, the Hulk, Captain America, Thor – were made, in part, as setups for this one, which give side players like Jackson and Johansson much more to do. The story essentially has Nick Fury and the covert government agency – the S.H.I.E.L.D. – unite these characters to stop Thor’s prissy brother Loki from using a blue energy cube (the Tesseract!) to open a portal for alien invaders to trash Earth.
As plots go, it’s standard. But Whedon clearly prides himself on adding some zing and zest to the bam and pow. This is a happily quotable movie (only a third of the good lines go to Downey) that wants to be cool without forcing the issue. There are well-constructed jokes about video games at work, Shakespeare in the park, weed, and “The Wizard of Oz.” There are also moments of elegance, such as in an early sequence in which Captain America goes looking for Loki in Stuttgart, while nothing but Schubert plays on the soundtrack.
When Captain America brings his shield and Thor his hammer for a forest fight with Iron Man, we have a deftly choreographed summit of three of Marvel’s most precious metals. And what music some of the actors make when they pronounce Asgard so that it sounds like a slur! If there’s a surprise in the casting, it’s how well Ruffalo does with a part he has to share with the effects department. Unlike other movies about the Hulk, this one manages to build comedy and suspense into the transition from gamma expert to green monster. He even has an amusing nude scene with Harry Dean Stanton.
Not everyone’s been sufficiently deployed. Loki puts a spell on the characters played by Renner and Stellan Skarsgard (he’s a scientist) that forces them to spend the movie with breath mints for pupils. And Cobie Smulders, who plays Robin on “How I Met Your Mother,” stands in a control deck looking eager for the other actors to say something meaningful to her. But I’m relieved to report that, for a film with this many moving parts, it doesn’t feel like a bunch of waiters are standing around eager to swoop in and refill your water glass. It’s not overstaffed.
Whedon passes along his joy for comic book lore and movie-going spectacle. He’s had his biggest success subverting genre television (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”; the beloved, short-lived space opera “Firefly”), and this movie operates with a smoothness that doesn’t exceed the capabilities of its maker.
The destruction of Manhattan doesn’t produce the same pang of disgust that, say, Michael Bay does when he sets out to bring down anything. Bay is a far more ambitious filmmaker. When he obliterates a city, he evokes the iconography of destructions, so you think about the Third Reich or Sept. 11 and you remember the images. Whedon’s attempts to evoke historical morality, as he does during that trip to Stuttgart, feel callow.
Whedon isn’t a visionary – he’s really not out to say anything about the world or even about himself. But where Bay is making movies for himself, Whedon is making movies for people like him. He’s a kid in a comic-book store. I might not remember any of the sequences in “The Avengers,” but I’ll remember the rush. I don’t need anything else.Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @wesley