Those of us without a particular taste for comic books or the movies they spawn may be forgiven for not knowing that something of a renaissance has occurred on the film side of that world. Sure, the Batman and Spider-Man franchises have turned out some good summer movies, but for every success like Batman Returns there’s been a bunch like The Green Lantern. It’s safe to say that more New Orleanians remember the traffic jams caused by The Green Lantern’s shooting schedule two summers ago than anything in the movie itself.
But times have changed. The independent Marvel Studios established something called the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a shared fictional space for the Marvel Comics superheroes that were first created for print decades ago. The result has been a string of movies since 2008 that were not only successful but consistently pretty good. The two Iron Man movies, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger all seemed to satisfy those who live to attend comics conventions, did well at the box office with general audiences, and even pleased the critics. And Marvel — like many of its fictional villains — had a not-so-secret nefarious plan to bring all these characters and others together in a movie franchise of epic proportions. Shared details were slipped into each of those five Marvel Studios movies to set the stage.
The basic idea behind The Avengers is nothing new — the first Avengers comic book series debuted in 1963. But bringing together six disparate superheroes in a single movie without creating an overstuffed mess is another story. The task required one additional outsized character: hyper-talented writer-director and cult figure Joss Whedon, known mainly for TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and himself the author of countless comic books. He was a daring choice to make this movie. Whedon’s reputation as a purveyor of small-and-quirky pop culture is now a thing of the past. His gargantuan blockbuster The Avengers is very hard to resist.
The story is simple: Something goes wrong in a sustainable energy experiment and a window is opened through which aliens attack the earth. Can the Avengers come together and save us? The movie’s first big success is Whedon and company’s script, which is smart and funny and actually makes sense if you’ve never read a comic book. Then there’s the cast: Robert Downey, Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Samuel L. Jackson, and even Scarlett Johansson generate just the sort of effortless charisma needed to humanize mythical figures. They’re cool instead of hokey. The way their characters sort out personal differences is the starting point for action in The Avengers, which just rings true. And in IMAX 3-D, at least, The Avengers’ 3-D effects are both realistic and spectacular.
The Avengers isn’t exactly Shakespeare (though Whedon’s next film is an adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing shot entirely in his California home—sometimes small-and-quirky is a self-fulfilling prophecy). And its charms won’t be enough to win over those who will never be interested in a superhero universe. But the rest of us should probably just relent and get in line. The Avengers is going to be hard to beat this summer.
The Avengers (PG-13)
Directed by Joss Whedon
Starring Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson