There was this time called the early 1990s. Judging by the patrons in the theater with me on opening night of The Avengers, I'm not sure many of the people who will take in the first summer blockbuster of 2012 were even alive during this magical era, forget about them being able to remember it vividly.
Anyway, back in those halcyon days there were action films -- true blockbusters -- that embraced grand scope, ambitious and breathtaking action sequences and daring scale without completely sacrificing plot. Fast forward to the here and now and it seems hard to believe that there were once, not so long ago, such movies, indeed quite a few of them, with clever dialogue, gratuitous explosions and absolutely no cynical franchising tie-in to a Hasbro toy from the 1980s or a Disneyland ride. Yet, there they are. Go rent True Lies or Die Hard or Terminator 2: Judgment Day if you don't believe me.
I know I'm supposed to compare The Avengers to Iron Man, X-Men, Spider-man and, of course, this summer's most anticipated release The Dark Knight Rises. And I'll get to that. But as I let The Avengers wash over me on Friday night, I couldn't help digging back a little deeper to John Connor and John McClane. If you identify Edward Furlong and not Christian Bale with John Connor, I suspect you'll have the same sensation, even if it's only subconsciously.
The Avengers should not be a good film -- at least not based on the hard-learned lessons moviegoers have been taught in the 21st century. It features a star-studded and surely expensive cast in Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man, Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow and Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton/Hawkeye. It is the culmination of five tributary, but semi-loosely associated, Marvel Studios feature films (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger) by four different directors, none of whom were at the helm here.
Somehow it is, though.
It begins with Loki, the adopted brother of Thor, stealing the Tesseract, an alien energy source that can be harnessed to generate seemingly limitless power for the world or weaponized, from Fury and company at S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters. Loki, reprised by Tom Hiddleston after first playing the power-hungry demigod with a serious inferiority complex in 2011's Thor, leaves quite a trail of destruction in his wake. S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters crumbles into the desert -- Fury himself narrowly escaping the implosion -- and Hawkeye, along with gifted scientist Selvig, played by Stellan Skarsgard, are bent to Loki's will, again via the unidentifiable power contained in the Tesseract.
That leaves Fury with little choice but to begin assembling a team to take on Loki; his intentions aren't clear, but the combination of his nefarious ambitions and his possession of the Tesseract can't be a positive. So Fury turns, principally at least, to Iron Man, Captain America, Bruce Banner (for his scientific prowess and not his Hulk rage) and eventually Thor to thwart Loki, resurrecting scrapped plans for the "Avengers Initiative" mostly because he has little other choice.
Loki's plans eventually become clear -- he wants nothing short of world domination and he plans to get it by opening a portal with the Tesseract that will allow his alien army, the Chitauri, to accomplish just that -- but, just as they do, Fury's team, with some prodding from Loki, begins coming apart at the seams because of internal deceit and oversized egos.
There's nothing terribly groundbreaking in the first or second act, but Downey Jr., Jackson and Ruffalo are so commanding and the script is so tautly funny that it doesn't matter. The third act, an expansive series of mindblowing, heart-thumping action sequences that brings the team back together and is set amid the skyscrapers of New York City, isn't necessarily innovative either. But again that doesn't seem to be the point, and you're hardly going to care about originality anyway as the Chitauri come pouring through the portal on the backs of beast-like machines reminiscent of a cross between a Chinese New Year's parade and the Alien franchise.
Director and co-writer Joss Whedon was probably only worried about making a great film worthy of the comic book characters that have captured our collective imagination for decades. I'm fairly certain he didn't set out to remind people like me that it's possible for an action movie to be both a spectacle and have a good script with rich characters. But I'd like to thank him for doing so anyway, even if it was unintentional. For most of the last decade, action fans have been handed an uncomfortable choice of sorts -- breathtaking scale (see: Transformers) or rich characters and good writing (see: Drive). It was a relief to feel like I hadn't sacrificed anything in either department when the movie finally came to a close.
Not everything worked for me. Renner was particularly wooden and forgettable, and I'm struggling to see what all the fuss is about there. At 142 minutes in length, it probably could have been leaner. We're still not really sure, six films in, what motivates S.H.I.E.L.D. But that's minor stuff considering I couldn't wipe the smile off of my face for the last 90 minutes of the movie.
Downey Jr. and Jackson were reliably excellent. Ruffalo was a revelation as Banner/Hulk. There was a pleasant mix of the familiar and old-is-new appeal. (You mean The Incredible Hulk can really, truly work on the big screen? An ensemble cast doesn't have to be a total disaster? We don't have to endure the by now tired and cliche origin story?).
Having not seen The Dark Knight Rises, I can't say that The Avengers is a better film. Indeed, I suspect it won't be. But comparing them, as I promised I would earlier, doesn't really feel right. Christopher Nolan's iteration of Batman is gritty and dark. It examines human psychology and motivation in a way that The Avengers can't. Perhaps, though, the point is that The Avengers doesn't bother to. It mostly tries to be awe-inducingly fun and succeeds with aplomb. The Dark Knight Rises probably will be miles better than The Avengers, but I'm not sure I'll find a more enjoyable moviegoing experience this summer, and that's quite a feat all on its own.