This review was written by Chief Justice Michael Stailey's Life Model Decoy.
"There was an idea to bring together a group of remarkable people, so when we needed them, they could fight the battles that we never could…"—Nick Fury
The summer of 2012 was a rather unremarkable collection of genre pictures, sequels, and considerable disappointments…many of which could be labeled all three. And yet Hollywood's favorite time of year started off with such promise.
Facts of the Case
When we last left our heroes, Loki (Tom Hiddleston, War Horse) had been exiled from Asgard, SHIELD gained possession of the Tesseract (Cosmic Cube) and hired Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest) to unlock its secrets under the watchful eye of agent Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner, The Bourne Legacy), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, Sunshine) was adapting to life in the 21st Century, Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo replacing Ed Norton) was wandering the globe in search of inner peace, Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson, Lost in Translation) was indulging her own espionage interests, Thor (Chris Hemsworth, The Cabin in the Woods) was off policing the Nine Realms, and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr, Sherlock Holmes) was…well, being Tony Stark. When a mysterious cosmic malevolence plucks Loki from the dark realm of Nifflheim and assigns him the task of destroying the human race, he gleefully welcomes the challenge, stealing the Tesseract and building a team of zombified minions to bring this grand plan to fruition. Now it's up to Nick Fury and his agents of SHIELD to assemble the world's greatest heroes and hope to God they can act as a team long enough to save the Earth.
Long before Disney bought "The House That Spidey Built," Marvel Entertainment had usurped the opening salvo of the summer movie season. Their track record has since proven quite exemplary, but nothing could have prepared entertainment pundits and industry speculators for the success Marvel's The Avengers would generate. Most people thought studio chief Kevin Feige's cinematic universe plan was ridiculous. Nobody could build an empire based on disparate films released a year apart with only the loosest of threads tying them together, and then hope to shoot an all-star picture starring the heroes of each film.
It's challenging enough to create a franchise from well-known literary properties, and only a few have ever been able to make that work. The father/daughter team of Cubby and Barbara Broccoli captured our attention with Ian Fleming's super spy James Bond, parlaying the sex appeal of their successive leading men. Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh brought life to the cult of JRR Tolkein's Middle-Earth and manifested an unbelievable collection of talent they stole away from the world for years. Chris Columbus and David Heyman found magic in JK Rowling's insanely popular Harry Potter series, developing films while the ink was wet on the books she was still writing. But other attempts—The Chronicles of Narnia, The Golden Compass, and Disney's own John Carter—barely made it out of the gate before running out of gas.
Considering comic book properties don't have a great track record to begin with, how could Marvel hope to possibly succeed when rival DC—who had a three decade head start—never managed to tie even two of their big screen heroic properties together? Let's face it; the genre is littered with the corpses of good intentions. For every Chris Nolan Batman trilogy and Sam Raimi Spider-man trifecta, there's Fantastic Four, Catwoman, Daredevil, Green Lantern, Ghost Rider, and V for Vendetta road kill. So what was Feige's ace-up-his-sleeve? Two words: Joss Whedon.
The Marvel Universe concept was birthed with the help of director Jon Favreau, whose Iron Man set a new high water mark for the superhero genre. But then came Iron Man 2 and critics, fans, and studio execs saw history begin to repeat itself. Understandably, Favreau no longer wanted to carry this torch and something had to be done to ensure the future would succeed as planned. Kenneth Branagh nailed Thor. Joe Johnston wowed us with Captain America: The First Avenger. Meanwhile, waiting in the wings was one of the genre's biggest and most beloved storytelling guns. And DAMN what an adventure Whedon laid out for us.
Joss is an experienced world builder—Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly + Serenity, Dollhouse, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog—whose characters are easily identifiable, infinitely relatable, and beautifully layered. While most successful playing in sandboxes of his own creation, he's also proven quite deft in taking well-established properties and giving them his own unique spin (Astonishing X-Men). That's what makes him the perfect puppet master for Marvel's The Avengers. These characters are decades old with complex, inconsistent, and often-conflicting mythologies, living and dying by whatever universe-shaping catastrophe Marvel's writers and editors dreamed up. So how do you boil that down into something that makes sense for a two-hour tale? Go back to basics.
Cap is a fish out of water. Tony is a genius running out of problems to solve. Thor is a god among men. Clint sees deception in everyone and everything. Tasha is a master deceiver. Bruce wants to be left alone. Nick needs to keep his one good eye on them all. And Loki is a king without a kingdom, who like Nolan's Joker just loves to watch the world burn. The conflicts are inherent. This is like Super Hero Sim City just waiting for a fire to break out or Godzilla to attack.
Is it big and bombastic? Absolutely. Feige gave Joss a short list of what they wanted to see and he delivered in true Michael Bay style. But he only jumped through that hoop to tell a more interesting story about exceptional people whose humanity is more compelling than the powers and skills the possess. Steve struggling to find a place in this new world. Thor desperately trying to prove his love to a brother who wants nothing to do with him. Clint trying to salvage a sense of self after being brutally mind-raped. Tasha trying to excise her personal demons by always doing the right thing. Tony trying to stroke his own ego while still giving something back to the world. Bruce ever looking for a way to make peace with his other self. Nick fronting an organization so vast and so easily corruptible that even his most trusted friends pose a threat. All of these tales are told with humor and heart from a most authentic place. This is a family. In them, we see ourselves and those we love, set against a most absurd backdrop.
Of course the performances play a huge role in making all this work. Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Sam Jackson, and Tom Hiddleston continue the marvelous work they exhibited in their respective earlier films. The same holds true for Clark Gregg (The New Adventures of Old Christine) whose Agent Phil Coulson plays a critical role here and will do so again in the SHIELD series being developed for ABC television. I'm still not completely sold on Scarlett Johannson, but she does get a few key scenes to prove many skeptics wrong. Jeremy Renner is woefully underutilized and we only get a taste of what Cobie Smulders is capable of as Fury's duplicitous right hand, but with any luck we'll get to see more as the franchise progresses. But the real breakout star of the film is Mark Ruffalo, who takes what Edward Norton did in Louis Leterrier's The Incredible Hulk and amplifies it ten fold. Ruffalo captures nearly every nuance of this often-misunderstood character giving us a Banner who has a far better understanding of himself and his inner beast than we've ever seen before. It's absolutely beautiful to watch and you'll be amazed at the subtleties that reveal themselves on successive viewings. A true exemplification of what Whedon does so well both in writing and direction.
Now comes the biggest challenge of all. Since success breeds expectation, how does one top the success of Marvel's The Avengers with a sequel that's already been locked into a release date? Thankfully, none of that pressure matters to Joss. Like the great storytellers of our time, he's more interested in watching his characters grow, change, squirm, self-destruct, and be reborn under fantastic circumstances. And he doesn't need two hours of CGI battles to do it. The best moments here are the quiet ones. Tasha and Bruce. Bruce and the security guard (played by legendary character actor Harry Dean Stanton). Tony, Pepper, and Coulson. Hulk and Loki…okay, that one's not so quiet, but intimate nonetheless. This is the reason our hearts melt watching kids at play. It's pure fantasy, untouched by woulda-coulda-shoulda. Joss is able to tap that inherent joy and infect everyone he surrounds himself with. Very few artists can claim that, and Marvel is blessed with being able to rent it.
Presented in 1.78:1/1080p high definition widescreen, Disney's transfer does a nice job of taking the theatrical experience and bringing it into the home. Given how packed the frame can be—leveraging masterful visual effects work from a multitude of talented VFX houses—and how inherently dark some of the environments are, you might find yourself straining to make out just what's going on. Now we're not talking Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem kind of murkiness (god forbid), but the bigger the screen you're watching this on, the better off you'll be. Detail is sharp, colors pop (especially in the more vibrant scenes), and flesh tones are surprisingly natural. While the 3D presentation does offer an increase in depth of field, especially around the outer edges of the frame, you're not going to find massive amounts 3D effects until the climactic battle sequence begins. So I'll leave it to your financial discretion as to whether it's worth spending the extra coin for the 3D version. Where this release really shines is in Disney's patented DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio track. Good lord does this thing rock. If you've never experienced a reference quality surround sound experience, this is it. There's hardly a moment when the ambience takes break, and it never distracts, only adding to the overall experience of this world. Plus, it's a marvelous showcase for another exceptional score from Alan Silvestri, cementing his return to genre composing.
I wasn't overwhelmed by the selection of bonus features offered, but that may just be my industry cynicism creeping in. It seems the studios are quickly losing interest in producing anything more than the required electronic press kit material for their major releases. Whereas this used to be a tremendous selling point for the format, it's now more of an afterthought, their time and resources being shifted to creating multi-platform access to the films themselves. You'll notice bonus features aren't available on any of the streaming services they're touting so highly. But I digress…we still do get some interesting stuff.
* A feature commentary from Joss Whedon, who is as entertaining, insightful, and grounded as ever.
* Disney's long-in-the-tooth Second Screen Experience, which offers layered production material to your laptop or tablet in support of what we're seeing on screen. It won't be long before this tech goes the way of BD-Live and the dodo bird.
* Fifteen minutes of extended and deleted scenes, my favorite of which builds upon the magnificent exchange between Mark Ruffalo's Banner and Harry Dean Stanton's security guard. Whedon magic at its finest.
* Two EPK-style featurettes, which give us clips and talking heads discussing the film and the Marvel Universe.
* A short film entitled Item 47, featuring the great Lizzy Caplan (Cloverfield) and meat puppet Jesse Bradford (Guys with Kids) as a couple of would-be bank robbers who utilize some lost and found cosmic weaponry to their advantage…until SHIELD catches up with them.
* You've likely already seen the four-minute Gag Reel, which went viral before the film ever hit home video. Definitely funny.
* And a Soundgarden music video for the closing credits tune "Live to Rise," which could fall into the depths of Norse Hel and no one would miss it.
What the future holds for the Marvel cinematic universe is unclear, but it's undoubtedly pregnant with possibility. Shane Black's Iron Man 3 (2013), Alan Taylor's Thor: The Dark World (2013), The Russo Bros' Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), and Edgar Wright's Ant-Man (2015) will all precede Whedon's next Avengers tale, and odds are they won't all be home runs. But you can bet dollars to shawarma that Whedon will take the industry respect and financial breathing room he's earned to color outside the lines of that Hollywood summer tent pole sandbox and see where its magic can lead.
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