Greater than the Sum of its Parts

Ever since the first mention of the Avenger Initiative, in the tag at the end of Iron Man, I’ve been anticipating seeing this movie.  Marvel was wise to fill in the backstory of the other main participants first, with Thor, Captain America, and the Edward Norton Hulk.  Each contained a short tease at the end of what was coming.  When I heard Joss Whedon had been chosen to write and direct the movie, my anticipation went up exponentially.  Whedon had rejuvenated the classic horror genre on TV with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.  His next series, Firefly, was destroyed by Fox executives who didn’t understand it (much as Dollhouse was ruined by the same company).  Whedon did have a last laugh by directing his first movie, Serenity, based on Firefly.

The Avengers is Whedon’s second movie directing assignment, and he delivers one of the best superhero movies ever.  With Buffy, Whedon had deconstructed the horror genre.  While there is a strong element of Buffy’s irreverent humor, overall he plays it straight and delivers a slam-bang action movie that races forward at a breakneck pace.  It melds not only the superheroes but also several supporting characters from the previous movies.

At a special S.H.I.E.L.D. complex, Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgaard) has been evaluating the Tesseract, a cube of unlimited power linked to the Norse gods.  Captain America had wrestled it away from The Red Skull and sent it into the sea 70 years earlier, only to have Nick Fury’s people recover it.  Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is called to the complex when the Tesseract starts an uncontrolled reaction.  It projects a wormhole through which Thor’s adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) reaches Earth.  Loki steals the Tesserat, puts Selvig and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) under his spell, and destroys the complex.  Fury and his assistants, Agents Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Hill (Cobie Smulders), barely escape the destruction.

Loki has made a pact with the Chitauri, an alien warrior race, to help him conquer the Earth in exchange for the Tesseract.  Fury decides to activate the Avenger Initiative.  He calls in Captain Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), who’s still dealing with waking up in the modern world after years in suspended animation, as well as Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), who’s in New York with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) for the opening of his new arc-reactor powered skyscraper.  Fury sends the Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) after “the big guy,” Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who’s working among the poor in India while trying to control his temper.

Loki appears in Germany where he kills an industrialist and takes a group of people hostage, insisting they bow down to him.  An old man refuses to submit, and Loki almost kills him, but Captain America arrives in the nick of time.  Iron Man also makes a timely entrance, and the two superheroes manage to restrain Loki.  While transporting him to the S.H.I.E.L.D. command center, they’re interrupted by Thor (Chris Hemsworth) who has been sent by Odin to collect the Tesseract and return Loki to Ansgaard.

The movie has plenty of Whedon’s trademark wit, but the script never stops for long exposition.  What you do have are the prickly interactions of superheroes who are used to working alone.  Downey Jr. has the most fun, demonstrating why in Iron Man II Fury told him he wasn’t suitable (small pun) for the Avengers.  Evans has the more thankless job as the one who must lead the disparate force.  Hemsworth’s performance is a smooth flow from last year’s movie, blending the ego of a god with the humility he’d learned.  (Unfortunately, Natalie Portman only appears in a photograph.)  After performances by Eric Bana and Edward Norton in previous movies, Mark Ruffalo steps into the Bruce Banner role and puts his own mark on it.  Even with these big name characters to handle, Whedon doesn’t short change Renner or Johannson, fleshing out their backstories.  Johannson’s first appearance is one of the more awesome scenes in the movie.

That said, the movie doesn’t have a shortage of awesome scenes.  The battles are always multi-dimensional and complex, but work like a Swiss watch with perfect timing.  The key is that Whedon understands each of these individual characters and manages to blend them into a unit not only physically but also psychologically.

Joss Whedon

Nowhere is his sure hand shown clearer than in how he handles the Incredible Hulk.  In the past ten years, the Hulk has had not just one but two movies, both of which were misfires.  Rather than harken back to those movies, Whedon goes farther back.  This Hulk is closer to the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno TV series that ran between 1978 and 1982.  When the Hulk finally appears, he’s everything you’d hope for in a not-so-lean, green fighting machine.  The payoff comes when Captain America sets out a plan of attack in the final battle, giving everyone specific assignments, then turns to the Hulk and says, “Hulk?  Smash.”  And the Hulk is smashing.  (The Hulk’s voice is actually an amalgam of Ruffalo’s voice with four other people, one of whom was Lou Ferrigno.)

Synergy is often defined as the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.  While each of these character’s previous movies have been from very to extremely successful (with the exception of the two Hulks), putting them all together under the direction of Whedon has sent this movie into the stratosphere.  It’s likely that it will break into the Billion Dollar Movie club within a couple of weeks. The wonderful thing is, it will do it because it is just so darn good!

Be aware when you see it, there are not just one but two tags – one midway through the credits, the other at the end.  The first sets the scene for the sequel, while the second is a lovely piece of drollery.

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