Hollywood has been trying to make films and franchises based on comic book characters and stories for decades now with varying degrees of success. The best (The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2) were creative benchmarks for the genre based on the ways they treated the characters and stories. However, while still being good movies, they never really reached what many wanted to see in being a true adaptation of a comic book. Whether it be the gritty realism that surrounds this current iteration of Batman, certain stylistic choices regarding Spider-Man, the total inability to create an intriguing Bruce Banner story, etc., these movies have taken from the comics what they want while leaving much of what makes that medium special on the cutting room floor. I find it refreshing and a true filmmaking accomplishment to say that The Avengers marks the first time both worlds are satisfied to almost perfect degrees. Here’s why:
1. Joss Whedon
It isn’t all because of him, but he’s where this all starts. Whedon has been a mainstay in the comic and “geek” world for quite some time. He garnered attention for starting shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and despite his commercial failures (Firefly, Dollhouse, Alien: Ressurrection) the quality of his work regarding the ability to handle story and character above all else is always noteworthy. That is probably the largest issue when walking into this project because of the variety of personalities this movie had to juggle while not feeling like Iron Man 3. I have been a Whedon fanboy since I can remember so I was always confident with his skills, while not certain of how me might handle something this gigantic. Imagine my pleasure when I realized that Whedon could and would take this franchise into many new directions regarding the treatment of character while not feeling like a “big TV movie”. Oh, and if you needed ANY FURTHER MOTIVATION to see The Cabin in the Woods, Whedon co-wrote that movie. C’mon people, go see it! Ok, I’m done with that… for now.
2. The cast
Each of the Avengers’ respective movies all work to varying degrees but are not without some large faults; the best of which, in my opinion, being Captain America: The First Avenger. Faults aside, one thing that has worked (The Hulk the only exception) is the casting. Each role has been cast to near perfection, bringing in honest-to-goodness legitimate actors to play each of the main parts, as well as the lesser ones. I had my share of doubts about Chris Evans being able to don the courage and honesty of Steve Rogers after seeing him in basically every other role he’s done, but he is exceptional as Cap. I also wasn’t sure about Chris Hemsworth as Thor due to his experience but he brings in the bravura and newly-assumed humility to a role that could have went in some bad directions in less deft hands. I think we’re all pretty certain that Robert Downey Jr. embodies Tony Stark like he was born to play the part, so nothing else to say there except he brings it to this film even better than he already has. The rest of the cast being rounded out by Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Clark Gregg are all great performances, helped by a script that gives each character wonderful moments and true motivation. Did I leave a couple out? That’s because…
3. Mark Ruffalo
I’ve always been a fan of Ruffalo. I think his style isn’t for everyone, but one can’t deny that when given good material, he is able to show the internal struggle of a person with small, meaningful motions and incredible flourish. I questioned his casting as Bruce Banner/The Hulk, at first, because of this but quickly realized that it is Bruce Banner’s internal struggle that we should care about and not WHEN’S HE GONNA HULK OUT!? The first two Hulk movies have worked in their own rights but in each of them I failed to really care too much about Banner and wasn’t quite convinced by the efforts of Eric Bana nor Edward Norton. Again, the writing is key here but with Ruffalo’s famed “mush-mouth” approach and the little tics his face is able to conjure, this Banner is truly someone you can root for. Ruffalo’s quiet delivery and worn looks match perfectly with a Banner that has found a way to keep “The Other Guy” at bay while still being afraid of what lives inside him. And when The Hulk comes out, he is treated with the correct balance of playfulness and scope that hasn’t quite been seen before (the closest coming by way of Ang Lee’s version, scope-wise). It also helps that Ruffalo was actually able to play The Hulk on set as he donned the motion capture suit, resulting in the best-moving and most human Hulk yet. Credit is also due to both Ruffalo and Downey in creating some of the most enjoyable scenes of two uber-geniuses talking I have ever witnessed.
I’m still missing a person here, right?
4. Tom Hiddleston as Loki
Tom Hiddleston is an amazing actor. Duh. That much is known. The reason why I single him out is because he has created one of the most truly terrifying, interesting and human villains I have seen, maybe ever. The wonder about this is that Loki is a GOD. He isn’t human, but as witnessed by the events in Thor, even Gods have human issues and Hiddleston plays these emotions and motivations to perfection. Again, I can see confusion as to why using Loki as the villain in this movie is a good choice, but the script does the story justice and Hiddleston’s performance always leaves me wanting more of it. There is a scene midway through The Avengers between Loki and Johansson’s Black Widow where Loki gives your typical bad guy, kneel before me, I will kill you type of speech. This speech, while done similarly many times before left me with literal chills. Goosebumps. Damned near the shakes. Hiddleston delivers these lines with the right amount of menace and still maintains a level that doesn’t go too far into craziness because we understand what may be forcing his hand in certain directions. “Then I will split your skull.” Shakes, man. I’m telling you, I’ve never felt so good while being threatened.
5. The little things
Enjoy the little things. The reason why I think this is the most COMPLETE comic book adaptation ever is in the details. The tone of the Avengers, comic-wise, is completely different than post ’80s Batman. Those Batman stories were written with a scowl and angst that is deserved and those movies have adapted that feeling well, albeit not wholeheartedly. The Avengers, and most of Marvel in general, have always been more playful, brighter, with a greater sense of awe. In the opening scene we are shown a glimpse at the SHIELD headquarters and when a character asks where the “Hawk” is, another character responds with, “He’s in his nest.” That is a typical line you would see in a comic book panel. I couldn’t help but think of the ways that small detail would exist in a series of panels while watching the delivery of that scene and the shots that followed. It’s small, it’s almost a throwaway line, but it tells us that this is a comic book movie and it is fully accepting that fact without looking down on us as an audience or that medium itself. It celebrates comics more than anything. Lines like that one, the perfect meshing of cosmic scale and human struggle, certain Hulk moments that I shall not spoil, the group dynamics, etc. ground this movie completely in the comic book world and a lot of people probably don’t even realize this. Until now, we have been given films that dabble in the minutiae of comic detail but this is the first time that I feel we get true comic personality throughout an entire film. Once again credit to Whedon and crew because it could have felt like the most complete comic book movie ever and not have been a great film on the whole. The story and attention to character truly make The Avengers something that should set a standard for comic book movies and large-scale movies in general from here on out.
The bar is raised, new standards are set. It’s time to demand a higher quality blockbuster based on this example.