Those familiar with Whedon‘s creative history, realize “worth the wait” refers not only to THE AVENGERS proper, but it’s director’s long overdue combined critical & popular success. Beginning his career penning episodes of ROSEANNE and PARENTHOOD, Whedon’s major big screen break came with the filming of his BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER script as a 1992 feature starring Kristy Swanson, Donald Sutherland, Rutger Hauer, Luke Perry and Paul Reubens. He’d earn his genre-world fanboy stripes over the next few years scripting or co-scripting such high profile projects as ALIEN RESURRECTION (1997) as well the animated films TOY STORY (1995), TITAN A.E. (2000) and Disney’s ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE (2001). Never satisfied with the tone of the film version of BUFFY, he got the chance to more closely realize his original intent by adapting his premise and characters into the very popular TV series version starring Sarah Michelle Geller which ran on Fox from 1996 - 2003. On the small screen FIREFLY, the BUFFY spin-off ANGEL, and DOLLHOUSE would follow. But with the exception of ANGEL, the others would prove more popular with critics and die-hard fans than with the general public. FIREFLY and DOLLHOUSE would each run less than one year, though a rapid cult following would allow the filming of the theatrical film SERENITY (2005) as a big screen “closing chapter/final episode” on the FIREFLY characters and scenario.
Marvel Studios heads Avi Arad and Kevin Feige have both for years been at the receiving end of positive and negative comment/postings in various articles and on numerous web boards. But one thing they’ve managed to get right more than wrong is their choice of directors. Arad once opined how the state of cinematic special FX is such that, for all intents and purposes, creating the world and scope of the superhero universe is no longer the biggest challenge or concern; but rather how now the greatest hurtle is in effectively capturing the TONE and FEEL of the character’s within their filmic incarnations. As such they’ve thus far been rather brilliant in their choices of talent who’s cinematic (as well as actual) personalities reflect the traits of the characters they’ve been commissioned to adapt from the hallowed pages of the Marvel universe.
Whedon (2nd from right) and cast: San Diego Comic-Con (2011)
Director Jon Favreau would bring the iconoclastic irreverence of his SWINGERS, MADE and ELF to IRON MAN and IRON MAN 2. The “dysfunctional family love/hate/ humorous dynamic” Tim Story brought to BARBERSHOP (and later to THINK LIKE A MAN) would be at the heart of FANTASTIC FOUR and FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER. Sam Raimi (EVIL DEAD, ARMY OF DARKNESS)‘s off-center but reverent love of classic genre would become the tonal voice of SPIDER-MAN 1,2 and 3. Bryan Singer’s socio-political vibe would infuse X-MEN and X-2. Kevin Branagh (HENRY V, HAMLET, MARY SHELLY’S FRANKENSTEIN)’s Shakespearean theatricality would power THOR. And Joe Johnston’s love of classic pulp Americana (THE ROCKETEER, OCTOBER SKY) would be a perfect fit for the retro CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER. For what would essentially be the “ultimate genre mash-up” film, there would be few as uniquely qualified as Whedon.
As promised, no spoilers here. The basic plotline of THE AVENGERS (seen in every trailer and TV spot) follows Nick Fury’s attempts to bring a disparate group of “singular individuals” together to combat the invasion and enslavement of earth by an intergalactic army of Skrull (... not using their shapeshifting abilities here - sorry!). Lead by Loki - the adoptive brother of Thor, the invaders seek an energy source known as the Tesseract (it’s power previously seen in the films THOR and CAPTAIN AMERICA) as an “ultimate weapon”. Whew! Knowing every audience member will be bringing with them years of personal baggage and opinions associated with each on-screen character, Whedon cannily wipes the slate clean and presses the “character arc RESET” button by making us forget they ARE these iconic legends. By the time we’ve reached the film’s halfway point, and the end of a bravura action sequence most movies would save for their climax, Whedon has managed to strip the primary six AVENGERS - Steve Rogers (Captain America), Thor, Bruce Banner (Hulk), Black Widow, Hawkeye, and even the usually self-congratulatory Tony Stark (Iron Man), of their “iconic” status, and brought them down to the level of flawed, confused and even fearful individuals who, for a time, see themselves ill-equipped (technologically and emotionally) for the world-saving task at hand. Amazingly, from this point on you forget the bright colored costumes, and we come to relate to them as interesting people. It's quite emotionally effective ... as well as familiar, and there's a reason.
Cleveland, OH doubles for Midtown Manhattan in the film's apocalyptic finale
Whedon cannily rips as his narrative template one of the greatest “ensemble” films of all time, 1967's THE DIRTY DOZEN. And in similar fashion to Robert Aldrich’s WW2 action classic about “12 ruggedly individualistic” characters who must come to set aside prejudice, ego and personal fear to forge themselves into a formidable fighting unit, so does Whedon’s "Dirty 1/2 Dozen" (with Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury in the surrogate father/team leader Lee Marvin role) follow suit. It's amazing that 45 years after the release of the original DOZEN, most of the world vividly remembers the characters portrayed by Charles Bronson, John Cassavettes, Jim Brown, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, et al ... but would be hard pressed to recall their actual mission (... the assassination of a group of Nazi planners on the eve of the Allied D-Day Invasion - BTW).
THE AVENGERS - 1967 style: THE DIRTY DOZEN
As it's the personal stories of the "Dozen" themselves who take the film's front and center attention over their GUNS OF NAVARONE-like "impossible mission", one of the greatest action films ever made is in actuality a character piece merely disguised as a slam bang adventure yarn. Whedon does the exact same thing with his slam-bang superhero yarn, and this "character piece in disguise" aspect emerges as THE AVENGERS' greatest strength, one which should likewise give it a popular staying power when viewed and re-viewed over the years.
The “hidden secret” of any superhero adaptation is that the characters have to be interesting and emotionally engaging BEFORE donning their costume/cape. See Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN, Christopher Nolan’s BATMAN BEGINS, Favreau’s IRON MAN, and Johnston’s CAPTAIN AMERICA for proof. In them all the super hero “visage” doesn’t appear until well into the 2nd Act, and by that point we almost don’t even care if it ever appears as the character’s themselves have become damned fascinating. When they do finally “put on the mask” the reason WHY they’re doing it adds to their interesting-ness and isn’t the be all and end all of the film. Future comic book movies, please take note!!!
From a technical standpoint, Whedon, Arad, Feige and company have constructed a finely crafted, cinematic work of art. One early review a few weeks back posited if the film had but one flaw it would be usual-TV-director Whedon’s lack of exploiting his big screen canvas to best cinematic effect; a comment to which we heartily disagree. Unlike some of the say, later STAR TREK: NEXT GENERATION films, THE AVENGERS more than takes advantage of it’s sprawling IMAX-3D screen for maximum impact, … all of which brings us to another comment from another advanced review, that of the film's 3-D presentation being less than stellar. Once again, we take umbrage. There are no COMIN’ AT ’YA, or TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS, or SPACEHUNTER-type arrows and laser beams flying from the screen into one's popcorn (those of you under 30 missed all those wonderfully cheesy 1980s era 3-D revival flicks, sorry guys!). But rather THE AVENGERS uses it’s 3-D to more spatial and frame-perspective effect. While it is a 3D "conversion" (and a darned good one - this ain't CLASH OF THE TITANS!) it's usage of the medium/technology is more akin to the spatial layerings of Pixar's UP! rather than the more "in 'yo face" FX of a FRIDAY THE 13TH: PART 3, AMITYVILLE 3D, or FINAL DESTINATION 5. It’s nicely noticeable (especially considering that ticket up charge) but not distracting; and the film certainly doesn’t need it. If you do get the chance to check it out in IMAX 3-D however, it IS well worth the couple of extra bucks.
Movie buffs (especially those of a certain age) will get a kick out of a handful of nifty uncredited cameos. And there's a nice continuity in how supporting characters from previous Marvel films here make reappearances - especially Clark Gregg’s dry-witted SHIELD agent Phil Coulson. After serving as the thread linking most of those previous films, here he effectively becomes THE AVENGERS heart, soul and conscience. There was initial disappointment among fans upon first word that Edward Norton would not return as Bruce Banner / The Hulk. But Mark Ruffalo (and a witty script) actually end up making this the best HULK film thus far. And if a movie and it’s heroes are only as good as it’s villain, then Tom Hiddleston as Loki steals the show. A graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, outside his role as Thor’s villainous brother, he is perhaps best known to American audiences for his turns as F. Scott Fitzgerald in Woddy Allen’s MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, and as Capt. Nicholls in Steven Spielberg’s WAR HORSE. Apart from having to deliver a Hitler/Mussolini-like soliloquy or two, Hiddleston has to on separate occasions stand toe-to-toe with two of America’s sharpest-tongued actors (Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, and Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark) in a pair of verbal racquetball-like exchanges. He acquits himself nicely, giving as good as he gets, and emerging as the most fiendish of characters whom you almost hate to admit you really like and of whom you want to see more.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe continues in 2013 with IRON MAN 3 (currently under the direction of Shane Black, and starring Downey Jr., Gwenyth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Sir Ben Kingsley and Guy Pearce), then later that same year with THOR 2. Word there is that Hiddleston is returning once again as Loki. According to producer Fiege, Marvel also has an option for Whedon to direct THE AVENGERS 2 “when and if the time comes”. With near unanimous critical acclaim, an opening weekend U.S. box office of over $200 million, and a two week global take nearing the $650 million mark, it seems more likely a case of “when” rather than “if”.
Whedon says he’d like to take the next installment (seeds of the new story peppered throughout IRON MAN 3) in a “ … smaller, more personal, more painful” direction, “… and not just a rehash of what seemed to work the first time”. THE AVENGERS has raised the bar, and all the subsequent Marvel films will have their work cut out for them in measuring up. But if this weekend’s “THE DIRTY ½ DOZEN” is any indication, we’re more than eager to suit up for Whedon‘s “THE DIRTY ½ DOZEN: THE NEXT MISSION”.
C’mon, you know you wanna. Go ahead. Say it. We won't tell anyone. - “Avengers Assemble!”