Last week, I had the privilege of going with a friend to the AMC theater in Downtown Disney to attend a sixteen-hour-long event known as the Ultimate Marvel Marathon. All five film adaptations of Marvel Comics heroes, plus the midnight premiere of the long-awaited Avengers.
Now, in my defense, I hadn’t actually watched all the Marvel films beforehand (just the two Iron Man films), so I thought this would be a great way to catch up on the franchise and get a better chance at enjoying The Avengers. So to give you an idea of how this worked out, I’m going to do a quick review of each Marvel film before I get to the proper Avengers story.
And before I do that, I have to quickly applaud Clark Gregg for his performance as SHIELD Agent Coulson throughout most of the films and for his fan-oriented “briefings” that linked each film during the marathon itself.
Iron Man (2008)
As great as The Avengers was, I think the first Iron Man film will always be my favorite in this series. It’s got some great action scenes, impeccably sharp dialogue, and a meaningful story arc. Robert Downey, Jr. has made Tony Stark into a solid hero and the comedic heart and soul for the Marvel film franchise. The film itself jumps into the realistic superhero genre in the same way that Batman Begins did a few years before. If I have any complaint about this film, it’s that I’m a bit underwhelmed by Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance, but to be fair, the love interests in these films aren’t given a whole lot to work with.
And speaking of love interests…
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Hulk is another good installment in the franchise, though it’s not nearly as strong as Iron Man. Edward Norton makes Dr. Bruce Banner into a dynamic and sympathetic antihero and Liv Tyler does just as well as his girlfriend Elizabeth Ross (personally I like her much, much more than Gwyneth Paltrow). Together they make for a good blend of optimism and despair that makes the Hulk’s story so poignant. That said, with all the CGI texturing, some of the Hulk’s fights did get a little blurry that it was hard to focus on any one thing. But beyond that, it’s got a great story and a troupe of good actors (and for any Modern Family fans out there, that includes a small but heartfelt performance by Ty Burrell).
Iron Man 2 (2010)
As a sequel, Iron Man 2 was… okay. Robert Downey, Jr. is still great, Don Cheadle gives an equally good performance as Lt. Col. James Rhodes (replacing Terrence Howard), and Scarlett Johansson is nicely introduced as Black Widow. But beyond their parts, the rest of the film feels a bit lacking. Tony Stark goes through the same life lesson as before despite fighting injustice as Iron Man. The two villains also are given some good setup, but ultimately don’t deliver; they’re mined for comedy more than serious threats (personally, I thought they could have stuck with Mickey Rourke’s villain and developed his plot a little more). Not to mention that the climax is fast-paced and then just… ends. Not much else to say but, hey, at least they’re continuing to build up The Avengers!
Thor more than makes up for Iron Man 2. This is King Lear as told by Marvel Comics (seriously, it makes sense if you see Thor as Edgar, Loki as Edmund, and Odin as Gloucester). Chris Hemworth’s Thor is appropriately boisterous and grand, while Tom Hiddleston really sells his performance as the manipulative Loki. Natalie Portman is okay as the love interest and Kat Denning helps a lot as her snarky sidekick (which, when you think about it is kind of cool, that a love interest gets her own sidekick instead of the hero). I will say that the climax doesn’t seem as giant as the epic battles shown near the beginning of the film, but then again, it is a more personal conflict for Thor at the end than it was at the start. Kenneth Branagh did a great job directing this film, making it a very character-driven, visually rich superhero story.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Like Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger was another evocative film, but in this case, it was less Shakespearean and more of a grand old World War II film. The film captures the sense of 1940s America, especially with the cheek-in-tongue newsreel and war bonds promotions. Chris Evans really proves himself to be a worthy actor for the role of Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America. He proves that despite being pathetically nice, he’s also inhumanly determined and moral, even in the face of almost certain annihilation. It takes a while, but the fun of this film is seeing him bring out the best in everyone around him, which made me like this hero a lot. Tommy Lee Jones really shines as Col. Phillips and Hayley Atwell does pretty well as Peggy Carter, giving us a female lead who both fits and breaks the Forties’s standards for women. Hugo Weaving does a very believable Nazi, and in that same regard, the CGI in this film is rather good. My only complaint is the editing, where everything is paced rather quickly and we get a few montages to speed things along even further instead of letting each scene breathe.
The Avengers (2012)
The short version: this film is great.
The longer version: this film is a successful fulfillment on the promise of the Marvel film franchise. Throughout the end of each film before this one, there’s a subtle current of Nick Fury and SHIELD building up these heroes and linking them together–and linking their adversaries together, too. It culminates in putting forward the Avengers Initiative, a team-up of heroes against the threat of Loki and his extraterrestrial allies. There’s also a quiet but meaningful subplot about Tony Stark and what it takes to get him to be a truly selfless hero who can work well with other superpowered individuals.
Despite the large cast of lead characters, the performances are all balanced. We get a good dynamic between Tony Stark’s cynicism and Steve Rogers’s can-do attitude, Bruce Banner’s meekness and Black Widow’s icy personality, and then there’s Nick Fury just walking around like he owns the place (which he does, and “the place” happens to be a flying invisible aircraft carrier). Tom Hiddleston returns as the trickster Loki, where he really gets into playing up the fact that he’s an Asgardian and deserves to be treated like a god. And though I still like Edward Norton’s portrayal more, I think Mark Ruffalo did a very great Bruce Banner, playing him more meek and apologetic, which ultimately pays off when he becomes the Hulk and steals the show every time he’s on-screen (just the match between him and Loki alone is worth the price of admission).
With Joss Whedon directing and writing part of the screenplay, there is a ton of sarcasm and snarky asides in this film, but it’s worth it for when you get to the climax, which is appropriately huge and wonderful. Even the “stinger” is nicely done, a clever little jab for all the audiences who’ve been trained by previous Marvel films to sit and wait after the credits. This film knows it’s huge and does it ever deliver.
This was a great event through and through. I will say that I’m still not sold on 3D filmmaking, though these films weren’t too bad in that regard. I won’t say that you can’t enjoy The Avengers unless you’ve watched the five other films beforehand, but it certainly helps and it’s worth the wait.
Bibliography: The Avengers (2012). Directed by Joss Whedon. Produced by Kevin Feige. Screenplay by Joss Whedon. Story by Zak Penn and Joss Whedon. Based on The Avengers by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Perf. Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson. Marvel Studios. Walt Disney Pictures. May 4, 2012 (US release).