From the film “Marvel’s The Avengers,” the Avengers are, from left, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).
Before offering any critical commentary on the summer’s first big-budget superhero thrill ride, it should be duly noted that audiences have overwhelmingly given their approval to “Marvel’s The Avengers” – and the box office figures are astonishing.
As of May 6, the film had raked in $200.3 million domestically, smashing several North American box office records including highest grossing opening weekend. Outside North America, the film has earned $441.5 million bringing its total worldwide haul to $641.8 million.
What led to “Marvel’s The Avengers” record-breaking opening weekend?
This film, more so than any other in the superhero genre, had a lot going for it.
First, the characters have a history as fan favorites … “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” have been around for nearly 50 years. Back in the early 1960s, the legendary partnership between writer/editor Stan Lee and artist/plotter Jack Kirby yielded a flood of iconic comic book titles including “The Avengers.” The first issue appeared in September 1963.
Second, the hype surrounding this adaptation has been building for years. Previous Marvel Universe films have been dropping hints and teasers for several years. As far back as the first “Iron Man” movie in 2008, the character Nick Fury has been attempting to recruit superheroes. In 2011, the films “Captain America: The First Avenger” and “Thor” provided critical background material leading into “Marvel’s The Avengers.”
Third, Joss Whedon signed on to direct the film and write the screenplay. Whedon – creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel” and “Firefly” – focuses on the individual characters and their relationships rather than on the spectacle of the confrontation.
Fourth, “Marvel’s The Avengers” was produced by Marvel Studios and is being distributed by Walt Disney Pictures. While it is officially the sixth installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is the first since Disney bought Marvel and it therefore benefits from Disney’s unrivaled marketing resourcefulness.
Finally, “Marvel’s The Avengers” is constructed around a solid good-versus-evil comic book story with plenty of action sequences and epic battles. There are scenes that are extraordinarily reminiscent of artist Kirby’s original panels.
To be fair, the film isn’t true to the original team’s lineup: In this adaptation, the Avengers include Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Hawkeye and Black Widow. When an unexpected enemy threatens Earth, the team is pulled together by Nick Fury, director of the international peacekeeping agency known as S.H.I.E.L.D.
The threat comes from Asgardian Loki who has struck a deal with the alien race the Chitauri.
Robert Downey Jr. reprises his role as Tony Stark/Iron Man. Having starred in “Iron Man” and “Iron Man 2,” Downey has had time to perfect his portrayal of the billionaire playboy who develops a high-tech suit of armor that transforms him into a superhero. He nails the overconfidence and narcissism wonderfully in this outing. Whedon carefully allows Stark’s smugness to emerge as a personal flaw and a detriment to team-building in the first half of the film.
Chris Evans reprises his role as Steve Rogers/Captain America. Evans effectively conveys his character’s frustration: Rogers spent decades frozen in the Arctic before being dethawed by agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Evans performance underscores his character’s displacement and isolation.
Scarlett Johansson portrays one of the strongest characters in the film as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow. Whedon’s script offers cryptic glimpses into the agent’s dubious past. Johansson deftly pivots from regret and remorse over past transgressions to keenly-focused discipline when facing current opponents. Her performance as a S.H.I.E.L.D. super-spy is meticulous whether she is manipulating an interrogation or laying a smackdown on a bad guy.
Another standout in “Marvel’s The Avengers” is Mark Ruffalo as David Banner. Ruffalo is the best Banner since Bill Bixby took the role for the television series “The Incredible Hulk” which ran 1978 to 1982. Ruffalo manages to infuse Banner with a kind of bittersweet bleakness. Unlike many of the film’s characters, Banner has come to terms with his personal demons – or at least he’s learned to live with the desolation. Whedon’s script captures Banner’s melancholy resignation beautifully while illuminating the poignancy of the Banner/Hulk dichotomy.
CGI technology has finally delivered a decent-looking Hulk, too.
Samuel L. Jackson portrays Nick Fury. Jackson manages the role handily, sketching a gruff, calculating and ultimately gallant administrator. Chris Hemsworth reprises his role as Thor. Whedon tones down the Shakespearian connotations and extracts a strong performance from Hemsworth. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is simultaneously menacing and whiney: Hiddleston’s portrayal captures both the character’s power and his petty bitterness.
Clark Gregg reprises his role as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson. The character has appeared in several films, including “Iron Man,” “Iron Man 2” and “Thor” as well as in the animated series “Ultimate Spider-Man.” Whedon shrewdly uses Coulson’s interactions with the various main characters to explore various personalities. Gregg has a comparatively minor role but he turns in an exceptional and memorable performance.
It’s tempting to claim that “Marvel’s The Avengers” is a nonstop roller-coaster thrill ride overloaded with endless action – but it’s more than that. Sure, there are a lot of explosive action sequences, eye-popping special effects and larger-than-life superhero feats. Whedon’s involvement guaranteed a sophisticated script and real characterization. Whedon devotes time to each superhero’s inner conflicts and to the way they interact with each other.
It’s also tempting to herald this film as a fanboy fantasy (which it is) when it has much broader appeal. Because of its stylish crafted script and its engaging characters, it will please more than just the avid comic-book-reading clique. It’s likely to draw fans from a broad spectrum and it has that summer blockbuster quality that almost demands multiple screenings. “Marvel’s The Avengers” has all the hallmarks of a huge Hollywood money-making juggernaut.
Judging by its lucrative opening weekend and its cinematic achievements, “Marvel’s The Avengers” proves the Disney-Marvel merger was rewarding and that Whedon, when given a big budget and creative control, can do astounding things on the big screen.