I feel bad being so late to this movie—granted this is the opening day, but it seems that for the past two weeks, everyone in the world has seen it already. And so, for the past two weeks, everyone’s been raving about it and saying that it’s the greatest superhero movie ever made; it’s the best movie of the summer; it’s better than a big sex sandwich, and so on.
The premise, if it weren’t already evident from the stingers Marvel’s added to the very end of every one of their movies for the past five years, is that a group of superheroes—Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)–need to recover the Tesseract, a glowing blue cube that generates unlimited energy and also, somehow, opens the portal to the realm of Asgard.
No sooner does S.H.I.E.L.D., a shadowy government agency overseen by a committee whose purpose in the film is somewhat tenuous, discover this than the Tesseract’s stolen by Thor’s adoptive brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who also hypnotizes Hawkeye and one of the scientists from Thor, Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) into doing his nefarious shenanigans, namely, opening a bigger portal to Asgard and invading earth.
Samuel L.Jackson, under the guise of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), rounds up the team, sending Widow to India to snag The Hulk, or rather, his alter-ego Bruce Banner, because he’s apparently the only guy on the planet who understands gamma radiation; thawing out Captain America; interrupting Iron Man’s alter-ego Tony Stark’s date night; and just happening upon Thor. In the meantime, they pick up Loki in Germany, where all the inhabitants, oddly, speak English, and bring ’em to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s flying airship-fortress-thingamajig. Hijinks ensue, the group has its falling-outs and ins, and everything comes to a head for a climactic showdown in New York City.
The best bits, as can probably be expected from Whedon, comes from the dialogue, especially, if not almost entirely from Downey’s one-liners as Tony Stark. When he tries to weasel out of a phone call by claiming to be a life-like replicant of the real Tony Stark, well, it’s good to see the cocky Iron Man from the first movie. Whedon and co-writer Zak Penn (Incident at Loch Ness) have some fun with each of their characters (there’s a great callback gag with Thor and The Hulk, and another one with Black Widow kicking Russian butt while she puts a federal agent on hold), but there’s also a sense that they could have done more.
Outside of Stark, the rest of the characters aren’t very developed (despite nearly all of them having their own films to develop their personalities)–Captain America is stern, humorless, and kind of naïve; Thor just looks around trying to be helpful and doesn’t appear to have the kind of basic intelligence one would think a God to possess; Hawkeye’s personality is defined by his ability to shoot arrows with dead-on accuracy; Bruce Banner is sweaty and nervous; and Black Widow is curvaceous.
Being a superhero film, this may not be a serious drawback, but for the first hour and forty-five minutes, the best two scenes are simply the clashes between the characters—one sequence in particular has all of them talking over each other, voicing their disagreements and getting nowhere. They may be superheroes, but they’re still petty. Likewise, as soon as they’re all together, they establish high-school-level cliques; Stark and Banner, the nerds, against Captain America and Thor, the jocks.
It’s a terrific theme that deserved more than a mere handful of scenes that end far too quickly, and soon it’s back to a lot of incessant plotting (though not as bad as Iron Man 2) and lots, lots, lots of unnecessary pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo. This has been a problem with many of Marvel’s movies lately, and I wonder if the fault lies with the producers—it’s almost as if Whedon’s being held back, and, if so, wrongly. There’s a lot of directors who can do straight action, but Whedon’s strength is dialogue, why shouldn’t they get what they pay for?
Whatever, it is an action movie, and my battle count was six: The opening chase; Captain America and Iron Man versus Loki; Iron Man and Captain America versus Thor; Iron Man and Captain America versus Loki’s men; Black Widow and Thor versus The Hulk; and the final battle. Half of those feature the heroes fighting against each other, which is a creative concept, and Whedon gets just as creative pairing and playing off each hero’s powers—Captain America reflecting Iron Man’s blasts off his shield; Thor charging Iron Man’s systems with his lightning.
Still, oftentimes it’s the concept that’s more interesting than the action itself. The fight between Thor and Iron Man, for example, is basically two guys throwing each other at trees, and the same could be said for Thor versus The Hulk, just swap “trees” for “fighter planes.” There’s also a lot of Iron Man, who’s the de facto protagonist, and that’s fine by me.
That said, the final battle is stellar. Since the enemies are all the same, it gives Whedon an opportunity to show how each superhero would take down the same threat–one of the best moments in the movie is an unbroken shot of the entire team thrashing those naughty Asgardians in their own particular way. Similarly, you also get to see the team work in tandem, and I don’t think anyone won’t have a goofy grin on their face when Captain America delivers a plan of action, telling each hero where to go and what to do, and ends with, “Hulk: Smash.”
Is it the greatest superhero movie ever? No. But it is pretty good. It’s slow to start, frequently lags, and the villain is weak, but there’s a lot of laughs, some very good action, and I could listen to them bicker all day. And bonus points for a special guest appearance by Harry Dean Stanton.