Movie Reviews
11:57 am
Thu May 3, 2012

'The Avengers': Superheroic Popcorn Fun At Its Best

Originally published on Wed May 9, 2012 7:43 am

That crashing sound you'll hear emanating from cineplexes this weekend will be the sound of comic-book superheroes smashing box-office records.

Actually, the smashing started last weekend, when Marvel's The Avengers opened in 39 territories around the world, scooping up a cool $178 million in three days. And with legions of fans having already bought advance tickets in the U.S., it's a pretty sure bet the box-office bonanza will continue as the film opens in more than 4,000 North American theaters.

Fans certainly won't be disappointed, but neither are they likely to be terribly surprised by Joss Whedon's enjoyably zingy genre flick. The banter has zip, the effects are fun, the climactic battle is decently spectacular, and if the 3-D is mostly expendable, there are a few scenes where it adds a nice kick.

That said, the plot is strictly standard-issue superhero stuff: the Earth's in peril when Norse demi-god Loki (Tom Hilddleston, reprising his role as Thor's ne'er-do-well quasi-sibling) steals a glowing blue cube (the Tesseract!) that offers the planet unlimited power — but has the unfortunate side effect of opening a wormhole through which alien invaders can pop.

This being the sort of thing S.H.I.E.L.D. was set up to foil, the secret agency's superhero-wrangler, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), gathers his brood of caped-or-otherwise-flamboyantly-attired heroes. There's Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), plus a couple of superpower-challenged assassins who've not had their own movies (yet): ace archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and martial-arts tyro Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Once they're all in place, Fury announces: "War has started, and we're hopelessly outgunned."

To which the only possible reaction has to be: "Oh spare me ... our guys have a hammer, exploding arrows, a shield, broad shoulders — how're they gonna be underdogs in this fight?"

There is a problem, though. These folks don't really play well with others. So turning them into an actual team will take time — time that director Joss Whedon fills with the kind of one-on-one matchups fanboys usually only dream about. Irresistible hammer meets immovable shield. Snarky billionaire taunts guy who's trying to stay calm. Who do you think'd win a fair fight? Thor? Iron Man? Hulk? Let's go find a mountaintop and break some trees.

After that, it's mostly a matter of getting everyone assembled on what I guess you'd have to call a stealth heli-carrier, and marking time till a doozy of a final showdown. Whedon orders up a lot of quips — some explosive laughs actually — and so that you can still enjoy the picture if you're over 15, he makes sure that all his stars get to shine in moments without digital effects.

Considering what a 3-D traffic jam The Avengers could've been with six heroes in spandex — plus big-name hangers-on from Stan Lee to Gwyneth Paltrow — it's impressive that the filmmaker still found time to, say, let Ruffalo be quirkily understated as the latest in a line of Hulks.

All of this, of course, is leading to a bone-crunching, building-shattering, giant-eel-spaceship-eviscerating showdown that lays waste to much of Manhattan, looks reeeeeeeally cool, and sets up what will doubtless be Marvel superhero sequels too numerous to count.

Can't say The Avengers makes me look forward to seeing any of its heroes flying solo again, but it does establish that in smaller doses, even the most annoying Type A personalities can be amusing.

As a just-released trailer for the last third of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy reminds us, a caped-crusader movie can aspire to greater things. But nobody says it has to, and Joss Whedon just wants The Avengers to be fun. Which it is.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Finally, this hour, the sound of comic book superheroes smashing box office records.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE AVENGERS")

ROBERT DOWNEY JR.: (as Iron Man/Tony Stark) How about that?

CORNISH: It all started last weekend when Marvel's "The Avengers" opened in 39 countries around the world, and it will likely continue when the film hits U.S. theaters tonight at midnight. Legions of fans have already bought advanced tickets. And critic Bob Mondello suspects they'll be pleased.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE AVENGERS")

SAMUEL L. JACKSON: (as Nick Fury) War has started, and we are hopelessly outgunned.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Oh, spare me. Our guys have a hammer, exploding arrows, a shield, broad shoulders. How are they going to be underdogs in this fight? I mean, sure, the bad guy, Loki, has an army of aliens ready to pounce. But as Iron Man tells him, The Avengers have a not-so-jolly green giant.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE AVENGERS")

DOWNEY: (as Iron Man/Tony Stark) Let's do a head count here. Your brother, the demigod...

MONDELLO: That would be Thor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE AVENGERS")

DOWNEY: (as Iron Man/Tony Stark) ...a super soldier...

MONDELLO: Captain America.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE AVENGERS")

DOWNEY: (as Iron Man/Tony Stark) ...living legend, who kind of lives up to the legend...

MONDELLO: Iron Man.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE AVENGERS")

DOWNEY: (as Iron Man/Tony Stark) ...a man with breathtaking anger management issues...

MONDELLO: Hulk.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE AVENGERS")

DOWNEY: (as Iron Man/Tony Stark) ...a couple of master assassins. And you, big fellow, you've managed to piss off every single one of them.

TOM HIDDLESTON: (as Loki) That was the plan.

MONDELLO: There's a problem, though. All of the folks that he just mentioned, including those world-class assassins - Hawkeye and Black Widow - don't really play well with others. So turning them into an actual team will take time, time that director Joss Whedon fills with the kind of one-on-one superhero matchups fanboys can usually only dream about. Irresistible hammer meets immovable shield.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE AVENGERS")

MONDELLO: Snarky billionaire taunts a guy who's trying to stay calm.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE AVENGERS")

DOWNEY: (as Iron Man/Tony Stark) And I'm a huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster.

MONDELLO: And who'd win a fair fight? Thor? Iron Man? Hulk? Let's go find a mountaintop and break some trees.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE AVENGERS")

MONDELLO: There is a plot. The Earth is at risk because our tesseract went on the fritz and got stolen. Don't sweat the details. It's a cube, and it's opening up wormholes for giant eel-like spaceships. Luckily, we've got a gizmo of our own, a nifty battleship that, I guess, you'd have to call a stealth helicarrier. Still, Whedon knows that mere gizmos do not a superhero movie makes, so he's ordered up a lot of quips - some explosive laughs, actually - and so that you can still enjoy the picture if you're over 15, he's made sure that all of his stars get to shine in moments without digital effects.

Considering what a 3-D traffic jam "The Avengers" could have been with six heroes in spandex and big-name hangers-on from Samuel L. Jackson to Gwyneth Paltrow, it's impressive that the filmmaker still found time to do things like, say, let Mark Ruffalo be understated as the latest in a line of Hulks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE AVENGERS")

SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (as Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff) Doctor, we need you to come in.

MARK RUFFALO: (as The Hulk/Bruce Banner) What if I say no?

JOHANSSON: (as Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff) I'll persuade you.

MONDELLO: All of this, of course, leading to a bone-crunching, skyscraper-shattering, giant-eel-eviscerating showdown that lays waste to much of Manhattan, looks really cool, and sets up what will doubtless be Marvel superhero sequels too numerous to count.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE AVENGERS")

CHRIS HEMSWORTH: (as Thor) You ready for another bout?

CHRIS EVANS: (as Captain America/Steve Rogers) What, you getting sleepy?

MONDELLO: Can't say "The Avengers" makes me look forward to seeing any of its heroes flying solo again, but it does establish that in smaller doses, even the most annoying type A personalities can be amusing. Of course, as a just-released trailer for the last third of Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy reminds us, a caped crusader movie can aspire to greater things. But nobody says it has to, and Joss Whedon just wants "The Avengers" to be fun, which it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVE TO RISE")

MONDELLO: I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVE TO RISE")

SOUNDGARDEN: (Singing) What if all you understand could fit into the center of our hand...

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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