As a kid, my favourite Saturday morning cartoon was The Marvel Super Heroes, a barely animated series produced in the 1960s that was still airing in reruns on French-Canadian TV in the 1980s. That was pretty much my first contact with such iconic characters as Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk and Thor, who have recently each gotten the Hollywood blockbuster treatment, leading up to this week’s release of The Avengers, in which they team up and kick all kinds of ass.
I’m not a kid anymore, but somehow I think I’m still as excited about comic book mythology as ever. There’s something very primal about these characters that makes them so attractive, starting with their colourful appearance: Captain America’s red, white and blue costume and shield, Iron Man’s yellow and red armour, Hulk’s green skin, Thor’s red cape and silver hammer… Eye-popping stuff. It’s also interesting to note how each of these superheroes reflects a type of fantastic figure beloved by little boys (and fully grown geeks). There’s a soldier, a robot (sort of), a big monster, some kind of Viking warrior…
Going a bit deeper, one of the things Marvel Comics always got right is making their heroes relatable, however super they might be. So Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, is the weakling whose wishes to be strong are answered, as well as a straight-arrow, old-fashioned fellow who finds himself in a new world he’s not sure he fits in with. Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, is cocky egotism and megalomania personified, but with so much wit and charm on top that you can’t hold his flaws against him. The funny thing about the Hulk is that, when he’s not turning into a green ball of rage, he’s a really nice, easygoing science geek. As for Thor, he’s a bit more out there, Norse deity that he is, yet the issues he has to deal with, his troubled relationship with his brother Loki for instance, are relatively down to earth.
All of these things were well conveyed in the previous Marvel Studios movies – Iron Man 1 and 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger – but never quite as effectively as they are in The Avengers, which is, simply put, the best goddamn superhero flick ever made. "What about The Dark Knight?" you might ask, as my friend and colleague Joseph Belanger did. Well, that may have been a better film-film, but Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies are not actually that comic book-y – they’re more like cop/gangster dramas that happen to feature dudes in costumes.
On the other hand, The Avengers is a tremendous, stupendous, unapologetic superhero extravaganza, quite literally a comic book translated to the screen, using all the most expensive state-of-the-art toys available to a Hollywood blockbuster filmmaker. Most importantly, the guy at the helm, writer-director Joss Whedon, is a smart, resourceful artist who’s genuinely enthusiastic about this stuff. Tellingly, in addition to being the creator of cult TV series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, and the co-writer of films such as Toy Story and the recent The Cabin in the Woods, he has authored a bunch of comic books, including a run on Astonishing X-Men.
Coming from TV, Whedon also has a way with juggling multiple characters and directing an ensemble of actors, and one of the most enjoyable things about The Avengers is the dynamic between de facto leader Captain America (Chris Evans), wiseass genius billionaire Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), fellow brilliant scientist Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and "the other guy" (Hulk), grandiloquent demigod Thor (Chris Hemsworth), plus badass S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson).
If only for what might be the all-star cast of the year, the movie is a kick, and it’s worth noting that Whedon doesn’t just rush from one over-the-top set piece to the next – much of the first two acts is devoted to carefully putting all the pieces on the chessboard and developing the characters. But when you get to the film’s last stretch, starting with the awesome "suit up" montage, you’re in for an absolutely astonishing, brilliantly shot and cut, truly epic, special FX-heavy 3D action climax. As Loki (played with slimy arrogance by Tom Hiddleston, who makes a great villain) and his army of Chitauri aliens unleash unholy mayhem upon New York, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes finally stop fighting each other and figure out how to work as a team.
It may not look like it yet, what with the weather in Montreal these days, but the summer movie season has begun – with a Hulk smash!