"The Avengers" has been the number one film in North America for the last three weekends in a row. It's a record-shattering success for Marvel Studios, the now-wholly-owned subsidiary of Disney -- it passed the $450 million domestic gross benchmark 10 days faster than the previous bar-setter ("The Dark Knight"), is well on its way to the half-a-billion-dollar mark, and internationally, continues to climb its way up the ladder inside the illustrious International Billion Dollar Movie Club (as of now, it sits in fourth place out of twelve titles, $150 million behind the last "Harry Potter" movie).
All of these financial successes are indicative of how well-planned the build-up to "The Avengers" release really was. Marvel developed films centered on individual characters, ones that established them as viable, bankable brands to carry the banner for a wide-spanning franchise, while simultaneously developing a foundation for those characters to finally join forces. It was a clever, patient strategy of audience cultivation that will likely bear fruit many more times over the next decade or so. (I doubt that I'm the first to say this, but Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment would be prudent to utilize a similar plan -- if not a carbon-copy -- if they ever dare to put together a "Justice League" film.)
I finally saw the film for myself Saturday night and enjoyed it very much. This is a movie with a bigness to it (perhaps BIGNESS is a more apt way to describe it in print), but it has a nimble, athletic way about itself -- kind of like watching a 350-pound NFL defensive lineman successfully dance the lead male role in "Swan Lake" -- and no shortage of humor, either.
"The Avengers" has a story that is designed to run on a few tracks that smash into each other, like it was put together by some enterprising 9-year-old boys who pooled their Hot Wheels race sets into a traffic engineer's worst nightmare. But instead of being all kinds of hyper (-convoluted, -kinetic and -ventilating all spring to mind as suffixes for that particular prefix), the movie for the most part keeps on an even keel, albeit still zipping along.
The essence of the movie: A glowing cube of enormous power, known as the Tesseract, is being studied by a scientist (Stellan Skarsgaard) in a massive underground bunker. His work is being overseen by the remarkably well-funded defense organization SHIELD and its inscrutable leader, the eyepatched Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Meanwhile, on the other side of the universe, the dark and vengeful Loki (Tom Hiddleston) takes on the assignment of coming to Earth to start a war that will lead to his rule over the planet.
When the supervillainous trickster succeeds in stealing the Tesseract, Fury and SHIELD work to assemble a team of heroes to battle him. Since they are a disparate band of individuals -- all with their own morals, ethics, boundaries and personal issues -- they must learn (and quickly) how to put personal grievances aside and stop the evil that is about to drop (quite literally) out of the clear blue sky.
Like I said, there's a lot happening here. Thankfully, the screenplay, written by the movie's director Joss Whedon (from a story credited to Whedon and Zak Penn), knows when to let moments between characters develop organically without seeming like mere time-marking between the action set pieces, which are all impressively rendered (even if they are also just a bit overstuffed).
Plus, the movie manages to evade a pothole of having the story end up dominated by one of its numerous characters -- specifically, Robert Downey, Jr.'s Tony Stark/Iron Man. Downey's had the most success with his solo films (it was the first "Iron Man" movie that kicked off Marvel's master plan, after all), but while he brings his typically crowd-pleasing presence, this is a stronger ensemble piece than one might initially suspect. Among the other Avengers, Chris Evans gives a genuinely good performance here (better, in fact, than anything I've ever seen him do before) as Steve Rogers/Captain America and Mark Ruffalo -- debuting his version of a character previously assayed in two different feature films by two different actors -- brings the painfully married aches of loneliness and regret to his Bruce Banner/Hulk. Hiddleston is also a highlight; his Loki is a multi-layered presence, fearsome and powerful at times, but often riddled with neuroses.
"The Avengers" is a summer spectacle of the highest order; it's the first of 2012's blockbuster movies to be as much fun as it ought to be. Here's hoping it won't be the only one. Three and a half stars (out of four).
Content advisory: "The Avengers" is rated PG-13, and as a PG-13-rated summer blockbuster, there are certain requirements to meet -- so "The Avengers" pretty much touches 'em all. There's lots of large-scale, non-gory action and fight sequences with a heapin' helpin' of destruction (and occasionally, the good guys go ten rounds amongst themselves), plus there are some scary not-of-this-Earth bad guys with unusual and nasty weapons, and when Banner initially "Hulks out," he's ferocious and not particularly friendly. There is also a fairly nasty death featuring a recurring character.