Considering the fact that virtually anyone who's still seeking out Avengers reviews at this point is almost certainly only looking for confirmation on the things they've already heard about Joss Whedon's latest foray into awesomeness, there seems to be only one way to review Marvel's The Avengers (opening this Friday everywhere [that it hasn't already opened, which would be the United States and Saturn]): with a little bit of rumor control.
By now, virtually every film critic worth his or her salt has already taken their crack at reviewing the flick (I ended up in a lowly "word-of-mouth" screening, almost a full week later than the rest of my our critical brethren); it is, in fact, almost entirely unnecessary for me to add my voice to the already-deafening din of praise that's being tossed Whedon's way.
So, rather than tell you what you've already heard-- over and over, opinions being stated and re-stated so many times that "The Hulk is the best part of The Avengers" is starting to be accepted as fact by those who've not even seen the trailer for the film*-- I'm just going to go through a list of the most commonly-stated sentiments regarding Whedon's superhero epic and tell you whether or not they're true, false, or somewhere in-between. Sound good?
No, actually, it sounds like a lame gimmick designed to mask the fact that I have nothing much to add to the newly-minted art of "reviewing The Avengers", but whatever: let's do this.
RUMOR #1: THE HULK IS THE BEST PART OF THE AVENGERS
Let's just start with the biggie. For the past few weeks, we've heard that Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner/The Hulk is perhaps the best iteration of the character ever to grace a screen-- be it one located in a multiplex or one located in a living room. This is absolutely true, and anyone who says otherwise is either a) lying, b) crazy, or c) trying to pick a fight.
Ruffalo is fantastic in the role, bringing a genuine sense of simmering rage and skin-crawling uncomfortableness to the character. He's used sparingly, too, far less than you might imagine...but when the final act rolls around and the Hulk is let off his leash, he delivers more money-shots-per-minute-of-screentime** than virtually anyone else included here. Persistent rumors about Hulk yelling out "Hulk SMASH!" while smashing things have not been entirely false.
RUMOR #2: WHEDON BALANCES EVERY CHARACTER SO WELL, EVERYONE GETS AT LEAST ONE TOTALLY AWESOME MOMENT (AND USUALLY 2 OR 3)
It seems almost impossible: a sprawling cast filled with some of our best actors, up-and-comers, and superhero-genre vets...and they all manage to have at least one applause-inducing moment? Whedon pulls it off. The script (by Whedon and Zack Penn) should serve as the blueprint for every future team-based superhero film: there's nary an ounce of fat on the entire thing, and the big moments register loud and clear. The audience I saw the film with tonight was moved to applause on no less than seven or eight occasions, and I was right there with them.
Unfortunately, it would involve treading into some major spoiler territory for me to discuss these crowd-pleasing moments any further, but rest assured that you'll know 'em when you see 'em, and that they are legion.
RUMOR #3: THE AVENGERS IS THE BEST COMIC BOOK FILM EVER MADE
Well, here's where you're going to hear a lot of debate.
I loved The Avengers-- oh, how I loved The Avengers (if I saw this film when I was nine or ten years old, it would've changed the trajectory of my life)-- but the truth is, I still think that Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight is the best superhero film ever made.
If we wanted to be fair about things-- and, come on, who wants to be fair about things on the internet?-- we'd have to admit that comparing Whedon's film and Nolan's film is a totally apples-vs.-oranges situation: one's a film that seeks to honor the traditions and trappings of the comic book genre, from the primary-colored costumes to the totally-implausible-but-I'm-gonna-go-with-it-'cause-it's-so-awesome-looking set pieces; the other's an attempt to drag the superhero genre kicking and screaming (and glowering a whole bunch) into the real world. Both are massively successful in their attempts, but if we were being honest we'd have to admit that these films have little in common beyond their source material.
But that won't stop people from having this argument, so you may as well prepare yourself to pick a team. Me, I'm still on Nolan's side-- yes, even though it's become suddenly (and inexplicably) uncool to do so-- but let me say it again: I loved Whedon's Avengers so much.
RUMOR #4: THE AVENGERS IS UNEXPECTEDLY HILARIOUS
This one's very, very true. So true, and even moreso than I expected it to be. When deciding where to file this review-- under the "Comedy Examiner" banner or the "Film Geek Examiner" banner-- I had quite a time deciding which by-line to go with. In the end, the overwhelming amount of humor in The Avengers decided it for me (and if I can help get the word out about how funny Penn and Whedon's script is by placing it here, that's just an added bonus for me, the critic).
There are at least fifteen laugh-out-loud moments here, and if that doesn't sound like a lot, ask yourself: when's the last time you laughed out loud fifteen times during another superhero movie***? I expected Whedon and Penn's script to be amusing-- that's their style-- but I wasn't prepared for how organically they'd meld their sense of humor with the already-established characters onscreen.
It's not just Robert Downey Jr. (returning as Tony Stark/Iron Man) that gets all the laughs, either: every member of the team gets at least one laugh-line, and-- again, without spoiling anything-- at least two of them belong to some physical comedy delivered by Ruffalo's Hulk.
Verdict: EXCESSIVELY TRUE
RUMOR #5: THE AVENGERS IS A FLAWLESS MASTERPIECE
Eh, well, come on: I know this is the internet and there's no such thing as a "middle ground" for most of the people that hang around here, but I don't think anyone involved with the Avengers production is going to begrudge us if we don't fall all over ourselves claiming that the flick's utterly flawless. Indeed, there were a number of things that I didn't feel were particularly excellent here, and some of them I can even discuss without fear of spoiling anything! Huzzah!
For instance: the first twenty minutes or so. Kinda wobbly, though not so much that you're going to start feeling like the film won't rock. The next hour or so (the film runs about two and a half hours, by the way) also has a number of overly-chatty moments and awkwardly-paced exposition dumps, and these felt a little more troubling to me on my first viewing than that wonky first twenty minutes did.
But once the third act kicks into high gear, you'll forget all about the fact that you just watched about an hour's worth of scenes where half a dozen superheroes stand around tables and rooms trading witty barbs with one another and unloading mythology: the final act of the film (which plays out over a twenty to twenty-five minute battle for New York City) is so thrilling, so audience-pleasing, and so nearly-perfect, none of that's gonna matter. The imagery that Whedon captures during this final act immediately erases any doubts you might've had about the film up to that point, and when you see just how many "HOLY CRAP" moments and visuals factor into that final act-- almost all of which have not been spoiled by the film's marketing campaign-- I think you're going to be stunned. I know I was.
Who knows how Whedon convinced the guys cutting the trailers to keep this stuff secret?
Verdict: MOSTLY TRUE, BUT ONLY MOSTLY
FINALLY, RUMOR #6: THE MID-CREDITS BONUS SCENE WILL MAKE YOUR HEAD EXPLODE RIGHT THERE IN THE THEATER
This one's also tricky. When the "moment" happens mid-credits (there's a tag at the end of the credits, too-- in typical Marvel tradition--but the one that's going to inspire the most post-screening conversation will be the one that happens about two or three minutes in), I knew exactly what I was seeing, what it meant, and why it was important to this ongoing franchise of films. My date, however, did not.
And so, I think it goes like this: depending on your interest and working-knowledge of Marvel Comics history, the mid-credits sting will either be really, really exciting...or somewhat confusing. If you'd like to prep, I recommend going back and reading a ton of Marvel Comics from the early to mid-90's.
There we have it, folks. Turns out, most of what you've heard about The Avengers is true.
If there's any justice in the world, Hollywood will finally start handing Joss Whedon massive budgets to play with (especially considering that-- when taken into account with Cabin in The Woods-- this is actually the second-half of a cinematic one-two punch delivered by Whedon in just over a month) and sprawling casts to direct. What Whedon's done here is nothing short of remarkable, and it proves beyond any reasonable doubt that he's a massively talented dude. It also proves that the "Marvel Universe on Film" experiment is an enormous success, one so big that it probably can't even be fully appreciated at this time.
When the final Harry Potter film rolled off the line, I remember saying, "Has there ever been another franchise that's delivered over and over again with this level of quality?" Well, there hasn't been, but with The Avengers, Whedon might have finally kickstarted a new wave of Marvel films that will give Harry a run for his money.
My grade? A+
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(*: No one has not seen the trailer for The Avengers)
(**: Note to Self-- perhaps that was a poor choice of words)
(***: Jonah Hex does not count)