- Last Updated: 12:05 PM, April 27, 2012
- Posted: 10:15 PM, April 26, 2012
It’s cool in the gang. Running time: 143 minutes. Rated PG-13 (action violence, profanity).Showing tomorrow at the Tribeca Film Festival’s closing night gala (no tickets available to the public). Opens midnight on Thursday night at the Empire, the Union Square, the Lincoln Square, others, and in general release on Friday.
‘The Avengers” is neither overwhelming nor underwhelming. What it expertly is, is whelming. Iron Man shooting through the gastrointestinal tract of a giant space lizard like atomic vindaloo? WHELM! Hulk and Thor going at it on a ripped-up plane à la Itchy and Scratchy? WHELM!! Hordes of alien supertroopers hurtling into town at Grand Central Terminal with a singularity of purpose suggesting Long Island boys getting off the train on St. Patrick’s Day? WHELM!!!
All of this blockbustery business is pleasing enough, but the surprising secret of Joss Whedon’s film is this: It’s best when the finally gathered Marvel Comics heroes Thor, Iron Man, Hulk and Captain America are just sitting around ragging on each other as though lounging in Central Perk. Yes, this is at heart super-“Friends,” a surprisingly witty comedy with a comic book wrapped around it.
I won’t bore you with the details — mainly because the details bored me, and I can’t explain them anyway. There’s this little crystal cube called the Tesseract from the world of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his evil brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). “I am Loki of Asgard, and I am burdened with glorious purpose,” he declares, in a line of glorious awesomeness. Everyone wants the Tesseract because it’s a portal to the other world and/or a potential source of limitless power.
It’s being guarded by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the shop steward of the superheroes’ union, S.H.I.E.L.D., but Loki slips onto Earth to steal it while using a mind trick to persuade S.H.I.E.L.D.’s birdlike chief archer, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), to turn evil. Now it’s time to gather the good guys. Round up the usual spandex!
This takes time: Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) doesn’t appear until nearly 20 minutes in, and Thor 20 minutes after that. But Whedon understands that if you don’t establish the characters, it won’t be possible to make us care when it’s time to rumble. So I enjoyed both Tony Stark’s cute banter with his now-girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johansson) recruitment of Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who has fled to India after his alter ego, the Hulk, as he puts it, “Uh, broke . . . Harlem.” Ruffalo (replacing the so-so Edward Norton) is ideal, playing Banner as a calm, secure problem-solver carefully walling himself off from what he calls “the other guy.”
Once gathered, along with Chris Evans’ Captain America (who seems to bore Whedon and isn’t given enough to do), the gang imprison Loki on their airship.
He gets to messing with everyone’s minds, Hannibal Lecter-style, and though this scene is slightly forced (if not as forced as a silly fight between Iron Man and Thor), it’s amusing to see the teammates’ personalities clash. Captain America’s un-ironic loyalty, honesty and respect for chain of command, for instance, grate on the self-centered, cynical and iconoclastic Tony Stark, while Thor and Hulk are as wary of one another as any other ’roid ragers.
Downey gets much of the best dialogue. When Thor (who is wearing antlers and an acre of velour) shouts, “You don’t know who you’re dealing with,” Stark replies, “Shakespeare in the Park? Doth mother know you weareth her drapes?” One minute he’s buddies with Banner because they’re both science geeks, the next he’s tweaking him for being “an enormous green rage monster.”
Such is Whedon’s skilled playfulness that, without the movie getting too self-referential, everyone gets plenty of sharp lines, even the pilot trying to shoot down Hulk, who says, “Target engaged . . . Target angry!” Reaching for a bit of the underlying seriousness of “The Dark Knight,” though, Whedon can’t quite grasp it. He raises an interesting point by Loki that man loves to be subjugated, but doesn’t flesh it out (though he does bring in an awkward reference to Hitler’s spell over Germany).
Then it’s time for the booming and crashing to begin, with a gigantic climax centered on Tony Stark’s (imaginary) new Manhattan HQ near Grand Central, over which the alien portal to a nasty universe busts open.
There’s far too much merry chaos going on for any of it to really thrill, and working in all of these characters is inherently about as graceful as cat juggling. Still, Whedon keeps up the energy and keeps it good-humored. I’d rather watch Tony quip than Hulk smash or Thor hammer, but then again, the ripping mayhem of the finale illustrates an ancient truth: We all know that family reunions have a way of getting out of hand.