Half a century ago, Marvel pioneered naturalism in comics with its "superheroes with real-world problems" approach. That has held true in Marvel Studios' movies, which have been neither as sunny as DC's "Superman" films nor as operatic as "Batman."
And Joss Whedon's "Marvel's The Avengers," opening Friday, strikes that sweet spot. Along with angst and anger, there's humor and hubris, and a team of heroes who form not friendship but just a wary camaraderie. If Marvel's Fantastic Four are a family, the Avengers are a family reunion -- you're just waiting for the fireworks and the slamming doors.
"At the end of the day, it was really about these people who are very dysfunctional," director and co-writer Whedon says by phone from Los Angeles. "And my feeling was very much that [Marvel] wanted to do a superhero film that felt old-fashioned but wasn't as clean as I felt that they'd been. If we're really gonna have this many characters with this much power, we need to take a toll on the people who are fighting -- an emotional toll and a physical toll."
Whedon's first influence was "The Dirty Dozen," the 1967 classic about condemned military inmates recruited to form a team to fight the Nazis. "But war movies in general were really my inspiration for this," he says.
"The Avengers" assembles from past Marvel movies Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Dr. Bruce Banner / the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), superspy Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), suit-and-tie spy Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and spy boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), along with high-tech archer Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), who had a cameo in last year's "Thor."
Also returning from that movie are Stellan Skarsgård as physicist Dr. Erik Selvig and Tom Hiddleston as the evil Norse god Loki, whose theft of a powerful device called the Tesseract leads to an alien invasion that the misfit, often damaged heroes must band together to repel.
New to the cast is Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill, second-in-command at the espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D. She had her own real-life brush with the intelligence community when she filmed a scene at NASA's Plum Brook research station near Sandusky, Ohio. "It was cool just to get entrance to this high-security place," the Vancouver native says by phone, "because I'm a Canadian, and so I had to bring my passport and be treated as a 'threat' -- with a guy following me so that I didn't steal national-security secrets."
"The Avengers" was shot in various locales, primarily in Albuquerque, N.M., but also in Cleveland and Wilmington, Ohio; in the underground tunnels of western Pennsylvania's Creekside Mushroom Farms; and for two or three days in Manhattan.
No matter where they were shooting, the cast was the opposite of a dysfunctional team. Over breakfast in Manhattan, Hiddleston recalls one weekend "when every single cellphone of every single Avenger received a text message with the name of a bar in downtown Albuquerque, and a time. It was from Chris Evans, who then sent a second text" that echoed the comic-book Avengers' famous rallying cry. "It simply said: 'Assemble.' "
With the exception of Downey and Jackson, they did, going there like everyday folk. "There was a VIP section," Hiddleston says, "but it wasn't for us -- it was for a guy having a private birthday party. And I remember the look on his face when he looked around and there's Jeremy Renner doing comedy squat thrusts to electronic house music with Scarlett Johansson."
What the critics say
In his three-star review (in Wednesday's paper), Newsday's Rafer Guzmán called "Marvel's The Avengers" a "splashy, flashy, pass-the-popcorn extravaganza." (Read the review online at newsday.com/movies.)
Here's what some other critics had to say:
* If the film is more solid and satisfying than terrific, so be it. -- Chicago Tribune
* The movie guarantees fast-paced fun without forcing anyone to think about what it all means, which is nothing. -- Time magazine
* A serviceable but uninspired franchise launcher that sends you home full but unfulfilled. -- Miami Herald