Thursday, October 11th, 2012 at 7:00 pm
The Avengers Blu-ray | DVD | Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack
Written and Directed by Joss Whedon
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, and Samuel L. Jackson
Walt Disney Video
Release Date: September 25, 2012
Despite appearing to have died at the end of Thor the God of Thunder’s treacherous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has arrived on Earth from exile somewhere in the galaxy to steal the Tesseract, a cosmic weapon capable of unleashing an awesome and destructive power if fallen into the wrong hands, from the possession of S.H.I.E.L.D.
In the process Loki uses his scepter to take over the minds of agent Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) and physicist Dr. Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) so that they may assist him in his plans for world domination. S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has no other option but the “Avengers Initiative”, a plan that would bring together the world’s most powerful super-beings as one fighting force to combat Loki’s threat.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is reluctant to join the team as Iron Man because Fury told him in the past that his ego could be a liability. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is still dealing with a radically changed world but knows that it’s his duty and calling to suit up as Captain America and lead the team into battle, which eventually puts him at odds with Stark. When Thor (Chris Hemsworth) discovers that Loki is still alive he is sent to Earth to bring him back to Asgard but sticks around to figure out what his brother’s real intentions for the Tesseract are. Barton’s fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) also joins the team with the intention of saving her comrade and protecting the world. The question mark of the group is Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), whose ability to transform into the rampaging rage monster the Hulk against his will makes him almost as great a threat to the group as the machinations of Loki, whose ultimate plan is to use the alien army the Chitauri to enslave the people of Earth in exchange for handing the Tesseract over to an otherworldly being with nefarious plans of his own. It has now fallen to Earth’s mightiest heroes to put aside their differences and assemble to defend the world against Loki’s forces, leading to a spectacular showdown in the metropolitan canyons of New York City.
For all of its flaws, and there are quite a few, The Avengers defied the odds to become one of the biggest box office blockbusters in the history of the moving image. That’s not exactly a significant accomplishment if you look at a list of the highest-grossing movies of recent years. But Marvel’s epic super-team motion picture event that had been talked about for more than a decade before the success of the first Iron Man back in 2008 officially got the project in motion succeeded not merely on the grounds that it delivered all of the customary FX-enhanced thrills and spills no self-respecting summer tentpole flick can do without. Any movie with enough expensive digital effects, practical pyrotechnics, and stuntmen in green screen suits can achieve that without breaking a post-converted 3D sweat. The Avengers succeeded because it had plenty of brains, soul, and wit at the center of its Grand Guignol parade of comic book chaos. Now that is an accomplishment you can tip your hat to.
Bringing together the superheroes of Marvel’s cinematic universe for a spectacle-loaded big screen adventure always looked good on paper, but it takes genuine talent and vision to be able to juggle so many characters and their respective plotlines without making any of them seem extraneous and dull. For that we owe much gratitude to writer and director Joss Whedon, the former film and television cult figure who now serves as Marvel’s Movie Majordomo. Whedon brings several lifetimes worth of expertise as an avid comic book reader and creative visionary who knows how to work with ensemble casts and put every dollar of his project’s budget on the screen to The Avengers and the movie is all the better for it. It helps a lot in the director’s favor that his cast and crew all are aces, total professionals completely comfortable in their respective roles but not so much that they won’t allow for Whedon to provide them with some much-needed guidance and support on the set and on the script page.
When you really think about it The Avengers is basically 143 minutes of pay-off for the past four years and four previous Marvel superhero extravaganzas – Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger – but it’s pay-off that also shows remarkable growth in the character and relationship development departments. Every major character has a real arc, be it subtle or of relative importance to the plot, and each arc is fully realized before the credits roll. Whedon isn’t merely turning his stars into sentient action figures here; from Captain America’s feelings of uncertainty at awakening to a world radically different than the one to Thor’s angst over the realization that his once-beloved brother Loki may be beyond salvation, the director treats his mighty costumed warriors as three-dimensional characters with the same flaws as the average human being but without making them insufferable mopes we would rather subjugated by the Chitauri. This is a large-scale cinematic adventure after all so at some point we need to cut loose and have some fun, and oh boy is there some major fun to be had in The Avengers.
For many longtime comic book aficionados, myself happily included, nearly every frame of The Avengers is a dream come true. Few movies capture the infectious joy and spirit of cracking open the latest issue of your favorite superhero comic, thrilling to the tension and excitement of each fantastic adventure, and drinking in every page of beautiful artwork and stylized pulp dialogue as meticulously as Whedon’s film. The Avengers also serves as a refreshing nod to the classic and modern incarnations of the team, particularly its 1963 debut and the 2002 Ultimate Universe reboot The Ultimates, as well as a superb tribute to the timeless work of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the comics legends responsible for creating and bringing together the Avengers in the first place (Kirby co-created Captain America in the 1940’s with writer Joe Simon). If you grew up devoted to the Marvel Comics stable of supers it’s virtually impossible to not be enraptured at seeing your favorite costumed crime-fighters battling it out on celluloid.
The filmmakers know that doing right by the fans is essential to making a movie like this and by never shying away from putting the simmering tension between the Avengers front and center during the majority of the film’s first two acts they add heightened drama to the proceedings while providing viewers with more than a few satisfying FX-enhanced beatdowns. You want to see Iron Man duke it out with Thor and squeal with delight as the mighty Asgardian takes on a pissed-off Hulk in a close quarters donnybrook. It’s cool to see our favorite heroes battle the bad guys but there’s something intrinsically cathartic about seeing the good guys turn on each other. When you’re a kid you get into passionate discussions with your friends about who could beat who in a fight or a race. Then when you’re playing with your Marvel Secret Wars you spend more time bashing Spider-Man and Daredevil against each other with geekish glee than pitting them against Doctor Doom and the Green Goblin. It’s in our nature. We want our heroes to take the low road on occasion. That’s what helps to endure them to us. It reminds us that no matter what their origins might be they are imperfect beings, even Superman.
The greatest beneficiaries from Whedon’s vast, acclaimed storytelling experience are the actors, many of whom have played their characters from The Avengers on screen before but who are given a great deal more to do this time around. Let’s start with the most obvious player, Robert Downey, Jr. Long one of my favorite actors, Downey literally blasted his way to movie stardom inside the Iron Man armor and with great reason as it’s a role the man was put on this planet to play. His own years of experience as an actor and earlier walks on the wild side that nearly ended his career and his life have given him a distinct advantage in portraying Tony Stark that no other name actor could have pulled off. Plus he’s never less than honest, charismatic, and extremely funny. I knew when Whedon signed on to make this movie that his penchant for snappy, snarky dialogue would be right at home with Downey’s performance and the result is a performance from the actor that not only bests his work in the decent-but-should’ve-been-way-better Iron Man 2 but nearly tops the original film. It’s just that good. Downey is on fire with an inspired playfulness tempered by occasional modest wisdom and insight that makes him a sheer joy every time he’s on camera. Fortunately for us Gwyneth Paltrow stopped in to briefly reprise her role as Pepper Potts from the Iron Man movies because she has a priceless romantic interplay with Stark that makes their relationship the finest love story in a comic book movie I’ve seen since the first two Superman films.
When Chris Evans was handed the iconic role of Captain America after an exhaustive search many agreed that it was a perfect casting choice. I thought so too at the time and the excellent Captain America: The First Avenger only served to justify that. Evans plays the legendary Sentinel of Liberty as the ultimate paragon of freedom without making him an insufferable dullard, unlike the previous cinematic incarnation of Superman, and offsets his virtuous nature with a degree of uncertainty about his place in the modern world – not only as a soldier but as a citizen. The Cap is every young man who went off to war and returned to the realization that not only had the home he knew and loved changed but that he had changed too. His contentious interactions with Stark are both equally riveting and dryly humorous and Evans holds his own admirably with the seasoned Downey, and sometimes even shows him up. Although the two characters clash several times over the course of the film Stark knows deep down that while he may be the rock star of the team he doesn’t have the qualities to be their leader. One of my favorite moments in The Avengers comes when the team is preparing for battle against the Chitauri hordes and Iron Man says, “Call it Captain.” It’s a modest little bit of dialogue that might go unheard by most but to me it reflects the true spirit of the comics and shows that even the most popular figures in the Marvel Movie Universe aren’t too big to take orders from those they usually consider inferior.Â
The third and final key performance on the heroic side is Mark Ruffalo as Dr. Bruce Banner, the third actor to play the character since the first Hulk movie was released in 2003. Ruffalo inherited the role after Edward Norton, who had starred in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk (a movie I happen to love despite its many glaring flaws), was not invited back for The Avengers following his public battles with Marvel and the filmmakers over the theatrical cut of the movie. It seemed almost like a thankless task for Ruffalo seeing as how audiences thus far have been less than impressed with the cinematic portrayal of the Jade Giant and with very good reason. The ’03 Hulk, directed by Ang Lee, was an attempt to class up the time-honored tale of a scientist who transforms into an angry monster against his will by giving it an underlying theme of errant fathers and the emotional scars they inflict upon their progeny. Those ambitions were noble but ultimately failed because Lee could not come up with a proper and satisfying way to merge the two themes into a coherent whole. Five years later Marvel regained the rights to the character and for the Hulk’s next big screen outing decided to amp up the action and leave out most of the drama, must to the consternation of their star Norton. At the very least the movie was making an attempt to break from the tired story of Banner on the run trying to rid himself of the Hulk and give fans some monster-on-monster fisticuffs in the third act, not to mention an enigmatic final shot that hinted at a darker direction for the character that would inevitably be resolved in The Avengers.
For years it was speculated that the plot of The Avengers would revolve around the team taking down an out-of-control Hulk, following closely the plot of the very first issue of the comic book series in 1963, but Whedon wisely opted out of going in this direction as it would have come across as a unimaginative retread of the first two Hulk movies. Bringing the Hulk into any situation is going to create some initial tension because, well, he’s the Hulk. The possibility that Banner can get pissed off for any reason whatsoever and start tearing the place up will never be quickly dismissed. The most brilliant conceit of Whedon and Ruffalo’s inspired treatment of the character is to remove the tiresome brooding and replace it with a sly sense of humor and a willingness to use her mental and physical strengths to serve a higher cause – helping his fellow human beings. The end result is the best treatment of Banner and the Hulk on screen yet, and when the big green guy finally gets to kick some major alien ass in the finale it makes for some of the finest action moments in cinema this year. Thanks to Whedon, Ruffalo and the effects wizards at Industrial Light & Magic (one of fourteen FX houses that worked on the movie) the Hulk is finally allowed to be the Hulk. At the risk of sounding cheesy, that is something truly incredible.
The rest of the cast all perform far beyond expectations. I had my doubts when Chris Hemsworth was cast as the God of Thunder in Thor a few years ago but after seeing that movie my doubts were permanently erased. Hemsworth owns the role forever as far as I’m concerned. He dispelled any notions of the movie going down the crapper (though many would disagree with me) by bringing in a Mack truck full of towering screen presence and warrior magnetism; in short you had no trouble believing this guy was a god. Thor enters The Avengers a changed man, stripped of his empirical arrogance and determined to stop his enraged brother’s plans but morally divided about how to go about doing it. Loki is family after all and whether you be mortal or immortal you can’t just write off a beloved family member that easily. Any of us could understand that. Fortunately the movie doesn’t have Thor spend too much time dwelling on that pained decision for too long; his first priority is to protect Earth at all costs. Hemsworth gets even less screen time than his flashier counterparts and in fact he doesn’t even make his first appearance until the beginning of the second act, but the actor makes his every second on screen count. With no time to impress the ladies with his Asgardian abs and jocular charm Thor gets even more action beats than in his first solo film. His showdown with the Hulk on board the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier is one of the movie’s many highlights.
Scarlett Johansson continues to kick serious ass and look drool-inducing gorgeous in black leather as Natasha Romanoff, but this time around Whedon allows the actress a meatier role that expands on her character’s shadowy back story and gives her a few standout scenes, in particular a face-to-face conversation with Loki that just bleeds more sheer intensity with a few pages of well-crafted dialogue than most multi-million dollar action sequences in the typical summer escapist fare. Jeremy Renner still manages to deliver a fine performance as the eponymous Hawkeye despite being relegated to the status of Loki-possessed turncoat for the film’s first two acts. It’s a role Renner could play in his sleep, the laconic badass who’s well beyond proficient with a bow and arrow, but he finds the hardened heart and soul of a lonely covert agent whose heroic deeds are the kind you typically read about. It was good to see Samuel L. Jackson finally get to really do his thing as S.H.I.E.L.D. honcho Nick Fury although he tends to play the character rather grim and humorless for most of his screen time, a great disappointment as he was actually a great deal more light-hearted in Iron Man 2. Still when Jackson’s in the scene there’s no question who’s running the show. Cobie Smulders of the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother is given the single most thankless role in the entire movie as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill and her performance ranks a few notches above decent even though her character’s functions are limited to taking orders from Fury and often overstating the obvious (“The Hulk’s gonna tear this place apart!”). Originally Hill played an important role in the story but her big scenes were resigned to the cutting room floor when the movie needed a quick adjustment in tone. Those deleted scenes are included in the extra features on this release.
Which brings us finally to Tom Hiddleston as Loki, the displaced Asgardian king who serves as the big baddie of The Avengers. When last we saw him Loki had fallen into an astral abyss at the conclusion of a pitched battle with his conflicted brother. His attempt to usurp the throne of Asgard and banish the de-powered Thor was the work of a lunatic but Hiddleston made you feel the inadequacy and anguish in the character, most memorably when he learned of his true birthright. It was only towards the end of that movie that Loki really started to develop into a full-fledged villain and then he supposedly perished. When he makes his first appearance in The Avengers it’s clear that he has returned from a very dark place that has forever altered his character. In a way Loki has journeyed upriver like Mr. Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and much like Kurtz he has crossed over into true madness. With only a meager shred of sympathy left in his being Loki has fully embraced his destiny and Hiddleston has a grand time exploring the P.O.’ed prankster’s theatrical dark side without crossing the line into camp absurdity. While Loki made for a fine antagonist in Thor he was hardly a villain, more of a misguided kid brother with a major chip on his shoulder, and the bulk of the narrative was spent on the title character and his adventures trapped on Earth. Here Loki finally gets to strut his stuff with delicious monologues that any great Shakespearean would douse their drawers in ecstasy to intone on the greatest of stages. His truly malicious side shines through on occasion, hinting at a character who would go to any lengths to accomplish his objective, even if it meant gutting babies like salmon and dropping nuclear warheads on a nursing home. Hiddleston delivers a performance worthy of the finest villains in film history but not quite in their ranks just yet.
Seasoned character actors like Powers Boothe, Jenny Agutter, and Harry Dean Stanton all contribute brief but welcome performances that add to the overall success of The Avengers. As a director Whedon builds on the promise of his earlier work and knocks this sucker out of the park with tons of controlled cinematic mayhem and spirited action set pieces all brought to the life with the help of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, production designer James Chinlund, and the orchestral stylings of the great Alan Silvestri, delivering one of his finest movie music scores in years. Much like the team of extremely talented characters he marshaled into battle on screen Whedon had a first-class assemblage of gifted actors and technicians working as one to bring us one of the most spectacular widescreen adventures in many a moon.
Disney has done a stellar job with their Blu-ray presentation of The Avengers. The AVC encoded 1080p video transfer in 1.78:1 widescreen looks colorful and sharp with strong attention to visual detail in the brighter scenes. The darker scenes also benefit greatly from the HD upgrade although they tend to suffer in comparison.
In the sound department we get a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio English 7.1 track as well as 7.1 DTS-HDHR French, Spanish Dolby 5.1, and English Descriptive Video Service 2.0 audio tracks. All tracks are thunderous and fully immersive without being an all-out assault on your home theater speakers – not to mention your eardrums. Music and dialogue volumes are maintained at healthy levels throughout with very little overlap. Sound quality on all tracks is mostly crystal clear. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are also provided.
Compared to Paramount’s previous Blu-ray releases for Marvel’s features the selection of supplements provided by Disney for The Avengers is surprisingly rather skimpy. That’s not to say there isn’t some worthwhile material here, but it isn’t much.
You can always count on Joss Whedon to contribute his customary audio commentary. Despite not having any other members of the cast and crew to bounce off the director has a ton of information and observations to share about the epic production and as always manages to deliver it all with his trademark charm and self-deprecating wit and nary a spot of dead air. Whedon is very complimentary towards his collaborators in front of and behind the camera and never shies from admitting his own reservations about taking on such a project front-loaded with expectations before he even signed on the dotted line and his fallacies as a filmmaker. It’s an entertaining and highly informative track, as all great commentaries should be.
Next up is the latest Marvel One-Shot short film, Item 47 (11 minutes). Set after the events of The Avengers, Item 47 follows a couple of young lovers (Lizzy Caplan and Jesse Bradford) who come into the possession of one of the Chitauri’s weapons and use it for a series of bank robberies, inevitably bringing them to the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Sitwell (Maximiliano HernÃ¡ndez) and Blake (Titus Welliver). The short was directed by Louis D’Esposito, an executive producer on all of Marvel Films’ feature output, from a script by Eric Pearson, the writer responsible for the two previous Marvel One-Shot shorts. Item 47 is a neat and enjoyable little story with some decent action, cool interplay between HernÃ¡ndez and Welliver, the indelible presence of Lizzy Caplan, and a cute ending that I doubt will have any impact on future events in the Marvel Movie Universe.
Then we have a selection of deleted and extended scenes that run a total of fifteen minutes, not the rumored half-hour as early reports suggested, if you hit the Play All feature. There is plenty of justification for the scenes that were left on the cutting room floor but even still there are some interesting moments to be enjoyed. Most significant are alternate opening and ending sequences that focus entirely on Smulders’ character and are much tonally different from the final cut. The only scene I would have welcomed being included in the movie is an extended sequence showing Captain America going about his daily routine in a world he barely recognizes.
Instead of a comprehensive behind-the-scenes documentary on the production we get two brief featurettes that barely scratch the surface – “A Visual Journey” (6 minutes) and “Assembling the Ultimate Team” (8 minutes). I was greatly disappointed by these mini-docs as there is nothing revealed here that most of us didn’t know prior to the film’s release. It’s loaded with fluff interviews too. Seriously, this is the fodder of pre-release promotional online videos. I’m starting to expect no less from Disney.
A gag reel (4 minutes), a music video for the Soundgarden song “Live to Rise” (5 minutes), and upfront previews for Marvel Universe on Disney XD and Frankenweenie close out the extras. Disney has also provided their interactive “Second Screen Experience” feature where you can access additional information about the film and its comics inspiration on your iPod, iPhone, or laptop.
This combo pack also comes with additional Blu-ray 3D, DVD, and digital copies of the film. In order to fully enjoy the 3D version you would have to own a 3D television, compatible 3D glasses, Blu-ray 3D player, or PlayStation 3, and a high-speed HDMI cable. The digital copy also enables you to download a digital copy of the film’s soundtrack featuring the Soundgarden song and twelve others by various artists. The only bonus features on the DVD are the Joss Whedon commentary and the “Assembling the Ultimate Team” featurette.
The Avengers is a smashing success as a spectacle of unbridled comic book adventure brought to life thanks to an impeccable cast and crew led by writer and director Joss Whedon, finally allowed to become the master filmmaker his staunchest admirers always knew he had the chops to be. More than one of the best summer blockbusters seen so far this decade, this is one of the very best films of 2012. Disney has assembled a top-quality Blu-ray combo pack presentation with outstanding picture and sound and a host of fascinating supplementary features. This movie and set comes with my highest recommendation.