When I finally saw "Marvel's The Avengers" Sunday in murky 3-D at Loew's 83rd Street Cinema in Manhattan, like everyone else in the theater, I had a roaring good time.
Much like J.J. Abrams' clever "Star Trek" reboot, wily comics-phile writer-director Joss Whedon ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Firefly") managed to solve this Rubic's Cube movie by staying true to the established comics characters and figuring out efficient ways to re-introduce each (for those who have not been keeping up with the recent spate of Marvel ramp-ups, from "Iron Man" and "Thor" to "Captain America"), along with their respective skill sets. This he accomplishes by having them fight with each other, until they eventually resolve their differences and unite to defend the world from alien attack, led by Norse God Loki, Thor's crazy brother (Tom Hiddleston).
While the movie obviously has brought enormous pleasure to audiences all over the world–including the Loew's 83rd–and earned critics' raves (though Rotten Tomatoes is higher than Metacritic; both The New Yorker and the NYT let out the snark in their reviews), some aspects of the movie work better than others. Given the degree of difficulty and myriad ways that movies like this can go awry, credit is due not only to Whedon and his creative team but the man running the Marvel show and the film's producer, Kevin Feige. As the LAT points out, he zigged where others would have zagged, casting unlikely indie stars like Jeremy Renner and Mark Ruffalo as Hawkeye and Hulk–who they finally got right after all these years. Audiences howl with joy when Hulk runs amuck.
Who comes out ahead? Well, just about everyone, but the biggest winners are:
Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has with singleminded dogged focus executed the long-term Marvel plan, which serves to support the Marvel universe and not the usual short-sighted Wall Street-conscious myopia of major studio execs, who think mainly of holding onto their jobs and power by taking as few risks and making as few mistakes as possible. Fear and caution tend to rule the day.
Not with Feige. He knows what Marvel fans want and he gives it to them. While studios usually sell their pictures to quadrants of moviegoers, few of them UNDERSTAND their audiences the way Marvel does. They tend to impose their advertising, rather than engaging the moviegoer. Marvel throws an unexplained zinger into the credits–hinting at the next big villain to come–and lets the fans figure it out.
Contributing to the enormous opening weekend gross was a concerted multi-pronged marketing effort over years of planning, the super-combo of all these comics heroes in one movie and 3-D premium ticket prices. THR has more.
Disney. As "The Avengers" has already earned back its massive $225 million production budget in its first week, Disney is looking smart indeed for having acquired Marvel for $4 billion in 2009. This first Disney Marvel release only serves to contrast super-competent and experienced Feige against the inexperienced TV import Disney chairman Robert iger placed at the head of the studio, Rich Ross, who left his job just before the opening of "The Avengers." That timing is not coincidental. Iger did not want Ross to claim credit for this movie.
Next Up: Going forward with "Iron Man," "Thor," "Hulk," "Captain America" and "Avengers" sequels, Feige has the confidence of Marvel and Disney and a full mandate to execute his vision with unusual autonomy–within certain budget constraints. The question with an "Avengers 2" is that while most of the ensemble is lined up for multiple sequels, Robert Downey Jr. is only committed to "Iron Man 3"; he may be able to capitalize on a big pay day, although Marvel has been tough about such negotiations in the past (see Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard in the "Iron Man" series).
Joss Whedon. Marvel knew how to deploy "Buffy: the Vampire Slayer" creator Whedon's considerable and specific talents (and geek fanbase) in a way that so far Hollywood has not (see "Firefly," "Serenity"). If Warner Bros. is smart they'll bring him back on "Wonder Woman," which has has been stuck in development hell for years. ''She's a girl,'' Whedon commented to EW to explain what went wrong. ''Hollywood is still twitchy about that.'' His vision: "For me, Wonder Woman was basically Angelina Jolie. She spends a lot of time flying around. She works in a lot of different countries. She's very global. And she's appalled by the way people treat each other."
Next up: Whedon has self-financed two indie films, directing a version of "Much Ado About Nothing" and written and produced romantic fantasy "In Your Eyes." On the web, he still wants to execute a long-planned web series "Wastelanders," co-written with comics' Warren Ellis, as well as a sequel to "Dr. Horrible." Now, Whedon will have more say in his future, whether he chooses to go back to Marvel or move onward.
Tom Hiddleston. Five years ago Hiddleston could not have imagined that he would have a year like 2011. At the time, as the theater actor was shooting the "Wallender" crime series with Kenneth Branagh in Sweden, he went to see Marvel's "Iron Man" and asked himself if he could ever star in a film like that. Cut to 2011 and Hiddleston not only starred as villain Loki in Marvel's "Thor," directed by mentor Branagh, but also played light-hearted F. Scott Fitzgerald in Woody Allen's surprise hit "Midnight in Paris" and the stalwart cavalry captain in Steven Spielberg's year-end Oscar contender "War Horse." And the actor made passionate love–and war–with Rachel Weisz in Brit relationship drama "The Deep Blue Sea." Now Hiddleston's front and center as Loki in "The Avengers." And makes the most of it.
Next up: Hiddleston is playing Shakespeare's Henry V in the BBC teleplays of "Henry V" and "Henry IV," I and II. He may join Jim Jarmusch's ensemble on "Only Lovers Left Alive" later this year, and is attached to co-star with Anna Paquin and Elijah Wood in a pending film of the Elliott Chaze 1953 heist novel "Black Wings Has My Angel," about a thief and a call girl.
Mark Ruffalo. While it's unlikely that his turn as Dr. Bruce Banner and the Hulk is going to turn him into a matinee idol overnight, global recognition doesn't hurt. And a probable sequel will give him plenty of F-you money going forward to say yes to the indie projects he loves–which will only get easier to finance as his bankability increases in the eyes of foreign sales agents. It's all good.
Next Up: Ruffalo has at least six projects in the pipeline. "The Kids Are All Right" co-writer-turned-director Stuart Blumberg's indie sex addiction drama "Thanks for Sharing," co-starring Gwenyth Paltrow, is in the can, while others are in pre-production. Next he stars opposite Michael Caine and Jesse Eisenberg in Louis Leterrier's "Now You See Me" about a team of illusionists in the bank heist business.
Chris Evans. This actor did the heavy lifting on the first "Captain America" movie, but really nailed this performance as the heroic soldier with old-fashioned patriotic values–a perfect foil for decadent narcissist Tony Stark. It doesn't hurt to give red-blooded Republicans who love Uncle Sam someone to root for.
Next Up: He takes a change of pace playing a contract killer opposite James Franco and Winona Ryder in Millenium's "The Iceman," and is currently filming futuristic icebound thriller "Snowpiercer."
Chris Hemsworth. Again, he has his Thor character down, and all he has to do is not look silly wielding that hammer and sounding like a God from Asgard. He's as bankable as they get.
Next Up: Hemsworth stars opposite Stewart in Rupert Sanders' "Snow White and the Huntsman" (June 1, 2012). Slated for November, Dan Bradley's "Red Dawn" remake stars Hemsworth and a pack of teenagers attempting to save their town from an invasion of North Korean soldiers. Two more films are in production, including "Thor 2." And Sony is crafting an actioner just for him written by Chris Cantwell & Chris Rogers, "Shadow Runners."
Robert Downey Jr. Perhaps the glue that kept "The Avengers" at a consistent level of entertainment, Downey has playing Tony Stark down to a science–along with his similarly cocky Sherlock Holmes, another successful franchise. "Iron Man" made him a Hollywood star, which can't burn much brighter.
Next Up: The definite role on his plate is 2013's "Iron Man 3," in pre-production.
Scarlett Johansson. As smart and shrewd spy "Black Widow," the only female in the Avengers team, the actress seems mainly to have sparked speculation about what exactly her superpower is. Her role seems underdeveloped and designed to fill the female slot among the macho superheroes. Increased recognizability in a global blockbuster can't hurt, but what ever became of Zoe Saldana beyond sequels of "Avatar" and "Star Trek?"
Next Up: Rumors of an origin story for her Avengers character abound, but movies about female superheroes have always been tricky, from Catwoman to Wonder Woman. For her next slated projects, see our Career Watch: Beyond the Black Bodysuit here. Most notably, Johansson will star as Janet Leigh in Sacha Gervasi's "Hitchcock."
Jeremy Renner. His role as Hawkeye in "The Avengers" was both mysterious and underdeveloped, but perhaps Marvel has larger plans for the superhero down the line.
Next Up: Luckily, Renner follows up his co-starring role in "Mission: Impossible– Ghost Protocol" with lead Aaron Cross in the latest iteration of the Bourne saga, "The Bourne Legacy." He could wind up inheriting both franchises. On the indie side of the ledger, he also stars in James Gray's Cannes non-competition entry "Low Life" opposite Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix. It's about an innocent immigrant woman tricked into a life of burlesque and vaudeville after arriving on Ellis Island. Renner also has the male lead in Paramount's fairytale reboot, "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters" (January 2013).
Samuel L. Jackson. As glorified cat-wrangler Nick Fury, organizer of the S.H.I.E.L.D team, Jackson earned the worst reviews among "The Avengers," seeming to phone in the performance—but then again, there wasn't that much for him to do. He also got some flack for complaining about the NYT's pan. Talk about bad form.
Next Up: Jackson takes a turn as Stephen, the plantation owner's head house slave, in Tarantino's highly anticipated "Django Unchained" this December. There are rumors of a full-length Nick Fury movie, via Neal McDonough ("Captain America") to IMDb. In that case Jackson could flesh out the heretofore sketchy Fury.