Movie Review: The Avengers
Joss Whedon’s career trajectory, both in comics and television/film, is a perfect little microcosm of what works and doesn’t work in Marvel’s The Avengers. Taken as a whole, The Avengers manages to be a fun and exciting two hours in a theater. But while the film was set up to be the big crescendo culmination to the Marvel Studios continuity, it simply isn’t as successful as the first Iron Man or Captain America: The First Avenger at a large number of things. Don’t confuse my critiques as being a complete condemnation of the film; it’s an incredible experience that manages to be simultaneously thrilling and hilarious, heartwarming with a pinch of Whedon’s trademark gut-wrenching, and best of all true to the character of each Marvel hero that it’s portraying.
Whedon makes it clear that while he’s obligated to show the big action set pieces and has fun directing them, he’s more interested in the characterization of the Marvel universe. Much like his stint on Astonishing X-Men, Avengers is often more interesting when it’s spending time just getting to know our team, making them interact, and seeing what makes them tick. It’s refreshing and exciting that the best moments of the first summer tentpole blockbuster this year come from people just talking, but that’s a talent that Whedon has always excelled at.
The script (penned by Whedon from a story credited to him and Zak Penn) manages to give most of The Avengers ample opportunity to shine, and by virtue of Avengers technically being a sequel to the other Marvel Studios films means that we don’t have to waste a lot of time explaining the origins of these characters. Steve Rogers is Captain America, thawed from the ice and ready to serve, Tony Stark has already created the Iron Man suit and become a hero, Thor’s reasons for protecting Earth make sense because we’ve already seen him have an adventure here, he has loved ones to protect (and loves coffee). When Tony Stark starts to act like a cocky showman, we know that he’s made of more than that, and while the other characters may question him, the audience at least knows that he’s our guy, and we can just enjoy seeing him bounce off the other characters.
This familiarity works out particularly well for Bruce Banner. Mark Ruffalo doesn’t try to emulate Edward Norton’s performance as the Hulk, but the pathos, the trauma, and the longing to be the hero all shine through in Ruffalo. Look, he’s Bruce Banner, we know his deal. Anger turns him into the Hulk and there’s little more explaination needed (or given), and that allows Whedon to explore Banner (AND the Hulk) to an even greater degree than even what was done in The Incredible Hulk. I daresay that Banner (and more specifically the Hulk) is the star of the show. News hit recently that Marvel was looking into taking another shot at making a Hulk movie. After the satisfying turn of the Hulk in this film, I can’t imagine that not happening. And if Marvel keeps this Hulk – terrifying, yet sympathic and surprisingly funny – then I can’t imagine the next Hulk film not being a huge success.
Unfortunately, the characterization and growth pretty much stops at the line of heroes who’ve had their own film. Clint Barton a.k.a. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is a cool character, but all we learn about him is that he’s badass with a bow (which, considering his codename, I sincerely hope he is) and had some history with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Through an early plot contrivance Hawkeye is taken away from S.H.I.E.L.D. and along with him any chance to really develop the character. I know that Hawkeye isn’t in the same class as Cap, Iron Man, or Thor, and I certainly wouldn’t want the picture to center on his character above all else, but it’s still sad how little focus he receives. Similarly, Black Widow isn’t the most realized character, but her appearance in Iron Man 2 gives her more definition and Whedon allows Johansson more than a few kickass action moments.
Not coincidentally, the villains of the piece, the alien Chitauri (who bear more than a passing resemblence to Gears of Wars’ Locust) and Thor’s brother Loki, are really underdeveloped. We know Loki as the baddie from Thor. And here he’s the closest thing to a lead villain. There is a head Chitauri, but that dude gets like three lines. Loki is Loki. He’s devious and Tom Hiddleston does a great job of being menacing as the Asgardian prince, but we’ve seen this guy as the villain of one of these movies already and less than a year ago to boot! Plus, as Loki points out in film, he’s not the real bad guy. He’s just doing all this for the Chitauri and their reasoning for invading Manhattan is vague at best and silly at worst. When we spend seventy-five percent of the film following a villain who’s doing someone else’s bidding but we get no concrete information about any of it, something is a little off.
There’s also the little problem of the cliche “misunderstanding fight” where superheroes end up fighting the first time they meet for whatever reason. The verbal sparring of the film is much appreciated – and way more interesting – but the actual hero-to-hero fisticuffs (while cool looking) is little more than a diversionary time waster that probably didn’t need to be included. I’d rather that time be spent on something else, like fleshing out the baddies.
It doesn’t help that Whedon is still very much an amatuer when it comes to action direction. His action sequences work through virtue of the love we have for the heroes, and the character development, but when looking at it from a strict directorial perspective, some of the sequences are too shaky, have unnecessarily short cutting (I cannot fathom how anyone could see some of this stuff in 3D), and some questionable CGI. Nothing too distracting, but the climactic battle sometimes looks a bit too cartoony for it’s own sake.
Ultimately, The Avengers works because we can see how much love Whedon has for the universe that he’s playing with. When the decision was made to hire Whedon to direct Avengers, it wasn’t because he had proven himself as a big-time director. Hell, Serenity was his last film (seven years ago!) and it flopped. No, Marvel/Disney hired Whedon because he has a reverence for the characters, the universe, an understanding of what makes it all tick, and most of all respect for his audience. The Avengers works mostly because of Whedon.
I say “mostly” because much of the groundwork for these characters was laid well before Whedon landed the job, but that was the same as when Whedon started writing Astonishing X-Men. We already knew who Wolverine, Beast, and Kitty Pryde were, but Whedon finely tuned the characterization to make us care about the X-Men again for something more than how awesomely they fight. The same is true here.
Unfortunately, the issues with AXM’s confusing and often boring main plot are also prevalent here. But you’re not coming to The Avengers for fine art, you’re there to spend two more hours with some of the finest crafted comic book heroes translated to screen. You’re there to see the Avengers assemble. Despite the issues, you’d be hard pressed to find a film that’s more fun, funny, and satisfying than The Avengers in the cinema right now.