The Avengers: Satisfying for Fan and Critic Alike
Directed by Joss Whedon
Written by Joss Whedon; Story by Joss Whedon and Zak Penn
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Clark Gregg, Tom Hiddleston, and Samuel L. Jackson
Running Time of 143 Minutes
Walking into the theater, my mind split into two distinct individuals. “It’s finally here!” the fan in me squealed, excited to see all these superheroes on screen together. “…It’s finally here,” the critic in me lamented, worried that once again Marvel Studios would deliver a hollow shell of a great concept, with the main intention to sell tickets, not make an enjoyable piece of cinema. That’s the real question: was an enjoyable, entertaining, and worthwhile film was made? The answer is a pretty definitive “yes,” earning its cheers and laughs at each turn, and ending up a satisfying, if uneven, entry into the canon of superhero films.
The story is pretty basic stuff: Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has come to Earth from a real far off place in space to conquer the planet and force humans to literally kneel before him. He waxes philosophic, exclaiming that the nature of humans is not to be free, but to be ruled. Here the story gets a little muddled; we know Loki was given more power by another being (or beings), but we’re not sure who and what they are, and the menace they present seems as distant as their location far off in the galaxy. But no matter. Because the Earth is in jeopardy, and the enemy is – at least we must assume – powerful enough to help Loki enslave the human race, a power equal or greater than that must exist to oppose it.
Here’s where The Avengers come in. Our heroes of recent movies past are assembled by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to face off against this evil. But the evil, as we know, can’t be fully unleashed until the third act. As such, we’re given a few things in the interim: scenes of the characters bonding and getting to know each other, and scenes of them fighting. In other words: team building. This could all have been handled horribly, but writer/director Joss Whedon not only finds a way to bring these characters together in a brisk and concise manner, but also makes the “team building” scenes fun and sometimes exciting.
Whedon is very familiar with this material, and where some filmmakers would get too close and end up stepping over their feet, he instead finds a way to make their interactions enjoyable. He makes a point to give each character a very distinct personality, and uses each personality as a means to create clashes and alliances from scene to scene. Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) hot-headed go-it-alone attitude clashing with Captain America’s (Chris Evans) follow orders and work as a team, for example.
What I was most surprised by was the heart and soul that we see in Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). Having already had two very recent theatrical outings of his own (Ang Lee’s misunderstood Hulk, from 2003, and the Edward Norton starring vehicle The Incredible Hulk, from 2008), he could have been the most under-developed character. After all, everyone knows the plight of Bruce Banner almost too well. Yet he comes across as the most fleshed out character, perhaps because Whedon seems to mostly ignore the Hulks of the past and make his story self-contained. Here, Ruffalo gives Banner a self-deprecating sense of humor that suits the character nicely, and works as a fun addition to the team, and once he finally lets “the other guy” free, we’re treated to some of the most enjoyable special effects sequences of the film.
In a movie like this, those have to be good; if they fall flat, the movie to a large degree falls flat. Thor was dull partly because of how insipid its special effects were. The Incredible Hulk played it safe and just showed us the expected, like Hulk throwing a tank (so exciting!). And then other effects-heavy movies like Transformers tend to push things so far as to be too much. But here, everything works pretty seamlessly. There’s a steady profuseness of effects, but they never seem overloaded, and they always feel like they make sense contextually. Whedon doesn’t seem a fan of showing off for showing off’s sake, and treats audiences to just enough as the film progresses to make them ask for more.
These things, from the great cast to the fun dialogue, to the seamless and rousing visual effects leave The Avengers as one of, if not the, best Marvel Studios movie since Iron Man back in 2008. (Though it must be noted: how high a bar is that, actually?) What I personally found especially fun was the way it never takes itself too seriously, always poking fun at the goofiness of its concept and characters. Moreover, its consistently self-referential, in a way that I found accessible not only to the nerd in me, but to the “un-initiated” as well. Despite this, it still has some issues I couldn’t quite shake. Yes, all the pieces of the puzzle come together well enough, and the screen time of each of our heroes is fairly distributed. They all get their day in the sun, so to speak. Yet at times, the movie feels more concerned with making the fans orgasm than telling a good story.
It sticks to pretty standard – and somewhat confusing – comic book fare. Sure, Loki is our main foe, but over his shoulder is someone else. Who are the Chitauri, and why are they so menacing? We’re given almost no reason to care. If Hiddleston weren’t worth watching, I’m afraid the villain, or villains, of the movie would be sorely lacking. Some say a superhero movie lives and dies by its villain, and if that’s truly the case, then at times The Avengers is on life support. Furthermore, it clocks in at 143 minutes, and although it doesn’t feel quite that long, in retrospect there’s a bit too much fat that could use trimming. Mostly this fat exists through extended battle sequences between the heroes at one point or another. It’s as if someone – the studio, Whedon, whomever – made sure to give fans the epic battles they’ve dreamed of seeing on screen. This time could have been better used for further developing our characters, or creating a more compelling, self-contained story. It’s true that one could argue that such battles do accomplish this, as they work toward the “team building” I spoke of earlier. And yet after a point, they seem to feel increasingly targeted more at pleasing fans than anything else. Pleasing fans is fine, but with such a long running time, a bit more focus on character and story would’ve helped a great deal.
Finally, unlike the greatest superhero movies, The Avengers doesn’t really dig below the surface, or reach for something deeper than the fun of watching superheroes do super things. Cinematically and thematically, there is admittedly something to be desired, and yet it’s hard to argue when the results are so much fun. And that’s okay. That it feels content to simply be a good piece of entertainment should not be held against it, as it accomplishes that so splendidly.
But no matter. Walking out of the theater, my two separate halves both sighed in relief, satisfied that a good movie had been delivered, and that these familiar characters were treated with respect. That the fan in me left a little more pleased than the critic speaks to the film’s main issues, but doesn’t hinder what is otherwise one of the most entertaining films of the year so far.