Published May 5th, 2012

By R. David

Marvel’s The Avengers(its official, on-screen title) is an epic crowd-pleaser in every sense of the term.  That doesn’t mean the movie is perfect.  It’s not.  But few popcorn movies are.  Almost by definition they have to place style and spectacle ahead of substance and originality.  When a film gets too deep, too different –too artsy – it begins to alienate and divide audiences; and that is the last thing a studio wants when hundreds of millions of dollars and a potential franchise (or in this case, several franchises) are on the line.  The best event films understand this but still find a way to combine spectacle-driven, popcorn entertainment with a stirring sense of wonder and intelligence.  They understand that fun does not automatically have to equal soulless product – noise and special effects without any emotional investment on the part of the filmmakers in the characters or the material (I’m looking at you, Wrath of the Titans).  The best summer movies make people think, discuss, dream and stand up and cheer with excitement and joy.  That may sound trite and it would be easy to scoff cynically, especially since it becomes less and less true for young audiences as the years and decades go by. But consider the likes of Star Wars, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Dark Knight and tell me I’m wrong.

Joss Whedon seems to understand this as well as any filmmaker.  He directs The Avengers less as a man tasked with a job to do than as a fan who has won the lottery; his golden ticket to his dream job.  Anyone familiar with Whedon’s past writing and directing credits (which include TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and last month’s brilliant The Cabin In the Woods) knows he covets this stuff the same way Martin Scorsese does gritty gangster tales or Quentin Tarantino does, well, all bygone film genres.  It is his sense of pure joyous and innocent love for The Avengers that infectiously shines through on screen.  With every beat of this film, it feels like the work someone completely engaged and enamored with their subject; not just determined to do the property proud, but truly grateful for the opportunity to put his stamp on it and become part of its lineage.  That may not leave a lot of room for complex ideas, topical social commentary and exploring the dark side of human nature, but that’s what we have the Batmanfilms for I guess.

The Avengers, like all of Marvel’s properties, is a far more candy-colored superhero film than the gritty, realistic nihilism of the Dark Knight films.  Where the Caped Crusader flicks pride themselves and being as grounded in the real world and true human emotion as a movie about a guy dressed up as a giant bat can, The Avengers is a comic book come to life.  No it’s not technically campy or kitschy (though it doesn’t lack for levity or in-jokes), but stays true to the fundamentals of its source material:  colorful, larger than life – essentially, out of this world.  Nothing about it is realistic, much of it is ridiculous, but unless you’ve completely lost also sense of childlike wonderment, that is ok if it’s done in a smart and entertaining fashion.  And smart and entertaining is precisely what The Avengers is.  Flawed as it is, it’s damn hard to resist, even for someone like myself who’s never had much use for any of the Marvel films (save for the surprising Iron Manand Kick-Ass).

Chief among The Avengers problems is its plot.  One thing that makes comic book movies so, well, comic-booky are the insanely convoluted and outlandish plotlines. Sure in a comic book/superhero tale we have to except things like a character being bitten by a radioactive spider and finding himself suddenly endowed with the power to swing across the New York skyline by the webs he fires from his wrists.  If you have little interest in stories like these, then you fundamentally have little interest in most superhero comics.   But there are ways to ground the improbable and at least make it seem possible within the real world parameters the film exists.  Iron Man, for example, gets his powers from his suite. Sure, a suite that can fly to the outer reaches of the Earth’s atmosphere and withstand tank charges is farfetched to say the least.  But between establishing that the man inside the suite is a billionaire, a genius, and the head of a military hardware manufacturing corporation, it at least stands to reason that if anyone could come up with such a suite, it’s Tony Stark. The Avengers though essentially picks up where Thor left off, and as a result most of the story is cut from the same cloth as that film, which is one of the more outlandish Marvel comics and films.  It’s all about otherworldly gods and intergalactic family feuds.  Much shooting of lightning bolts from hands and other objects ensues.  And Thor’s main weapon is his magic hammer…  Riiiight. Anywho, here Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is summoned back to Earth by Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Furry, head of the S.H.I.E.L.D international protection agency, who is trying to put together a superhero taskforce to stop Thor’s evil adoptive brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who has stolen the Teseract.  Those who saw Captain America:  The First Avenger will recall the Teseract was the blue-ish glowing cube that gave whoever possessed it “infinite power” (don’t they always).  Loki’s plan is essentially to enslave the people of Earth because he genuinely believes they’d be happier rid of their pesky freedom.  Basically it’s a reworking of the plot from Transformers, which is not necessarily the best inspiration for story ideas, nevermind anything resembling depth or coherence.

Captain America (Chris Evans) is recruited basically because the Teseract originated in his movie, Tony Stark/Iron Man is too because, let’s face it, you want a genius weapons developer who has already saved the world a few times on your team – it’s also nice that he doesn’t come from another world, period in time, or is the result of some lab experiment gone horribly wrong.  Which brings us to Bruce Banner/The Hulk, who is shoehorned into this thing too, for some reason, despite the fact that he is being hunted by the very organization who now wants to recruit him and no one is sure they are safe from his uncontrolled and deadly bursts of rage (including Banner himself).  Still not a big enough team?  Well there’s also Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow who originally appeared in Iron Man 2 and Jeremy Renner as the bow and arrow wielding Hawkeye who popped up ever so briefly in Thor.  There was a sense in both cases that these characters were being grafted into those films for no other reason than because they would eventually be seen by audiences in The Avengers but they didn’t warrant their own, stand-alone origin tales.  That is pretty much the case, although both actors serve the roles well and the script, despite short-changing them compared to the more legendary heroes they share the screen with, does a decent job of allotting an appropriate amount of screen time to all of its subjects.  It’s rather amazing really that Whedon’s script (from a story co-wrote with Zak Penn) is as organized as it is given all the characters, story elements and various bits of backstory that have to diverge here.  Even though nearly all of these characters have had their own origin stories already told, The Avengers still manages to feel like a stand-alone film.  It helps to have seen the related movies that came before it, but it is not necessary in order to follow or enjoy The Avengers.

You have to credit the cast nearly as much as Whedon’s direction and writing for making The Avengers as hugely entertaining as it is.  While Evens and Hemsworth are merely adequate (though they are saddled with morose, brooding characters to play, so it’s not all their fault they don’t snap to life the way much of the rest of the cast does), Robert Downey Jr. is nothing short of Oscar worthy in this film.  The movie snaps to life whenever he is on screen and –quite simply – he steals every scene he’s in.  After two Iron Man films, and the second one being a relative let down after the surprising breath of fresh air that was the original, I thought perhaps Tony Stark’s snarky attitude might have been milked for all it was worth.  But Whedon’s script manages to provide Downey with dialog that is smarter and funnier than anything he has had the pleasure to utter in his characters’ own films. And Downey, being the ace actor that he is, seems completely galvanized by the juicy lines he gets to make his own. Stark is the film’s most fully realized – and best – character.  And though I feel The Hulk seems grafted into this story against all logic, I will admit, not only does Mark Ruffalo finally get the character right (after two so-so big-budget attempts in the last decade, both of which sputtered with fans and critics alike), but the character gets some of the best laugh-out-loud scenes in the film.  Unfortunately, what we are essentially discovering here is that The Hulk character is better suited to the role of sidekick or comic relief than someone who can carry his own film or franchise.  Again though, credit Whedon for finding that balance and discovering how to make the character work.

The Avengersstarts strongly, jumping into the action right off the bat; and though the opening action sequences are nothing particularly inspired, they are well done.  Then the film spends a lot of time assembling the Avengers team.  These scenes are entertaining for the most part, but once the crew comes together, a lot of time is spent on their bickering and clashing attitudes and ideas.  Though this is where many of the film’s funnier lines are to be found, this stuff is strictly perfunctory in this sort of movie.  Rather than acknowledging he has to do it and dispensing with it as quickly as possible, Whedon bogs down in it, delivering a sagging midsection were the team fights amongst themselves and then has to work together to save one another, ultimately putting their pesky squabbles aside and achieving some form of mutual respect; just in time to save the world (though New York City takes a beating) in the film’s supercharged climax.  None of this by itself is anything original or even all that entertaining.  And it’s hard to convince your audience to be held in suspense of a character’s fate when the pummeling they dish out on each other during their ego-trip pissing contests is worse than anything any bad guy manages (and they walk away unscathed and making wise cracks).  But it is because the characters are so well written and so well realized that we care about them and are entertained by them despite the shortcomings of film’s the plot.  It’s clear Whedon had to go through certain motions so as not to alienate the broad audience an expensive franchise picture like this has to play too, but he was careful to serve both his and these characters’ loyal fan bases by not talking down to them and delivering a movie that is as concerned with its characters and their dialog and motivations living up to their beloved source material as with special effects and marketing opportunities. 

The Avengers is the best film anyone could realistically have hoped for from a film of this magnitude.  And then some. 

Three stars out of four.