“The Avengers,” or How Marvel Got Its Peanut Butter in Its Chocolate
Published on May 4th, 2012 | by Stuart Weinstock0
“The Avengers” opens on Friday, May 4 at Clearview’s Chelsea, Regal Union Square Stadium 14, AMC Loews 34th Street 14, AMC Loews Kips Bay 15, AMC Empire 25, Regal Battery Park Stadium 11, Clearview Hoboken Cinemas, and AMC Loews Newport Centre 11.
Running time: 142 minutes. Rated PG-13.
To answer the obvious questions up front: “The Avengers” is a very satisfying action spectacle and mostly lives up to its hype. The action is exciting and inventive, the quips are abundant and clever, and the third act―a forty-five-minute action sequence―sets a high bar for the many action spectacles to come this summer.
Since 2008’s “Iron Man,” Marvel fans have been steadily primed for this film, a massive superhero epic that ties together all the subsequent Marvel character films (albeit only those distributed by Paramount; it seems Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are no match for an airtight intellectual property rights agreement). The resulting supergroup is not Cream, but it’s also not Slash’s Snakepit. The best parallel is The Traveling Wilburys, a band of heroes and demigods who created a unique brand of fun and self-indulgent music together that lacks the peculiar genius of their solo endeavors. Director/co-writer Joss Whedon is this film’s Jeff Lynne, holding the sleek production together with great appreciation for the characters and encyclopedic source material that shape “The Avengers” (Zak Penn shares story credit). Apart from Whedon’s excellent visual sense―the action and fight scenes unfold with welcomed clarity, 3D conversion notwithstanding―his strongest asset on display is his ability to keep these larger-than-life characters bantering and bickering with one another like super-powered sibling rivals. Although the film’s sci-fi/fantasy story opens beyond human dimensions and stays way out there, the lead heroes maintain grounded emotional stakes (bolstered by star performances), which keeps the action fresh.
An existential threat conjured by Loki, the Norse god of deception (Tom Hiddleston), leads the ultra-secret security apparatus, S.H.I.E.L.D. (which is controlled by a shadow government cabal that should make the black helicopter crowd apoplectic) to gather Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (a.k.a. Tony Stark, a.k.a. Robert Downey, Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) to save the world. While Whedon makes the most of the heroes’ humanity―everyone gets at least one good punchline―Loki is a one-note antagonist. His motives stem from events in 2011’s “Thor” that are briefly recapped in “The Avengers” without giving his will to power much depth. Worse, Loki’s otherworldly client army lacks any character at all; they are cannon fodder, a mass of marauding pixels that would be more interesting if they exhibited any modicum of individuality or invention in their swarming attack on Manhattan and its heroes. Unfortunately, the hero wranglers of S.H.I.E.L.D. do not fare much better. Scenes of agitated monitor-watching in the S.H.I.E.L.D. command center are the rare times “The Avengers” feels flat. Samuel L. Jackson seems to be running at ¾ speed as S.H.I.E.L.D. chief Nick Fury; he barks orders and gives the subdued version of a “Coach Carter” halftime speech, but the expected Samuel L. Jackson swagger is simply not written into the character (possibly because his primary response to any threat, be it an antimatter earthquake or a Norse demigod, is to draw his comically insufficient handgun). Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow has far more going on than she had in her first appearance, in “Iron Man 2,” but her redemption arc does not pay off because her allegedly seedy backstory is never satisfactorily explored. Jeremy Renner is almost wasted for the first half of the film, but he has several clever action beats in the massive third-act battle that justify his inevitable return to the franchise. The only S.H.I.E.L.D. character to leave a strong impression is Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), a supporting/cameo player in the previous Marvel films who gets to let his fanboy flag fly in “The Avengers” (this obvious audience surrogate was very warmly received at the online critics’ screening; make of that what you will).
Additionally, fans of the Whedon oeuvre (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” “Firefly”) will be disappointed with the paucity of engaging female characters. Besides Black Widow and a brief, amusing cameo by Gwyneth Paltrow as Tony Stark’s Girl Friday, the only other female presence at this super-powered sausage fest is Cobie Smulders (“How I Met Your Mother”), who walks, talks, shoots, and points at monitors as a high-ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. agent lacking any opportunity to play more than one note or deploy her sitcom-honed comedy chops. Without adding more female characters to the packed cast (a cursory Wikipedia search turns up at least twenty-one female Avengers in the comic book canon), even a brief examination of what it means to be a woman in this context would have added an extra, welcomed dimension to the film. Instead, Whedon reserves his considerable postmodern wit for male characterization (Tony Stark’s egoism finds a clever foil) and self-aware narrative structure (the late-second-act rally point is openly discussed as such).
Filmmaking at this scale is thrilling to behold in the moment, but it also has unintended consequences that merit consideration. Whedon’s maximalist approach to “The Avengers” smoothes over too many of the idiosyncrasies that made each prior Marvel film a unique experience. As pleasurable as it is to see Thor and the Hulk throw down―“the Avengers” does not disappoint in hero-on-hero combat―the team narrative forces out the Shakespearean camp of Asgard in “Thor,” the perfectly rendered period squareness of “Captain America,” and the Jekyll-and-Hyde paranoia of “The Incredible Hulk.” Only the high-tech, high-gloss sheen of “Iron Man” remains, offset as ever by the irrepressibly sarcastic Robert Downey, Jr. While the solo-character films are by no means masterpieces, “The Avengers” burnishes their memory by being less eccentric and consequently, less interesting in hindsight than the sum of its parts.
The arms race that factors into the story of “The Avengers” is a telling metaphor for the film itself. “The Avengers” is the tentpole movie equivalent of the hydrogen bomb, packing in beloved characters, action, and commercial tie-ins at a scale that throws a heavy gauntlet to Marvel and Disney’s competitors. Their most obvious rival is Warner Brothers, whose DC Comics characters have only connected with movie audiences in recent years when the names “Christopher Nolan” and “Batman” are involved (WB’s second attempt at a Superman revival in ten years, “Man of Steel,” will arrive in 2013). Summer 2012 brings a veritable team of rivals, with five major releases having a production budget exceeding $200 million: “The Avengers,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “The Amazing Spider-Man,” “Men in Black 3,” and “Battleship.” To assume there is room in the marketplace for all of these films to gross the astronomical amounts they will need to be profitable is the height of magical thinking. Yet the most affected by this filmmaking brinksmanship may be Marvel―“Iron Man 3” is beginning production shortly for a 2013 release, “Thor 2” is also slated for 2013, and “Captain America 2” is projected for 2014. These sequels cannot possibly match the scale of spectacle in “The Avengers,” so how will audiences react to seeing these characters returned to their own, comparatively smaller worlds? Can audiences still be satisfied watching Captain America sling his shield without Iron Man zipping around him, blasting away? Will Thor’s mythological melodrama retain interest without the Hulk as a foil? There is an excellent, time-tested reason why fireworks displays never position their grand finales in the middle, and it is the same reason why no film franchise has ever successfully scaled back its narrative ambitions in a sequel (case in point: “Alien 3”). Although Marvel looks to reap a windfall with “The Avengers,” it remains to be seen whether they can muster the sheer firepower it will take to follow their own biggest act.