The Avengers

May 5, 2012

Despite being a ready-made blockbuster success, The Avengers had a pretty significant hurdle to clear if it wanted to be any good – a notion that is hardly necessary when the quality of a film like this is rarely important when it comes to being a “success”.  Ensemble films are tricky enough, but when four of the central characters have each had movies of their own, attempting to corral them all into something sensible without giving short-shrift to anyone is doubly (or, quadruply?) so.  This is all to say that anyone who says that writer/director Joss Whedon, who was given the task of putting this all together, merely has to “not screw it up,” they’re doing an extreme disservice to the sheer difficulty of the task at hand.  A surfeit of good, existing elements is probably harder to make into something even basically functional as a movie than starting from the ground up.  It’s a small wonder, then, that The Avengers is not only good, it is better than it probably needs to be and is certainly the best of this slate of Marvel films.

I should qualify all this by saying I’ve had a relatively mute reaction to the Marvel/Avengers canon of films.  They’ve all been enjoyable to some degree or another, and they all exhibit a kind of baseline level of quality that’s admirable for the notoriously uneven superhero genre.  What’s particularly memorable about the best parts of the film are the humanity and humour of the characters.  Thor tempers its rainbow bridges and intergalactic Shakespearean with a surprisingly deft fish-out-of-water comedy, and Iron Man compensates for its absurd techno-heroics with a dry wit and light banter (and crucially its use in the relationship between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts).  In that sense, Whedon turns out to be absolutely perfect for the culmination of all of these parts.  There’s a certain pre-determined inflexibility with The Avengers, with all those characters already established to some degree in their own films as well as the time to fit them all in, and so he injects the (almost necessarily) paper-thin plot with enough humour to make the relationships between these huge characters entertaining.  It’s rare enough to be in a cinema where the audience is laughing so hard you miss the next line when watching a comedy, much less an action film.

That paper-thin plot involves a MacGuffin introduced in Captain America, the tesseract, which is some sort of super energy cube that can open portals to other worlds as well as do any number of things the plot requires.  Loki (Tom Hiddlestone) returns after his disgrace by his brother Thor (Chris Hemsworth) to get the tesseract from the covert government agency S.H.I.E.L.D., run by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and use it to subjugate humanity to his will.  The decision is made to assemble the heroes we’ve been introduced to previously in the series, including Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), and Bruce Banner/The Hulk (now played by Mark Ruffalo), as well as S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg).  Clashes of egos as well as institutional mistrust, not to mention Loki’s presence as a prisoner on the flying carrier, fill up the bulk of the movie until the inevitable grand finale.

This works a treat, however, as there’s much joy to be had in watching these very different characters interact, both in good-humoured understanding and pathetic bickering.  Very little happens in the film that could be considered extraneous, as Whedon is careful to ensure every scene advances either character relationships or plot, often at the same time.  The requisite Whedon snark is in full-effect, but it never seems out of place or forced; mostly everyone gets funny lines that are never out of line with the character.  In addition, aside from Thor (who is admittedly fighting his brother) and Hawkeye (hampered by being brainwashed half the time), the major players all get some semblance of a character arc, which is surely something a lesser writer would never have bothered to include. Black Widow is given subtle nods to her troubled past whilst still operating within her incredibly impressive professional talents as well as functioning as Whedon’s usual (but still not tiresome) desire to upend preconceptions about women in fantasy/sci-fi works.  Most welcome, and dareisay something of a scene-stealer amongst the good guys, is Ruffalo’s take on Banner.  He’s filled with a likeability we’ve not seen before, but it never betrays the deep sense of anguish and despair of someone uncertain about their identity.  Others are less impressive, perhaps, but it was nice that they’re there, especially when Captain America finds his footing as a leader figure, which is thankfully not given a Huge Moment of Realization.

The big set pieces, especially the crosscutting madness on the carrier and the finale, are far better than Marvel (or most action blockbusters) manage to put together.  Whedon is not the most visually exceptional director around, but he emphasizes clarity of both space and design (lots of bright colours).  He does get one exceptional shot, which is a gonzo-CGI enhanced version of his favourite one-er, but it’s never disorientating.  The finale, which threatened to become another CGI slugfest that just drags on, is surprisingly the highlight of the action scenes.  Like the earthquake sequence in Superman Returns, the joy is in the sheer number of things that have to be done rather than One Huge Fight.  Whedon does a great job of giving everyone unique jobs to do, so it never reaches the point where you want it to be overwith because you’ve seen it all before.  On top of that, there’s a remarkable clarity in purpose and geography.  The film is about these people becoming a team, after all, so it’s all about the little moments (Iron Man throwing an energy beam for Captain America to deflect off his shield, or Hulk setting up a piece of metal for Thor to hammer down into an alien beasty).  There are a plethora of fun moments of fan service that never descend into fanboy pandering, as well as an endless stream of quotable lines and sight gags (Captain America’s punching bags, or bizarrely a game of Galaga).  This is not a genre-defying masterpiece or anything, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun.  Given the reaction in the cinema, I think that’s plenty.


-M
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One Response to “The Avengers”

  1. Josh Says:

    Agreed


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