REVIEW: The Avengers

There is so much I would like to say about The Avengers.  But I can’t say a lot of it openly.  The film has been in theaters less than a week, and many people still haven’t seen it yet.  So for those people, I’ll confine myself to saying this:  the film is an unmitigated triumph for everyone involved, including and perhaps especially Joss Whedon.  If you haven’t seen it, you should do so immediately.  And stay all the way through the end credits so you can see both additional scenes.

From here on out, you risk spoilers.  You have been warned.

The Avengers is, quite simply, the best superhero movie ever made.  In fact, it’s just a really good film, period.  It perfectly caps the five-film buildup to its release.  It succeeds on levels that only the very best superhero adventures, like Superman and Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight, have approached even for fleeting moments.  And as a team film, it puts its best competition (X-Men) to shame.  Whatever niggling complaints I have with the movie are scarcely worth mentioning, though of course I will anyway.  Before we get to that, though…let’s simply pause and bask in how amazing an accomplishment this is.  It’s so rare that any movie is worth a four-year wait.

And we’re basking, and we’re basking…

Okay.

To be fair to the movies it leaves choking on its dust, The Avengers has one tremendously unfair advantage.  Most superhero films have to succeed at two tasks.  The first task is to tell us about their main characters.  Who are they?  What are their powers?  Why do they dress up in costumes to help people?  The second task is to tell an engaging story.  We need a well-defined villain.  We need a master plan that will endanger the order of the world as we know it – or perhaps even its existence.  Then, finally, we need several fantastic action sequences that deliver character moments and wrap up all our major plot threads.  It’s a tall order to do all of that.

But The Avengers doesn’t try.  It focuses solely on the second question, trusting that the audiences are already familiar with these characters.  This artistic choice has elicited complaints from a few scattered critics, most notably Karina Longworth.  With respect, I would say to those people that they’re missing the point.  The Avengers was intended all along to be the culmination in a six-film series.  The beauty of this arrangement was that the first five films could sketch out the characters (including the villain) and the broader details of the universe, leaving this film free to focus on the master plot and the resulting carnage.  In fact, what we have here is less a set of movies and more a mini-series that simply happened to be released to theaters.  You wouldn’t complain if you walked into Downton Abbey in the middle of a season and didn’t quite understand what was going on, so why should you complain about The Avengers?

This movie exists solely to show us the big moments that we all hoped were coming when these characters came on-screen together.  We wanted witty banter, conflict between teammates, a knock-down drag-out final fight that spanned all of New York City, and satisfaction of all the plot threads that the last couple movies left hanging.  It’s all here.  Every last thing that we could have hoped for, and more, is packed into two and a half hours.  The most amazing thing is that the story never drags even for an instant.  At 143 minutes, this movie is as lean and taut as it could possibly be while still making sense.  In terms both of pace and of dramatic impact, it’s as though someone were able to make a monster truck handle like a Formula One racer.

Let’s start with the action level.  Did you want to see Iron Man and Captain America fight Thor?  They do, over who gets to capture Loki.  Did you want to see everyone face off against Hulk?  They do, in a breathtaking action sequence that sees the Avengers trying both to prevent the Helicarrier from crashing and stop a good-old-fashioned Hulk rampage.  Did you want to see Black Widow and Hawkeye actually contribute something to the proceedings?  Your wish is Joss Whedon’s command; they get the moments in this movie that they lacked in their other appearances.  And then, of course, there are all the wonderful individual moments they get during their final team effort to save New York.  About the only variant of inter-team physical conflict that we never get to see is Iron Man versus Captain America.  While this absence is a little disappointing, I think it was a wise decision.  These two characters are ultimately the biggest fan favorites, and forcing us to choose sides might wreck that dynamic.

But it’s not as though Tony Stark and Steve Rogers don’t get to mix it up verbally.  Their greatest fight comes as the threat to the safety of the world is escalating, and Stark is less interested in following orders than in questioning their source as to its activities.  This could easily have been a conflict for conflict’s sake.  “It’s the x-minute mark, so it’s time for a little action!”  But one of the greatest things about The Avengers is that it motivates those conflicts.  Whedon understands the characters come from very different places, and doesn’t try to create smooth situations where calmer heads can prevail.  When Rogers lights into Stark for having his priorities out of order, he does so because he’s the personification of duty.  In Cap’s day, when a crisis arose, you didn’t goof around with side projects – you got the main job done.  What he fails to understand is that Stark possesses a deadly serious mind.  Just because he’s cracking jokes and breaking into government databases doesn’t mean he doesn’t care, or isn’t working his hardest on the problem at hand.  Meanwhile, we feel the unfairness of Stark’s blatant insult that everything special about Rogers is entirely the result of his treatments.  We understand why Stark says what he does; he did the hard work of making himself a superhero by creating the Iron Man suit, whereas Rogers had the edge of being made into one.  But of course, the things that Captain America personifies never came from Dr. Erskine – they were in Rogers the whole time.

Captain America wants to do his duty.  Iron Man wants to uncover the truth about S.H.I.E.L.D.  Both are laudable goals, and they’re also personal matters.  When those goals clash, as they unavoidably do, Tony Stark and Steve Rogers – two men of unquestionable courage and integrity – nevertheless can’t help but make the conflict into a personal affair.  Genuine heroes with very different worldviews lighting into each other because of regrettable  misunderstandings…in case anyone wondered, this is how you create good conflict within a team.

Meanwhile, everyone else approaches the Avengers with their own unique attitude.  Thor cares more about Loki than he does anything else.  Were the Avengers fighting someone else, he wouldn’t even be there to help; the alliance is one of mutual convenience.  Bruce Banner, meanwhile, absolutely does not want to be aboard the Helicarrier.  He had to be “persuaded” to come by Natasha Romanoff, and spends most of the movie afraid (not without reason) of what he will do when his inner beast is unleashed.  Romanoff herself cares at least as much about Clint Barton as she does anything else, though on an intriguingly professional level.  Barton’s motive is perhaps the weakest – Loki enslaves him at the story’s beginning, and he’s out for payback.  Meanwhile, Nick Fury gives the impression that though he’d very much like to save Manhattan from destruction and the human race from bondage, he’d really rather do it on his own terms if at all possible.  Put seven such personalities into a team, and…well, and it’s a wonder you have a team at all.  Those people could as easily kill each other as they could repel an alien invasion, a notion that the movie explicitly plays with at several points.  But the Avengers have always been that way.  It’s part of their charm.

Perhaps the most necessary creative decision was the inclusion and development of Black Widow and Hawkeye.  Black Widow gets developed more, which seems a bit unfair as she had much more screen time in Iron Man 2 than Hawkeye did in Thor.  Nevertheless, I’m glad that material is here.  As the only truly normal people in the bunch, in that they just have insane skills rather than nigh-superhuman attributes and/or prosthetics, their perspective on the world around them helps keep the film grounded.  Moreover, they acquit themselves well alongside their more colorful teammates when given the chance.  I hope this means we might get a film about each of them in the future.  At the very least, I hope they’ll continue to crop up.

Are there problems?  A few here and there.  I’ve seen enough of Whedon’s work to know the pitfalls, and they’re all here.  Even if I hadn’t known who wrote this movie when walking into the theater, I’d have been able to figure it out in the first five minutes.  The first few minutes feel a little rushed and awkward, much like the introduction of the crew in Serenity.  Characters border at times on being too flippant – though fortunately, they are usually just flippant enough.  There is a mid-major character death, of course, since Whedon has a track record to maintain in that department…but the problem is that the aftermath feels a bit strained.  And there are a few logistical problems.  For example, the movie doesn’t want you to think too hard about how Bruce Banner made it to Manhattan in time to Hulk up for the final battle.  At this point, though, it’s hardly worthwhile to complain for two reasons.  The first is because Whedon is a mature writer, and so people who view his work will just have to get used to these, his trademark idiosyncracies.

The second reason, by the way, is because everything is so good.  Success is an antidote to many poisons.  And when the poisons are this minor and the spectacle so all-consuming, I’d feel awful if I continued to carp on them.  The Avengers is one long cavalcade of set pieces, with just enough plot and character moments thrown in between to give us a bit of breathing room.  That’s perfectly fine.  There is more than enough character material and more than enough conflict to keep us moving swiftly but surely toward the climax while sketching out everything we needed to know.  That suits most of us fine, since we’re here for the action stuff.

And the locations for that “action stuff” couldn’t have been better chosen.  We spend a substantial amount of time on the Helicarrier and in New York (well, Cleveland, but we’re pretending), both of which look magnificent without being so flashy as to overwhelm what we came to see.  The alien ships and weapons, and the aliens themselves, actually manage to project some menace.  But the real visual triumph of the movie is Hulk.  He looks even better than he did in his own film, and it is glorious good fun to see him tear through New York.  The CGI team that brought him to life actually gives us a big transformation sequence this time around, and the monster that emerges at the other end is the center of some of the best moments in the film – including a particularly wonderful one where he teaches Loki why blustering isn’t a good long-term strategy for a villain.

When it comes to Hulk, actually, Mark Ruffalo also deserves a great deal of the credit.  Though he’s not on screen when his alter-ego is smashing, Ruffalo’s look is the model for Hulk, so it’s easier to project him into the character than it was Edward Norton.  The actor even donned the motion-capture suit in the course of his duties, giving perhaps the best performance as a CGI character I’ve seen from anyone not named Andy Serkis.  The result is probably the finest overall acting job in the movie.  I won’t say Ruffalo’s interpretation of Banner is better than Norton’s, or worse…because they’re two very different looks at the same character.  But there’s no doubt that Ruffalo manages to stand out in an outstanding cast.  I look forward to seeing him again.

As for the rest of the cast, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and Chris Hemsworth all reprise their roles, and continue to be excellent in them.  Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner take full advantage of the greater material given to them this time around, as does Samuel L. Jackson, who proves to be the story’s anchor.  Tom Hiddleston returns as Loki, a bit changed from when we saw him last but still very much the manipulative rule-breaker.  We get to see Clark Gregg again as Agent Coulson, and Stellen Skarsgard and Gwyneth Paltrow also reprise their roles from the prequels.  There’s only one major new face this time around:  Cobie Smulders as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent.  And yes, she’s very much up to the high standard set by everyone else.  Yes, I’m name-dropping, aren’t I?  Well, you know, I can’t help it.  This is not a movie where only a couple of people are good.  Everyone carries their weight.  All the actors get multiple moments in the spotlight and carry off each of them with aplomb.  They all deserve to be recognized and praised for their role in giving life to the best movie of its type ever made, and I think they will.

The Avengers themselves, though, do not appear likely to receive the same sort of treatment.  In the final moments of the film, there are a few throwaway lines that indicate the people they’ve just saved are starting to blame them for all the property damage done to New York City!  This is a thread I want to see addressed in later movies – and I want to see it pointed out at that time by one of the heroes, preferably Iron Man, that if not for the Avengers there wouldn’t have been a New York City left to complain about.  What else would he say when he was presented with a bill from the Mayor?  Well, other than offer to throw him off the balcony of Stark Tower.

We open the movie as the team gradually, through fits and starts, draws together.  We close as they voluntarily go their separate ways, in a bittersweet moment.  But their departure back to their own franchises is for the best.  Future films will allow the individual characters to be heroes in their own right.  Also, when Avengers 2 comes out, it will still feel like an event film, rather than just another entry in a franchise.  It takes something special, you see, to pull these heroes together.  But when that great crisis comes, you can be sure they’ll assemble to fight it.

It’s enough to make you wish for a cataclysm every week, isn’t it?

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