When Pabs asked me if I’d like to write a review for Marvel’s The Avengers, my first thought was, “Why?” I mean, every one of you is going to see this movie. Many will see it multiple times. This is the movie that every live-action superhero treatment has been leading to. It’s a game changer. It will reignite fans like no movie has before. I predict it’s going to bring an entire new generation of readers to Marvel Comics. It’s going to easily be the largest grossing comic film of all time. If there was any creeping “superhero fatigue” at the big Hollywood studios, this movie will kill it with a head-shot. The only downside to this movie’s legacy, artistically and economically, is that it raises the bar so high for all the superhero films to come. Can Thor 2 hope to be half as exciting and satisfying as The Avengers?
So a review is superfluous. But why not take a moment and get specific about WHY this movie came off so very, very well? Because it’s no accident.
It’s a funny thing, but I’ve found in recent years that, even as technology has progressed, in terms of the fantastic things that can be created on screen, the art of directing action sequences has taken steps backward. Production designs can be too complex for a set of eyes to take in; battles can be shot too close-up and edited too quickly to be followed (Transformers suffers from all three of these problems). That’s not the case with Avengers. Each action sequence has a fluidity that invites you in and a tension that doesn’t let you go. Watching Captain America take on three Chitauri soldiers, not only could I follow each blow, I could close my eyes and envision it again. Much more satisfying than so many recent big screen hero battles where I’m left wondering exactly what it is I’ve just seen. That’s not to say any of it feels static. There are disorienting shots that roll with and against the action to give you just enough vertigo to make you feel like you’re there. It’s just that the shot is held long enough to follow punch/parry/riposte–a satisfying combination. What’s more, no set piece feels inserted for formula’s sake. Each one furthers the plot or character development. All the match ups you’re dying to see are there, but they aren’t random—they have a point. And that makes them all the more compelling.
And speaking of action—there is a ton! Not only are you not forced to wait an hour before something cinematically exciting happens, but there is plenty of action all the way through. So many movies (ahem, Green Lantern) feel like the studio spent their budget on two or three specific action scenes, and all that’s left is an hour and forty minutes of people sitting around talking. But there is so much action and derring-do in Avengers I couldn’t possibly list it all here. Thank you, Marvel Studios, for not being penny smart and pound foolish.
The action is A+, but the screenplay is Avengers’ crowning glory. The fact that there actually is a plot (and one that makes some kind of rational sense) puts it head and shoulders above a lot of action films from the get-go. But at the same time, this being an action film, the script never gets so bogged down in minutiae that you have to press “pause” on the entertainment to learn about midi-chlorians or the inscrutable history of an alien race, or whatever else. In other words, there’s enough plot to set the scene, to keep your interest, and to give the characters somewhere to go, and nothing more. The perfect balance for a superhero film. In particular, great use is made of Agent Coulson, who has been the string tying the various franchises together. His climactic scene is almost “meta” in the way that it serves to coalesce the characters in the story at the same time coalescing the audience watching it. Director Joss Whedon said in an interview last year that while he was a fan of stories like The Dark Knight and Watchmen, he wasn’t interested in deconstructing a superhero story–instead, he said, he wanted to construct one. And that’s what he’s succeeding in doing. Each character has his or her reason to be in this fight. Nothing is arbitrary (including the name “Avengers”) but neither is anything overly complex.
Another satisfying aspect of the screenplay is that it manages to give every character fairly equal treatment. Even the optimists among us, who thought this movie would be good, probably expected that Black Widow would be an afterthought or that Marc Ruffalo would have about three minutes of actual screen time as Bruce Banner. Not the case. In fact, Ruffalo’s Banner/Hulk may even come out as the surprise favorite for many audience members. Each character is given a full story, with something to overcome. Amazingly, with this many different heroes, not a one feels underused or forgotten. If the Asperger dramaturg within you demands one character be named as the “lead,” you could argue that it’s Nick Fury. He may not be a typical protagonist, but it’s his through line that drives the plot and it’s great to see Samuel L. Jackson have more influence in the story than his previous cameos.
In terms of screen time, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki might even edge out the heroes. Certainly, his is the best scene (with Scarlet Johansson). While he isn’t burdened with strange makeup or mannerisms, he has nevertheless succeeded in creating an iconic super villain with specific motivations and personality that can stand with some of the great villains rendered by the likes of Gorshin, Nicholson, and Ledger.
A lot has been made of the humor in the film, as there are many great lighthearted moments. But what makes them great are the way they’re executed. Humor for humor’s sake bores me and will take me right out of a film experience. Modern day comics are positively rife with out-of-character quips, written in the author’s voice, for the sake of getting a cheap “heh” of acknowledgment from fanboys. Whether it’s Geoff Johns’ Martian Manhunter lamenting “I’m as powerful as Superman, why does everyone always forget that?” or Brian Michael Bendis’ New Avengers, who each speak with the same voice (Bendis’) and share the same sense of humor–I’m really over it. But Whedon’s Avengers each have a distinct sense of humor (or lack of it). No fun moment is arbitrary or interchangeable. Take as a perfect example, during a heated argument, Cap challenges Tony Stark to put on his armor and go a few rounds. “Put on the armor! Put on the armor!” he presses, and then interrupted by a dire explosion, repeats to Stark, “Put on the armor,” in a much graver tone. The reversal elicits laughter from the entire audience, but it also serves to illuminate character and plot: these two may be oil and water, but they’re going to come together in a crisis.
Whedon is clearly a fan of the material he’s working with here, but he doesn’t approach the movie as a fan. He doesn’t enslave himself to the narrow vision or stringent requirements of the geekosphere. He takes this on as a filmmaker, a screenwriter, and a storyteller. The result is a movie that fans will love even more than they thought they could, and that non-comic readers can love as well. And speaking of fans, the mid-trailer epilogue is a priceless payoff, with ramifications more ambitious than any of us could have conceived.
So after the many, many months of anticipation, what can be said about Avengers? Was it the Ultimates? Was it “616”? Did they “rape our childhood” or “kill teh franchise!1!”? In the end, this movie rose above any of those limited debates or concerns. It stands on its own–a wonderfully entertaining, imminently fulfilling movie that transcends the “superhero” niche to go down as one of the generation’s great Hollywood action films.