By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com
Review: The Avengers
Comic geeks can collectively sigh with deep relief: Joss Whedon has taken their beloved Avengers and given them back a well-directed, action-packed, brilliantly written film. Note that I say “film” and not “movie,” a distinction I don’t always make with genre films, but it’s worth making the point here that The Avengers is not just action-explosion-capes-and-tights-and-muscles popcorn fare. If you are a Marvel fan, a fan of The Avengers, and a fan of Joss Whedon’s style of writing-directing, you are pretty much guaranteed to walk out of The Avengers feeling supremely satisfied. I don’t know that it’s definitively “the greatest superhero ever” but it comes pretty damn close for me, particularly for the Marvel properties.
This is a smart, well-crafted superhero fare that’s worthy of its source material, while taking advantage of adapting to film to enhance its storytelling. And you might argue that the superhero bar was never very high to begin with, but Whedon certainly raises it here. While he doesn’t frame his shots with quite the meticulous frame-by-frame, religiously adherent comic panel precision Zack Snyder used in The Watchmen, Whedon brings a crisp, brisk, graphic novel feel to The Avengers in the composition of shots and especially the use of light and shadow, while maintaining a flow and energy Watchmen sometimes lacked. And before any of you rabid Marvel fans jump down my throat, I’m not trying to piss anyone off here by comparing Avengers to a DC adaptation. It’s just a reference to the composition of shots, and Whedon’s obvious love of the comic genre, not a debate about Marvel vs DC. (But for the record? Marvel, of course. No contest.)
You don’t want to know too many spoilers going in, do you? Suffice it to say the gang’s all here — well, part of the gang, anyhow: Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), The Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, my absolute favorite actor who’s ever played this role, someone give him a movie with Whedon writing-directing — pronto, please), Thor (Chris Hemsworth — I warmed up to him considerably here, he’s got a charm about him), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans — ditto), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye/Barton (Jeremy Renner).
Basic setup: The Avengers are activated by Fury, head of S.H.I.E.L.D., in response to a missing tesseract and the presence of Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who’s seeking vengeance on his favored brother Thor by bringing war, death and destruction to Earth so he can rule over it while wearing those awesome curved horns and cackle manically at the puny humans. The Avengers’ plan to thwart Loki gets complicated when Thor shows up to bring down the hammer on his recalcitrant, rebellious brother while once again trying to reason nicely with him (ah, Thor, will you never learn?) But The Avengers have dibs on Loki, so to speak, so everyone’s gonna have to learn to hold hands, sing Kum-bah-yah, and teach the world to sing. Or, they could all just kick some ass, which turns out to be a lot more fun.
I can’t say with certainty whether a moviegoer with no knowledge of the source material will find it difficult to follow this film, but I imagine you could come into The Avengers with zero knowledge of any of these characters or their backstories and still be able to keep up enough to have an enjoyable experience. Knowing the characters, though, does allow you to pick up on the little hints dropped here and there, breadcrumbs of future storyline and character arc that makes The Avengers part of a greater whole, certainly more than just one action-packed, spangled costume-wearing spectacle. The action scenes are fast-paced but purposeful, and there are a couple of non-dialogue one-liner-punches that are pretty clever, but there’s also a flow to the talkier bits as well. Parts of the film might be a little too talky for some of the fanboys who just want to see “Hulk smash!” but for me, these scenes were some of the most entertaining in the film.
Each of our heroes has to face and defeat an internal foe as well, which ups the conflict ante considerably when you put all of them in a big floating building together: Tony Stark’s unbridled arrogance, Bruce Banner’s fear of losing control and becoming a monster, Thor’s rather impressive ego, Natasha Romanoff’s demons (we don’t get as much of her back story as I’d like, but what’s alluded to gives us enough to start to wrap our heads around her), Nick Fury’s need to control and hold secrets, Steve Roger’s occasionally outdated sense of honor and squeaky-clean morality, Natasha and Barton’s long history of sexual tension and battles. That’s a lot of personal and interpersonal conflict to weave around a two-hour movie that’s also packed with tons of action and epic battle sequences, and Whedon, who reportedly tossed out Zak Penn’s script and wrote his own, pulls it off with a pretty remarkable economy of writing and some impressive direction of the actors, who all convey so much more than the words in the script by the energy and commitment each of them brings to their roles.
One thing: I’ve heard a few whispers of discontent here and there that Avengers is a sausage fest, but I honestly think most of those rumbles are coming from people who don’t know much about either Natasha Romanoff or Maria Hill. I actually liked how they’ve set up Maria Hill’s (Cobie Smulder) arc for the next film, subtly conveying the innate distrust of superheros that should drive her arc going forward. She’s pretty badass in the comics, so I’m hopeful to see that character grow, and to seeing more of Natasha and her own complicated origins as well. Johansson conveys just enough about Natasha to intrigue us and make us want to know more about her — and she does much of it without saying a word. I don’t care what any Johansson haters have to say about her, she is fan-freaking-tastic in this role. She oozes lethal sensuality and her curves couldn’t look better in her skin-tight costumes, but Black Widow is more than just a pretty face, she is a totally bad-ass superhero whose only powers come from herself, and Johansson brings her formidable acting talent in full force here.
Gwyneth Paltrow pops in briefly as Pepper Potts, but she’s sadly not given much to do but sashay around in sexy jean shorts and flirt with Tony Stark. But can we talk just a bit about Mark Ruffalo, who brings such sweetness and vulnerability to Bruce Banner? He has won me over as the best Bruce Banner ever. We can see Banner’s suffering, sadness, and loneliness etched on Ruffalo’s features, echoing in his voice with the delivery of every line. He’s just terrific. As for our bad guy, Hiddleston owns Loki and seems to be enjoying himself immensely here; I enjoyed him in Thor but he is just deliciously evil, wicked, and amoral … while still being just sympathetic enough that a teensy part of me still felt sorry for him, even at his worst.
Actually, the biggest weaknesses of the The Avengers for me are all the bits where Loki’s chatting up bad-guy alien conqueror The Other, and the complete lack of character development on that end at all — why exactly are the Chitauri willing to fight a war for Loki again? Because he’s kind of a jerk, and he doesn’t really sugarcoat who he is. Is he offering a spectacular signing bonus, perhaps? I wouldn’t have minded more action, perhaps even an epic battle, in that world as well. How many times do I need to see NYC destroyed, really? The clean-up from a battle with aliens has to be horrendous, and I bet it’s not covered under NYC sanitation worker union contracts. And then the bad-guy aliens here are nameless, faceless drones there to do nothing but kill people, cause destruction, and get beat up by Avengers — they’re essentially a endless stream of bad guy red shirts, fodder for our heroes to take down one after another — with Loki the sole villain who has any development at all. He’s a good one, don’t get me wrong, and it’s a minor quibble, really, in what’s overall a really terrific job by Whedon and Co. Thank you, Joss, for not screwing it up.
P.S. Yes, you should stay through the credits, kids.