THE AVENGERS (Three and a Half Stars)
U. S.: Joss Whedon, 2012
“We need a plan of attack.”
— Steve Rogers/Captain America
“I have a plan: Attack!”
— Tony Stark/Iron Man
1. Of Hulks and Iron Men and Smashes
As you watch the mega-hit movie The Avengers on screen, galloping toward its kajillions in grosses, it’s perfectly obvious that the people who made it — especially Joss Whedon who co-wrote and directed — want to give us the ultimate comic-book super-hero movie.
These guys aren’t horsing around. They want to make something ass-kickingly fabulous out of this ensemble super-movie — this all-star mega-picture that brings together (for the first time) seven of Stan Lee’s Marvel comic book superstars in their big-movie super-reincarnations: Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Chris Evans’ Captain America, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, The Hulk (now played by Mark Ruffalo), and the group’s star of stars and champion wisecracker, Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man (played to the hilt by Robert Downey, Jr.).
As they all gather together in one big super-nosh, trading quips and flexing muscles and tossing verbal barbs and flaunting super-powers, we get to know them better, and so do they — like Superman and Batman did when they accidentally spotted each other’s secret identities as Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne, shipboard, in, I believe, an old Action Comics. These fantastic seven have impressive digs too; they’re mostly sequestered in a huge bizarre sometimes-invisible flying, floating aircraft helicarrier, preparing to face the challenge of the skinny, villainous Loki of Asgard (Tom Hiddleston), a meanie with a truly sinister smile who’s trying to steal the precious Tesseract, open up a space portal, engage a space army, and conquer Earth, or at least midtown Manhattan.
We can only feel glad (and lucky) that the Avengers are on our side, and not Loki’s. (Sorry.) We can thank our superstars that Joss Whedon is with us, that Stan Lee is our (and their) Generalissmo, and that they called the shots (past and present) along with co-writer Zak Penn and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and composer Alan Silvestri and production designer James Chinlund and producer Kevin Feige and all the technical people. Where would we be if they’d all signed up with the Bad Guys?
2 . Joss and The Generalissmo
The plot of The Avengers (not to be confused with the well-loved ‘60s British series with Diana Rigg as Emma Peel) is standard. Loki zips in from Asgard, where he spent the last Thor movie bedeviling Thor — swipes the tesseract, hangs around the heli-carrier for a while, and then unleashes his invasion, highlighted by a a flying, undulating, Transformerish mechanical beastie that would give even the most jaded Manhatttanites pause, especially if they saw it undulating above them on Fifth Avenue or thereabouts.
But fierce Loki has a fiercer antagonist in Fury — who has been monitoring other Marvel movies, like Iron Man and Thor and Captain America, for the last several years, dropping trailer-teasers. Aware of Loki’s evil designs, Fury assembles the Dream Team, and lets them dance around and strut their stuff and trade put-downs for a while — before they have to go up against Loki, who makes it clear (in Germany, no less) that Fascism is his thing, and that he wants to revive the spirit of Adolf Hitler (or maybe Franz Kindler) and keep the world free from freedom.
Fat chance. Even though the story-line and the script-structure are achingly familiar, and we pretty much know everything that’s going to happen before it does (except perhaps part of the big Iron Man scene at the end), The Avengers makes it clear from the start (from before the start, if you count all the teasers in other Marvel movies) that this isn’t going to be your standard night at the multiplex, with a large diet coke, a large popcorn, some idiots yacking it up behind you, and too many previews. Instead, it‘s something that — if the creators have their way — may go mind-bogglingly beyond all the other super-hero movies: beyond Donner and Lester‘s Supermans, Sam Raimi‘s Spider-Mans, Jon Favreau‘s first Iron Man, and any other super-benchmark that might come to mind.
But it’s also obvious that these filmmakers — or at least some of them (or at least Whedon) — don’t regard that particular feat (i.e.: becoming king of the superhero-movie hill) as the massive, epic triumph of art and technology and high finance, that many of the movie’s fans (or fan boys) want to see and will. All-time super-grosses be damned. There’s a wry and decidedly irreverent edge to much of The Avengers. The movie keeps suggesting that Whedon (best known as the creator/writer of the modern TV classics “Firefly” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) is hip to the game, that — even though he loves comic books and super-heroes, and likes this type of movie (his all-time favorite show is said by IMDB to be The Matrix) — Whedon is also quite aware that much of the comic book movie super-hero template is repetitive and smotheringly predictable and often a bit silly.
That’s why Downey’s Tony Stark is around, with his bemused not-quite-grin, and his late night TV host wiliness and speed, and why he has so many good zinger lines (the most effective of which may be the borrowed “Hulk, smash!”). Downey is the voice of the audience’s more subversive, more adult side and he’s like the smart-asses in Scream, continually kidding the very conventions that entrap him.
That’s also probably why the first part of the movie goes easier on the action than you’d expect, and why it has the six crime busters in their various alter-egos or not-so-secret identities (Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America, Tony Stark/Iron Man, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, Clint Barber/Hawkeye, Thor/Thor and Bruce Banner/The Hulk), teasing and ragging on and insulting each other. These clever dialogue scenes are actually more important to the movie’s final impact (and better written and directed) than the climactic showpiece half-hour battle scene. (Shrewdly, the movie supplies the sarcastic Tony/Iron Man and the tormented Hulk for the left-wing side of the audience, straight-arrow patriot Captain America for the right-wingers, Nick Fury for African-Americans, Black Widow for feminists, and Hawkeye and The Hulk for — oh, I don‘t know, maybe for archery enthusiasts and people with weight or anger management problems. )
Snappy dialogue, of course, was also a big part of Stan Lee‘s game plan on the classic Marvel comics of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and a very big part of their appeal. Lee’s original characters were (those words again) knowing and .hip, and the big fights that climaxed most of the stories almost always had the superheroes and supervillains trading snappy quips and impertinent wisecracks, while they bashed and thrashed and totaled each other. Those superheroes also had psychological problems, depth and emotional traumas as well. (The classic cases were the Hulk and Spider-Man.) Lee’s Marvel books — and I read a lot of them in the ‘60s, especially after Robert Benton and David Newman gave them a boost in their great piece on The New Sentimentality in Esquire — were the equivalent of a wised-up genre movie with a lot of inside gags. Of this movie, in fact. (Lee, by the way, appears here briefly as himself, before the big battle, sarcastically jibing “Superheroes in New York? Give me a break!“)
3. I’ve Got a Gun in My Mouth, but I Like the Taste of Metal
Among the big Hollywood stars right now, Robert Downey seems to me as potentially great a movie actor as any other player America has — and part of the reason is that, like most of the best, he makes complex things look easy, He also isn‘t afraid to dig deep down and he doesn’t leave his fellow actors stranded: He interacts as well as he acts. (If anything is holding Downey back, it may be his recent choice of projects, or possibly the fact that he doesn‘t rate himself that highly. But since he doesn’t have to prove himelf commercially after this, now’s the time for him to take some bigger chances on parts and movies.
Here, it’s not that Downey is pushed forward to the detriment of his fellow actors. He and Mark Ruffalo, as the new Bruce Banner (an inspired choice), are the principle scene-stealers in The Avengers. But they leave plenty for their castmates too, and so does Whedon. As writer-director, Whedon doesn’t seem to play favorites at all; he gives showcase scenes to every one of his top stars, and to some of the supporting players too, like Clark Gregg as the moony federal agent Coulson and one time Bergman actor Stellan Skarsgard as good guy turned bad, Selvig. The great Polish writer-director Jerzy Skolimowksi (Moonlighting, Walkover) also shows up briefly as one of the Russians interrogating Black Widow, and he makes an impression too. If these kinds of movies usually aren’t actor’s shows at all, Whedon and his cast play hob with that cliché.
He makes it a technician’s show too. Tellingly, the cinematographer, Seamus McGarvey, isn’t an action specialist, but instead usually shoots psychological art films or smart entertainments (We Need to Talk About Kevin, Atonement, Nowhere Boy, The Hours, High Fidelity). McGarvey’s next assignment is an adaptation of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” for director Joe Wright. Here, in concert with the effects people, McGarvey and designer Chinlund (also an art film specialist, with a list of credits that includes Darren Aronofsky‘s The Fountain and Requiem for a Dream and Spike Lee‘s The 25th Hour), create images that are cutting and fresh, but never too over-powering, even though they’re often as jampacked and paranoiacally detailed as the usual sci-fi actioner.
4.. “I love clichés. All the great artists use them.”
— Roman Polanski
Of all the Marvel movies, the only ones that really seem to me to have that old Lee zing are 2008’s Iron Man and this one — and they‘re also the ones that, along with Spider-Man, have the most emotion. (The ending of The Avengers is almost a killer.) This suggests that producer Feige and the others (or whoever) were right when they picked Whedon, who’s primarily been a writer-producer, and whose other feature directorial credit was for the 2005 Serenity, the continuation of his maverick science fiction series “Firefly.”
Throughout The Avengers, Whedon seems to want us to know he enjoys movies like this (or at least some of them), and that he’s going to give us exactly what this kind of show is supposed to deliver. But he also wants us to know that he‘s a smart guy who knows the score (just like Tony Stark), and that he wants his superheroes to be smart and know the score too — and to appeal to audiences who couldn’t care less (going in) what Thor and Loki were quarreling about in Asgard, or what Loki intends to unleash on Earth, or whether Tony and his dynamite-looking partner Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) are an item or not, or whether the Hulk gets along with Thor, or Iron Man gets along with Captain America, and whether any of the guys clicks with Black Widow, or whether Nick Fury can figure out a way to save the world, or when the big half-hour super-battle gets going — or even if there is a half-hour super-battle.
Like William Shakespeare, the next writer Whedon is adapting (for the new movie adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing“), Whedon, who’s as much a fan of the Bard of Avon as he is of the Dudes of Matrix, wants to appeal to the groundlings and the people in the cheap seats, as well as the lords and ladies (or the lordly intellectuals) in the boxes — even though, in the multiplexes, there are no cheap seats.
5. Shoot the Piano Player
Peope have knocked its writing, but, in a way, The Avengers is more of a writer’s movie than most of the other Marvels. Not that this movie hasn’t been drowned in big stars, production values, special effects and surprisingly good 3D (it has), but because Whedon has put the kind of swing and snazz and panache in the writing that Stan Lee had in his heyday, and that most superhero movies, including most of the Marvel ones, don‘t. That’s also probably why The Avengers has mostly received such good reviews — because we critics tend to like well-written movies even though we often try to analyze those same show as director’s movies.
Whedon eliminates that problem here by filling both roles, which is what Francois Truffaut originally meant by the term “auteur.” And, for better or worse, he’ll probably be directing from now ‘til doomsday. He’s earned it. The Avengers has gotten mostly good reviews as well as humongous record-smashing world box office, even though some thoughtful critics have panned or half-panned it, some mentioning that just don’t care for the genre. Well, to tell the truth, I don’t care for the genre either, even though, as a kid or young adult, I used to devour Marvel comics. Many intelligent critics didn’t care for movie westerns at the time of The Searchers and Rio Bravo, for musicals at the time of Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon, or for film noir at the time of Detour and The Big Sleep. They were wrong. Maybe we’re wrong — or some of us are. (Maybe not.)
In any case — or “anyhoo,” as my friend FNB likes to say — I think you’d have to be a little stubborn not to realize and admit that The Avengers is about as good as this movie genre can get. (So is the first Iron Man). And it’s so good because so many good or great people are contributing to it, and because the filmmakers seem to enjoy, and make us enjoy, the human drama and human emotion and human comedy as much as the undulating mechanical beasties and smash-ups and mini-armageddons. You can even dig a serious theme out of it: the battle netweeen good and evil. (I know, I know…)
But even if we (or I) would rather see the same attention and care and talent — and money — devoted these days to adapting more of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Raymond Chandler or Cormac McCarthy, or of tackling larger, riskier subjects and grander themes in original screenplays, The Avengers has a lot to offer. Whedon’s movie amuses you and moves you and excites you, and at times, it just impresses the living hell out of you — even if, in some ways, it’s much ado about nothing, or just a glorified comic book. Excuse me: Graphic novel.