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Saturday
May052012

Review: "The Avengers"

This review was originally published in my column at Towleroad...

If Agent Natasha Romanoff can interrupt an espionage interrogation to attend...

If Thor can find a way back to Earth without his rainbow bridge...

If Tony Stark can stop erecting enormous arguably phallic odes to himself for a moment...

If Captain America can get back in shape now that he's out of deep freeze...

And if Dr Bruce Banner can come out of self-imposed exile to join Marvel's THE AVENGERS, than I really ought to be able to review some movies again. Let's go.

 

After roughly four years of movie-length commercials for The Avengers (formerly known as: Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger) "Earth's Mightiest Heroes" have finally assembled. To fans of the superhero genre, this probably feels like an impossible dream realized. To non-fans of the superhero genre this might play like the perfect time for a showstopping climax -take a bow and give mere mortals some movies again! The latter group should brace themselves. This particular blockbuster is lively enough to greenlight an even bigger movie family of men (and hopefully some women) in tights. MORE AFTER THE JUMP...

Marvel wisely handed the reigns over to writer/director Joss Whedon who is still best known for creating one of the greatest TV shows of all time (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and who has only directed one previous feature (Serenity). Though I'm a big Whedon believer, the opening moments worried me. 

The film starts with a brief but dull outerspace prologue designed to tell us that the Earth will soon be threatened (Duh! The superheroes have to protect the world from something). Without context this unfortunately brings Green Lantern's information overload opening to mind though it's happily the last completely useless scene in the film. Once Loki (Tom Hiddleston) steals the glowing cube of power known as the Tesseract from Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson) at S.H.I.E.L.D., the story is jolted to life. (Loki also steals Jeremy Renner but who wouldn't?)

But why is Hulk chasing The Black Widow?


Sorry but I can't tell you!

I don't want to spoil any plot details but let's just say that Joss Whedon is basically the world's greatest fanfic writer. He finds numerous clever ways to pit the superheroes against one another throughout the course of the action even though they're on the same side. Hero vs. Hero has always been a staple, however convoluted in the details, of both comic book narratives and fan fiction but we rarely get to see it onscreen.

Like most modern blockbusters that supersize themselves The Avengers, at 142 minutes long, has its duller patches. The heroes spend an awful lot of time on minor bickering and self doubt on an invisible floating ship that doesn't have quite enough character to sustain a third of the movie. Loki's outsourced alien army is also depressingly personality-free and derivative but that's a minor quibble as there's plenty of big personas around waiting for their turn to shine. The Avengers' multiple character introductions aren't as gracefully swift as Serenity's remarkable opening scene, but Whedon's dependable talent for finding the humor and fissures and alliances within group dynamics is put to fine use. Somehow they made an Avengers movie without any of Earth's Mightiest Egos demanding the spotlight. Even the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), merely extraneous eye candy in Iron Man 2, is used about as well as you could possibly hope for.

Whedon's bravest gambit in the storytelling might be the way he handles The Hulk (Eric Bana Ed Norton Mark Ruffalo). He pins much anticipatory weight on the where and the when and the how quickly Bruce Banner might Hulk out, confidently assuming the audience will beg for it, ignoring the fact that Hulk has a reputation for boring them on the big screen. Mark Ruffalo's wonderfully mellow screen vibe makes for a nice bit of counterintuitive casting yet you still believe him when he says he's angry all the time. Whedon and Ruffalo (through motion-capture acting) make the Hulk so entertaining, in fact, that he gets the single biggest laugh in the movie. It's a blink and you'll miss it comic beat in the middle of the finale's mayhem.

Tom Hiddleston, threatening and magical

And what glorious mayhem. Though The Avengers never reaches the pop iconography heights of Spider-Man 2 (my choice for Best Superhero Film) and it doesn't even attempt the majestic gravitas of The Dark Knight (most people's choice for Best Superhero Film) preferring to keep it light and quippy, its final act is so big and crazy and super-powered that you leave on a true high. I'm still thinking of its most eye-popping moments: Thor's hammer meeting Captain America's shield; Iron Man's unusually vertiginous costume change; A billion dollar complex sinking into the earth; Loki's sorcery and Tom Hiddleston's equally magic acting; The Hulk sliding down skyscrapers; Chris Evans' ass in sweatpants.

That sound you hear exiting the theater is not just the aftershocks of multiple geek orgasms, but the crying jags of Warner Bros executives. They famously gave Joss Whedon the boot on the still languishing Wonder Woman movie. Damn, but she would have lassoed the world anew with Whedon guiding her. 

Captain Pop Culture: Joss Whedon

Grade: B/B+
Oscar Hopeful?: Given the cold shoulder the Academy gave Hulk, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America (0 nominations between the four of them) I'd say it's unlikely even in the craft categories. Unless they like the team as much as the Iron Man movies in which case, they've got an outside shot at Visual Effects and Sound categories.

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Reader Comments (26)

I basically agree with all of this. It was nice for all the heroes to have such distinguished personality traits without making them seeming flat. And it really does amaze me how much more stuff Scarlett had to work with here, really does redeem her just standing around looking hot in Iron Man 2.

May 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSeeking Amy

Totally agree with so much of this. The first hour kind of drags in places, but I guess that's to be expected when you're waiting for the big scenes. Really enjoyed Ruffalo but I always do. But why was Evans covered in so much make-up? He looked so waxy you could practically mistake his entire performance as a CGI effect.

I felt bad for Johansson. Everyone has magic powers except her and Renner, but at least Renner gets that cool bow. She just gets what, a little gun? Lame.

And yeah, that gag with the Hulk and Thor had me laughing way louder than I expected to be laughing at that movie.

May 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

Omg, how did I never hear this Wonder Woman thing? Joss Whedon doing that would be fantastic! Buffy is amazing, spectacular, legendary, etc., so I'm sure he'd do great with another female hero.

May 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

Thank you for articulating my feelings on the opening scene with Loki and the aliens; It really did remind me of Green Lantern. Anyway, I gave the movie a B+ also. It's not on the level of Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight or X2 (My favorite Superhero Movie) but it's good fun and the Best Marvel Studio Film yet.

May 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Armour

I wasn't that crazy on it for a lot of reasons. One of the main ones is I felt like Loki (and Hiddleston by extension) was totally wasted. He went from being an interesting and layered villain in Thor to totally neutered in this one

May 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

I haven't seen Thor or Captain America or The Hulk or Iron Man, but I'm interested in watching this one for some reason. To I have to watch those first or can I go in without watching them and still 'get it'/enjoy it?

May 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

for me ,it's a nice popcorn movie and a Baner/Stark show but a few long with a tiny story and a final endless action scene

May 6, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterfrench girl

You used to be an observant reviewer.
Portraying Bruce Banner as (in)capable of controlling what's inside him and The Hulk as an ugly gorilla is a "gambit" indeed.
Thor is certainly not demanding the spotlight. Robbed of the moods and shades he showed in his own film, he basically only shows up for fighting. And you don't even dare to mention the desaster that Hawkeye was: zombified, played by a baby-faced midget, and armed with a bow that's apparently coming from kmart.
Worst of all though was the man you call "threatening and magical". Loki is barely recognizable as the comparatively complex character from Thor. By abandoning Loki's more complicated character traits, Whedon has flattened him into the stereotype power-seeking Hollywood sociopath with supernatural powers. And to make matters even worse, Joss foists way too many oafish moments on Loki and therefore undermines the threat that the character is (not?) supposed to be.
You don't spoil any plot details by saying that "Whedon is basically the world's greatest fanfic writer". In fact, he has a peculiar tendency to reduce major plot points to simple throwaway lines.

May 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

Willy -- it's totally fine to disagree with the review. I didn't think it was a masterpiece or anything. But you're willfully misreading what I said about the way he used the Hulk. I'm not saying he reinvented the character. I'm saying it's a gambit to assume confidently that you can hang that much "omg when?" suspense on something that casual observation of pop culture will tell you nobody would feel suspenseful about (since people don't like the Hulk in general)

And I guess we have different takes on Thor which I think is a much weaker film than this... though obviously with the entire movie to flesh it out it does have a slightly more complex brother vs brother psychology.

But your distaste for Jeremy Renner is amusing ;)

Frenchgirl -- too long yes. But what blockbuster isn't?

Alex -- i don't think you need to have seen the other ones. You'll miss a few things but they were basically commercials for this one.

May 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Man, this movie was awesome. I can understand to a certain extent some of the reasons why people dont think its that good. But since I have been a comic book fan since 1981, this is a moment I have dreamed of for decades. And I think The Avengers got it right. Everything you could want in an entertaining movie busting with visuals, action, dialogue, humor,...could go on and on. I for one didnt think it was too long. Say when you compared to the length of freaking Transformers 3 which was like 2 hours and 40 minutes..overkill. Avengers is right on the mark. Can't wait for the sequel. Great write-up Nathaniel!

May 6, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermonty

Enjoyed reading this. LOVED the movie. This is what I want from my popcorn films - humor, action, fun, very few times I want to cringe. Whedon is finally being noticed on a huge scale. This is definitely a fluff film - The Dark Knight and X2 are doing something entirely different. Comparing them would be like comparing a tasty main course to cotton candy, and honestly, why not have both?

May 6, 2012 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

Is there a superhero Joss Whedon hasn't pitched? Studios passed on has Batman pitch, as well.

May 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

B+ suggests a near-masterpiece. But now it's a B/B+.
You even said "bravest" gambit, and I don't know if people don't like the Hulk in general. Both recent Hulk movies have ardent supporters. Actually, I thought that the casting of a new and well-respected actor as Banner was a natural advantage for Whedon; one that he totally ruined by making it all about Banner's inability to control the transformation and the way he behaves as the Hulk, only to finally turn things upside down with "I'm always angry" (or whatever it was. I can't remember all those throwaway lines).
I don't have distaste for Renner but for Renner's desperate desire to become an action star. He simply does not look it.
But I admit that The Avengers promoted Thor from a movie I could live with to a movie I kinda like.

May 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

The scale of these epic Marvel movies always seem kind of pathetic to me: Loki marshals an interdimensional force barely big enough to destroy 5th Avenue. Ho hum. People, if you're not going to give Spidey a cameo just stay out of Manhattan.

Nevertheless, the superstar enable animates the snappy dialog, Marvel-ous plot contrivances and animation into a solid A blockbuster. However, given Whedon's penchant for strong women characters, The Black Widow intro and backstory was a letdownt; instead of Johansen delivering an Oscar-trite monologue, they should have just left her mysterious and kick-ass (e.g. Ruffalo's Hulk) and it would have been a better film.

Having now seen Renner's five biggest hits, I still don't get it. He's being groomed for Cruise, Damon and Wahlberg caliber assignments, but at his best he seems like a barely memorable supporting character. Case in point: Hawkeye.

So I give it a middling B.

As far as I'm concerned the A standard for assembling a dysfunctional team to prevent apocalyptic annihilation remains THE WATCHMEN.

May 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVern

Willy and Vern -- it's interesting to me that willy thinks B+ means "near masterpiece" while Vern thinks B means "middling" while I think B and B+ mean solid to quite good and C is middling. Grading is such a werid practice with art and always has been. I usually adjust back and forth with grades between one small step. Only rarely does something jump or plummet a lot in grading.

May 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

I meant a mid-range B; Middling would have been a C.

I agree with you Nat, it was a solid spandex-buster. But when I started thinking about why it wasn't masterful I figured it needed a bit more umph in the character and plot development-- plus all the baggage Willy trots out. Or, better yet, for me to suddenly be 20 years younger.

May 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVern

I'm waiting until the crowds die down a bit, but oh man, i'm pretty sure this is going to be one of the best action flicks ever

May 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Steiner

Vern: Well the comic's great. Can't give the movie anything close to an A, though. Too hermetically sealed and Malin Akerman is TERRIBLE. Overall B-. It's better than 300, but that's not a high compliment.
Next superhero film I'm looking forward, aside from the two in this year's crop, is Edgar Wright's Ant-Man film. I remember the idea was to make a film about the Ant-Men (Hank Pym and Scott Lang). I'm unsure yet whether he'll try to incorporate Eric O'Grady as well, but I'd hope so, considering we've waited this long.

May 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I thought the movie was very enjoyable, I liked it. The audience I saw it with seemed to like it a lot too, there was a lot of laughing and clapping and applause at the end of the movie.

You definitely don't need to see the previous movies to get anything that's going on in this one, though you may have a better understanding of the Loki/Thor relationship if you see Thor, and what the deal is with Tony Stark if you see Iron Man. I haven't seen Iron Man 2 or Captain America myself, and while there was clearly a background to Captain America that I wasn't up on, I didn't need that background to get the gist of what was going on with him in The Avengers.

May 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJessica

I haven't seen The Avengers yet because I was unable to get to the movies this weekend. I will see it, but I'm not happy about it. I'm sure it's good, and I liked the Iron Man movies, Thor, and Captain America,and really applaud the choice of directors and cast for all of them, but the law of diminishing returns with all these superhero movies has been in full effect, and it's not necessarily due to their quality. It's overload. I just can't work up the excitement for these movies anymore, because it's just constant. It feels like there isn't a month that goes by without a new superhero/comic book/franchise movie coming out. Sigh.

I'll see it. I'm sure I'll like it. I'm sure I'll forget about it the next day. I don't really care about all that. I just wish I could feel the excitement that everyone else seems to feeling about it.

May 7, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Another thing: did anyone else notice that, despite the budget and impressive effects, random things here and there looked cheap? I'm think specifically of Loki's kind of ridiculous dual-horned costume and even during the final Manhattan battle the close-ups of the streets and stores looked strangely cheap and cheesy.

May 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

Denny - No one says you can't take a break. :) No reason to spend money on a movie you're not excited about

May 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

Very articulate review Nathaniel; both gushing in joy and knowledgeable of the movies handful of flaws. Agree with you on Spidey 2 as the reigning king of superheroes still, a fact that seemingly everyone tends to forget.

May 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Z

I've seen all the movies and each one lasted better than the other especially The Hulk Films. Seen the Avengers 5 times already and it never gets old in my opinion. The storyline was good but yet it had great one-liners especially from RDJ and Mark Ruffalo brought a new light to being Dr. Banner but with all seriousness, It's not the greatest Visual Effects movie but if it doesn't get nominated on at least the costumes than the acedemy should be ashamed, if they could nominate Avatar than The Avengers should have a shot at it.

June 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBen Bergman

I think that this movie was super awesome for the most part, but like someone said it did kinda drag in some places. I just wonder if it will be better than the New Batman movie. I made a comparison between the two in this article I've written, and would like you to check it out. Let me know your thoughts. Thank you.

http://willic22.hubpages.com/hub/The-Avengers-vs-The-Dark-Knight-Rises

June 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterchris williams

This movie is drawing the world attention and becoming big during Halloween 2012.

July 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAvengers
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