Great ideas often only seem great in hindsight. Especially in the movie business. In the years that Walt Disney was in production on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the press routinely referred to it as “Disney’s folly.” Who wants to sit through a feature-length animated film? Scoff! The Avengers of course will never be as historically significant as Snow White, but it is interesting what a forgone conclusion the movie’s success feels like now that the press has seen it, compared to in 2008 when Nick Fury first popped up for a world-expanding cameo after the credits of Iron Man. There is nothing special about the idea of making a “The Avengers” movie adaptation. The X-Men and Fantastic Four are both super teams, after all. But contextualizing a film in the same way The Avengers had been in the comics, by launching each of the primary characters in their own respective film series? Keeping the same cast all the way through? Building not just a Marvel universe, but a Marvel movie universe? That is outside-the-box. Superheroes may have been top dog in Hollywood throughout the 00′s, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that Warner Bros has been operating the entire DC universe for the past 30-odd years and never dreamed up such ambition. Starting multiple franchises all at the same time, even if some of them under-perform, just to get to The Avengers — a movie people may not even care about if they skipped some of the preceding films? This is the kind of idea that fans toss around on message boards but that studio execs get ulcers just thinking about. This was Marvel’s folly. But on May 4 most people are going to walk out of the theater wondering why no one attempted this sooner. Because The Avengers is good. Real good. Real, real good.
Since The Avengers isn’t really its own film, but rather a sequel in a very unorthodox franchise, it is probably relevant to note where my opinions on the existing Marvel-verse films lie. Of Marvel Studios’ five films, I only truly loved one (Iron Man) and only actively disliked one other (Iron Man 2), I found Thor and Captain America both flawed but entertaining, and The Incredible Hulk to be inoffensive but forgettable. And while I respected what Marvel was trying to narratively accomplish ramping up to The Avengers, I thought that the preoccupation with using SHIELD to connect the films started to hobble the individual properties with tangential exposition, especially Thor. Here of course is where the ‘folly’ aspect comes in. Was it worth treating these disparate franchises as prologues to a whole other film? I never doubted that The Avengers would get made, but for a while there I certainly doubted whether it was going to be worth it.
Along these lines, as I hinted at in that first paragraph, I think a lot of people out there may be wondering — do I need to have seen the previous Marvel Studios films to enjoy The Avengers? Well, yes. You don’t need to have watched season one of Game of Thrones in order to sit down and watch season two. You could hop on Wikipedia or get filled in by a friend or just make due with the season one recap montage. Same thing here. But you’re going to lose some percentage of emotional satisfaction because the movie assumes you have seen the other films. Think of The Avengers as the ‘Holiday Special’ between season one and season two of Marvel Studios: The TV Show. Plot-wise, the film is only a direct follow-up to Thor and Captain America, but more important than story continuity, there is an emotional continuity at work here too. You’re supposed to care about Tony Stark and Pepper Pott’s relationship, not just know that they are in one. If you follow me. Some may see this as a short-coming for The Avengers. I don’t. It is its greatest strength, and it is your loss if you aren’t willing to put in the time to get there. But before I start fawning all over the place about this ‘strength,’ it makes sense to first talk about the film’s weaknesses…
Here’s the story of The Avengers: Loki (somehow) isn’t dead. He’s been taken in by some shady outer space creeps who want Loki to get them the Tesseract (as seen in Thor and Captain America). As payment they’ll give Loki an army powerful enough to take over our world, which Loki wants to do out of spite for Thor, cause Loki is a juvenile douche. So Loki comes to Earth and steals the Tesseract from SHIELD, also brain-washing Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard). Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is pissed off and concerned about Earth, so he assembles Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to fight Loki. Then they do.
I’ve now seen The Avengers twice and the flimsy nature of the “plot” is even more apparent the second time around. I’ve heard others gripe about story problems with Act I, but I don’t think the story actually gets any better in Act II or III — you just care less once our heroes are all together and punching things. There isn’t a story. The movie is an endless series of MacGuffins. The Tesseract is a MacGuffin. The rare element Loki needs to power the Tesseract is an even bigger MacGuffin, and the item Loki needs in order to acquire that rare element is an even bigger one yet. Hell, the entire middle section of the film, in which Loki is being held prisoner aboard SHIELD’s flying aircraft carrier, happens for no reason other than cinematic funzies; writer-director Joss Whedon barely even tries to offer an explanation for Loki’s “plan” in allowing himself to be captured. The Chitauri, Loki’s alien army, have no identity, existing merely as a numberless horde for our heroes to indiscriminately kill during the uber-climax. And Loki’s villainous motivation to take over the world – the crux of the whole film – seems lamer every time he elaborates on it out loud. Joss Whedon’s monumental achievement, both in writing and directing, is that none of that matters once the movie ends. We could break all this shit down, exposing the frail story, the hacky character development, the shallow mechanics at work, we could get all film school on it, focus on the offending bits and act like a movie needs to follow certain narrative rules to be objectively “good,” but to quote Bill Murray’s inspirational speech in Meatballs: IT JUST DOESN’T MATTER! IT JUST DOESN’T MATTER! IT JUST DOESN’T MATTER!
This movie is so much fun I could barely stand it. John Carter managed to win me over because it was fun, but I had to power-down the nitpicky section of my brain. The Avengers shut that portion down for me. In fact, any time my inner grouch regained his strength and tried to surface for air, in short order Joss Whedon put a boot in the grouch’s face and sent him back down. The story may be a facade, but so is all of Disneyland. Whedon didn’t get lucky here. There is cunning and thought happening in all the execution. On paper The Avengers has an undercooked plot, but that’s largely because it isn’t any one character’s story. It is a cross-over team-up superhero movie. It is “who would win in a fight, Superman or Mighty Mouse” playground fanfic come to life. The movie may be a little shallow, but I think Marvel has earned that. Let the heroes explore their depths in their own respective franchises. We’re all here to have some fun. This is play time. Besides, a movie isn’t “on paper.” It’s on the big screen. As a piece of mainstream popular entertainment, The Avengers is damn near flawless. It is a popcorn masterpiece. And my admiration is all directed at one person…
Producer Kevin Feige deserves all the credit he gets for steering the crazy Marvel Studios ship this far, and the cast – particularly Robert Downey Jr. – is why most people will be showing up on May 4. But this isn’t Christopher Nolan’s Batman 3. Marvel Studios isn’t Pixar. There hasn’t exactly been a profound sense of creative consistency here. Optimistically, I felt confident in assuming that The Avengers would be ‘okay,” but also assumed it would prove divisive, as Captain America and Thor were/are. Joss Whedon was a shrewd choice for screenwriter, having successfully juggled ensemble casts (many with super powers) on four different TV series. If nothing else, with him on board you knew the script would be funny (and it is very funny). But I wasn’t so sure he would be up to the task of directing such an action behemoth. Whedon proved me wrong there, and then some.
I said that feeling like the ‘Holiday Special’ of a TV series was The Avengers‘ greatest strength. And here is why — 1) On just a basic level, while origin stories tend to have the most emotional impact, they also usually have the least amount of what we want. As Spider Man, X-Men, and Nolan’s Batman all demonstrated, part 2 is where the real fun can happen. Marvel already got the context out of the way for our heroes, so let’s run with this ball. 2) On a creative level, most TV shows don’t start off at full potential. Joss Whedon’s two long-running series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, both didn’t click until the second season and didn’t start firing on all cylinders until the third season. It takes a while to organically reach a comfort zone with the setting and characters. Whedon clearly has a deep understanding of this (one of the many reasons Firefly fans still foam at the mouth that they only got one season; how good could it have gotten?!). Whedon’s signature banter is his most obvious gift (or obnoxious curse, to his haters), but his most impressive talent is how well he understands his characters. Not just their motivations and how to ground their often high-concept nature in relatable ways, but understanding their role in the chess game of the narrative. Whedon knows how to move his pieces around to achieve the greatest possible emotional response, whether that response be laughter, tears, tension, fear or thrills. It would be fun to watch the Avengers bicker and trade blows no matter what. That’s why The Avengers was always going to be watchable. But it is the timing that Whedon implements – when they bicker and fight, and who is bickering and fighting with who – that makes the film so consistent in its sheer entertainment. Yes, it takes time to get all these pieces together, but it had to be that way. And once Whedon has collected the Avengers, the fun never fucking stops. I love how Whedon effortlessly pairs the characters off in different scenarios, forging meaningful bonds and interesting friction. Bruce Banner and Tony Stark nerding out with each other? Perfect! Hulk holding a grudge against Thor because of a previous fight? Hilarious! Hulk holding a soft spot for Tony Stark because Stark believed in Banner? Aww!
You can see the lessons and tricks Whedon took away from Buffy, Angel, Firefly and even Dollhouse. I don’t know how much Whedon personally cared for these individual characters, but he got all of them, how to maximize their best features and what their function should be in the larger ensemble. Existing fans needed to be pleased, while not pandering to any one character disproportionately. I can’t really imagine anyone else having written The Avengers quite as well. With the exception of SHIELD agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) – who is basically Wilson the volleyball from Cast Away, existing solely so that Nick Fury won’t be delivering exposition in soliloquy – Whedon pulls off the nigh impossible, giving full service too all our characters. Hawkeye fans will probably be disappointed that the character spends most of the movie hypnotized, but with Nick Fury, Thor, Iron Man, Hulk and Cap already in play, with Black Widow beefed up to provide a female presence, and with Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) needed as the “little guy,” there just isn’t much need of him. He is one character too many. Hawkeye still gets to do some fabulous archery nonsense, but someone had to take the short straw and Whedon chose wisely.
You can also see the directing lessons Whedon took away from his TV shows. With Serenity as his sole feature film directing credit, how Whedon would perform in his directorial duties was the wild card here. I was blown away by how well Whedon handles it all. Like the Transformers sequels, The Avengers climaxes in a truly epic downtown super battle. Unlike the Transformers sequels, this epic downtown super battle is engaging. For one thing, you can tell what the hell is going on (certainly helps that our heroes are all wearing distinctive costumes). And Whedon layers the battle, with various heroes pairing off in various moments, before bringing them all together in the money shot featured in all the trailers. Whedon proves he can do big. But what makes The Avengers feel so vibrant isn’t the spectacle action, but the small scale action. Here is where I think Whedon’s TV roots played a wonderful role. While the audience waits for our heroes to stop bickering and become the Avengers, the real appeal of the film is its Freddy Vs Jason quality. More than we want to see them all back-to-back fighting aliens we want to see them fight each other. Both Buffy and Angel had great fight choreography, and Whedon understands what makes for a good and inventive fist fight. Iron versus Thor. Thor versus Hulk. Cap versus Thor. Cap versus Iron Man. These are the most delectable flavors to savor in The Avengers. Whedon understands what we want and need, possibly even more than we do. And most consummately, Whedon understands…
The Incredible Hulk.
If you have read anything about The Avengers in the past few weeks you’ve likely already heard this, but is deserves to be repeated — finally someone got Hulk right! I’ve always loved the Hulk. I only had one superhero poster in my bedroom as a kid and it was this one:
While I think there is definitely a way to make a better solo Hulk film than the two we’ve already received, Hulk is a fundamentally tricky character. He is basically a werewolf. Our hero is Bruce Banner, who doesn’t want to turn into the Hulk. But we want him to turn into the Hulk, and every second that he isn’t turning into the Hulk has the potential to be boring and a little frustrating. Another problem is that what makes Hulk such an appealing concept in the Marvel Universe (especially to little boys) is that Hulk is an unstoppable force once unleashed. No one is stronger than Hulk. But in a Hulk movie he needs a villain with the potential to destroy him, and that takes away some of the inherent fun. In The Avengers all these problems are made moot. With Hulk pushed into a supporting role we are given the opportunity to actually enjoy the character of Bruce Banner, because our battle-lust is satiated by watching the rest of the guys punch each other. This in fact heightens Banner, as all our other characters are desperately tip-toeing around him, trying to make sure he stays small and non-green. When Hulk finally gets unleashed, it now feels like an epiphany, without any resentment that we were kept waiting.
Whedon clearly loves the Hulk as much as I do. I don’t want to spoil any specific gags, but Hulk steals the whole goddamn movie. He gets three of the five biggest laughs in the film, and the film’s single most satisfying moment (I’ll just say it involves a very shocked looking Loki). My adult-ness was powerless to Hulk in The Avengers. When he was on screen my decades stripped away and I was left a 10-year-old boy, drooling with pure, guiltless, innocent joy. It was almost a religious experience. When Cap takes charge of the Avengers during the final battle, barking orders to our other heroes, then turns to a seething Hulk and says, “Hulk… smash” I literally teared up — from happiness! On my deathbed I very well may look back on my life’s brightest moments and have to decide if the birth of my first child should be above or below watching Hulk go completely apeshit in The Avengers. And I can’t leave out praise for Mark Ruffalo either. Eric Bana was a terrible choice for Banner. Too big, too handsome, and totally unbelievable as a rage-tormented genius. Edward Norton was a step in the right direction, but though many Hulk fans dug Norton as Banner, I did not. Ruffalo is perfect, especially for Whedon’s take on Banner, weary but with a sense of humor about it all. Ruffalo lacks the smugness that Norton brought to the role, and his look offsets him from the tall and buff actors surrounding him. After The Incredible Hulk I thought it would probably be best to retire the franchise and just keep Hulk for The Avengers. Now I’m not so sure. I think I’d like a Ruffalo solo film.
Whedon’s other big save is Black Widow (such a dull blur in Iron Man 2), who Whedon gives his typical strong-female shine job. Scarlett Johansson is completely wrong for the part, but Black Widow gets a lot of great dialogue, so it doesn’t really matter. Forgive me for not saying anything about the rest of the cast, but you’ve already seen these people play these characters. Nothing has changed. Downey Jr still dominates all his scenes. Hemsworth is still adorably gigantic. Samuel L. Jackson proves once again that even when he’s phoning it is he’s still Samuel L. Jackson. Clark Gregg continues to kill it with his endearingly sarcastic delivery. I personally don’t get what all the fuss is about with Tom Hiddleston. While I like Hiddleston in general, I find him rather average as Loki, losing every acting face-off he has in the film except for a big scene with Johansson (surprise, surprise). But hey, if you think he’s great than boffo for you. He’s the villain! In any case, this is a film that is bigger than its villain. Loki is a MacGuffin like everything else. Oh, and Harry Dean Stanton also swoops in and nails it for a lovely little comedy scene.
There are countless more things I want to say and moments I want to single out, but it is hard to do so without getting monotonous or into spoilers. It is a credit to the film that I’ve already blathered about it at length, yet I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of its pleasures. To answer my own question from before — Was it worth treating these disparate franchises as prologues to a whole other film? Yes. A hundred times yes. And I’m fine with them wasting the entire next round of sequels to set-up The Avengers 2 if it will be as good as this. They can even toss in some new bullshit. Ant Man. Black Panther. Whatever. Bring it. Your move DC.
You NEED to see this with an audience. Not for the film’s sake, but for yours. It has been a long, long time since I’ve seen a film that elicited so many vocal responses from the audience. Not just laughter, but cheers and whoops and periodic applause. This is a movie designed to bring an audience together. You’ll all leave the theater with a childlike urge to start posing and fake punching each other — and arguing over which one of you gets to be Hulk.
The 3D doesn’t really add anything but it isn’t bad or intrusive. And yes, there is a scene after the credits. But you’ll need to be a well-read Marvel comics fan to fully appreciate it.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
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