The essence of being a geek is passion. It’s all about openly loving something to an unreasonable level and sharing that love with other like-minded people. Naturally, this involves huge shows of proud affection — cosplaying, taking part in viral ad campaigns, etc. — when the Powers That Be launch something new in a franchise popular with geeks.
So here comes The Avengers, which is easily the most ambitious superhero movie released since Bryan Singer brought the X-Men to theaters. Hell, it may well be the most ambitious superhero film of all time. So when four A-list superheroes assemble with a powerful supporting cast to fight an army of aliens led by the God of Mischief in a multi-million dollar film made by Joss friggin’ Whedon, geeks are naturally going to do what they do and go crazy with excitement.
But not me.
I’ve been trying as hard as possible to keep my expectations in check for the past few days. As soon as I bought my ticket for the midnight premiere a couple of weeks ago (though I suppose that ticket was sold when Nick Fury stepped out of the shadows four years ago), I decided that I didn’t need to be hyped up any more. I didn’t need any more promo clips, spoilers, or ads to sell me on the film. I didn’t want to revisit the previous films, and I didn’t want to read any reviews, other than to answer the bottom-line question of “Is it good?”
That isn’t to say that I wasn’t excited about the film. Quite the contrary. It’s just that I didn’t want to parrot everyone else’s praise, and God forbid my write-up looks like the inane ramblings of some mindless fanboy.
The film has already made millions of dollars overseas, critics are already raving, and anyone who’s going to buy a ticket has already done so. Even with a ticket to my local midnight screening, I came late to the party. If I can’t change anyone’s mind, then at least I can type up my views in a fresh and impartial manner. I know it won’t be possible to succeed entirely, given how mouth-wateringly fantastic this movie looked in all its copious advertising, but I swear I’m going to try the best I can.
For those who don’t know the premise… well, who gives a damn? Four A-list superheroes assemble with a powerful supporting cast to fight an army of aliens led by the God of Mischief in a multi-million dollar film made by Joss friggin’ Whedon. What more could anyone ask for?
The whole point of the movie is to show its characters being awesome, and it certainly does not fail in that regard. Each of the main characters (with one exception whom I’ll mention later) gets at least one moment that’s laugh-out-loud funny. Each of the main characters gets at least one moment so awesome that I wanted to stand up and cheer. Each of the main characters has at least one moment where they act like a self-sacrificing hero and a role model. All of that goes for Loki as well, but with that last part replaced for “badass villian and a sneak.” There are a few nits to pick, however, and I’ll get to them in due course.
Tony Stark is… well, he’s phenomenal as always. Robert Downey Jr. delivers the same snarky renegade brainiac we’ve all come to know and love, but with the added benefit of Joss Whedon dialogue (“Dost thy mother know thou wearest her drapes?”). It’s a glorious thing. Also, I should point out that Stark wears a Black Sabbath t-shirt through a good chunk of the film, which is awesome.
I was especially fond of Stark’s interactions with the other characters, particularly with Captain America. Needless to say, the self-centered maverick doesn’t get along with the goody-two-shoes obedient soldier, and it doesn’t help that they were both so beloved by Tony’s dad. It’s actually Bruce Banner that Stark gets along with best, as they can both bond over the experience of getting their own scientific work blown up in their faces. They’re both geniuses, and watching them trade technobabble was a sight to see.
Oh, and Stark’s new Mark VII armor doesn’t come until the start of the climax, but the wait is so worth it.
Bruce Banner is another character who greatly benefits from Whedon’s screenwriting. Under the care of Whedon and Ruffalo, Banner is made into a character who stays zen while also displaying a sense of humor. I might add that SHIELD initially comes to Banner for his expertise in gamma radiation, which gives him something to do when he’s not an out-of-control monstrosity. Smart move. Ruffalo is also careful to keep an edge to his performance — a constant subconscious reminder of what he can become without warning at any time — which certainly helps. I think it’s too early to say if Ruffalo has truly made the role his own, but at least he seems to be having fun, which is more than I could say for Edward Norton.
As for Hulk, I personally preferred the character’s design in The Incredible Hulk. There’s something about the greasy unkempt hair and the huge muscles visible under veiny translucent skin that works better for the character. This movie didn’t even keep the glowing green eyes, to my great disappointment. That aside, the transformation looked spectacular, and Ruffalo’s mo-cap performance does the character all kinds of favors.
Next is Steve Rogers, and Chris Evans still thoroughly owns this role. There are quite a few great scenes to acknowledge Captain America’s status as a WWII-era legend, as well as Rogers’ uncertainty regarding how to accept that kind of fame. Far more impressive is how Captain America comes to be accepted as the field leader of the group. Rogers works hard to earn the trust and respect of his comrades, and he struggles to mediate arguments almost as much as he takes part in them. Yet by the end of the film, he is truly the Star-Spangled Man With A Plan. It’s a hell of a thing to watch him devise a strategy, hand out orders, and watch the whole team work as a single cohesive unit (Oh, I’ll be talking about that climax later).
Regarding Thor, Chris Hemsworth makes it clear that the character is still very much a hothead, though he’s visibly changed from his warlike days at the start of the previous film. However, the basis for his interactions with the other characters stems almost entirely from his relationship with Loki. There are times when this works well. Thor’s scenes with Loki are some of the best in the film for either character, and the world governments seem to consider Thor and his fellow Asgardians every bit as much a threat as his adopted brother. This latter part leads to a subtle yet unmistakably “Nolan-esque” statement on escalation in conflict, as well as an exquisite verbal battle royale between all of the main characters. On the other hand, there are times when Thor is quite visibly at a loss for anything else to discuss with the other characters. For example, there’s a mercifully brief scene he has with Coulson that’s supposed to be funny but falls completely flat.
Still, my biggest complaint regarding Thor’s treatment in this film is how he gets back to Earth. Specifically, we never find out. The Rainbow Bridge looked good and smashed at the end of Thor’s previous film, and I was eager to see how this movie would get around that problem. Alas, we only get one throwaway line of dialogue that raises several questions while providing exactly zero solid answers. FAIL.
Moving on to the SHIELD operatives, I’m sad to say that Hawkeye spends most of his screentime on the periphery of the film. He barely gets anything in the way of valid character development, and he only sees brief — albeit impressive — flashes of action until the climax of the film. Still, Jeremy Renner does a solid job with what he’s given, and his work in the climax is awe-inspiring (Are you getting the hint that the climax is fucking amazing?).
I suppose I should mention Nick Fury, but I really don’t see the point. Even more than RDJ is Iron Man, Samuel L. Jackson is Nick Fury. Even before Iron Man came out, anyone with the most basic knowledge of Marvel’s Ultimates comics could’ve told you that Jackson was the only man to play this role. As such, Jackson makes it look so damn easy to play Fury as an intimidating man of action, as well as a worthy leader and mentor to those under his command. Even when Jackson looks like he’s sleepwalking through a scene (Fury’s first scene with Steve Rogers comes to mind), he can’t not make this character work.
Coulson also appears, and Clark Gregg makes the character appealing and awesome as always. My only minor gripe is that he’s apparently a Captain America fanboy. It seemed rather out of character for Agent Phil Coulson to be gushing over anyone in such a way, but the guy has always been such a cypher that it’s hard to tell what’s out of character for him, so whatever.
Then there’s Black Widow. The character gets a lot of development in this film, and Scarlett Johansson makes for a surprisingly convincing badass female living in a man’s world, even if she’s clearly not going to win an Oscar anytime soon. Alas, I have one huge gripe concerning this character, and it has to do with a wrist-mounted weapon she uses. This weapon is never established or mentioned at any point in the movie, it isn’t seen until the climax, and the weapon’s use is presented in such a way that one could easily miss it simply by blinking.
Going off of Wikipedia, I assume that this is the “Widow’s Bite” — Black Widow’s signature weapon — which can shoot energy bolts from her wrists. Going off of the movie, it appears to be nothing more than a wrist-mounted taser, though it’s hard to tell. This was a hugely wasted opportunity, as it could have and should have been something unique and distinctive for Black Widow to bring to the team, other than a set of spectacular curves. As it is, all she has are some great gymnastic talents, expert marksmanship, formidable hand-to-hand combat skills, and a wonderful knack for interrogation. That’s enough to make her a superhero by real-world standards, I grant you, but it’s only enough to make her a B-lister at best in the Marvel universe.
Now we come to Maria Hill. I can remember so many great moments from all the other heroes in this film, but I can’t remember any for Maria. I don’t think she told a single joke or one-liner, and though she does hold her own in a fight, even Coulson makes her look tame by comparison. No, Maria is in the film entirely to serve as Fury’s lieutenant. She’s there to act as a sounding board for his observations and to help him bark out orders, that’s it. That said, Cobie Smulders does play the role with a tough and intelligent kind of everywoman charm, and it’s no small feat that Maria appears to be a competent right-hand woman to Nick Fury. Also, I could have sworn I saw the faintest hint of a possible romance between her and Captain America, though that might have just been me struggling for anything to hold onto with this character. I can see a lot of potential for Maria Hill and for Smulders’ portrayal of her, though I highly doubt we’re going to see that potential tapped anytime soon.
Before moving on to the villain, I’d like to talk about the tertiary cast. First and foremost is Gwyneth Paltrow, who comes on to play a few scenes as Pepper Potts. The repartee between Potts and Stark was definitely a highlight of the two Iron Man films, but this movie finds them in an active romance. This adds a wonderful new layer to their interplay, since Pepper now has Tony wrapped even tighter around her finger. If this is a glimpse of where their relationship is headed, then I can’t wait to see more of it in Iron Man 3. And if Paltrow can bring those short shorts with her to the sequel, so much the better.
Paul Bettany also makes a return as Jarvis, delivering the same flat and dry performance as ever. Then again, Bettany is playing an AI, so it works well.
Another returning performer is Stellan Skarsgard, reprising his role as Dr. Erik Selvig. He plays an important part in the plot this time, which I’ll admit is an upgrade from his outing in Thor. That said, it’s rather pathetic that Selvig is supposed to be this scientific genius, yet two films have gone by and he’s yet to appear as anything other than a worthless idiot. It pains me to see Skarsgard waste his talents in this role when I know that he’s so much more talented than this.
Finally, we come at last to Loki. Honestly, I’m torn about this character. On the one hand, Tom Hiddleston plays the part with such bastardly glee that there’s no way to watch him and not be entertained. Additionally, given that the movie is all about titanic egos clashing while they learn how to work as a team, matching our heroes against the god of illusions, deceptions, manipulations, and chaos makes all kinds of sense. On the other hand, I just don’t get Loki as a villain. He makes a few grandiose speeches here and there, but even with the combined talents of Whedon and Hiddleston, those speeches still come off as hackneyed rhetoric. I’m not even sure how that’s possible, yet here we are. As in Thor, the film tries to paint its villain as a being with the powers of a god and the emotional maturity of a child, but the contradiction doesn’t quite seem to mesh. Then again, I suppose it doesn’t help that we’re talking about the god of manipulation. When he shows some sign of acknowledging just how infantile and short-sighted his plans are, is that a brief moment of sincere character growth or just a ruse to trick the heroes? Possibly both? We may never know.
Oh, and did I mention that a main character dies in this film? Well, a main character dies in this film. Because, y’know, it’s a Joss Whedon picture. Speaking of which, there are several neat little cameos for the hardcore Whedon fans to try and spot.
All in all, it must be repeated, the film does a fine job at giving all of its characters a chance to shine. That said, given the sheer size and scope of this juggling act, it was inevitable that a few things got lost in the shuffle and some sacrifices had to be made. I’ve already touched on a few of them with regards to the Widow’s Bite and Thor’s inexplicable return to Earth.
Adding to the list, I’d include the aliens that Loki barters with to conquer Earth on his behalf. These aliens play essentially zero role in the plot until the climax, postponing their development and establishment for another movie. Hell, the aliens are eventually defeated in such a way that I’m left wondering if they were alien life forms or remote-controlled robots.
Marvel was very smart to keep their identities hidden until the day of release, because they bring precious little to the film except spectacle and cannon fodder. Without the remote possibility that they might have been Skrulls or some other fan favorite, these aliens would have had zilch. That said, I should note that according to the film, these beings are a race completely unknown to Earth and to Asgard. This means that the scope of the Marvel Movie Universe goes beyond the “Nine Realms” boundary established in Thor. Interesting.
Anyway, the lack of development on the alien army is really just a symptom of a greater cause: The plot for this movie is extremely slim. If you took out all the screen time of the heroes bickering together and fighting beside each other, limiting the film only to what was absolutely necessary, this 142-minute movie would be 60 minutes long at most. Then again, seeing the heroes bicker together and fight beside each other is the whole reason why this film was made, and those scenes are also what make the film incredibly fun to watch, so there!
The sound design of the movie really impressed me. It was so very refreshing to see an invading alien force that didn’t sound Cybertronian, and all the rampant destruction on screen packs a nice audio punch. Additional kudos are due to the mechanical noises of the Iron Man suit, as well as the distinctive “thud” that comes every single time Mjolnir hits the ground. Last but not least, Alan Silvestri gets a ton of bonus points for his jaw-dropping score. I was a little disappointed that Silvestri didn’t recycle his Captain America March, but seriously, just listen to this!
In terms of visual strength… wow. Aside from one green screen shot in the climax that looked kinda subpar, the effects in this film were all extraordinary. I also got a huge kick out of the 3D option, which made the action scenes even more spectacular.
Oh, the action scenes. Oh, that climax. Even if Whedon does indulge in a teeny bit of shaky-cam and frenetic editing, the fight scenes in this film are glorious. They’re all inventive, they’re all done with a perfect amount of comedy relief, and they are all absolutely worthy of such a huge superhero crossover. The scenes in which they fight each other can often defy all reason (Captain America’s shield held out against Mjolnir? Really?), but it’s still immensely satisfying to see these superhumans make their anger known by wailing on each other. Still more satisfying is the sight of them fighting as comrades, which is where creative fight choreography, wonderful camera work, strategic pacing, and watershed moments of character development all converge into distinct points of awesomeness.
In case I haven’t made this point clear enough yet, the climax is easily the film’s greatest case in point. I want someone to show this climax to Michael Bay with a subtitle on the screen, reading “THIS IS HOW YOU DO IT.” And remember, this is coming from a guy who actually liked the climactic scenes in the first and third Transformers films.
This is a battle in New York City that makes the climax of The Incredible Hulk look like a bar fight. Skyscrapers get demolished, aliens get killed by the hundreds, our heroes kick ass and get their asses kicked, and yet it’s not all about destruction. In the midst of all this, the film will take breaks to show our heroes protecting each other, saving civilian lives, and inspiring local police to take action. We even see the National Guard step up to the plate, even if their efforts do little good if any. The climax doesn’t just show good and evil in a hugely explosive war that causes untold billions in collateral damage, it shows good people — both superpowered and otherwise — earning the title of “hero.”
Finally, I suppose I should mention that like every other Marvel film, this one has a post-credits scene. But unlike every other Marvel film, this one has two. The first one is actually shown partway through the credits, and that’s essentially the spoileriffic teaser we’ve come to expect from these bonus scenes. You’re welcome to stay and see the second one if you want, but the film will only mock you for it.
I have my nitpicks with The Avengers, but it’s absolutely a film that’s worth the hype. The plot is thin, there are a couple of continuity holes, and there are a few short sticks for the secondary and tertiary cast to draw from. Still, the focus is on the main characters, and they are all portrayed with aplomb. In the action, in the comedy, and in the interactions between our leads, it’s patently obvious that absolutely everyone involved with this movie — from Joss Whedon on down — made this film with a deep affection for what makes these heroes flawed, and what makes these heroes awesome. If anyone out there is still on the fence, I highly recommend watching it.
Though the phrase “Avengers Assemble!” was never even paid homage to, now that I think about it. What’s up with that?