Posted by: Trey | 05/05/2012

“If we can’t protect the Earth, you can be damn sure we’ll avenge it!”

The Avengers (2012)

4 Cosmic Cubes (out of 5)

Iron Man. Thor. Captain America. The Incredible Hulk. The Redhead Spy from Iron Man 2 and That Arrow-Shooty Guy Who Didn’t Do Much in Thor (Okay, yeah, Black Widow and Hawkeye. I know who they are. I’m a comic book reader. I’ll get to my point in a minute). Marvel has been building their cinematic universe for about four years now, and it has all been building to this film. How does that kind of buildup pay off? Pretty damn well for fans of the series and/or the comics.

Joss Whedon deserves a lot of credit for successfully balancing a team of characters (and actors) who are, for the most part, used to headlining their own solo projects. Of course, crafting a balanced ensemble out of strong personalities is one of Whedon’s specialties, right up there with clever, witty banter and creating powerful female characters who fight barefoot. He is helped in part by the existing cinematic storyline, which allows him to reduce most of the character introductions to a kind of shorthand which reminds the audience of the characters’ personalities and styles without retreading too much familiar ground.

The danger in this is that The Avengers really only works if you have seen all of the prior Marvel films (except, perhaps, for the various Hulk movies – all one really must know about Dr. Bruce Banner is that when angered he becomes a not-so-jolly green giant). I’m not saying it is impossible to go into The Avengers cold, but I can’t imagine it’s as much fun if a viewer can’t fill in the blanks. However, for the informed viewer, the movie delivers just what it promises: a band of misfit heroes brought together by a threat that none of them could face alone. That is THE archetypical superhero team-up story, and the key to making it work is escalation. The film introduces villains, both familiar and new, which lead to a scenario in which the heroes’ need to work together is plausible. In upping the stakes, the film takes a typically Whedon-esque approach, using the apparent death of [redacted] to suggest the potential expendability of the characters. While it’s kind of an obvious play, it’s mostly effective and helps maintain tension throughout the last third of the film.

That is in contrast to the first section of the film, which is by far the weakest. The introductory material, especially the pre-title scene, plays out in a very “TV pilot” sort of way. It takes a bit for the film to achieve a pace and scale appropriate to its subject matter. However, once the team is all in one place the movie hits its stride. Robert Downey Jr (Iron Man), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), and Chris Evans (Captain America) bear less comment, I think, as their performances essentially match those from their solo films. This is not to discount them – they do what they do well; however, this isn’t exactly a surprise. Samuel L. Jackson is given more to do here than in any of the prior Marvel movies, and it is nice to see finally Nick Fury in action. Also interesting is his apparent subservience to a higher governmental power, which I hope will be elaborated on in future films, along with his manipulative, if good-intentioned, management style. Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye) and Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), although introduced in prior films, remain less developed than their more powerful costars. They both deliver solid performances, but I would have liked to see their characters elaborated on. As it stands, their roles ultimately felt less important than those of their fellow Avengers.

Tom Hiddleston also returns as Loki, and he solidifies the villainous turn his character began in Thor. While his motivation of revenge may seem shallow, in some ways it is shallow villainy in the most Shakespearean sense; there is a healthy dose of Iago and Richard III in his character, among others. For me the real standout was Mark Ruffalo, whose Bruce Banner is probably my favorite take on the character since Bill Bixby in the 70s/80s. For the record, I am a fan of both Hulk with Eric Bana and The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton, and each brought their own unique spin to the character. Ruffalo builds on those earlier performances and delivers a Banner who is cursed by his power without being overcome with angst. He provides a surprising amount of humor as Banner, and the film’s approach to Hulk cleverly transitions from horror-esque cinematography to something more heroic and, at times, playful. He is somewhat let down by the Cliff’s Notes approach necessitated by the film, as the Hulk’s transition as a character seems far more abrupt that it should have been, but it doesn’t take much for a viewer to fill in some blanks and make it work. Also, Whedon gets major props for giving Harry Dean Stanton a cameo in one of Ruffalo’s scenes. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, any movie featuring Harry Dean Stanton can’t be all bad.

The film’s effects are quite good, and the 3D was surprisingly effective for a post-conversion. I wouldn’t say it is necessary to pay the extra, but it was a nice enhancement during the battle scenes. During those action sequences, Whedon makes good use of a moving camera, using pans to move from character to character without cutting. In doing so, he visually emphasizes the teamwork of the group and helps to increase the scale of the battle. The CGI was mostly effective, and this version of the Hulk probably looked better than any cinematic attempts thus far.

The plot is somewhat episodic, but that is par for the course when Marvel’s stated goal is a single cinematic continuity. The actors bring their A-game, even those lacking substantial character development. The writing is fun, the action is fast-paced, and the film delivers on its promise to bring together all the existing corners of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That ambitious goal sometimes leaves the plot stretched a bit thin, but it always maintains its sense of fun. This is not the best Marvel movie, but it is definitely the biggest. In bringing together the existing films, The Avengers sets the stage for an even broader (dare I saycosmic) scope to the Marvel Movieverse, and I look forward to seeing what lies ahead.

(Note – There are TWO postcredits scenes in this one. One occurs in the middle of the credits, and the other at the very end. Be sure to stay for both. It’s worth it.)

 © Ralph Lawson III, 2012, All Rights Reserved

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Responses

  1. The only thing I would really disagree on is that I don’t think people would be THAT lost without seeing the other five (or four, as you say)…I had that in mind when I saw it but thought they did a pretty good job making it clear where everyone was coming from. And annecdotally speaking, I know some people who loved it without having seen any of the films since the original Iron Man. Their only issue was they weren’t quite sure what SHIELD exactly was (and to be honest, I can’t say I could explain it very well anyway). I also though they actually did a pretty good job fleshing out Black Widow; her two “interrogation” scenes and the one with she and Banner at the beginning were some of my favorite in the movie.

    In closing, I would like to say: Shawarma.

    • Yeah, maybe lost isn’t the word. I just don’t think it’s as satisfying a movie if you haven’t seen the others – especially Thor & Captain America, considering how much the plot of this film hinges on elements from those two. Mileage may vary, but I think prior knowledge has an effect on how you watch the movie and what you end up looking for. And yes, the interrogation scenes (and I’d say Banner’s scene counts as one) were great, and provided her best moments in the movie. I’m not exactly well-versed on Widow or Hawkeye aside from their Avengers memberships, but I felt like what really was lacking was more explanation/examination of their relationship (whatever it is). I know Whedon loves to leave questions like that open *cough Shepherd Book cough* but it left me unsatisfied – especially with Hawkeye, who didn’t even get the benefit of those great scenes you mentioned for Black Widow.

      I could totally go for some shawarma right now.


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