Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Joss Whedon Gets Closer To Perfection Than Any Other Marvel-Movie Director With The Avengers

The Good: Dialogue, Characters, Plot, Special effects, Most of the acting
The Bad: Some acting and plot inconsistencies.
The Basics: The Avengers is a decidedly average superhero movie that is made vastly better by Joss Whedon’s attention to character and witty dialogue.

The Avengers is the movie that Marvel Comics fans have been waiting for for years. That’s what pretty much all of the fans want to hear and it is pretty easy to write; The Avengers is a big team-up movie that puts some of the most significant non-X-Men characters in the Marvel Universe together in a single film. Most of the recent Marvel movies have been planting the seeds for The Avengers and it was only when I went to define the film with its number rating that I realized I had rated Iron Man 2 higher. (For the record, I enjoyed The Avengers more on my first viewing than I did Iron Man 2, but I generally do not go back and re-rate films once I have reviewed them, so . . .).

The Avengers is, arguably, the best Marvel Universe movie or, at the very least, the most initially enjoyable. Unlike some of the films that led to The Avengers, I was at no point bored while watching this movie. I was also not sitting and second-guessing the characters. Instead, with The Avengers, the movie makes sense and moves at a decent pace and it has enough emphasis on character to keep it viable and entertaining.

But, it’s not perfect.

Anyone looking for The Avengers for a perfect film will end up disappointed, not because it’s bad, but because it is more formulaic than it is truly inspired. Even so, writer and director Joss Whedon gets the movie as close as he could to perfection, without making it overly cluttered. The spark that is missing, before I go into a long, long stream of compliments about the movie, is a strong theme. The Avengers lacks a strong, mature theme, though it adequately beats to death the idea that working together is the only way to capitalize on strengths and minimize weaknesses. So, unlike The Dark Knight (reviewed here!) where there is a powerful statement about the nature of chaos and the role of law enforcement to stop genuine evil or the entire argument Watchmen (reviewed here!) makes about what is right is not necessarily what is legal is absent from The Avengers. The movie is about what it is; superheroes coming together to stop great evil because that is what they do.

In other words, the movie is not about high-minded debate or theories or abstracts. Instead, The Avengers defines a clear problem, a danger that must be stopped and one man’s vision on how to stop that is put into action. The main conflicts, then, come from executing that plan, as opposed to actually debating the validity of the plan. Even so, Joss Whedon makes a pretty direct “world is going to be destroyed by evil” plot feel surprisingly fresh again with The Avengers through interesting characters and his trademark witty dialogue.

Manipulated by Loki, Erik Selvig has managed to tap into the power of the Cosmic Cube from Asgard. A tesseract, it is a device of virtually limitless power and is connected to other realms. This puts Loki in command of a powerful army, armed with advanced weaponry, that is willing and able to do his bidding. When Loki takes Selvig, Agent Clint Barton (Hawkeye) and the tesseract while destroying the S.H.I.E.L.D. facility, Nick Fury sees hope in the abandoned Avengers Initiative. Agent Coulson and Natasha Romanoff make a desperate attempt to gather the superheroes currently operating on Earth that Fury profiled for the Avengers Initiative. Appealing to Dr. Bruce Banner, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, does not work out ideally – Stark is characteristically resistant to working with others and Thor is torn about going up against his brother in the way Fury’s plans dictate (when he enters the fray). As Banner wrestles with having to become what he has resisted for years (the Hulk) in order to be of greater use to the fight, Fury works to get the team to put their massive egos aside.

Things go from bad to worse when the team’s attempt to take down Loki’s forces leaves the group more shaken than successful. Regrouping, the Avengers take on Loki and his pawns as a last stand to stop Earth from being overrun and enslaved.

The Avengers is big and writers Joss Whedon and Zak Penn do an excellent job of both raising the stakes – making the Avengers Initiative one that is actually vital instead of a kind of keen idea Nick Fury is kicking around for no particular reason – and accommodating the big personalities of the characters involved. Tony Stark, Thor, Bruce Banner and Steve Rogers have all held their own as suitably important superheroes in their own films, so Whedon and Penn’s challenge is to keep their stature high and yet make it plausible that they would need to rely upon the other members of the team. And with that, Whedon certainly succeeds in The Avengers.

The task is made easy by some of the characters: the Avengers Initiative is Nick Fury’s brainchild, Agent Coulson is his loyal employee and Black Widow, Hawkeye and Captain America all respect authority and a clear chain of command. As a result, while all of the characters have their moments in The Avengers, those characters take a backseat to character conflicts and plot points that focus on Iron Man, Thor, Loki and the Hulk. Just as there will never be a Star Trek film that focuses on Dr. Crusher, a Buffyverse film where Xander gets the lionshare of the screentime or a big-budget Elastic Man film, Hawkeye and Agent Coulson are pretty much relegated to supporting roles for much of The Avengers. Captain America, as well, takes less of a priority role, compared to Banner, Stark, Thor and Loki.

Bruce Banner, especially, is given a decent character arc throughout The Avengers, which allows Mark Ruffalo to truly make the role his. Banner is characterized as appropriately conflicted and Whedon smartly uses Banner in an interesting role instead of just relegating him to the Hulk and saving him for big action sequences. Bruce Banner tries to use his scientific mind to find weak spots in Loki’s forces that the team might be able to exploit and the interactions between him and Tony Stark actually allow Banner to hold his own against the more charismatic Stark. Banner’s character arc really is that of the reluctant hero rising to become a part of something bigger than himself and Ruffalo does a good job of slowly transforming Bruce Banner from a very insular character to one who is willing to actively save the world. His body language throughout the movie illustrates a strong acting ability that makes Bruce Banner often much more interesting to watch than the Hulk.

It is worth noting at this juncture that the special effects in The Avengers are absolutely amazing. Joss Whedon and his CG team manage to do what none of the prior directors who have used the Hulk on screen have done, which is to create a giant, CG-beast and make him look like he absolutely belongs in the environment. The coloring, lighting, depth and shading of the Hulk finally look realistic in every frame of The Avengers and that allows the Hulk to interact seamlessly with other characters and creatures. This movie looks great on the big screen and the special effects are truly special.

As one might expect, Tony Stark has a great deal of importance to The Avengers. Whedon and his team manage to make sure the film never becomes lopsided in the Iron Man direction, but the film manages to provide Stark with an interesting character arc. In The Avengers, the one man army is forced to recognize – even though he may not admit it – that he is not invincible and that the Iron Man suit cannot solve all problems. After a disastrous encounter, Stark opens up to the idea that the team approach might have value, at least in the current invasion. The arc is not an instantaneous transformation, so the character is not at all cheapened and there is a rich direction for the character to explore in Iron Man 3.

But arguably the greatest character moments come from Thor and Loki. While Thor is disconnected from his friends and his familiar realm, he has a pretty absolute quality to him that tells him what is right and wrong. Despite his ego, he wants to help protect Earth and he struggles to operate with guidelines outside what a god might expect. On the flipside, Loki becomes the implicit example of what happens when godlike power remains unchecked. Not at all a monolithic villain, Loki has a strong drive to conquer and understandable, if not empathetic, motivations for what he does. Loki is played alternately with a cold, calculating quality and a righteous fury by Tom Hiddleston. Hiddleston does not lack the subtlety that he portrayed in Thor, but his character has changed enough that he presents him with both leadership qualities and a more overt sense of determination.

As for the rest of the acting, The Avengers does what it can to service all the characters and give the performers something to do, though most of them do what they did in their prior Marvel Universe movies. Samuel L. Jackson’s role as Nick Fury has more screentime, but he shows the viewer nothing we have not seen from him before in his many other roles. Is he bad? Not for a second, but his performance is exactly what one expects when they read that Samuel L. Jackson has been cast. Similarly, Clark Gregg, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, and Chris Hemsworth all perform well within expectations. Scarlett Johansson does fine with the physical role of Black Widow, but too often her interpretation of a Russian accent sounds like a Southern drawl. Conversely, Jeremy Renner plays Clint (Hawkeye) with a lack of uncertainty that makes Hawkeye surprisingly badass. Sure, he’s surrounded by a god, a mutant, a supersoldier and an inventor with a pretty powerful arsenal, but Hawkeye can hit things with a bow and arrow. Any actor who can make that role seem interesting amid explosions, guns and energy bolts deserves a few lines of praise!

The Avengers may well be the ultimate popcorn movie, but it has heart, just not enough soul to be considered enduringly great or visionary. Joss Whedon was given the task of bringing together one of the most iconic comic book superhero teams and he did that masterfully. Moreover, he made the film feel important and appropriately dark, without losing his sense of wit. The dialogue throughout The Avengers keeps the film fun to watch, even as it seems the world around the characters is going to hell. The result is a legitimate opening to Summer Blockbuster Season that does not feel forced or frivolous for a change.

For the Marvel movies that helped build up to this film, please check out my reviews of:
Captain America: The First Avenger
Iron Man 2
The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man


For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the movies I have reviewed!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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  1. Good review! Happy to see this is worth-seeing even with all the hype!

  2. Glad you enjoyed it! The film is fun and the dialogue is fast and witty as one expects from Joss! Thank you for reading!

  3. That's probably the best review I've read thus far, which is surprising given that it's not from a publication that I recognise. Kudos for writing such a measured piece and for not just writing a fan piece but rather something that's more objective

  4. Thanks! I'm very glad you enjoyed it!