Watching “The Avengers”
I saw “The Avengers” last night, and it was fine.
It was funny and exciting, there were some cool special-effects, the dialogue was clever, the villain was sufficiently villainous, and the cast was uniformly excellent.
But I’m baffled as to what makes this movie great, which is how some people have described it. Sure, it has six superheroes instead of one, but that doesn’t necessarily make it any better than any other comic book film — it just gives director Joss Whedon more characters to insert into special effects and big action set pieces. If forced to rank “The Avengers,” I’d place it below the first “Iron Man” and last year’s underrated “X-Men: First Class,” above the Christopher Nolan Batman films, and about even with “Captain America” and Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man films.
“The Avengers” is a cool premise, but its strengths are also its weaknesses. Yes, it’s fun to watch a half dozen super heroes size each other up and figure out how to work together, but at 142 minutes the film feels overstuffed, as exhausting as it is stimulating. The best moments are the smaller, less explosive ones (although I greatly enjoyed the climax, when New York City is attacked by creepy-looking aliens that emerge from a portal in the sky): the banter between superheroes, the funny asides (I liked it when Thor explains that his evil brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is adopted), the depth of characterization that actors such as Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. lend Bruce Banner and Tony Stark.
The plot is barely worth rehashing, but here goes: The evil Loki (who hails from another realm, called Asgard) steals a powerful alien object called the Tesseract from the espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D., prompting S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to convince Earth’s most powerful superheroes to join forces to recover the Tesseract, defeat Loki and save the planet from ruin. In addition to The Hulk, Iron Man, Thor and Captain America, this elite superhero unit includes the spy the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the master archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), whom Loki temporarily enslaves by tapping his heart with a magical scepter.
The movie’s most interesting scenes explore the dynamic between the superheroes. Initially distrustful of each other, they cannot stop bickering, which plays right into the evil Loki’s evil hands. The best moments stem from the culture and personality clashes between the various characters — the snarky Tony Snark’s inability to relate to the square-jawed Steve Rogers, Thor’s impatience with the pettiness of humans, etc.
“The Avengers” is at times lively and engaging, but it can also be rather boring. The Thor storyline tried my patience — I just couldn’t bring myself to care about Asgard, or Thor’s relationship to earth or any of that stuff. Nothing against Thor — perhaps the fact that he’s a god makes him less interesting to me. Far more intriguing are characters such as Tony Stark, Bruce Banner and Steve Rogers — flawed human beings who have been given amazing powers and struggled to come to terms with what that means. One of the film’s better moments is also one of its darkest: when Bruce Banner confesses that he tried to kill himself, but that The Hulk wouldn’t allow it, forcing him to spit out the bullet he shot into his mouth.
Much has been made of the fact that Joss Whedon, the writer/director responsible for the cult TV show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” directed “The Avengers.” My basic feeling is that Whedon doesn’t bring anything very special to this film — he does a nice enough job, but it’s the same sort of job that Joe Johnston, who directed “Captain America,” could have done. To test this theory, I wish Whedon’s name had been left off the credits, because I suspect that the people rushing to praise his work on “The Avengers” would be a lot less effusive if his involvement was a secret. Whedon is known for subverting genres, as he did in the tongue-in-cheek horror film “The Cabin in the Woods,” and quirky genre mash-ups such as the TV series “Firefly,” which spawned the excellent sci-fi/western feature film “Serenity.” “The Avengers” isn’t a genre mash-up, and it isn’t subversive: It’s a regular old comic book film, no better or worse than most films of its type.
The real strength of “The Avengers” is not its director but its cast, who bring conviction, energy and pathos to beloved characters. Any film in which actors such as Jeremy Renner and Mark Ruffalo are brought in to play superheroes can’t be all bad, and less distinguished actors, such as Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, are also a lot of fun. Much to my surprise, my favorite Avenger is Chris Evans as Captain America. His character is corny, but he supplies “The Avengers” with its heart — something a film bursting at the seams with special effects, costumes and explosions can always use.
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