A film review by Craig J. Koban May 8, 2012

THE AVENGERS jjj
 

2012, PG-13, 142 mins.

 

Tony Stark/Iron Man: Robert Downey Jr. / Steve Rogers/Capt. America: Chris Evans / Bruce Banner/Hulk: Mark Ruffalo / Thor: Chris Hemsworth / Natasha/Black Widow: Scarlett Johansson / Clint/Hawkeye: Jeremy Renner / Loki: Tom Hiddleston / Nick Fury: Samuel L. Jackson

Directed by Joss Whedon / Written by Zak Penn and Whedon

SCREENED IN
3D

To many diehard and ravenous Marvel Comic book fundamentalists, THE AVENGERS film – coming hot off of the heels of years worth of promises from IRON MAN 1 and 2, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, CAPTAIN AMERICA, and THOR - seems like an absolute necessity.  For other lay cinemaphiles out there, THE AVENGERS feels more like a work of dutiful obligation than one of high artistic imperatives.  More often than not, the film comes off as a mass marketed product tie-in, which has the unintentional side effect of making this long-awaited and hotly anticipated super-hero epic feel more synthetically constructed than it should be. 

Yet, unlike the trashy, nihilistic, and soulless effects and action-heavy excesses of Michael Bay, THE AVENGERS gets much more mileage of out its brainy dialogue, its character dynamics, and its devilish sense of humor.  Certainly, the film has a dynamically staged action climax that is wall-to-wall with state of the art CGI effects, obligatory explosions, an extraterrestrial invasion of a major American city, and all out mayhem that would rival anything from the Bay film canon.  However, moments like this in THE AVENGERS compared to any TRANSFORMERS entry feel less like a mind-numbing and sensory assaultive endurance test because of the manner the film makes viewers latch on to and care about its distinct and all-powerful costume clad heroes.  THE AVENGERS may be a manufactured piece entertainment containing the reconstituted parts of oh-so-many other action films, but underneath all of that all lurks engaging protagonists that we root on to victory, no matter how silly they may look. 

It may, however, seem a tad disappointing that after patiently sitting through multiple origin films for all of the Avengers assembled here that we have to yet again endure another exposition-laden origin tale of how they come together.  Evidently, there would be no need for the film’s six heroes to unite unless there was a proverbial threat, and he comes in the form of Loki (Tom Hiddleston), whom you may recall was the adopted brother of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) that also battled through issues of sibling jealousy and nagging daddy issues.  For reasons far too complicated to explain (or perhaps a bit too murkily laid out in the film), Loki manages to find himself back on Earth and has broken into SHIELD headquarters, where he overtakes director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his men and manages to brainwash agent Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Professor Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard).  Loki also steals a glowing blue cube of enormous energy whose origins, purpose, and precise powers remains positively hazier with each new film; all you need to know is that it’s a MacGuffin that everyone wants...and it can open wormholes. 

Realizing that Earth is not very well prepared to handle an invasion of a Norse god who has a mysterious alien race backing him, Fury decides to enact the "Avengers Initiative" and recruits the mightiest super beings – and some not-to-super powerful beings– to become members, like Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor, and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, replacing the departed Ed Norton), the latter whom we all know has a real problem when his anger gets the better of him.  Unavoidably, this conglomeration of divergent personalities do indeed clash through most of the early sections of the film, but all the parties in question manage to bind cohesively together when it appears that a planetary invasion – with New York as Ground Zero – seems painfully inevitable.  

 

 

THE AVENGERS was thanklessly directed and co-written by Joss Whedon, an interesting choice considering that he has only made one other feature film before, SERENITY, but whose geek cred hardly needs introduction (TV's BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and FIREFLY).  His task here is daunting and not easy to fulfill, as he has to successfully juggle together all of subplots involving the armored, spandex-clad, masked, and cape-adorned egos that populate the film and give them their fare share of screen time while, at the same time, placing them within a singular unified narrative.  Even though the script has some rough character patches with Black Widow and Hawkeye (when compared to the other extraordinary abilities of their cohorts, this mortal pair are disinteresting fringe members more than anything), Whedon and company are remarkably democratic when it comes to honing in focus on all the heroes.  

That’s not to say that Whedon doesn’t subtly play favorites.  Clearly, Downey’s egomaniacal one-man zinger machine that is Tony Stark is a narcissistic delight that gets a lion-share of all the best lines (he jabs at Thor, for example, by calling him “Point Break” and “Shakespeare in the Park” while frequently labeling the recently thawed WWII vet Steve Rogers as “old man”).   Sparks fly between eternal do-gooder Rogers and the largely self-centered Stark; at one point he asks the former weapons manufacturer turned crimsoned crusader what’s underneath the iron suit, to which Downey hysterical deadpans, “A genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist!”  There are more ample laughs to be had from other characters too, especially when the brooding and bulging Thor comments on how all the Avengers around him are “all so tiny!”  He says this before coming in contact with Banner’s “other side,” which unavoidably leads to one of the film's many audience appeasing Avenger versus Avenger gladiatorial battles.   

Since most of the aforementioned heroes have already been featured in their own films, there is not much in the way of actual character development in THE AVENGERS, unless you exclude Ruffalo’s Banner, who has been given a more compelling makeover from the previous film iterations (perhaps more than any other previous actor in the role, Ruffalo successful imbues in Banner an intelligent, sensitive and considerate personality that is plagued with uncertainties as to how to deal with becoming a rather large “rage monster”).  Not many super hero teams require one of their members to be placed within an impenetrable jail cell if…well…he becomes his alter ego and can’t control him. 

The entire film culminates with a sequence that never seems to end, an intergalactic donnybrook pitting all of the Avengers against Loki and the alien species he’s in cahoots with, which are never really developed to any satisfying level beyond being delineated as a monstrous threat from beyond the planet.  Whedon has apparently excised around 40 minutes of footage from his already long 142 minute, $220 million budgeted, 3D upconverted comic book opus, which really shows when some of the more sketchy and vague plot details are concerned.  The extraterrestrials themselves, how they conspire with Loki, and their primary motivation remains foggy throughout the film, not to mention that the Tesseract cube that Loki steals in the introductory scene seems to be involved in far too much techno-scientific gibbering from several characters that only serves to make less sense as the film progresses.  

When it comes right down to it, THE AVENGERS is nothing really more that a paint-by-numbers alien invasion film, which creates an underling narrative that’s sort of stumbles into formulaic territory.  How many times have we seen invaders from the cosmos come to Earth and march into New York, which always seems to be the same apocalyptic battle ground for these type of films?  New York is frankly an uninspired creative choice of settings, where we see unfathomably large, slithering and flying worm-like monsters cut through skyscrapers like butter.  Been there, done that. 

Yet, THE AVENGERS does not need to apologize for being a first-rate technological escapist thrill ride during sequences like this and, quite frankly, action is what this film really exists for.  Whedon and his visual effects gurus have spared no expense at making the film’s massive scenes of alien mass destruction and the Avengers defending their never-ending onslaught to be on a scale and scope that has never been seen before in a comic film.  The young comic book reader inside of me had a difficult time containing his gleeful excitement watching, for instance, Hulk satisfyingly – and in one instance, hysterically – smashing his way through hordes of faceless enemies.  Comic purists would feel unendingly disappointed if Whedon held back and didn’t deliver in this final hour of full-blooded and robust spectacle; to his credit, he does not hold anything back. 

Maybe that’s why I more forgiving of Whedon’s showcase of citywide decimation than when Bay does it because Whedon brings a clarity and precision to the action and, deep down, we are really more invested in the Avengers as characters than we are with Shia LaBeouf or Megan Fox.  THE AVENGERS is not the hyperbolic game changer for the super hero film genre; it’s not as psychological dense and rich as Christopher Nolan’s BATMAN films, nor as thematically compelling as WATCHMEN, nor as scathingly sardonic as KICK ASS, nor as brazenly inventive as X-MEN: FIRST CLASS.  THE AVENGERS does not really live up to its mountainous hype, but it assuredly lives up to its intended promises by giving comic purists precisely what they’ve wanted for years.  As far as movies as “products” go, this one is exemplarily handled with a care, confidence, and slam-bam showmanship that makes you willing to forgive its deficiencies. 

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