THE AVENGERS: Worth A Ticket – A Fun Summer Movie, No More Or Less
It’s easy to forget that THE AVENGERS is, you know, a movie. It’s perhaps the ultimate example of corporate intellectual property, bioengineered years in advance of its production by Marvel and that company’s recent owner Disney, like the spawn of particularly fanatical parents determined their child will be a spectacularly successful pro athlete. It’s a giant piece of business, with a half-billion dollars in revenue expected to be banked by Sunday night (making its roughly $400M cost for production and marketing look like a very smart investment indeed). Although it will be far from the last superhero movie–there’ll be plenty more this summer alone–it marks an apotheosis of that splashy, often mindless, expensive genre. Some people will never forgive it for all this.
But once you pay your money and get your ticket, The Avengers is just a movie. And although not a particularly memorable one (no one will mistake it for The Dark Knight, or even one of the non-Chris Columbus Harry Potters), it provides almost 2 1/2 hours of fairly consistent fun, which is all anyone in the audience needs to care about. Unlike DC, which has literally made only one good decision on its properties in the last quarter-century (admittedly, that was the brilliant choice of hiring Christopher Nolan as its Batman guy), Marvel has been consistently smart in its development of comic books for film. Pairing Jon Favreau with Iron Man, Sam Raimi with the last incarnation of Spider-Man, Bryan Singer and then Matthew Vaughn with X-Men–all resulted in strong movies. (Let’s try to forget Fantastic Four.) With The Avengers, Marvel has brought in a filmmaker as engineered for this project as the project was itself: Joss Whedon.
Whedon, of course, is justly famed as the creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and among other things, that series was emblematic of the theme he’s explored throughout his career, from Angel to Firefly (and Serenity) to–once the show found its legs–Dollhouse: the joining together of a wildly disparate, even hostile group of allies to battle a greater evil. For anyone who hasn’t been paying attention for the past few years, that describes The Avengers in a nutshell.
The greater evil, in this case, is Loki (Tom Hiddleston), raised as the brother of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) on the planet of Asgard (distant, but only a alien-technology portal away), and always up to no good. Loki was vanquished at the end of Thor but not killed, and now he has a plot to take over Earth with the help of an alien army brought through the portal by the Tesseract, a glowing cube of unstoppable power. In order to stop Loki, the secret government agency SHIELD and its leader Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, free of post-credit teaser sequences) have to gather together a motley group of heroes, all of them at least glimpsed in earlier movies: Thor, of course, plus Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr), Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans), Bruce Banner aka The Incredible Hulk (now played by Mark Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Other supporting figures from earlier chapters like Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), the scientist Solveig (Stellan Skarsgard) and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) also make appearances, and Cobie Smulders from How I Met Your Mother shows up to bark orders and occasionally shoot as a SHIELD agent.
It takes about 50 action-packed but uneven minutes of The Avengers for all the narrative pipe to be laid so the gang can be gathered together (well, except Hawkeye, who–mild spoiler alert–is turned into a bad guy by Loki in the movie’s first few minutes and doesn’t become good again for a while), and that’s when Whedon and the movie hit their stride. Whedon, who also wrote the script (story by him and Zak Whedon), is a whiz at balancing screen time among his ensemble cast, and placing them at odds with each other in ways consistent with their characters and often very funny. (Downey’s sardonic quips are particularly sharp when he’s aiming them at stalwart Captain America or stolid Thor.) Whedon’s always been terrific with strong female characters, and he gives Johansson some meaty scenes even though her character lacks super-powers. Even more impressively, he solves the Hulk problem that stymied both previous versions of that story: Ruffalo brings dry wit and intelligence to Bruce Banner, and by letting Hulk retain some traces of humanity, Whedon gets some of the biggest laughs of the movie from the creature’s physical comedy.
The budget for The Avengers may well be as much as all the seasons of Buffy combined–it might be the first time in his career that Whedon has had all the money to work with that he could have wanted–and he makes full use of the scale. With the usual exception of some of the digital humans, which technology still hasn’t mastered, and a few less-than-perfect green screen shots, the CG is excellent (there’s a very cool flying aircraft carrier), and the production design by James Chinlund is enjoyably massive. Shot by Seamus McGarvey, the movie has a rich look–even the fake New York used for the climax manages not to seem like a backlot.
The Avengers is no masterwork. Whedon indulges his inner geek with more indecipherable jargon about the nature of the Tesseract and its accompanying alien technology than we need, and although his visual handling of the massive final showdown is appreciated, because you can actually tell where the characters are in relation to each other (editing by Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek), once the alien army appears and starts being mowed down anonymously by the dozens, the movie starts to inescapably have that videogame feel that goes along with big-budget action moviemaking these days. Since the picture has to support and allow for the continuation of several franchises, there’s no real emotional focal point or overall vision–it all has the feel of a good TV sweeps crossover episode, more than an organic whole.
But as corporate products go, The Avengers is slick and entertaining, a reminder that there’s a reason Big Macs and fries will always have a market. The inevitable mid-credits sequence promises future adventures for the group, and if quality control at the Marvel factory can remain up to this level, there’s no reason not to get in line for its next widget too.