Thursday, April 26, 2012

Review: So close yet so far, Joss Whedon's The Avengers (2012) is an often soaring but occasionally frustrating B-movie with several A+ ingredients.

The Avengers
142 minutes
rated PG-13

by Scott Mendelson

In a film like The Avengers, which brings together strands of several prior pictures into a mostly cohesive whole, it is arguably inevitable that individual pieces will end up working better than the sum of its parts. That the film works at all is almost a miracle, and it's so purely entertaining and contains so much that works like gangbusters that it's tempting to ignore what doesn't work and merely salute the enterprise. It is a relentlessly engaging and confident motion picture, boasting a cast that in a more respected genre would make it an Oscar-bait film. But the film comes so close to out-and-out greatness that it's almost disheartening to point out the core issues at fault, both because it feels petty and because it's almost a genre masterpiece. Still, there is much to like and quite a bit to love about Joss Whedon's The Avengers. On a pure popcorn spectacle scale I can't imagine anyone feeling that they didn't get their money's worth. As a piece of art however, it's a trickier proposition.

I'm forgoing a plot synopsis because I can't imagine anyone reading this who doesn't have a general idea of the film and its characters. First of all, the initial twelve minute pre-credits sequence is absolutely terrible. It's a poorly written, stiltedly-performed set-piece that artlessly reintroduces Tom Hiddleston's Loki (Thor's turncoat brother) and establishes the McGuffin (the rediscovered 'tesseract' from Captain America). It's by-far the worst sequence in the film, so it's mostly uphill from there. Anyway, the rest of the first act is spent reintroducing our favorite Marvel heroes and reestablishing relationships. Captain America-himself, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) gets somewhat less to do in this early chunk, as the film makes it clear that he is a supporting character in this superhero team-up (it's no secret that a scene involving Rogers trying to reconnect with his old life didn't make the cut). For continuity junkies like myself, it is a thrill to see Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) in a mutually beneficial romantic relationship, and Stark's 'recruitment' moments with SHIELD agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) crackle with familiarity and genuine friendship among all three of them. The introductory bits for Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) are filled with intelligence and wit while the somewhat delayed entrance for Thor (Chris Hemsworth) provides one of the most emotionally compelling moments in the film. The genuine brotherly love that Thor and Loki share gives the hero/villain relationship a deeper shading and Hiddleston once again refuses to play a purely stock villain (his confidence and certainty is a bluff).

This first act ends with most of the heroes introduced to each other and co-existing as they attempt to decipher Loki's master plan. It's this middle 45-minute chunk where the picture soars the highest. The dialogue is vintage Whedon even while every character speaks in a voice uniquely their own. Tony Stark is genuinely thrilled to be conversing with a scientist of Banner's capabilities, and Banner warmly embraces at least one person who cares more about the scientist than the monster inside of him. Downey Jr. gives a better all-around performance here than he did in Iron Man 2, while Mark Ruffalo once again proves how effortlessly he elevates every film he appears in. Johansson gets several enjoyable moments, including an interrogation sequence that both reveals backstory and establishes character. With all the talk about how noted-feminist Joss Whedon would handle a bro-fest like The Avengers, the answer is simple. Neither Natasha Romanoff (IE - Black Widow) or SHIELD agent Maria Hill (Colbie Smulders) are remotely sexualized and their skills are completely taken for granted. Moreover, if you look around the SHIELD aircraft, about half of the onscreen agents just happen to be women. 

 Anyway, this second act is where the picture shines, perfectly balancing character interaction with token plot advancement, while climaxing with a spectacular action set-piece that is both viscerally exciting and emotionally engaging.  Hemsworth gets surprisingly little screen-time overall, considering that the film is most closely connected to Thor, but he gets far more of an opportunity to 'bring the thunder' than he did in his debut picture (at least they bother to explain why Natalie Portman isn't around).  Clark Gregg basically operates as the cool-headed professional amid the carnage as well as occasionally as the audience surrogate, as thrilled to see these guys all in the same room as we theoretically would be.  Smulders is basically an exposition device while Jeremy Renner's Barton (IE - Hawkeye) spends so much time under the brainwashing control of Loki that he doesn't really get to do more than cut loose in the action climax.  Still, pretty much everyone enjoys interacting with everyone else, and the fun is supremely contagious.

Truth be told, the second-act 'conflict' doesn't make sense in hindsight. We're told that these super-powered heroes can't get along, yet they only come to blows when Nick Fury's (a frankly slumming Samuel L. Jackson) subterfuge is revealed. They seem to work together just fine except when SHIELD gets in the way. Still, the second-act climax pushes a token emotional button, and the film even acknowledges that the would-be hero's journey is somewhat fabricated for the sake of uniting these damaged souls. And the whole concept of 'these grand heroes coming together to solve a problem' seems unnecessary. Point being, if aliens invaded the Earth, would it not be expected that Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and the fellow agents of SHIELD would make a choice to at least pitch in and prevent widespread carnage? The idea that Nick Fury has a grand idea to unite these heroes and that these heroes have to put aside their differences to work as a team seems like an attempt to graft an overriding theme to a story that really doesn't have one. It's a minor quibble, but the whole 'Avengers Initiative' that Nick Fury endlessly babbles about seems like a solution to a non-existent problem.

Furthermore, like so many would-be event pictures, the film's storytelling basically ceases at the 2/3 mark so that the big climactic battle scene can begin. If you've seen any of the marketing, you know that the film ends with an alien invasion in downtown Manhattan. The action itself is fluidly shot, creatively staged, and coherently edited. And while it avoids repetition because it has enough recognizable combatants to always have someone different to cut to, the climax is a purely visceral exercise with just enough crowd-pleasing moments to overcome its familiarity to last summer's Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Unlike last summer's Michael Bay FX demo-reel, the invading aliens seem to go out of their way to not vaporize civilians and bystanders onscreen, to the point where their 'shoot to miss' strategy becomes noticeable. And while Alan Silvestri's score is serviceable, it's badly missing some kind of unifying theme and/or emotional chorus that would give the pyrotechnics a jolt when required (Steve Jablonsky may have cribbed the Zeck Hemsy Inception trailer music for the Transformers 3 climax, but it damn-well worked). And the logistics of Loki's plan call into question the basic intelligence of our heroes, as we ask ourselves why they didn't realize where Loki's attack point was going to be right from the start and/or why that specific building doesn't seem to have even basic security measures. Still, the film does right by each of its heroes, giving them each multiple chances to shine (yes, the Hulk does indeed smash and it is pretty terrific when he does).

The climax also highlights the inherent danger of having a shared universe, as you have to somewhat explain why EVERY capable hero doesn't pitch in when the chips are down. As we see human 'Avengers' like Black Widow and Hawkeye doing a perfectly fine job fending off the invaders, we have to stop and wonder why other equally capable reinforcements didn't show up to help. Why are none of the other SHIELD agents defending the city? Why didn't Stark call in Rhodes to man the War Machine battle-suit? Why doesn't Odin conjure up some dark magic and send Asgardian warriors, since it's his son that's causing this chaos in the first place? And without a super-powered villain to fight/destroy in the finale (Loki is around, but he's basically watching his handiwork and sneering) or any kind of status-quo changing moment to end on, the film lacks an emotional climax of any kind (SPOILER - the film needs to end with the heartbreak of Thor killing Loki, but Marvel doesn't have the courage for that kind of finality). It's all about watching people in candy-colored suits blowing up a vaguely-robotic army. Considering Joss Whedon is known for his unabashedly operatic season finales for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, it is borderline shocking that the film lacks any kind of story or character-driven climax to go along with its large-scale action beats (the film further annoys in this regard by threatening to kill the one character who you most-certainly know isn't going to die).

So if the film lacks the heart and narrative discipline of Joe Johnston's Captain America, it is easily better, smarter, and just-plain more entertaining than any Marvel Studios production not set in the 1940s. The dialogue is generally whip-smart and laugh-out-loud clever at the same time. All of the principle performers are in peak form, and the picture has a scale that does its four-color origins proud. And while I may have desired more than just fireworks during the third act, those fireworks are quite impressive and are truly cinematic in nature. But the plot is a bit confused, with much of the film spent jogging in place for the inevitable climactic smack-down promised in the trailers. The film opens and ends pretty terribly, with an epilogue that has a bunch of news footage praising and criticizing the newly revealed heroes plus Fury babbling yet again about how the heroes will return when they are needed while brushing off the shocking real-world implications of what just happened (both the invasion and the response).

But the middle two-hours are rock-solid entertainment through-and-through. Tony Stark is allowed genuine character progression while Mark Ruffalo is such a fun Bruce Banner that I'd gladly watch a solo Hulk film where he never actually 'Hulked-out'. When The Avengers highlights the character interaction that makes up the soap opera-ish world of comic books, with great actors digging into genuinely meaty characters, it's firing on all cylinders. And the action sequences, even when they are purely about the action choreography and special effects, are top-notch (even the 3D looks great). Long-story short, I wish The Avengers was a truly terrific film, but I'll have to settle for it merely being a darn-good movie.

Grade: B+

Prior Marvel reviews -
Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 2

Captain America


corysims said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Scott for pointing out something that's been bugging me about this whole set up in the first the hell does Rhodey not show up for the big thrown down when the WORLD is in danger? He's War Machine! You'd think Fury would've wanted as much help as possible in this situation. Plus, at the end of Iron Man 2, Iron Man is recommended for the Avengers Initiative but not Tony Stark. Okay, then just get Rhodey. Best of both worlds....has the Iron Man tech and he's a soldier. Fury could've easily had him re-assigned to SHIELD.

Your suggestion of Odin sending in reinforcements is always something I hadn't thought of but makes logical sense, considering that its his son causing all the trouble.

Having said all that, I really want to know what you think of the ending in this sense; do you want to see the solo sequels after this film or would you rather go straight to Avengers 2? The reason I ask is because I have a hard time believing that Stark wouldn't call on SHIELD and Cap in Iron Man 3 if things got really, really sticky for him.

Still, excellent review. I'm still pretty excited to see it but you've suggested things in your review that have bugged me since the beginning.

Liam_Ho said...

Having seen the movie I share similar sentiments about the opening movie. But I feel it extends pass more than the pre-title sequence. Up until Thor shows up the scenes to me felt pretty awkward and choppy at times because we have to reintroduce everyone. For people that have not seen Thor or Captain America before this it could get somewhat confusing.

As for why doesn't Rhodey show up, I just give it the caveat that the movies itself doesn't want him too. Just like in the Marvel after this team up they can't have another major hero show up in someones movie. As for why doesn't Odin seed more Asgardians I believe Loki explained that Odin had to conjure up a lot of dark(?) magic just to send Thor there and couldn't bring him back. So he was limited in that power so I'll buy that.

Jem said...

On the whole, I found this film really enjoyable and extremely witty, although I expected nothing less from Joss Whedon. It was impressive that all of the main characters were suitably fleshed out for us to care about their well-being.
But I would agree there were a few holes that let it down as a stellar film.

Another sticking point I would add is that the transition from uncontrollable-monster-hulk to intelligent-controlled-team-player hulk was not explained at all. Tricky to do I guess, because it would be in the middle of the action... and perhaps I don't know enough of the Hulk backstory to understand how Banner suddenly is able to keep 'The Other Guy' in check.

corysims said...

"It may be just me personally but I usually don't like it when a situation is suppose to be serious and the character is making jokes."

I'm very afraid that RDJ's humor is going to kill the film for me, because I agree...I'm not really into jokes being made repeatedly in a serious situation. It's a pet peeve of mine.

Liam_Ho said...

It wasn't RDJ because he's Stark. You sort of expect it from him. It was the other characters, I won't spoil what but who say this when such things are happening around them. Also Loki's last line had me rolling my eyes.

Christian Grundner said...

RE: "Why are none of the other SHIELD agents defending the city? Why didn't Stark call in Rhodes to man the War Machine battle-suit?"

In the context of the movie the first point is explained in that only rogues leave the helicarrier at this point. After they are on the ground Nick Fury finds out that a nuke is on its way and would not send reinforcements in there.

The second point can be expained in that the whole movie takes time in an incredible short timeframe. The finale is still during PPs flight to Washington - so only one day passes from Iron Mans recruitment to the finale. Wouldn´t it be possible that War Machine ist at some place on the other side of the planet and just has no time reaching the action? Of course the filmmakers reason is that the action in the end would get cluttered a lot more if every imaginable superhero character from the movies is in the action finale.

RE: Thor not killing Loki - that is just what Thor has been doing for 50+ years of comic book continuity. I for one am absolutely happy with the portrayals of the heroes without pulling an X-Men 3 like stunt.

Scott Mendelson said...

I would argue that a movie franchise is fundamentally different than a comic book series or even a television series. It's one big entry every 2-4 years, as opposed to a new chapter every week or every month for years-on-end. Point being, there needs to eventually be some kind of finality to these conflicts lest the Marvel universe film franchise turn into Inspector Gadget where 'Dr. Claw is at it again' is the plot of every entry in the series. That's problematic enough in an afternoon television show, but for a feature film series you simply have to vary up the threats a bit. Otherwise the stories get redundant and the heroes look impotent. Heck, even episodic television can't survive this... Heroes was finished the moment it decided to 'unkill' the various major lead heroes and especially villain Sylar who theoretically bit the dust at the climax of season one.

Scott Mendelson said...

I have limited interest in Captain America at this point due to the nixing of the World War II timeline. Unless Marvel has the genuine courage to actually make some kind of specific political statement under the guise of a Captain America thriller, they will be treading on water as soon as they finish the Winter Soldier movie, which I presume is next-at-bat. Iron Man 3 has the option to go smaller, which is the apparent intention (Extremis is a very small-scale story), but the lack of interesting villains will soon be its undoing. Thor has the same problem. Just what are the iconic Thor villains that will be popping up down the line? I adore Hemsworth's work, but he's not the iconic character like RDJ's Stark is. Most comic film franchises live or die by the quality of their rogues galleries. It's why Batman and Spider-Man have thrived while most of the others have not. Even X-Men basically has Magneto, and everyone after that becomes way too expensive (just how much would an Apocalypse epic cost?). Same with Superman... you've got the movie villains (Luther, Zod) and then what? Does the world want to see a Parasite movie or Superman vs. The Toyman? Obviously the great-untapped villain is Darkseid, but A) he'd be uber expensive and B) where do you go after Superman takes down the defining mega-villain in the DC universe? DC should have made a Flash movie years ago, as the franchise lends itself to endless street-level crime dramas (read - cheap) with an ever-rotating list of B-level baddies that can show up 2-3 per-film with whatever big actors don't feel like committing whole-sale.

corysims said...

Thanks for the response. I agree with you on pretty much all your points. But, I will say this; while having not seen the film, I pretty much know how the story goes and it seems to me that Thor is really the only character at the end of this film that has legitimate story elements left to tell.

His situation isn't resolved with Jane. He's still heir to the throne of Asgard and so we might see his ascension. And then there's Loki. How will Odin punish Loki? Plus, it seems whatever Odin used to get Thor to Earth is going to have consequences in the next film.

Depending on my response to the film, I have a pretty good idea of how I would possibly go forward in this movie-universe that Marvel's created. Watch Thor 2 and go right into Avengers 2.

But, you do make the absolute best point in a response below; Marvel has to have an end point to this thing. Cinema isn't like the comics. There must be an end and that's what makes the Dark Knight Rises feel more special. Nolan's been given an opportunity to end one of these franchise on his own terms.

I hope Marvel has some type of end game to revival what Nolan's done to Batman. It just would be nice to know if the time invested in this movie-universe has a conclusion. Endings are much better than constantly ballooning the genre.

Christian Grundner said...

Thank you for replying! I totally agree with your comment on Sylar and also add Spock to that sentiment. But I see it very different with established characters/villains. If Thor killed Loki at the end of this movie the movie continuity would change radically from the comic books. And we are all (or should be) cynics regarding the permanence of death in movies (now that even Darth Maul is back in the TV series).

Also, there should be a difference between the heroes and the villains behavior. Heroes (especially when they are gods) should believe in redemption even if evidence and experience point in a different direction.

Bernie said...

If you have any concerns at all with continuity with the actual Marvel universe, which most of the fans of the movies certainly will, you can't go around killing off major characters like Loki. This isn't a story that's being moved forward with brand new events and stories like, for example, Star Trek, but played out within a universe that's already created and that already has lore for these characters that extend past the present moment.

Yoss22h said...

I completely disagree. The entire reason they have gone with the shared universe concept is to enable the stories to continue rolling along. They do not intend to have a three movie arc and then reboot their franchises with new actors and origin stories. Instead, they intend to have new stories based on characters that we know facing new situations and having their own development. Marvel has also expressed a desire to add new heroes to their lineup to keep things fresh and keep the individual movies separate, much like they do in the comics. Who is really clamoring for another series of franchise reboots, really?

Sati Lotus said...

Sort of agree here. I think *these* characters should have conclusions, but not the shared universe.

The characters need endings because recasting a character is tricky. It's been done twice already. With Rhodes there was no great difference, both actors did a good job, and Ruffalo as Hulk was a huge improvement, but when RDJ decides no more, well, he's irreplaceable as Stark! You couldn't replace Jackson either.

The shared universe is something fantastic to explore though - Marvel has so many other characters it can bring in, reference the events in all these movies, and still make a brilliant movie.

Karl Hiller said...

Regarding the infighting, and the Hulk's inconsistent level of control, it all comes down to something the film failed to adequately portray: Loki did it. In the scene on the Helicarrier, his scepter was influencing everyone on the team to be more aggressive towards each other.

Easy to miss. And apparently, there's even more to it than was hinted at on-screen -- Loki's scepter contains a mind-influencing gem from something called the Infinity Gauntlet, given to him by Thanos, the big bad guy who appears in the mid-credits sequence. Yeah, I KNOW!

Scott Mendelson said...

I didn't get the whole 'Loki's staff is screwing with their temperament' bit at all. I'm not an uber-hardcore Marvel nerd (I'm often at a loss when my kid asks me 'Who is that guy?' in The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes) so it's probably something I missed. No biggie in the broad scheme of things. It does explain what Loki's plan really is since he has no reason to hope/believe that the Avengers will come to blows since they get along most of the second act. In fact, one of my issues with the film is that it tried to sell the idea that our heroes had to stop fighting each other and work together, yet they worked just fine until Fury's duplicity was revealed.

However, if the whole 'Loki's staff made them fight each other' thing is true, then I think it's a narrative cheat, since it means that the group's second-act conflict isn't merely a matter of personalities clashing and/or reacting differently to SHIELD's treachery, but merely about the bad guy using evil magic (same problem with Batman & Robin, as the dynamic duo's rivalry is caused by Poison Ivy's spell not actual emotional conflict).

Callensarno said...

I won't buy another Thor-film where Loki is the main villain, agreed, but so far he's only been the villain in two movies. If the ending of "The Avengers" ties into "Thor 2" in an interesting way (I see Thor and Loki teaming up against a common threat, e.g.), there was no need to kill him off. I agree there has to be some finality at some point, but it's a little soon to speak of redundancy, I think. "Thor 2" will be very relevant in that regard.

Feili716 said...

did anyone else have a problem with the ham handed way Loki was portrayed as the villian? I certainly think more depth and dimension could have been used to flesh out his character.


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