In some respects, a review of Marvel's The Avengers is kinda pointless. If you're reading this (and depending upon how you got to Scary-Crayon), you'll probably love it. You've probably already seen it once -- if not multiple times -- and you're likely planning a return trip to the theater to view it again in the coming days. For many of you, it represents the payoff after a four year wait that began with Iron Man; fans deeply attached to the Ultimates comics, or even the Avengers of Earth-616, have been waiting even longer to see their beloved fictional heroes finally unite in live action on the big screen. For these people -- the kinds of viewers who will clap wildly when Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor respectively make their first appearances in the film (at the packed midnight showing I attended, the audience burst into applause at each of these three occurrences and more) -- The Avengers is more than a movie. It's a bona-fide event, and it's one that will leave them completely satisfied.
That's not just because of the enthusiasm these fans bring to the theater, as The Avengers does a lot of things well. Given that the movie was penned by Joss Whedon (of Buffy fame), it's unsurprising that the script is peppered with great one-liners and dialogue exchanges. There are a few inspired -- and hilarious -- moments in the action. And some of the performances are quite good. In particular, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and Chris Hemsworth are very effective in resuming their respective roles as Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor, and Tom Hiddleston breathes fire as Loki. I tend to watch movies in silence at the theater, but one exchange in which a snarling Loki rained insults and threats down on Black Widow prompted me to utter, "...Damn." (Mark Ruffalo is also great as Bruce Banner, though I wonder if the actor deserves as much credit for this as he's being given across the board. In previous movies with the Hulk, we didn't have Iron Man or Thor or Captain America as well -- so no matter how engaging Bruce Banner was, his presence was a constant reminder that we weren't watching the Hulk smash shit.) There are two awesome post-credits bits. Little things like this frequently elicited cheers and laughter from the audience, and they're the kinds of things that devoted fans will remember with delight, repeat and/or praise endlessly, and return to the theater to see again and again.
But while I acknowledge the film's strengths, these aren't enough to get me to herald The Avengers as the best superhero movie ever. (I'm actually a bit surprised that fans are praising it as such, since Iron Man and Captain America: The First Avenger were better films in nearly every respect. There are other superior superhero movies, too, but I couldn't help being reminded of those since their titular characters were actually in this flick as well.) In fact, I can imagine a much worse movie that still included all of the aforementioned elements -- and I can imagine a better one that included them and avoided the greater shortcomings that, for me, made The Avengers a somewhat disappointing experience. While Loki is menacing, he's pretty much the same cookie-cutter cartoon villain we've seen so many times before. He's a grandstanding egomaniac (a "diva," as Iron Man puts it in the film), so he operates in a highly public way that pretty much ensures the heroes will arrive to smack him down -- in marked contrast to his mostly behind-the-scenes scheming in last year's Thor -- and his oh-so original plan is to open a dimensional portal so that he can take over Earth with his endless supply of generic alien soldiers.
As a result, the battle at the end of the film is basically the same big loud messy brawl that concluded Transformers: Dark of the Moon (ugh), and that's ended countless sci-fi invasion flicks if you replace the fisticuffs with laser guns and/or aircraft battles. I guess most folks find that kind of spectacle engaging no matter how many times they see it (which is probably why it keeps showing up in movies), but I tend to find it boring and unimpressive -- perhaps because I've seen so many cartoons, and live-action Japanese superhero media, in which real care is put into plotting and choreographing the battle scenes. I saw The Avengers with a group, and the discussion that preceded our arrival at the theater included some talk of Casshern. It's a flawed film -- and it totally throws coherence out the window towards the end (though that could be the fault of the subtitles; maybe the Japanese dialogue thoroughly explains things) -- but every battle in that more has more craftsmanship on display than all of the action sequences in The Avengers combined. In that respect, The Avengers is even inferior to your average WWE match.
There are also quite a few things in The Avengers that just don't make sense (or at least they don't as presented in the theatrical cut of the film; it's entirely possible that some of the explanation ended up on the cutting room floor). I'll avoid discussing them at length in the interest of remaining mostly spoiler-free, but it shouldn't be any surprise that the Avengers assemble for the battle royale at the end of the film. Here, the Hulk stands among them as a functioning member of the team -- except in the previous action sequence, which in the film's schedule takes place maybe hours before the grand finale, the Hulk is the familiar rage-filled monster that's just as likely to attack friend as foe. Some fans have posited more or less plausible explanations for the sudden change in the Hulk's behavior, but the fact is that the movie never explicitly offers them. (Even if it had, questions would still remain. Among them: if, under normal circumstances, Banner exercises mostly complete control over the Hulk, why is he so averse to transforming? Why, in the dialogue, does he still speak as if his condition is a curse? The ability to turn into an indestructible green monster at will would be awesome.) As a result, the viewer is burdened with the responsibility of crafting a fuller explanation for these events. I admit that it can be fun to speculate about those kinds of things -- but, insofar as we're doing the ones doing the explanatory work, Joss Whedon (or the writer/director of any fan-loved episode/movie) doesn't deserve the credit for it.
In addition to developments that require the viewer to sort them out, The Avengers also has things that arguably make more sense but just don't seem right from a storytelling perspective. For instance, very early in the film (like, in the first few minutes; hope that's not too much of a spoiler for you), Loki shows up at SHIELD's underground base and uses his freedom-sapping spear to place Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and that scientist from Thor (Stellan Skarsgård) under his control. (Apparently Loki has harnessed the power of the Anti-Life Equation.) But instead of behaving like zombies, they largely retain their personalities. They not only retain their behavior and speech patterns, but also their enthusiasm for and dedication to their work in that they do more than follow Loki's simple commands: they actively uncover new information and recommend strategies to help him further his goals. That's all well and good (I guess), but, than rather anything that actually contributes to the story, it seems more like a way to handle the problem of too many characters -- getting them out of the room with the big dogs while still allowing them to do their thing. While Whedon's treatment of Hawkeye and the scientist is arguably kind of clever in that respect (and understandable, insofar as he had to give everyone on the payroll something to do), a better film would simply have fewer characters if it couldn't effectively accommodate them all.
And some of the performances are pretty weak. In particular, Scarlett Johansson is decidedly unconvincing as the Black Widow. (In fairness, I didn't like her in Iron Man 2 either.) The character is supposed to be a kickass (ex-)Russian spy, but Johansson just can't pull that off -- and it's as if Whedon knew it, since her main shtick in this film is to pretend to be a weak, sentimental woman in order to lull men into a false sense of security and get them to reveal their plans. It's a good plan, I guess, and Johansson is convincing in that respect, but she never successfully flips the performance to convey the true badass that the character's supposed to be. She looks terrified even when she's kicking ass, and one of the major action sequences in the film has her running and cowering and hiding from a rampaging Hulk like a blond co-ed in a slasher film. It makes sense in that it's the Hulk and Black Widow has no superpowers, but it does nothing to sell her as a powerful character in her own right. (And it kinda makes the Hulk look like a bully rather than a beast -- he should've had a beer-stained wifebeater to go with his torn pants.) But at least she's cute, right?
On one of the message boards I frequent, participants in the thread devoted to The Avengers are predictably -- and almost unanimously -- enamored with the film. Multiple commenters describe it as a "perfect" comic book movie; others excitedly note that you can tell it was written by a "real" comic book fan. In this, they might be right. But when I think of the comics I recall most strongly from my youth, I have to admit that it's not because they had excellent writing or even amazing artwork. The Amazing Spider-Man #375 (Vol. 1), which commemorated the 30th anniversary of the release of The Amazing Spider-Man #1, was a giant-sized issue with a holographic foil cover and supposedly contained the "final" confrontation between Spider-Man and Venom. (They fought again on numerous occasions.) Maximum Carnage and X-Cutioner's Song were lengthy arcs that spanned multiple issues and different titles before reaching their conclusions. Fatal Attractions wasn't quite as drawn out -- it was only six issues versus the 14- and 12-issue (respectively) spans of the aforementioned arcs -- but each issue had a holographic card embedded in the cover and the arc included, among other things, the issue in which Magneto forcefully tore the adamantium from Wolverine's skeleton.
Now, it's entirely possible that some of the comics mentioned above in fact did have excellent writing and/or amazing artwork, but I honestly don't remember any of those things. (The issues I've reread in recent years, namely from Maximum Carnage, have actually been pretty terrible.) Yet I remember them fondly because they were events -- and because some of the things that happened in them, whether they occurred on a single page or constituted genuine plot points, were just plain cool. The Avengers is like that. The story is uninspired; things don't always make sense (at least as far as the movie presents them; nerds will invent explanations to justify anything); certain characters get sidelined (albeit understandably) and some of the performances are kinda weak; and you've seen the final act dozens of times and in dozens of films, whether the swarming antagonists have been aliens or robots or both -- but casual moviegoers will delight in the spectacle and true believers will grin from ear to ear when the Avengers finally and truly assemble. Viewers looking for a somewhat more substantive theater experience, or at least one that engages them on the strength of its merits rather than its special effects or a fierce and longstanding attachment to its characters, might be less inclined to ignore the film's shortcomings or invent increasingly complex theories to explain them away.-- Wes --
(All images in this review were borrowed from Marvel.com. Check it out for your official Marvel universe fix!)