Movie Review: The Avengers

 Posted by on May 7, 2012 at 3:00 pm  Film
May 072012
 

The Avengers (2012) 8/10
When Loki steals the “Tesseract” cube from SHIELD, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) assembles a group of heroes, including Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor, as well as Dr. Bruce Banner, to try to find the cube and defeat Loki before he can destroy the Earth. Directed by Joss Whedon.

The Avengers does a lot right, very little wrong, and then throws in some more right stuff for extra. It does about as well as can be hoped for a big tentpole movie with the awesome power of major studios behind it (as well as their restraints). It is in some ways generic, and has too few surprises, but the presence of Joss Whedon’s unique and personal voice means those factors are mitigated.

One of the big surprises is that the movie, with Loki as a villain, doesn’t focus on Thor as the main hero, nor on Iron Man, despite Robert Downey Jr.’s star power and the success of not one, but two Iron Man movies. Instead, the stand-out characters are Captain America and Bruce Banner/The Hulk, with Mark Ruffalo as Banner stealing the show.

Captain America functions as the perfect embodiment of what a superhero is. He carries in his very person the American mythos, and, being displaced in time (frozen during World War II and awakened to a world he doesn’t understand), he brings the timeless, enduring, eternal quality of mythology with him. Chris Evans is far too weak an actor (I said as much after the Captain America movie) but the role is solidly written and takes advantage of the assets of the character without leaning too heavily on Evans as an actor.

Ruffalo, on the other hand, is simply a surprise. Stepping into the role after Ed Norton stepped out, he brings unexpected warmth, nuance, and mystery to his role. Because we don’t know how or if Bruce Banner can control the big green “Other Guy,” we don’t know what his part will be in the battle to come.

There’s enormous pleasure here for fans of the comic books, lots of nods, cameos, references, and recognition. Much of it is kind of expected, but how else could that go? For this reason, the mystery of Bruce Banner is one of the movie’s richest treasures as a movie (as opposed to a feast for the comic geek).

There’s some intriguing character work from Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, showing depth and interest that simply wasn’t there in Iron Man II. Jeremy Renner, as the underwritten Hawkeye, has all the richness you’d expect if you’ve seen Renner in other things. He really brings it even without a whole lot to do.

The Avenger is very good at myth-making, at getting to some of the guts of what makes us want superheros in the first place. It doesn’t always do so with a light touch, unfortunately. It’s also very, very good at figuring out how to make The Avengers work as a team, giving everyone something to do. A lot of pre-release muttering had to do with how Black Widow and Hawkeye—two physically ordinary humans—could fit in with a god, a Super Soldier, and an Iron Man. But the script really makes it work. Hawkeye’s role as a teammate is particularly clever.

The movie is a must-see for comic book fans, not because it’s geeky, but because it’s good. For others, it offers significant summer blockbuster fun. The writing has the sparkle and wit you expect from Joss Whedon, and the package is appealing.

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  2 Responses to “Movie Review: The Avengers”

  1. I agree with most all of this. I don’t think Capt. America was really the featured character here. (Tony Stark arguably has more of a character arc, to the extent there are any in this culmination of several films.) Nevertheless, I was surpsised by how well Whedon did with Cap, given that he generally does better with the more dysfunctional folks (indeed, Whedon here casts superheroes generally as dysfunctional in the movie).

    I definitely agree with Ruffalo being a highlight, although it also occurs to me as a childhood comic book geek that The Hulk actually works better as part of an ensemble than as the subject of his own book or movie. Here, Whedon’s television work served him well in developing an ensemble screenplay.

    Nor do I think it accidental that Whedon gives most of the “new” character development here to Black Widow. Whedon cares about gender issues and female characters and manages to show a bit of that even here.

    Also, Deborah refers to “wit” in passing, but this movie is often very funny — and not in an ironic, making-fun-of-comic-books way, but in an organic, character-driven way. Another reviewer (at Deadspin, iirc) noted that if you took the action out of this movie, it would probably still succeed as a workplace comedy. That’s a bit of an overstatement, but there is some truth to it. On that note, as with the series of films leading to this one, it’s advisable to stay to the very end of the credits.

  2. With a handle like Doctor Strange, you *know* I’m an old-line Marvel Comics fan – all the way back to the sixties and seventies! And while most of Joss Whedon’s projects haven’t appealed to me, I loved Firefly/Serenity and Dr. Horrible, so I was pretty *primed* for this film. Especially after both the Thor and Captain America films from last year were better than I was expecting!

    I agree for the most part with Deborah’s review: this flick is far better than it has any right to be, but it’s not perfect. That said, it offers stunning action, hilarious comedy, smart characterization, clever dialog, and for us geeks, it includes nearly all the classic tropes a superhero team-up should, not to mention all kinds of obscure shout-outs. (E.g., Am I the only one who noticed that Loki and Dr. Solvig’s portal-opening machine atop the Stark Tower was nearly identical in design to Jack Kirby’s illustrations of Galactus’ enormous device atop the Baxter Building from the classic Fantastic Four “Galactus Trilogy” of 1966?!?)

    However, I was not as taken with Mark Ruffalo’s performance as Banner as most – to me, he was doing the same laid-back schtick as in The Kids Are All Right and a lot of his other films. (Personally, I liked Eric Bana as Banner in Ang Lee’s unjustly underrated Hulk film: sure, a lot of it doesn’t work at all, but the parts that do are great, and it deserves some credit for trying to be something different and deeper than the average superhero flick.) That said, I think this third iteration of the Hulk was a big improvment: Banner’s personality was more present, and they *finally* got the Hulk’s scale right… though there’s still a limit on just how *believable* a big green mega-muscled CGI thingy can look!

    Also, I think Thor deserved a bit more focus, particularly in that Loki was the villain. But it’s silly to carp: Whedon managed to give each of the stars some great moments, and the characters’ journey from misfits to a team was well handled. And I still can’t believe that somehow Captain America’s leaps and shield throws looked *exactly* as in classic Kirby panels! (I also loved the second post-credits scene, the one at the very end – the one they went back and shot on the night of the American premiere – as understated as it was, it was somehow the perfect grace note to end the film.)

    And I think The Avengers provides an interesting contrast to Christopher Nolan’s dark, dark Batman films (the trailer for The Dark Knight Rises was downright depressing!), as this movie was pure, good-natured fun… The perfect replication of the joy of reading through a stack of comic books with a bag of chips and a Coke on a summer’s day when you’re 11 or 12!

    As Stan Lee would say, “Rare wonderment awaits you, True Believer!”

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