(FYI, this review is pretty much specific-spoiler-free, with no real plot details that aren’t given away by the trailers. As for character interactions or descriptions of their general awesomeness as written by Joss Whedon, there’s a bit of that, plus hints about dramatic moments. For those who don’t want to risk it, this capsule review should be enough of a recommendation: there’s a lot of funny stuff as the heroes meet and bicker, and then there’s a huge set-piece finale as intense, as prolonged, and as exciting as the end of Takashi Miike’s action masterpiece 13 Assassins, but with superheroes fighting aliens and laying waste to most of New York in doing so. If that doesn’t make you want to see it, I’m never going to be able to convince you.)
To those who have yet to see The Avengers (or to give it its British title, Marvel’s Avenging Heroes of Great Power Who Don’t Wear Bowler Hats But Do Like Leather Catsuits A Bit), the tidal wave of unrestrained praise from early screenings may seem like overkill, the perspective-free hysterical screaming of a gaggle of kidults whose arrested development has prevented them from putting away childish things. There’s been talk of this being the best superhero movie yet made, a flawless jewel, which has given cynics a brand new opportunity to roll their eyes derisively. Let me puncture the babble of praise quickly and then move on from there; this is by no means perfect. It is flawed. It may not be the best superhero movie yet made; that accolade still may rest with The Dark Knight or Richard Donner’s Superman.
To those who, like me, grew up reading Marvel comics, and thrilled at the complexity of the Marvel Universe with its crossovers, relatively consistent continuity, mixture of light and dark dramatic tones, and its thematic clash between gloomy real-world drama and stirring fantastical heroism, those people who have read that same geyser of enthusiasm, that torrent of ZOMG blasting out of the Internet to such an extent that it seems the only possible response to the movie must be to feel inevitably disappointed when you finally see this, I tell you now, you will NOT be disappointed.
Even if this isn’t the greatest superhero movie, it’s the ultimate cinematic expression of the genre so far, one not tempered by caveats about how it’s really a crime thriller a la Heat, except with a mad rich bloke in a Kevlar onesie. This is a hit of pure 100% unexpurgated genre. It features movie stars in daft suits having rucks with bad guys and flying through the air and calling each other names that just shouldn’t work, played with total conviction, and even Joss Whedon’s trademark witty dialogue doesn’t dilute the heroics on display. He believes, and if you believe too, then you’re going to fall deeply in love.
On the other hand, if you dislike the superhero genre for whatever reason — it’s childish, it’s not serious, it’s a fantasy for people who don’t fit in or don’t obsess over the culturally accepted forms of nerdery such as sports or politics or fashion or any other thing where being interested in it means you accumulate a large amount of data about trivial things that are only of interest to other people who share your fascination — then please, don’t see The Avengers. In fact, just for this month, do me a favour. Don’t talk to me about it at all.
Whedon has done a great job of making a funny, exciting, eye-popping spectacle that thunders along at a well-paced clip, featuring the mother of all blow-outs. For most people, this is an enormously entertaining ride. However, if you have even a shred of cynicism about the genre, its trappings and the passion of its fans, then be warned that I’m operating a zero-tolerance policy on this. Last night a random Tweeter responded to my ecstatic post-screening tweets with, “you should get out more”, which led to me writing my first intentionally mean response-tweet; a terrible act in contravention of the Brony Code, which actually kept me up all night feeling rotten about it. Nevertheless, I’m just not interested in hearing about how stupid I am for liking this movie, or for being excited about it, or for anything in general. Why should I quell that enthusiasm? To fit in with the majority of people? But I don’t really like the majority of people. Who does? Nobody, that’s who.
So what does Whedon do wrong? Let’s get that out of the way first. Some of my fears about his direction stand; he’s not as strong with visuals as he would like to be, and anyone who has listened to one of his commentaries will know that he sweats about this more than most directors. He’ll comment exhaustively about long takes and long tracking shots and will talk about technical stuff to such an extent that you wonder if he thinks he has something to prove. He really doesn’t, and his work would benefit from him relaxing about it. There’s not much showing off in Avengers, and there are so many action scenes in it it’s hard to tell what he handled and what was dealt with by the second-unit, but if you’ve learned to look for his authorial stamps, they stand out like a sore thumb (see also Joe Wright and Tom Hooper, whose tics are far far worse and do even more damage to their movies).
The sheer amount of stuff in Avengers can also be problematic. For the most part, Whedon juggles the large cast of characters brilliantly, and gives everyone a chance to shine, even SHIELD agents like Hill and Coulson (especially Coulson). Nevertheless, that massive finale features some unavoidable ellipses, shrinking a larger battle down into a 20-25 minute set-piece that can be accomodated by the budget (which is huge, but when you see the scale of what Whedon and Marvel have attempted here, you’ll still wonder how they did it all). The result is that flow is too often sacrificed in order to keep every ball in the air, with Cap checking in on Black Widow, hurrying off to hit some aliens in the face, then reappearing next to a slightly more tired Black Widow to check in again.
These little updates almost smack of parody, and even I, a fan of the genre, had a feeling of discombobulation at some moments with Cap, in his new and not-really-that-great costume, turning to Thor and saying, “Thor, what do you think of such-and-such?” It’s all played without a cynical nod, and even as a believer it’s hard to swallow that. Or maybe I was reflexively thinking, “Oh God, the haters are gonna have a field day with this scene.” Thankfully, those little breath-intakes of panic, triggered by fear that the movie is teetering on the brink of disaster, are very quickly over, usually because Whedon cleverly punctures the moment with a well-timed joke. His use of humour to leaven the proceedings is timed so perfectly I forgave all of his other trespasses.
And that’s the most important thing I want to convey. Yes, the scale of the proceedings, and the speed with which it was made, and the daunting number of elements to do justice to, and the pressure from the fanbase and Disney and the paying public; all of these things must have been a nightmare to deal with. And yet Whedon has succeeded, beyond the wildest dreams of any of his fans. The audience I saw the movie with last night roared with laughter at the big jokes, cheered at the hero moments, applauded at the end. There were members of the Nerd Community there, four young women in Captain America t-shirts who hollered and yelped with pleasure. Normally this would bug me but I envied them their unabashed, infectious glee. As the movie ended I joined in with their ecstatic applause, helpless to resist.
The list of things Whedon does right is much longer than the wrong-list. His jokes work like gangbusters, his direction of action is mostly clear and precise, and he gets superb performances from his cast. The look of the movie is perfunctory but the sets are pleasingly grandiose, especially the vast control room of the SHIELD helicarrier, which gets a hefty workout. Also pleasing is how Whedon portrays different scales within the movie, from the intimate confessional moments between characters, to the epic finale, and beyond even that into the Cosmic, with imagery here evoking the work of both Jack Kirby and Jim Starlin. The whole Marvel Universe is here; only the grouchiest nitpicky fans will fail to be awed by Whedon’s respect for the source material.
He even gets to improve on the character work from other Marvel movies, adding new tones or enhancing familiar ones that didn’t get a proper workout in the others. His Thor is markedly sadder than the blustery fool who dominates his first outing, and his Cap is a bit jollier. He even gets to enhance one of the things the first Captain America movie hinted at but failed to convey with enough oomph; here we truly see Cap inspiring those around him, which is played both as punchline and stirring example of pure heroism (regular readers will know that unironic heroism is my catnip).
Whedon also cleverly links Black Widow and Hawkeye on an emotional level, allowing the two unpowered characters to back each other up. Hawkeye’s out of the movie for a while, sadly, but he more than makes up for it by the end, with Jeremy Renner effortlessly playing cooler-than-thou and more than justifying his presence on the team. Black Widow has fewer cool moments, but she’s arguably more interesting. There’s a sly build-up of backstory for her as the movie progresses, and by the end she’s the most emotionally open member of the team while still remaining an enigma; some nifty work from a better-than-expected ScarJo. It’s doubtful we’ll get a Hawkeye movie — Renner has enough franchises on his plate as it is — but a Black Widow movie, or a SHIELD movie starring her, is an enticing proposition now.
Even better, he corrals Robert Downey Jr.’s exhibitionism brilliantly; though Stark dominates many scenes with his traditional obnoxious bluster, he plays very well with others, butting heads with Cap and bonding with Bruce Banner. His arc is a little too familiar, maybe, running through the surrender to the idea of sacrifice from the first Iron Man movie and the rejection of solitude from the second, but a big dramatic event in the middle of the movie gives both of those emotional beats enough energy to make them count again. It’s something most filmmakers would shy away from, but it’s arguably Whedon’s masterstroke, heightening the stakes and changing the tone of the movie.
Actually no. The masterstroke is casting Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner and allowing him to play the Hulk in mo-cap form. I’m not a fan of the Hulk particularly, but this version is good enough to make me rethink my lack of engagement. It’s obvious I’m not alone on this. A large number of The Avengers‘ best moments come courtesy of the green giant, earning rapturous responses from the audience. Ruffalo is perfect as the hesitant scientist, rarely making eye contact with anyone, ashamed of his curse, quietly sarcastic about others but terrified of hurting anyone. It’s a sympathetic performance, beautifully shaded. Ed Norton will likely watch this and weep.
It also helps that a lot of the work in making Loki function as a villain was done so well in Thor. Whedon honours Branagh’s movie — and Tom Hiddleston’s fantastic embodiment of the God of Mischief — by making Loki both monumental asshole and vulnerable fool trying to find a place to call home. Some have questioned his motivations for attempting to subjugate humanity, or for bringing the alien force to Earth (no spoilers on the name of the alien race), but it makes sense from where he was at the end of Thor; a silly impetuous boy, hurt by those he was once close to and too bitter to understand that he is loved. Some of the most powerful moments in Avengers are between Thor and Loki, with our Asgardian hero desperate to appeal to the brother hidden behind the villain.
And yet to many viewers, myself included, it’s hard to slice the movie apart to pick out what works and what doesn’t work due to emotional overload, which is why the start of this review is so focused on separating out really passionate die-hard fans from critics, both armchair and professional, though obviously the vast majority of viewers will fall in between these diametrically opposed viewpoints. Come at this movie from the perspective of someone who doesn’t respond to the tropes of the superhero genre, or the Cinema of Spectacle, and more than likely this will leave you cold. And though I’m wary of sneering, personal dismissal I have absolutely no problem with reasoned criticism or subjective disinterest. We all have our own individual criteria for success, and that’s why it’s impossible to please all of the people all of the time. I’m hip to that, daddy-o.
But for some of us, The Avengers isn’t just a movie. It’s a dream come true, a childhood fantasy a long time coming true, and I find it impossible to apologise for that without betraying something fundamental about who I am and how I interact with the rest of the world. For a significant portion of the audience, this is the culmination of an idea growing in our minds since we first read a copy of Marvel Team-Up and got excited because Spider-Man was hanging out with Black Panther, or The Thing was suddenly stuck on a spaceship, out of his depth, chasing Moondragon with the help of Starhawk (Marvel Two-In-One Volume 1 Issue 62, fact fans!). It was too much to hope that this could ever really happen but it has, and it’s even better than we could ever have imagined.
Say it’s clumsy and maybe ugly at times, or trivial and nothing more than pyrotechnic bombast. None of that matters. Whedon’s done an amazing job of making a movie accessible to all; a real crowdpleaser with big drama, action, and more jokes than most comedies. But more amazingly he’s added notes to this symphony of visual and aural overkill that only a few of us will pick out, because we’ve been humming this tune in our heads for a long time. This movie spoke to me, and will speak to others, who have thrilled to the tales told by Kurt Busiek, Roger Stern, Mark Waid, Walt Simonson and so many others. It might even win over some of the haters, and help explain what it is about this genre that means so much to so many.
It celebrates heroism, and courage, and the marvels of world-building unbound by fear of censure from those who feel safer hiding behind a carapace of disdain. It evokes the same inspiring messages about doing the right thing, about believing in better, that comics conveyed when we were young. There were moments in this that made me hyperventilate with excitement, and by the end, as I slumped exhausted in my seat, reeling from the final mid-credit shot and all of the incredible possibilities it opens up for future Marvel movies, I realised what Whedon’s ultimate achievement was; he made me feel like a child again, lost in a Proustian revery of imagination and hope. That means more to me than 2606 words could ever hope to convey.