Avengers: Well Assembled
After last summer's heavy offering of superhero movies (First Class, Thor, Captain America, and Green Lantern) I wrote an article discussing the potential of the genre. I noted that no film had been able to do straight-up superhero as well as 2008's Iron Man, and suggested that perhaps filmmakers needed to take superheroes in different directions, à la The Dark Knight.
Quite frankly, we've become over-saturated by the superhero genre. These are movies which, as a rule, stick to a formula that they know works so as not to jeopardize box office revenues. But the formula's old and, if the past year of movies has taught us anything, has very little room to grow. So, where could we possibly go from here?
Near the end of the article, I threw out a quick prognosis for the Avengers movie:
From what we've been shown, it looks like we can expect more of the same...This is understandable. But considering the state of superhero movies at present, and their huge potential for growth as films, it's something of a shame.
Last night, I attended the almost-midnight release of Marvel Studios' pan-blockbuster The Avengers, directed by Joss Whedon. So how about it? Was I right in my predictions for the film?
In a way, I was. This certainly was “more of the same.” But at the same time I owe the film something of an apology, because this was the best offering of “the same” that I've seen from a superhero film. While I'm not yet convinced that the superhero genre as is can be mined indefinitely without major innovations, The Avengers certainly proves that the genre still has life in it, delivering for the first time on the promise offered by Iron Man, and in many ways surpassing it.
For those of you who have chosen to ignore the glut of Marvel Studios films in the past few years, The Avengers is a superhero potpourri, featuring the titular characters from Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America, as well as Black Widow and Hawkeye, who had cameos in earlier films. Such an amalgamation is odd in films, short of The Jetsons meet the Flintstones and Alien vs. Predator, yet it is all a part of the crossover nature of comic books.
This is the kind of endeavour that could have ended up being a mess if done in the wrong hands, but Joss Whedon totally lives up to the challenge, balancing characters with surprising deftness, making sure that each of the Avengers has a chance to shine.
The term “dumb fun” gets thrown around a lot when describing action blockbusters and superhero movies, though I find it's often used to excuse a lack of inventiveness. Dumb fun should allow audience members to enjoy something on a pure, primal level without having to tap into more cerebral parts of the brain, eschewing elements like labyrinthian conspiracies or thought-provoking moral dilemmas. Okay, that's fine, but in order for dumb fun to work, a certain clever craft is required on the part of the author to constantly keep people surprised and engaged. The Incredible Hulk, for example, which was just people punching each other, wasn't dumb fun. It was just dumb.
Whedon understands this, and delivers a dumb filled with so much fun that it can turn a relatively cynical critic such as myself into a squealing fanboy by the film's close. Action scenes, particularly in the latter half of the film, are filled with so much energy and creativity that it's all you can do not to stand up in your seat and cheer. You're left in a state of pure awe, as you should be when dealing with Thunder Gods and Gamma Monsters. Remember that scene in the middle of Iron Man when he quells a terrorist raid and blows up a tank? Remember how exhilarating that was?
It's like that scene, times ten.
As I said before, the movie is great at ensuring that each of the myriad of characters have a chance to show just how badass they are. However, the same can't be said for the characters all showing the same level of depth. Iron Man (played by Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) all manage to shine, from Captain America's charming naivety to Black Widow's ability to manipulate any situation to her advantage, despite being genuinely concerned over the well-being of her teammates. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) don't fare quite as well, with the former never really achieving much depth save a complicated concern for his brother. As for Hawkeye, I get the feeling that he was a bit of an odd man out. For the first half of the film he's very much relegated to the sidelines, and in the second half, well, he does have those badass moments I mentioned, but there's little actual character to speak of. His comic book role of comedic rapscallion would have clashed too much with Iron Man's, sure, but we needed something in its place.
The character who shines above all the others, though, is the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), in terms of both depth and sheer badassery. This is perhaps most surprising, considering that in both of his own films (which themselves had vastly different approaches) the character failed to gel with audiences in any significant way. Huge props should go to Ruffalo for succeeding where other great actors (Eric Bana and Edward Norton) have failed. Throughout the whole film, there is something disorienting about Ruffalo's performance, the way he never looks anyone in the eye and laughs nervously at many lines, and it's not until an 11th hour reveal—one that heralds the film's shift into overdrive—that we understand why that is. It's a great moment—one of many.
Script-wise, this is fairly by-the-book (vague spoilers next sentence). Pretty much every story beat can be more or less predicted, whether it's two characters learning to overcome their differences, a certain character meeting his “shocking” demise, or the inevitable post-credit (okay, mid-credit) teaser that we've come to expect. That being said, this film is far from predictable. I've been sending plenty of kudos Whedon's way during this review, but he doubly deserves them for the constant curveballs he throws at us, not concerning the overall plot beats, but rather the minute details. Whether it's an unexpected reaction, a sudden camera pan, or a jarring redirection of action, he manages to keep us constantly thrilled and unsure of what to expect next. He's a director and writer who understands detail, though this is nothing new to fans of his past work.
Is this a better superhero film than The Dark Knight? Well, not quite, but at the same time it's almost unfair to even compare the two. They have both successfully transported their characters from comic books to film, albeit through completely different approaches. While Knight injected its film with realism and dark, profound themes, Avengers embraces its source material for exactly the mindless camp material it is, and brings out the best from it, becoming a better Avengers than the comic series has been in decades. Independent of anything Chris Nolan is doing, Avengers deserves to stand as an achievement in its own right, and is certainly the best Marvel movie made to date.
Returning again to 2011's offerings, I've often debated with friends over which was the second-best superhero film of that year (First Class being generally agreed upon to be the best, Green Lantern the worst): Thor or Captain America? Neither of them were particularly great, but I generally argue that at least Thor took a few risks that paid off (the off-centre villain Loki, for one). Friends, meanwhile, would argue that Captain America, while perhaps much more generic, at least delivered a straightforward and solid experience that had fewer missteps than Thor. The Avengers puts both of these films in their place by doing both: offering a straightforward, solid film that at the same time constantly thrills with its inventiveness and ingenuity.