Review: THE AVENGERS Assemble in Super-Community
"Aloneness is universal... If you don't have that to start with, then you don't find what is truly rich in community."
"When movies are nothing but guys in tights, I'm done... Cinema is dying."
That last quote is actually a paraphrase of a sentiment spoken on the excellent Movie Geeks United podcast. Admittedly, it's a strange thing to tout at the beginning of an otherwise overwhelmingly positive review of a super hero movie. But it does function as something of an effective if frustrated counterpoint to the middle quote, which was spoken by THE AVENGERS director and co-writer Joss Whedon in a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly. Whedon was speaking to what he perceives as the true theme of his film, itself a big-budget summer tent pole made up of, as he put it, characters that have no business being in the same movie together. And even if the idea of the Avengers as a forged community of "cripplingly lonely" do-gooders doesn't quite shine through the way the filmmaker speaks about it, it is nonetheless there, and vital.
But more than that, it's essential outside the world of the movie, spilling beyond the screen to the many millions who will congregate in cinema auditoriums worldwide with similarly enthusiastic strangers looking to be wowed by it all. And they will - that first quote is me, falling all over myself to praise this too-good-to-be-true slice of fanboy wish fulfillment. Yes, cinema as we know it is slowly dying, but it's not THE AVENGERS that are killing it. (To be fair, the Movie Geek in question did state on another episode that although he's no super-hero fan, he was anticipating this movie.) No, THE AVENGERS, dare I say it, is the kind of thing that can help to save cinema. An engaging blockbuster worthy of the big screen in every way, and refreshingly appropriate for filmgoers of all ages, it will do that thing that we're otherwise poised to lose in movieland - forge community. That's a tall order for one film, but THE AVENGERS is no ordinary film.
For four years, S.H.I.E.L.D. spy-chief Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, eye patched and never happy) has been lurking in the fringes of most Marvel Studios films, planting seeds for THE AVENGERS - the inevitable unification of the individual powerhouses. In the movie's first moments, Thor's wicked brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) manages to steal the mega-powerful cosmic cube last seen in the CAPTAIN AMERICA movie, and begin his master plan to dominate the earth. For starters, he'll have a savage alien army tear up New York City in a display of destruction that gives Michael Bay (on his best, best day) a run for his money. And so it goes, as it says in every "Avengers" comic: And, there came a day, a day unlike any other, when earth's mightiest heroes found themselves united against a common threat! On that day, the Avengers were born, to fight the foes no single super hero could withstand!
As both a longtime Marvel devotee (specifically, an "Avengers" reader), and a legacy Joss Whedon fan (outspoken "Buffy" fan since season two originally aired), the whole premise of this film sounded, as previously stated, too good to be true. As a hopelessly geeked out youth, a cinematic shared super hero universe with a sky's-the-limit budget was the impossible dream. The reality was that when it came to movie adaptations, Marvel characters were doomed to remain forever separated, never crossing paths the way they so often do in print. That was a given; we were just happy for any half-decent treatment of our favorite heroes on screen. (There was a time not all that long ago when BLADE was the best Marvel character movie, by default.) These were the cripplingly lonely times for fans. These days, as I approach middle age and have seen my share of so-so super hero adaptations, I didn't allow myself to truly get buzzed about THE AVENGERS. Now, having seen it, I'm hulking out like a lightning bolt of super-soldier serum is ricocheting around in my armor!!! But fear not - one needn't be among the initiated to dig this movie - THE AVENGERS is accessible to all, maybe brilliantly so.
In it to win it is billionaire industrialist genius Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr., a four-color match made in movie heaven with Whedon), Asgardian thunder god Thor (Chris Hemsworth), unfrozen World War II hero Captain America (Chris Evans), and the self-controlling Hulk, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, the best movie Banner yet, evoking Bill Bixby from certain angles). Rounding out the team are S.H.I.E.L.D. super-agents Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). At the end of the day, this is all about making the Avengers look good, establishing that Marvel heroes belong with other Marvel heroes. In classic Marvel fashion, they go a few rounds pounding one another before inevitably getting it together - but no one ever said living in community was easy. (In fact it's the opposite; painful but worthwhile.) Especially on a high-tech S.H.I.E.L.D. heli-carrier.
Despite the valid concern of hero overload, no character is shortchanged; everyone is adequately explored and dealt with in this ensemble actioner. (Black Widow, it seems, somehow has even more screen time here than she did in IRON MAN 2, although the character doesn't have disproportionate screen time compared to anyone else.) It's indicative of why Whedon is the perfect man for the job in the first place. Having come from television, he's familiar enough with the notion of being handed a cast and a house style to work within. Having also created and ran many ensemble-driven TV series' and a film or two, he had demonstrated the ability to juggle multiple characters in the context of an intensifying external situation. Also, he's done significant work for Marvel Comics in the past, and as an admitted fan of their universe, he already knows these guys. He's unrelentingly clever, a singular and distinct voice that, despite being the subject of intense fan worship, knows when to get out of the way of the greater vision. In short, he's interested in telling the truth, but also in having his own flavor of fun while doing so. Without getting spoilery, I'll say that this film contains what has to be one of the all time top five Joss Whedon moments ever put on film.
Even if the whole of THE AVENGERS had only been stylistically in keeping with its first hour, in which the characters gather and meet, lock horns and butt heads, I would've been satisfied with this movie. Whedon's sheer confidence in his rendering of spectacle in the final stretch may be pay-off for the four years spent building up to this film, but in this film itself, it's almost gravy. What makes it work is the same thing that makes RIO BRAVO work (which Quentin Tarantino called one of the great "hang out movies" - a film where the characters hang out with one another a lot), that we, the audience, enjoy the company of the characters, and want to spent time with them. Of course it helps that Whedon has an elevated flair for appropriately witty banter - something of a lost art in cinema today, even in romantic comedies (a sub-genre that used to be the go-to place for great witty dialogue) that desperately need it, like THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT.
Although I was impressed months ago by the AVENGERS trailer in 3D, the movie doesn't benefit from the process. Whedon makes creative visual use of foreground posts and scenery in the downtime of the film, further justifying the stereoscopic process such as it is, but all in all, it's another needless 3D application to an otherwise terrific film.
THE AVENGERS is daft spectacle, accessible to most anyone who loves super heroes, action movies, Joss Whedon, or entertaining movies in general. The summer season may just be all downhill from here, so don't miss out on the fun. Hop a quinjet to the nearest cinema as soon as possible, and assemble with the biggest, most enthusiastic group of fellow filmgoers you can find - you will have a rewarding time. THE AVENGERS can and will bring us together for a shared experience of a shared Marvel universe. The company's once-clunky four-year long cultivating of this project has paid off in terms of a great movie. It's not a hoax, not a dream, not an imaginary story - this, true believer, is how an event picture is done. THE AVENGERS is one of the best ensemble action films of all time. And it's here to save the day.
- Jim Tudor
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