Boomdoggin's Avengers Review - BEWARE SPOILERS!
A great film, and maybe one of the greatest action blockbusters of all time, but is Joss Whedon's The Avengers everything it could be? In most ways ways, I say, "Hell yes," but in just a few others, "Maybe not quite." BEWARE OF COPIOUS AMOUNTS OF SPOILERS AHEAD!!!
There's a lot to say about The Avengers, and in a sense, I wonder whether it's actually 'fair' to review it. The Avengers is a summer blockbuster, sure, and a superhero movie, and we've all seen enough examples of either genre to compare this mother-of-all-Marvel-movies to them. But The Avengers is also something else entirely. Almost like a revolutionary new form of technology - like say, the Atari 2600, or those chunky cordless telephones people used back in the 1980s - it's buggy, maybe a little awkward at first, and it doesn't quite fit with all your other stuff, but none of these obstacles are remotely 'con' enough to really diminish the undeniable coolness of it.
So in short, I’m fully prepared to shovel scores of praise atop Marvel’s The Avengers, but as this is an in-depth review, I have a number of other things to say about it as well - not all of them strictly complimentary. This was a great movie; don’t get me wrong. But it shouldn’t be considered immune from criticism on its narrative, structural and atmospheric points, each of which The Avengers falters on - or perhaps more accurately, briefly ‘hiccups’ on - at least a few times over the course of its impressive two-hour-and-twelve-minute long gauntlet of action and fun.
Before picking Whedon's bona fide Marvel masterpiece apart, however, it behooves me to draw a comparison with it from non-filmic direction - namely, to one of its chief inspirations within Marvel comic book continuity: The Ultimates. Anyone who's dipped their big toe into actually following the Marvel comic book universe for the past ten years will be familiar with Marvel's critically-acclaimed 'Ultimate universe', which saw its beginnings with the premier of 'Ultimate Spiderman' and 'Ultimate X-Men - alternate-universe versions of these tried-and-true-and-tried-again fanboy favorites - and which then ventured into the publish of Marvel's re-imagining of The Avengers in that alternate universe as 'The Ultimates'. The Ultimates was fresher, darker, and more ‘filmic’ in style than Avengers titles of mainstream continuity; it sought to re-imagine these characters as they might be conjured for a feature film adaptation, perhaps in the hopes that they one day would be. Captain America was depicted as frustrated and depressed from waking up in a new era; Tony Stark was a dangerously alcoholic bachelor; Bruce Banner was a whiny little pipsqueak, and his Hulk was more of a ‘Mr. Hyde’ than the semi-heroic Hulk brought to us in Whedon’s Avengers. Hawkeye and Black Widow were assassins, plain and simple, and the Widow herself was a spy in fact (she betrays the team in a later arc). Giant Man and the Wasp - absent from this first film installment - were an unhappily married couple, with Giant Man actually putting his wife in the hospital at one point, and the Wasp making googly-eyes at Steve Rogers in turn.
Why bring up The Ultimates? It was a crucial bit of inspiration for this film, starting with Sam Jackson being picked for Nick Fury - the artists of The Ultimates chose to draw Fury not as the brown-haired, scruffy-lookin’ white guy he’s been in mainstream continuity for decades, but rather in the spitting image of Sam Jackson, deliberately - and ending with the Chitauri, a dumbed-down incarnation of the same alien army invented for The Ultimates premier story arc. More importantly, The Ultimates showed us, back in the days of the first Singer X-Men films and Sam Raimi’s Spider Man, that an even more epic and disparate team of heavy-hitters could indeed be made to work as a film, albeit as a film in comic book form. Bruce Banner’s fall from the helicopter in The Incredible Hulk; Steve Rogers’ costume in Captain America; virtually the entire character design of Renner’s Hawkeye that we see him in The Avengers - these are carry-overs almost directly from The Ultimates, and I here give credit where credit is due.
Inevitably, I walked into Marvel’s The Avengers with a mind to compare it to The Ultimates, and while it expectedly, and in all likelihood necessarily disappointed on a number of levels, it pleasantly surprised on others. Whereas The Ultimates provided rich character arcs for only several of its leads - namely Captain America, The Hulk, Giant Man, The Wasp, and Nick Fury - leaving the rest relatively arc-less - namely Iron Man, Thor, Hawkeye and Black Widow, The Avengers, rather, offers most of its characters ‘token’ arcs, not really committing seriously to most of them, but opting instead to pay respect to each character by at least pretending to develop them. Iron Man learns to make a real sacrifice for the team; the Hulk learns to embrace his identity; Nick Fury learns to count on his “boy band”; and Loki learns to take humans a lot more seriously - these are the arcs I consider to ‘work’. On the other hand, Captain America may open his loop as a ‘fish out of time’, searching for a new team, but this loop never really sees catharsis; the Black Widow, though well-acted, doesn’t have a clear trajectory (one minute she’s shaken by Loki rummaging through her past, the next she’s playing him for a fool, the next she’s shaken by it again); Thor has a little screen time with his brother, but that’s about it; and no attempt at developing Hawkeye is even bothered with (which frankly I think is fine). You’ll hear from many sources that each character is given an opportunity to shine, and this is certainly true from an action/ fight scene standpoint, but in terms of actual dramatic development, most of these characters experience none, or next to none of any real import.
However - and this may be the most useful insight I can offer about this film - how well, in fact, could The Avengers have actually managed to develop each of these characters without failing in its main purpose of presenting an epic, action-packed ensemble spectacle which (and this is key) doesn’t significantly interfere with each of its central characters’ autonomous, stand-alone series?
There are a few points on which my answer to this question is, “better than it managed to.” Some sort of finality to Captain America’s development - maybe a scene of Rogers alone, symbolically putting the past behind him in some way, satisfied with his new team - could have improved things. The Black Widow could have just been given a more ‘clear’ arc; instead of coming to terms with her past, which I think is frankly a bit ham-handed with respect to such a characteristically-emotionally hardened character, she could have had to come to terms with being outclassed alongside such a who’s-who of power players. But this is pretty much it; for the most part, I think the directions Whedon chose for most of the team were just about right on point.
But as far as further potential for individual character development goes, returning to the question of two paragraphs ago, I feel the answer is really, “not at all; it really did a fantastic job as things stand.” What's truly impressive about The Avengers - that is, what's not merely fun or exciting or well-acted about it - is that it succeeds in both executing what is, hard as it may seem to believe it, a high-concept, while at the same time not dropping the ball for any of the four, semi-autonomous franchises it non-committally merges, each of which is intended to continue out from under the shadow of The Avengers banner in years to come. I can think of no way, short of those involving Captain America and the Widow, above, in which the film could have given greater priority to its constituent players without sacrificing the unity of its whole. The Avengers stands not as a masterpiece of dramatic depth, but as the functional, and extremely fun origin story for a team of already-somewhat-developed characters with whom most viewers will already be acquainted. We need not be treated to Tony Stark’s struggle with alcoholism or daddy issues - this was covered in Iron Man 2. Neither need we waste much time between Thor and Loki - Branagh’s Thor has done this already. The Avengers is, instead, the third-act finale to a five-film superhero extravaganza, and as such, the rules of narrative development cannot, I don’t think, be fairly exacted upon it with such extreme prejudice.
I.e., it was fun, and if it didn’t give a tour-de-force of development for each of its Avengers... well then, So what?
What The Avengers does do, in spades, is give us, the screaming, wretched, pinhead summer-blockbuster crowd, what we actually want: epic fight scenes, pithy dialogue, and a very believable promise of many more great Marvel movies to come. We want to see how Iron Man would fare against Thor; how Thor would fare against the Hulk, how The Avengers would work together in all-out war on the grandiose stage of lower Manhattan, and (SPOILER) how the team might look sitting down to break bread together. A comprehensive backstory? An airtight plot without holes? Meh. As a fanboy myself, nearly every must-have moment I could have hoped to see going into this film was included, and for this, I can in good conscience offer Joss Whedon one of my best slow claps. It’s hard to pack so much in without leaving too much out, and that some plot points turned up missing is forgivable on the grounds that so much of The Avengers does work, and well. The humor keeps pace with the action, the two complementing one another admirably, the set pieces are meet for an epic of this magnitude, and the special effects excel, but don’t really go overboard.
Some plot points were hasty or underdeveloped, such as Thor’s entrance (completely unexplained initially, and only barely so after the fact), how exactly Loki, supposedly a criminal mastermind, expected to take over an entire planet with three big ships and maybe a thousand (pretty weak) foot soldiers, and why the hell The Hulk decided to work with the team, instead of against it, in the film’s great, climactic battle scene, when he was somewhat less-than-so-inclined just twenty minutes earlier in the film. The aforementioned generally strong comedic sense of the dialogue really drops the ball at times as well, with some lines noticeably delivered too seriously, just too darn cliche, or simply spoken wrong, in the way that a great actor can deliver a great line, but by some odd twist of circumstance still not quite make it sound right. But I try not to think too hard about these things... which is easy, since The Avengers does such a magnificent job of distracting me from them with its undeniable, unequaled coolness otherwise.
I rate this film at about 7.5 out of 10 (I’ve let IMDB say I call it an 8, rounding up). To contrast this to my ratings of the previous Marvel movies, I’ve given Iron Man an 8; Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk and Captain America a 7; and Thor a 6.5. (For that matter, I'm a bit of a harsh grader in general; I've never given ANY film higher than a '9'.) Why only a 7.5? Though Whedon’s film certainly wins points for its concept, wins more for being simply one of the greatest action films of all time, and wins still more for gracefully fulfilling its purpose without failing its constituent sub-franchises, it loses real points with me for its case of ‘the hiccups’. It’s hard to fall head-over-heels for The Avengers when numerous lines of bad dialogue, numerous missing plot points (some of them sort of important), and at least one main character’s very contrived emotional development simply pull you out of that awesomeness so many times during the film.
But in conclusion, overall, I say it's a job well done, and I commend Whedon for everything he did very right on this one. But The Avengers isn’t perfect... it’s just really, really good.
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