Sunday, May 6, 2012

review: The Avengers

The Avengers (2012, Joss Whedon)

And so it has come to this, the epic result of 3 summers worth of films for individual Avengers characters, each a perfectly singular adventure, but also building the links towards what is the first summer blockbuster of 2012. (the first weekend of May seems a little early to call it 'summer', but Hollywood claims it is now summer, so we'll go with that). Writer-director Joss Whedon is a demi-god in the eyes of many a television and film fan, having been the principle creative force behind a list of phenomenally successful series, the most popular being Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is basically the only reason people know who Sarah Michelle Gellar is. The comic book fan and Whedon fan communities erupted in unified jubilation when, a couple of years ago, it was announced that he would helm this massive undertaking. Now it has opened in theatres pretty much everywhere on the planet. Is it any good?

At the S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, somewhere in the United States, director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his crack team of scientists (among them Selvig, still played by Stellan Skarsgârd in a minor role) are hard at work with their tests to harness the power of a mystical cube which produces everlasting energy. Their work is abruptly interrupted by the arrival of Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the brother of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who was last seen betraying his adoptive family in order to rule Asgard and rule the Earth. He is still very much interested in the latter project, and with the help of a race of weird warrior aliens, plans to renew his efforts. With planet Earth’s future now in peril, Fury and the top brass at S.H.I.E.L.D conclude that the time has come to put into effect a now defunct project idea: The Avengers Initiative. Thus agent Coulsen (Clark Gregg) and super spy Natasha Romanova (Scarlett Johansson) travel the world to gather up the most powerful, albeit barely manageable, beings they know:

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), aka Iron Man

Doctor Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), aka The Hulk

Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans), aka Captain America

And the mighty Thor, prince of Asgard, god of Thunder.

Their personalities may not immediately be conducive to proper teamwork, but when Loki gathers a frightening, ruthless army of otherworldly invaders, thus stacking the odds firmly against Earth, these uniquely gifted individuals will have to learn teamwork and combine their strengths together to save humanity in its darkest hour.

Avengers assemble!

One can stop for a moment to wonder what it must be like for a person such as Joss Whedon, despite his obvious talents, being asked to write and helm an endeavour such as this one. The expectations heading into this film were stratospheric for many, if not most blockbuster and comic book movie fans. Compounding said expectations was the fact that all of the previous films highlighting the individual Avengers characters were massively successful, both from a commercial and critical perspective. Now just imagine The Avengers not rising for the occasion! Well, just as superheroes serve up action in the worlds they inhabit, so too does Joss Whedon serve up a walloping punch of ride for the audience, a film replete with laughs, iconic moments, solid (although not great) character plot lines, and a cast having a blast all the while bringing the heroes we have come to love to life once more with some shades of three-dimensionality. There are plenty of critical elements to balance, nearly to many to list in fact. If one of the Avengers is not given enough screen time or pathos, then the end product feels incomplete. A film too dark would be in contrast to the others film. To light and the sense of adventure is lost. There are supporting players to handle, and of course, a film this big, this huge even, requires massive action scenes. Not big, but massive.

The most difficult aspect of the entire project was surely the script. Development a legion of epic heroes is one thing, but lending the film a credible villain, one that can plausible pose a genuine threat to the Avengers and the planet at large is a different ballgame. It is in that respect that The Avengers hits one of its rare snags. The problem is not Tom Hiddleston, who is just as good here as he was in Thor (basically, very good, appropriately fiendish), but rather the end game and how he aims to achieve it. For one, the origin or ‘raison d’être’ of the alien army is barely explored. Just who, or what, are these things is a mystery. It may very well be explained perfectly in a back issue of an Avengers comic, but unlike virtually all of the others major characters in the film, the audience has never seen them before, nor or they provided if any satisfactory explanations as to why they want to join Loki in his quest to rule Earth. Loki, who was a perfect foil against Thor in the 2011 Kenneth Branagh film, is serviceable, but not the most intimidating figure when standing against four incredible heroes and their more than capable supporting players. In Whedon's defence, the character of Loki is used to some clever purpose in that, for the better part of the movie's first half, he employs his intelligence and cunning to get the better of the team and S.H.I.E.L.D. This section of the film works well, and, again, Hiddleston fits the part like a glove, but ultimately Loki is simply not as memorable as the heroes. There is a moment in the movie when the script hints that Loki when be in over his head, that an internal struggle may be confusing his decision making, but the moment passes just as quickly as it came, never to to explored again.

That is more of a nitpick in the grander scheme of things. Speaking of things grand,that is, in a nutshell, how The Avengers may be described. The worry heading in to the film was how smoothly the major characters would be joined together and, once joined together, how they would fair as co-stars. Any such fears are quickly laid to rest, as nobody among the cast ever tries to outshine anybody else. This is, ostensibly, an ensemble piece, with everyone pitching in perfectly. Oddly enough, if there is anybody among the heroes whose impact on the picture is less than the rest, it might be Samuel L. Jackson, which is unexpected given how he frequently is the reason why scenes in his films are so memorable. The main cast have superb chemistry among them, Downey Jr., Hemsworth, Ruffalo and Evans all playing off one another wonderfully when the going is tough and eventually feeling very much like a team when the tough gets going. The most surprising performance is courtesy of Ruffalo seeing as he is the most important newcomer among the actors. Eric Bana and Edward Norton had their own styles as does Ruffalo, but it is only the latter who seems to truly comprehend how the character of Bruce Banner should be played. The beast within is itching to come out, releasing all the uneasy tension building up a storm inside. Banner, for the time being, knows better than to unleash it onto the world, therefore making him a ball of nerves. He is a brilliant scientist, thus a valuable and critical asset to the team, but at the same time would rather be as far removed from the action as possible. There comes a time, however, when brains cannot carry the same weight as brawn, meaning...well, I'm sure fans know that that means when it the topic is Bruce Banner. He is, for intents and purposes, the most complicated hero of the film and by extent the most interesting, with Ruffalo's finding conviction in the nuance of emotions the character is afflicted with. His work far surpasses what either of his predecessors did. 


Smartly, The Avengers attempts to accomplishes more with its story than merely have a series of conflicting characters come together and overcome some critical differences (as if that were a simple matter in of itself). Nay, Whedon and company have each of the Avengers come to terms with their own struggles. Much has been written about doctor Bruce Banner already, yet Tony Stark, Thor and Steve Rodgers each of their own personal journeys. Rodgers must adapt to new surroundings and become the leader people hope and expect him to be. Tony Stark must put his inflated ego aside, just as Thor is desperate to convince his brother to abandon his dastardly plot and rejoin him back home in Asgard. None of the players are ever boring, nor are any of the actors uninspired, although perhaps Thor is not as entertaining here as he was in his standalone film, if only because at this point he is accustomed to Earth, meaning the comical 'fish out of water' moments are no longer present. Are these stunningly profound sub plots that take storytelling to soaring new heights? One would be hard pressed to support such a notion. That does not mean the stories are not fulfilling however. The blending of emotionally satisfying character beats with stellar performances is exactly what comic book movies need, much like the original comic book themselves. Let that not produce any worries for nervous fans: every character gets his or her share of big moments.

The film's action sequences are presented in very strategic manner, with comparatively small scenes occurring early, followed by progressively larger battles, which saying a lot given how the opening battle, in virtually any other movie, would be deemed humungous. It has been written elsewhere that the picture culminates with a large scale war in downtown Manhattan, and it does not disappoint. The sequence, lasting a solid 15-20 minutes, is what every fan has been waiting for after all, the moments when The Avengers proper unite as one out of the world fighting force to defend humanity from otherwise certain doom.

There are plenty of blockbusters to come from now until late August, and nobody knows what exactly those movies have in store for audiences. Only our collective dreams can fuel them until the dates of their imminent releases. Suffice to say that The Avengers could not possibly start the season in more emphatic fashion. It is funny, is has wonderfully staged action, state of the art production design very much in tune with the comic book world, and finally, at long last, brings some of the medium's greatest heroes together for the first time.


James said...

I agree that Loki's plan is weak. Certainly could have done with a rewrite on his evil plan. But I think he ends up being quite memorable even though we do spend a lot more time with The Avengers.

Banner is the one I'm leaning to as my favorite of the bunch, although, like you said, the other characters do have their own interesting personal stories to work through.

Not a huge fan of the action, it works, but it's not as good as some of the truly fantastic action films we've got lately.

Still, a lot of fun at the end of the day and the first Marvel film I enjoyed in a long while.

Dan O. said...

Nice review Edgar. Jam-packed full of action, humor, special effects, and superheroes, The Avengers is the perfect way to start off the Summer blockbuster season. I hope that Whedon returns for the sequel that they're talking about doing, but then again, it may be another 4 years until we get to see that again.

Candice Frederick said...

what?! i thought hiddlesto/loiki was amazing as usual. he always makes me root for him, if only for a little while. he's my favorite. i'm not into ruffalo's banner, but i liked his hulk