THE AVENGERS (2012)

Spoiler Level: Safe

The expectations for Joss Whedon's The Avengers have been so high—and the early critical reception so generally positive—that I almost feel like I'm pissing on the parade if I qualify my praise in the slightest. But the buzz around The Avengers has been so good that I feel both free and obligated to temper expectations ever so slightly. So, before I get to the unbridled enthusiasm—which is coming, rest assured—let me get my very mild qualifying remarks out of the way.

The Avengers is not a game-changer: Marvel has been producing better and better comic book movies for several years now, and this latest entry is a culmination of that work, but it is not a quantum leap forward. If you have mostly enjoyed the tone and direction of the Iron Man movies, Captain America, and Thor, you are almost certain to think The Avengers is far and away the best of the bunch. If, however, you did not particularly care for any of those, The Avengers is unlikely to suddenly convince you that there are heretofore unrealized delights to be found in the genre. It does not layer deep symbolic meaning or stuff poignant emotional drama beneath its super-powered shenanigans, and it does not attempt to elevate the genre to the level of high art.

(There was a part of me, I'll admit, that hoped Whedon would deliver a superhero movie that could satisfy the common masses and the snobby elites alike, but The Avengers is not that film. And that's probably for the best: Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight probably comes closest to meeting that dubious criterion, and it's a film I personally find joyless and slightly lugubrious.)

So The Avengers is not a Citizen Kane for the capes-and-cowls crowd, nor does it try to be a superhero film for people who hate superheroes. What it tries to be instead—and pretty much succeeds in being—is the film people who love superheroes have been waiting for all their lives.

The history of superheroes in film and television is one of extremely low—but gradually increasing—expectations. When I was at the height of my comic-book obsession—as a kid in the late '70s and early '80s—it was such a thrill to see live-action superheroes in any form that I watched the Amazing Spider-Man (1977) and Incredible Hulk(1978-1982) TV shows religiously. Neither were very good, and both were puzzlingly mundane. The comic books had presented a universe in which the skies were crowded with capes, and where even the non-powered criminals had costumes, and gimmicks, and thematically fashion-coordinated henchmen to fight. The heroes of these TV shows, on the other hand, fought boring common crooks, and not very convincingly: these shows didn't offer the brightly colored comic book world of deities and demigods; they were more like slightly radioactive versions of Barnaby Jones.

The same problem plagued many projects in my childhood, from the Wonder Woman TV show (1975-1979) to Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie (1978): when there's just one idiot running around with his or her underwear on the outside, that person looks incredibly silly. Obviously, this was largely a problem of budget and technology: there was simply no cost-effective way to recreate the worlds of the comic books in all their wonders. But it was also a problem of vision: there was no reason a comic book world could not have been as fully realized as—for example—the space opera world of Star Wars, but few filmmakers seemed to think that was a worthwhile goal.

Depictions of superheroes got better, but they never got it quite right. By the time Batman came around, in 1989, comic fans were so grateful to get something vaguely close to the comics that Tim Burton's film seemed like a masterpiece—but it really isn't. It was a major step forward from the campy '60s TV show, but it has its tongue lodged firmly in its cheek, as though everyone involved is still a little embarrassed to be making a movie based on a comic book. (And each subsequent Batman film—as the later Superman films had done—slid further and further towards camp and self-ridicule. You could almost hear the directors saying, "It's just a silly superhero movie.")

Technology—and sensibilities—seemed to start catching up with the comics around the year 2000, when Bryan Singer's flawed but serviceable X-Men premiered: that was the first film that seemed to take its source material seriously, and it also got much closer to the tone and style of the comics. It was not exactly the X-Men I'd loved as a kid, but it was an honorable alternative-reality version.  Hollywood has been producing big budget superhero movies ever since, and some have been pretty good: I'd count Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 (2004),  Christopher Nolan's Batman movies (2005 and 2008), and Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class (2011) among the better entries. Others have been pretty awful: the Fantastic Four movies (2005 and 2007), for example, were a reminder of how badly these things can go wrong—even with a decent special effects budget—if the filmmakers don't understand—or care—the first thing about the source material.

But all of these films were made by outside studios. (As far as the Marvel stable of characters goes, 20th Century Fox owns the rights to the X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Daredevil characters; New Line has the Blade franchise; Sony has Ghost Rider and Spider-Man.) As a result, even the best of these films show evidence of studio interference and creative compromises: they tend to take weird liberties with the origin stories and characters, to pack in way too many villains, and to insert unnecessary comedic elements and the occasional musical number. As a result, comic fans have grown accustomed to seeing the glass as half-full: our expectations are so low that we praise a film when what we really mean is, They didn't fuck that up as badly as they could have. Deep down, however, we were always thinking, When is someone going to get a superhero movie right?

In 2008 Marvel Entertainment (and its parent company Disney) took the reins on its remaining properties, and it's made all the difference. With so many other characters from the Marvel universe already housed elsewhere, the heroes of The Avengers were the major untapped assets, and beginning with Jon Favreau's Iron Man (2008) Marvel has been producing consistently strong movies based on those characters. These films have not all been perfect—I thought Kenneth Branagh's Thor (2011) was a bit of a slog, for example—but they have been the most faithful comic book adaptations ever produced, and much closer to the comics than most of us would ever have dreamed possible.

And it's all been leading up to The Avengers. While other filmmakers have seemed to view the comics as merely a jumping-off point—a "let's see if we can do something interesting with this nonsense" approach—writer-director Joss Whedon is a fan at heart—one who understands how these stories work—and he seems to think that the best thing you can do with a superhero comic is PUT IT UP ON THE DAMN SCREEN JUST AS IT IS.

And that's more or less what he does in The Avengers—drawing heavily on Mark Millar's comic series The Ultimates—and it works like gangbusters. When the Asgardian Loki (a delightfully wicked Tom Hiddleston) comes to Earth to lead the vanguard of an alien invasion, SHIELD Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) rounds up a posse that includes Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).

All of these heroes are familiar to viewers of the earlier films, but Whedon takes his time re-introducing all of them, and with a stronger focus on characterization—and much wittier dialogue—than any of them have had before. (The marriage of Robert Downey, Jr.'s delivery with Joss Whedon's dialogue is one of the happier collaborations in recent memory.) Whedon had an uneviable task: having inherited the heroes from earlier films, and having to leave them in a place to have further adventures, he was charged with making us care about six protagonists—seven, counting Fury—that he was not allowed to significantly change in any way. Considering these limitations, he succeeds remarkably: I won't claim there are completely satisfactory character arcs for each hero, but they each get their due, and they are layered with hints of personal background and emotional underpinnings that not only make them sympathetic but also suggest a deep, rich continuity ripe for further exploration. We don't have time to learn that much about any one of them here, but we definitely want more.

(Downey, as always, can just about out-dazzle anyone on the screen, but the entire cast is consistently strong, with a particular standout in Ruffalo's Bruce Banner/Hulk. After two earlier movies—and two earlier actors—The Avengers finally finds a performer who makes this character work, and a way to use the Hulk that finds the fun. The largest laughs in the film, in fact, belong to The Hulk, as do many of its best action sequences.)

Whedon knows what we want: he understands that the charm of team-up stories is seeing these larger-than-life personalities clash, and so we get plenty of misunderstanding-driven hero-vs.-hero fights—a staple of such tales in the comics—and lots of bickering and banter and clashes of style. (Downey's Tony Stark is the most frequent—and funniest—provoker of his fellow heroes: "Dost thy mother know thou wearest her drapes?" he mockingly asks Thor.) Ensembles and makeshift families are Whedon's stock in trade, and by the end of the film we want to go back to Avengers Mansion and hang out with these people some more, to keep exploring the tentative friendships, fledgling mutual respect, and good-natured rivalries that are born here.

But, I hear you ask, what about the action? Well, I'm at a point in my life where I'm a little tired of destruction-heavy third acts of films—property damage running into tens of billions of dollars doesn't entertain me like it used to—but I still have enough of that 9-year-old boy in me to have become positively gleeful over the action scenes in The Avengers. I've spent a great many reviews complaining about messy fight scenes composed by directors who can't convey a sequence of events effectively, and so I was greatly relieved (though not surprised) to discover that Joss Whedon does not lose his remarkable storytelling abilities just because he's handed $220 million. The fight scenes in The Avengers are glorious: if I were feeling churlish I could complain about the uniform monotony (and murky motivation) of the opposing hordes, but they exist simply to allow our heroes to do their things, and do them they do. Previous films have always seemed limited in what kind of action they could present—Batman, for example, has never fought on-screen quite the way he does in the comics—but there are no such limitations here. Superhero action has never been done this well: these are the skyscraper-destroying clashes that I know from my misspent, four-color youth, and all the years I despaired of ever seeing them realized on-screen just make them all the sweeter now.

The Avengers is not a perfect movie, but it's weaknesses are minor and all wonderfully appropriate to its genre: it has a few corny moments, some fairly thin motivation from its antagonists, and some unintentional laughs from comic book elements that will never completely work on-screen. (I saw the film for the first time in a midnight screening of hardcore, overly enthusiastic fanboys, and even among that crowd Captain America's cheesy uniform elicited some groans and laughter.) But what does it matter? There are few of us who would claim superhero comics are high art, or even that many of those classic Marvel stories we loved as children make a great deal of logical sense. What they are is a hell of a lot of fun, in ways that most previous adaptations completely fail to understand, let alone recreate. Joss Whedon not only knows why they're fun, but also knows how to bring that joy to the big screen in ways that feel like the very best moments of my childhood comics come to life.

When is someone going to get a superhero movie right? Thanks to Mr. Whedon and crew, that day has finally come.

Note: I've seen The Avengers now in both 3D and 2D, and the 3D—though not terrible—adds very little to make up for the annoyance and loss of light that it involves. I highly recommend the 2D version.

Additional Note: It probably goes without saying at this point, but you should stay through all of the credits. They're not essential, but there are two short post-credit codas you don't want to miss. The first is the obligatory sequel bait—which comic fans will need to explain to non-comic readers—and the second…Well, all I'll say is that it is pure Joss Whedon.

The Unaffiliated Critic

Michael G. McDunnah is a freelance writer, a recovering lit major, a pop-culture junkie, and an unaffiliated critic. He lives in Chicago.

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14 thoughts on “THE AVENGERS (2012)

  1. Ruffalo really was human, real and endearing. His interaction with Downey Jr. was particularly sincere-feeling; their characters' connection was one of the cooler moments in the movie. I think in some ways I also came to the movie hoping for maybe some more pathos…or maybe a better (or more complex?) villain; something more imaginative than blah blah blah, enslave the earth…though as you correctly point out, why I should expect this, I don't know, as that is, in fact, the truest expression of the source material.

    One rather odd or sore part for me in the movie–and it stood out as just being weirdly out of place–was when Loki calls Black Widow a "quim." That's a pretty foul word, and it struck such an odd note to me. It's not the language, tone or sentiment itself: I've seen episodes of Whedon's "Buffy" which were so dark that that word would have been very much in keeping with the characters or the battle on hand. But this movie just wasn't that dark and it wasn't all that mean, really (probably because as you mention, Whedon couldn't cause any real losses…and that's where real darkness comes in). But most of the villainous parlay was arch, flip, or merely comic-book-hyperbolic, free of undue perversion; there was very little swearing (or maybe I've selectively disremembered it) and not all that much name-calling. So why does the one woman get called, in essence, a c*nt?! I thought that was a strange and "off" note, especially for Whedon, who I've come to believe has said some of the more profound things I've witnessed through shows like Buffy–which I'd never have believed would have quite so many dark and even courageous things to say about what feminine strength might mean, and its isolating properties.

    1. I agree, that word was misjudged. (I wonder if he thought American audiences would not be as familiar with it, and so would not register it as being quite so crude?) I like that scene otherwise, and my guess is that Joss thought a brutally misogynistic eruption from the villain would set up the more empowering fact that Natasha is, in fact, playing him by acting all weak and “feminine.” (There are some pretty crudely misogynistic characters in Seasons 6 and 7 of Buffy who could have delivered that speech: if I recall, one ended up flayed and the other got sliced in half from the scrotum up.) But I think you’re right: it was a tad out of place here, and I definitely think he chose the wrong word. (Not sure what would have been better for a similarly anachronistically sexist putdown…”bint,” maybe?)

      1. Good point, and I'll admit that I hadn't considered the vulgarity was a juxtaposition for her faux simper…but part of why I may have missed that was because–not having the background in comic books that many people approaching this movie might–I really had no idea what (ass-kickery aside) Black Widow's later alluded-to "skillset" was. It's *implied* in the beginning scene when she says something like "He's told me nearly everything" when from the audience's perspective he'd revealed nothing. So I thought, her skill is some kind of empathy? Or mind-reading? But I really needed more evidence of this to fully understand or appreciate her scene with Loki. So unlike you I didn't really find that scene emotionally affecting, and only served (for me) to imply a violent/amoral past and of course a romantic chapter with Bullseye…and to lay down some foreshadowing about Loki's "plan."

        1. Such is Whedon's wordsmithery that I assumed my own understanding of the Q Word was wrong when Loki threw it out – I too thought it was a sour note and was shocked. But it looks like my idea of what it meant was right after all.

  2. "When is someone going to get a superhero movie right?" I thought that The Dark Knight already did this. But what The Avengers did was raise the bar when it comes to balancing multiple superheroes/characters. X-Men, Fantastic Four, GI Joe (not superheroes but heroes), and Batman Returns all attempted to mix in various personas together and all had various successes and failures. Obviously, none of them were considered to be the standards. The Avengers is that now. The only other group of superheroes that has the comic book history that would normally challenge The Avengers are the Justice League of America from DC/Warner. Potential makers of a JLA movie now has the task of doing better than their competition and the mark is very high.

    1. As I mentioned—and I know I'm in the minority on this—The Dark Knight, for me, goes too far in taking its source material seriously, and completely forgets to be fun. (Even the darker, more mature comic book interpretations of Batman—The Dark Knight Returns, for example—are not quite so sombre and joyless.) TDK is just so unrelentingly monotone for 2.5 hours that I found it a fairly oppressive and slogging experience. But maybe I need to watch it again (in preparation for The Dark Knight Rises).

  3. Excellent, excellent, excellent review. Haven't seen it yet, will soon. Grew up reading the shit in the 70s. Only disagreed with one or two things you said (I think "Iron Man" did it right, for example), but man, I was blown away by your awesomesauce™ powers of perception (I may be biased as a 44-yr-old white male. 'Nuff said)

    1. Thanks, Joshua. I agree that Iron Man was the best of the previous movies. For me it fell just slightly short in its action sequences: I thought the Tony Stark stuff was great, but it felt like a completely different, slightly more generic movie when Iron Man was on screen. (Captain America, which I also thought was two-thirds of a really good movie, had the same problem.) Here, Whedon does an excellent job of remembering who these people are even when they're smashing the holy hell out of stuff.

  4. Firstly, excellent review — I saw the film on the strength of your review and wasn't disappointed in the least.

    Secondly…

    Excerpt from Ovid’s (previously lost) Book XVI of the Metamorphoses: “The Avenging Ones”

    Smashing Showdown between God and Mortal
    (as translated by A. Charlotte Tan – Nuff said?*)

    The mortal dared, in brutish, altered form
    (the price he’d paid for dabbling with mysteries)
    to strike the prince of mischief and malice,
    sending Asgardian Loki clear across
    the room (the luxurious penthouse of that
    titan of industry and paragon
    of self-aggrandizement, Mr. Tony
    Stark, also featured in this tale). He then
    dared further, hastening with menacing pace
    toward the orphaned child of frost and fire (the
    one whom Thor still calls “brother,” tenderly,
    hoping for reconciliation) — but
    the divine one (of the two) stands and shouts,
    “STOP!” …and, lo, the monstrous mortal obeys.

    Emerald eyes narrow and sharpen on the
    figure of their immortal adversary,
    the mind behind allowing for at least
    the possibility of reason on
    the part of the god…
    However, bluster
    and vainglorious contempt are all that spew
    from holy lips profaned by the spirit
    within, the poisoned soul that barks thusly:

    “I AM A GOD,” it bellows, “and YOU are
    ALL BENEATH ME…”
    But before the god can
    finish, his immaculate pinions are
    swept out from BENEATH HIM and the beastly
    mortal (who’d hoped for reason) finds himself
    smashing small furrows in the floor with the
    resilient form of the divine being.

    Stunned “God” lies discarded amidst the spray
    of marble rubble, eyes agog and breath
    heaving as mortal mass, victorious,
    begins to make its egress. Hulk’s final,
    biting comment leaves him flat: “Puny god.”

    * Sorry, no iambic pentameter. I’m pleased I managed ten-syllable lines. Movin’ on…

    1. This word is overused as a compliment, and hardly ever appropriate, but here it is the only word that's suitable: epic. In spirit you will be borne up to soar beyond the distant stars, immortal in the name you leave behind.

      When I stop laughing I shall raise my glass to you, good sir, and doff whatever is doffable in your general direction.

      1. High praise from the inestimable master — at the very least, the webmaster (although it's possible I'm thinking of Spider-man. No, no, I'm thinking of the Unaffiliated Critic). Thank you, sir, for your kind words. Glad I could give you a larf.

  5. It's the best superhero movie I've seen, not just as a movie, but as a *comic book* movie. As good as, say, Spider-Man 2, Iron Man, Superman 2, The Dark Knight, were, The Avengers felt more like a story arc from an Avengers comic than any of those others felt like issues of their respective comics.

    1. Agreed. The earlier movies all seemed to start from a place of, "How do we translate this idea so it will be palatable to a movie-going audience?" as though there was something inherently flawed in the genre. (That's my problem with the Superman movies and Nolan's Batman movies: they don't feel anything like the comics.) Based on the box office, Joss's more straightforward approach would appear to have been palatable after all.

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