I’ve seen pretty much every superhero movie released since 2002’s “Spider-Man”…and, like probably 99% of my demographic, have been eagerly anticipating “The Avengers.” For those who don’t know, “The Avengers” is essentially Marvel Comics’ “best-of” ensemble piece, starring Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and the Hulk (with Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Nick Fury as window dressing). After five individual movies – all of which have teased the possibility of a final mashup – my expectations had reached impossibly high levels.
The verdict? “The Avengers” is likely the greatest summer popcorn blockbuster of the last decade. It’s not a modern classic in the making, but it’s a jaw-dropping, explosive spectacle that demands to be seen in theaters.
The plot is remarkably straightforward, unlike some of its characters’ convoluted backstories: evil Norse “god” Loki, after his banishment at the end of “Thor,” is assembling an army of Chitauri aliens to conquer Earth. With the aid of a mystical cube weapon known as the tesseract (last seen falling from an airplane in “Captain America”), Loki plans to open a portal and initiate the apocalypse. Black-ops government agent Nick Fury must assemble a team of “Earth’s mightiest heroes” to resist the onslaught.
Director and screenwriter Joss Whedon faced an unbelievable task in formulating this film: juggling and developing six major characters from very, very different films. (Background for the uninitiated: “Thor” had the feel of a Greco-Shakespearan drama. “Captain America” evoked classic war films and Saturday-afternoon serials. “The Incredible Hulk” toyed with Jekyll/Hyde duality themes. “Iron Man” was characterized by hip, swaggering machismo and plenty of irony. And that’s saying nothing of Black Widow and Hawkeye, two less familiar characters who gain star billing here.) Somehow Whedon manages to make it work unbelievably well, simultaneously celebrating and satirizing the Marvel universe. The interplay between major characters is gleefully subversive, and adds plenty of color to what could’ve been a rather cumbersome flick.
It is hard to quantify just how many things “The Avengers” does right. As one might expect from a film packed with A-list stars, the acting is fantastic. Robert Downey Jr. steals the show as Iron Man/Tony Stark, bolstered by strong supporting performances by Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, and Mark Ruffalo. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, while not quite as strong as in last summer’s “Thor,” is still a remarkably sophisticated antagonist. Furthermore, the climax is stunning, featuring some of the best effects and cinematography I’ve ever seen. Whedon, praise heaven, mostly refrains from using shaky-cam film techniques, which renders the final battle intelligible. “The Avengers” fully delivers on the apocalyptic superhero carnage fans have been waiting to see, ripping a page from the “Transformers 3” playbook and giving it some real potency.
If pure, unadulterated enjoyment was the only criterion by which I evaluate movies, “The Avengers” would be off the established charts. By the end of the film, my mouth hurt from how much I’d grinned during the final sequence. However, the film suffers from a few rather notable deficiencies – weaknesses that keep it from receiving a perfect score.
The crucial weakness of “The Avengers” and its predecessors is a lack of real emotional heft. In an ongoing quest to be “cool” and “edgy,” screenwriters pack their scripts full of humor and pizzazz – which make for great entertainment pieces, but never really challenge the viewer. The original “Spider-Man” films were full of warmth and humanity – and humor too, but always tempered with a strong sense of intimate realism. The early “X-Men” movies possessed a similar emotional bite, exploring themes of alienation and discrimination in a fantastical context. And of course, “The Dark Knight” was a brooding, ruthless masterpiece – one that successfully bridged the gap between crime drama and comic book film.
In the recent “Avengers-era” Marvel films, no such thought-provoking subtexts exist. While these films do promote positive values and extol courage/honor/etc. (for which they are to be commended), the deeper layers just aren’t there (“Thor” came closest). Maybe it’s unreasonable to expect that level of complexity from an ensemble piece like “The Avengers”…but the seeds were there, and I wish they’d been developed further. Comic books (and the movies made from them) are, in a very real sense, the mythology of the modern world; such mythology is most powerful when employed to communicate deep, timeless themes…rather than simply to entertain. From a worldview standpoint, there really isn’t much to comment on – and this, perhaps, is my biggest complaint.
At this point, however, I’m nitpicking. “The Avengers” isn’t a perfect-10 movie, but to be fair, very few films are.
Objectionable content, as anticipated, comes down to stylized action violence throughout (almost entirely bloodless). There’s a smattering of mild profanity, but it’s surprisingly free of harsher expletives. One point, however, warrants a brief mention: the film’s female characters – particularly Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow – seem to exist for no other purpose than to parade around in tight outfits. I’m sure this will be justified as an example of “female empowerment” (“Look at her, she’s fighting alongside the men!”) but it comes off as shameless pandering to the male gaze. (This is a relatively tame element; it only bears mention because it’s rather pervasive throughout the film).
None of this criticism is to say that “The Avengers” isn’t a good film, isn’t worth your money, etc…definitely go see this movie. If you’re a fan of action, science fiction, or superheroes, you will have a blast. “The Avengers” is everything a lighthearted, escapist summer action film should be – a fact the box office will almost certainly reflect.
Spend the cash. See this movie in the theater. It’s worth every penny.
The perfect summer movie (and an almost-perfect superhero movie).
Normalized Score: 8.7