REVIEW: The Avengers Takes a Bunch of Beloved Superheroes and Builds Big Set Pieces Around Them. Is It Enough?

Movieline Score: 6
avengers_rev

The Avengers is less a movie than a novelization of itself, an oversized, self-aware picture designed mostly for effect: That of reliving the experience of a movie you’ve seen before and just can’t get enough of. The picture is broken down into narrative chunks that ultimately don’t tell much of a story – what you get instead is a series of mini-climaxes held together by banter between characters. The idea, maybe, is that people already love Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk and Thor so much — like, so, so much — that all a filmmaker really needs to do is put them all into a big stock pot filled with elaborate set pieces and some knowing dialogue and he’s golden. And maybe, given the heightened-lowered expectations of movie audiences, that really is all he has to do: It's possible to have looked forward to a movie all year, to enjoy watching it, and then to have completely forgotten about it the following week.

The Avengers isn’t terrible. It has a welcoming, communal spirit, especially for a big-budget, early-summer picture. But its director, Joss Whedon — who also cowrote the script, with Zak Penn, based on the characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby — seems to have gotten lost in mythology on his way to the story. It’s odd that last year, the arrival (and popularity) of The Artist and Midnight in Paris elicited dozens of cranky essays — or at least Tweets — about how lame it was that these movies traded in “nostalgia,” a sentimental longing for an old-timey world of bowler hats and flapper dresses (or, at least, moviemaking with less green screen). But movies built around comic books never get the same treatment, even though they wouldn’t exist if not for a past kept in boxes under countless beds, a past that you get really mad at your mother for throwing out. We have to carry some of the past along with us. How else do you shape the future? But The Avengers isn’t so much a movie as a kind of G-8 summit for action figures who have finally been allowed out of their cellophane boxes. They do action stuff, then they talk a little, then they do more action stuff. It’s a movie that, for all its dazzle, has forgotten that the whole point of reading comic books is for story and character development.

The Avengers certainly doesn’t lack for characters, most of which will be familiar even if you’ve never read a Marvel comic book in your life, provided you’ve been to the movies at least a couple of times in the past few years. As the picture opens, Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, the godfather of the military law-enforcement outfit known as S.H.I.E.L.D., is just about to put a shiny cube known as the Tesseract away for safe-keeping when out of the sky drops pissed-off alien Viking Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston, who has a fantastic anemic-schoolboy look). Loki possesses a mysterious staff that can steal the hearts of men, even superhuman ones, and he uses this dastardly magical doohickey to take a number of Nick Fury’s employees hostage, among them Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton, AKA Hawkeye, a bow-and-arrow guy. He also takes possession of the Tesseract, which has the power to destroy worlds and to remove that pesky ring-around-the-collar — seriously, this rock can do anything.

Nick needs to get the rock back, and fast, so he summons the most awesome assemblage of superhuman superheroes ever, in the form of Tony Stark, AKA Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers, AKA Captain America (Chris Evans), Bruce Banner, AKA the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Natasha Romanoff, AKA Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Later, Loki’s linebacker-sized half-brother Thor (the casually appealing Chris Hemsworth, a collegiate, big galoot of a guy) joins the fray, as Hawkeye does once he’s freed from Loki’s spell.

It’s not giving too much away to tell you that these guys do recover the Tesseract, because luckily, someone has had the foresight to build a reversible thingie into the thingie — smart thinking! And maybe, when it comes right down to it, The Avengers doesn’t need much in the way of plotting to deliver base-level blockbuster satisfaction: It moves forward, set piece by set piece, in a way that can easily fool you into thinking it’s exciting, or at least not boring. In one sequence, Iron Man and Thor -- his mighty hammer looking looking comically, wonderfully tiny in his gigantic hand -- duke it out in a forest; Captain America swoops in to intervene, and the three engage in a vaulting, clanging, technically souped-up version of rock-paper-scissors, each trying to outdo the others with his own personal superhero superpowers -- they don't yet realize that their powers complement each other more than they clash. Later, Thor breaks up more shenanigans among the group with a rebuke: “You people are so petty! And so tiny.”

He’s got that right. The Avengers suffers from the thing that mars so many movies peopled with outsize characters: Everyone is jostling for our attention, and naturally, some are going to grab more than others. Ruffalo is characteristically understated as Bruce Banner, which makes his transformation into, as Stark puts it, “an enormous green rage monster” quietly satisfying. Renner’s Hawkeye is a little lost — it can’t be easy, being the bow-and-arrow guy. Similarly, even though Johansson’s sultry Natasha gets a smashing opening — she vanquishes a bunch of thugs even as she’s tied to a chair, a magnificent feat of bondage combat — she’s quickly relegated to the superhero back burner. And Downey’s Stark, strutting around in his off-hours in a Black Sabbath T-shirt, is amusing until his self-important wisecracks begin to wear ruts in the movie. One thing The Avengers doesn’t have going for it — which is hardly the movie’s fault — is that it can never be the sneak attack Jon Favreau’s first Iron Man movie was. That picture stands as the best in a wayward series of Avengers movies that include Kenneth Branagh’s crazy-Wagnerian Thor and Joe Johnston’s well-intentioned but wobbly Captain America: The First Avenger.

Of all the characters here, Chris Evans's Captain America best acquits himself, partly because Evans never looks as if he’s trying too hard and partly, maybe, because his character's suit — an old-fashioned padded red-white-and-blue number, with matching helmet mask — is so old-school that you never lose sight of the superhuman human being inside it. Maybe that’s also why Gwyneth Paltrow, who appears in only a few scenes as Tony Stark’s main squeeze Pepper Potts, is such a blessed vision: She pads around Tony Stark’s space-age Manhattan headquarters in her bare feet, dressed in a white shirt and cutoff shorts, a sexy vision of down-to-earth braininess — she also happens to be coordinating the technology that makes Stark and his Stark Enterprises such a success.

But maybe you don’t really need a Pepper Potts when you’ve got a crashing, galloping extended climax in which a portion of New York City is destroyed by massive flying metal beasties before the Avengers can restore order. Whedon does a pretty valiant job of orchestrating set pieces like these. And yet — is that what we really want from Whedon? In my book, Whedon will always be a genius for creating and shaping Buffy the Vampire Slayer — a show that addressed not just the major traumas of teenagerhood but of this goddamned thing we call life — and shepherding it through seven remarkably sustained seasons. The Avengers is far less intimate than Buffy — a show whose proportions reached majestic heights — ever was. And Whedon’s 2005 feature directing debut Serenity, based on his ill-fated but marvelous television series Firefly, offers the kind of satisfying, bare-bones storytelling that’s lacking in The Avengers. (I also think it’s time for Whedon to retire the idea of the hole in the sky that suddenly breaks open, unleashing horrors upon an unsuspecting world, a device that also features in the smug, tricky, meta-horror movie Cabin in the Woods, which Whedon cowrote and produced. He never met a portal he didn’t like.)

The Avengers is at its best when Whedon takes the time to shape small moments between the characters, as when tight-ass Agent Phil Coulson (played by the likeably noodgy Clark Gregg) goes all stammering and tongue-tied in the presence of Captain America, his childhood idol. Coulson’s awkward hero worship is a gentle metaphor for The Avengers’ whole reason for existence — these are characters people love, for understandable reasons. But the movie’s scale and size does little to serve those characters, and there’s something self-congratulatory about Whedon’s whole approach, as if he were making a movie only for people who are already in on the in-joke. Comic-book aficionados who have always loved the Avengers may very well love The Avengers; those who wouldn’t know a Tesseract from a Rubik’s Cube may feel differently. That’s the thing about other people’s nostalgia: It’s always a bitch.

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Comments

  • ptht says:

    Exactly what I feel about the movie. Thanks Stephanie. As a Joss Whedon fan, I have to say that this is not Whedon at his best. It's understandable as this is more of a Marvel movie than Joss movie.

    The post-credit scene (the one after the mid-credit scene), on the other hand, is hilariously Joss. So those of you in the US, make sure to stay for the full credits. In my fully-booked theatre (an advanced screening), there's less than 20 people who stayed and saw it.

  • Jorge says:

    I read the whole review twice and I never understood what was wrong with the movie or what was exactly that Stephanie didn't like. I am not a fan of the Marvel universe, yet I've already seen the Avengers three times (here in Mexico), just because it's so entertaining and it is really amusing to see how the superheroes interact with each! It's not The Dark Knight, or Spiderman 2, or Burton's Batman, but it's so entertaining to see how Stark keeps pulling Thor's leg and other stuff. I think The Avengers was never meant to be The Black Swan or Winter's Bone or Dead Poets Society. It's a popcorn movie with a lot of popcorn! And thank God it doesn't have terrible lines like Transformers or terrible acting like in other movies! I am not a fan of Whedon because I didn't even know who he was before the movie was released, but still loved the movie because it was ENTERTAINING, and that was what I was expecting. The movie is very, very entertaining, and fun, and amusing, and exciting. No, I don't think it deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Picture just as I think The Dark Knight and Wall-E did, or Oscar nominations to best Screenplay, but the movie is not as dull as Stephanie somehow makes it sound. I believe that maybe she was expecting something completely different, built her own expectations of how the movie should be or look like, and now she is disappointed. Just look out at her opening statement: "The Avengers is less a movie than a novelization of itself, an oversized, self-aware picture designed mostly for effect: That of reliving the experience of a movie you’ve seen before and just can’t get enough of." What? Come on, it's The Avengers, there's no need to go so sophisticated. The Avengers is targeted to regular people, so talk normal: Is it good, bad or so-so??? Don't tell me it's a "novelization of itself" because you lose me and I don't understand what are you tring to say: What are you talking about? I want to know if I will be entertained by the movie, yes or no.

    And so, I am telling you all: Yes, the movie is very entertaining and it's worth the while. :D

    • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

      By novelization of itself, she means a complete re-encounter with something you've experienced before and know you love, only with the slight schism (or stimulation, if you prefer) provided through it being funnelled through a different format (book rather than a film, for instance). It feels like sideshow rather than the event itself -- though it surely has to be.

      Regarding "It's a popcorn movie with a lot of popcorn!":

      If she felt this way about it, you'd have gotten a loud hell ya! -- she would have loved it, and said as much in terms much like yours. But where you got abundance, she was collecting stale leftovers -- though I'm sure you don't see how that's even possible.

      I think your account of the film will be weighed by, will influence readers. You clearly loved the film and had a blast.

  • Haresh Singh says:

    The Avengers' creators accomplished exactly what they wanted to accomplish. Any more character development and the movie would not have been able to keep the pace it was intended to keep and probably would have approached three hours. The team managed to squeeze every ounce of entertainment from every second of footage and I think if one is to commend a particular actor for not "trying too hard" it would undoubtedly have to be Mark Ruffalo. Bruce Banner was never done just right before but He managed to pull it off flawlessly and make it look effortless. I went in with high expectations and came out with larger-than-life satisfaction. The theatre erupted in applause after.

    Keeping on the same wavelength as Jorge, I think critics should always remember to answer the important question readers want answered (especially for a film like this): "Will I enjoy it?". There is a 95% chance any person who watches The Avengers will have a blast. Failure to mention this is an injustice to the reader.

    The Avengers stands next to The Dark Knight as the best comic-book adaptation I've seen to date. Well done Marvel!

    • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

      Re: I think critics should always remember to answer the important question readers want answered (especially for a film like this): "Will I enjoy it?". There is a 95% chance any person who watches The Avengers will have a blast. Failure to mention this is an injustice to the reader.

      In Stephanie's case this would mean, after finding the film consisting of too many characters, without site of the human, without development, human and otherwise, at all -- ostensibly the whole point of comics -- and offering a finish that mostly reminds you that you haven't gotten the best of what this particular director has to offer, not foregoing to say that everyone else would however surely love it? She clearly thinks anyone who likes comics but who isn't a comic book aficionato (note her allowance for them) is going to be really disappointed with it; but what she clearly now knows is that even when she thinks she sees a film you have to be out of the human to really enjoy, that that apparently is what either her or you and your theatre full of regular sort people have become.

      I don't want critics to tell me I'm going to enjoy or hate a film. Anyone I know to possess powerful acuity, reaches of perception and sensitivity that drive me hard to rival or excel, is assisting me best just by letting me know how it all went with them. You get to know which critic you tend to be in co-sympathy with, and if he or she loved it, you're likely to do so as well -- but when we're at our best, we're still collecting from all sorts: who knows? maybe who we are now won't sit well with who all we might yet become, perhaps, if for the better, with the help of the testing of intelligent people, who currently see things frustratingly differently from ourselves.

    • vj1277 says:

      Avengers wasn't very good. The individual Marvel movies (Thor, Iron Man, Hulk) were better than Avengers. Avengers felt like the series finale of a television season, where they tie up all the loose ends and have a payoff (usually disappointing).

      ACT 1
      The movie opened with an great conflict; Loki stole the "Tessaract" and blew up the SHIELD base. The Avengers are gathered together by Black Widow (her power is seduction?). And Hulk becomes the attraction we're all waiting for.

      ACT 2 "We're a time-bomb"
      Once the team is assembled, the team sits on a hovering aircraft carrier for an hour doing...nothing. This is were the movie stalls, because they don't learn anything about Loki or the Cube or even the Chitauri. The individual superheroes never really discuss their personal lives except for a few comments here and there. Hulk is the only compelling character at all on the hovercraft, as he tries not to transform.

      Loki appearing and forcing the humans to kneel was amazing. I actually liked Loki here, before going back to being a pathetic puppet villan.

      The fight in the woods? Great and entertaining. They don't get along, we get it, Thor needs a hug. Let's take Loki back to the ship and talk.

      What is Loki's plot to get Hulk to transform and wreck havoc? How does Loki know Hulk?

      Why doesn't anyone talk or reference the previous films? Captain America lost his love, Thor lost Natalie Portman, The Hulk: no mention of Betsy. Aren't these guys horny? Is no one checking out Black Widow? Or does her constant dumb look wipe their libidos?

      Why does Tony Stark and Cap spend 15 minutes trying to get the turbine spinning to save the ship? Really Joss, that's the best conflict you could come up with for these two?

      ACT 3 "I'm bringing the party to you!"/"How's that a party?"
      What does every movie resort to Private Ryan style warfare in a city with a mindless enemy? How about a page from Lord Of the Rings: they're born, walk, talk and fight. Robots from another world that fight? Lame. Where are they from? Does no one care about that?

      What's with the portals in so many movies lately?

      I'm sorry folks, but I'm really looking forward to Dark Knight Rises now. Avengers was a mess of a movie (and I was really amped). No story and thin characters (the solo movies were better). The payoff? Stay after the credits, there's more Avengers coming. Awesome.

      What makes DK bittersweet is that it's a grounded story and it's ending. Some say Dark Knight and Avengers are so different, that they're not from the same genre. Not so. The Batman movies/X-Men First Class/Kick-Ass prove that comic book films can be smart stories from the comic book domain. Avengers just isn't one of them, but the first about the Avengers; it was the best presentation of the summer popcorn movies since Spiderman (which was better) but before than Transformers and Battle Los Angeles.

      Joss Whedon (I loved Firefly/Serenity and even appreciated Dollhouse) is merely doing a Michael Bay impression. I was looking forward to Wonder Woman from Whedon before it was canned (the first time). But this? Bryan Singer made this movie, twice, and a lot quieter and better.

      Hopefully the next reboot of the Avengers (oh yes, there will be one) will focus on what made the individual stories so relevant.

      • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

        Re: The Avengers are gathered together by Black Widow (her power is seduction?).

        She inspires men to over-confidence, which does them in. She does it so well with Loki that it's best we don't think about it much: how does it feel, god, to be in the same camp as any ol' regular joe?; how does it feel, viewer, to perhaps be reminded of some of your worst humiliations at the hands of a woman? I think you're right to ask why the Avengers weren't exploring gorgeous, shapely her, but other viewers might not find themselves similarily curious if they were pulling away from or tightening themselves to her.

        Re: What does every movie resort to Private Ryan style warfare in a city with a mindless enemy? How about a page from Lord Of the Rings: they're born, walk, talk and fight. Robots from another world that fight? Lame. Where are they from? Does no one care about that?

        Spares the mind some while you focus on how the team is working / coming together, explored some of the varietals of how they'll function. Now that we've got a sense of it, it's time to branch out and particularize the opponent.

  • ptht says:

    The Avengers may have accomplished everything the creators wanted to accomplish, but that's totally different than saying that it's a great movie. Most people may have a good time watching this movie (I did), but that doesn't change the fact that it's just a popcorn movie, albeit a good one. I didn't expect much character development. Like many people have said, that's the job for the individual franchises. But the plot feels thin and too straight forward to me. Like Stephanie wrote, "The picture ... don’t tell much of a story – what you get instead is a series of mini-climaxes held together by banter between characters." And "it's possible to ... enjoy watching it, and then to have completely forgotten about it the following week." This is exactly what I feel.

    The Avengers is a popcorn movie, but The Dark Knight is something else. Actually, it's a lot of things. A score of 6 for The Avengers may be a bit harsh. I'd give it a 7 while The Dark Knight is more like a 9 or 10.

  • Nice to see US critics reacting honestly to this unlike their UK counterparts who seem desperate for interviews with Downey Jnr or Johansson.

  • Jellfo says:

    Stephanie,

    Your writing is bad, your review is bad, and you should feel bad!

    Also, The Avengers was awesome.

    • BCinVA says:

      No, no and no.

      Also, no.

      • Lucas says:

        This sounds like lots of fun! It must be the new thing to let kids deactore their own treats at birthday parties. We went to one last month where the kids got to spread icing and sprinkles on Elmo cookies. It was so cute and the kids had a blast.

  • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

    Not to say that Loki doesn't have presence, but the story proved to be about the team settling together in a very satisfying fashion, with everything else but interjections to this realization.

    Personally, the agent getting tongue-tied before an American legend, perhaps because it was presaged by his being highlighted, playfully, certainly not sincerely, but still a bit oddly as a romantic rival, kind of felt like he was being set up for something -- the over-reaching, exposed "kid," due to die for being likened to things he'll never be -- a great hero; a rival lover -- and for never being able to subsequently quite pull himself tightly together again thereafter. But you let that momentary consideration dissolve because its purpose of helping limit the sense of Captain America as anachronistic, now irrelevant, a joke, that nobody really too much wants while we're all becoming entranced to bond with Eastwood, old American virtues, locales and industry, is effectively lessened here. Anyhow, the moment felt too functional and too much like it was spotting one guy out, to be affecting. To me, the moments that worked best were when the heroes have had a fair estimation of one-another and have begun to see how'll they'll be settling in. Thor standing alone with Hulk for the first time as mates -- which, other than Hulk's Indiana Jones-like humiliation of the gloating opponent, might be the film's most satisfying moment -- worked for this reason first, and then secondly for the terrific, perfectly appropriate follow-up humor it spawned.

    I'm not sure Black Widow's best moment was the one you mentioned. I was more struck with her encounter with Loki, another plausible instance where something human -- they're just no denying it! -- could catch short even the likes of "magic and gods"; and so much more satisfying than when an F -18 or a nuke are used to do the same. It was a terrific surprise; Loki blanched and guffawed, as we did. And we were pleased that Weldon didn't let a talent she'd after all shown she had simply surrender itself because before someone ostensibly way out of her countenancing; and I thought good on you Weldon for giving something pronounced to the more simply human characters -- with Captain America of course getting undaunted leadership, as well as emblemmanship of the times -- to help settle them in experientially amongst their powerhouse teammates as legitimate peers. Hawkeye didn't get a standout trait; but they did make his arrows something sorta akin to Iron Man's arsenal. And with him more or less the one exception, and with him being played by a movie star actor ... good enough.

  • Daniel says:

    "the hole in the sky that suddenly breaks open, unleashing horrors upon an unsuspecting world, a device that also features in the smug, tricky, meta-horror movie Cabin in the Woods" No it didn't. Just one of the things that baffled me about this review, as well as "a way that can easily fool you into thinking it’s exciting" and "the whole point of reading comic books is for story and character development". I suppose by the latter she's talking about the kind of development that can happen over 7 seasons of Buffy? Then it's pretty silly to critique the first movie for that.

    She is right that this isn't whedon at his most unleashed, and I was conscious of all the constraints he was working under: it has to be PG 13, it has to fit with all the other movies, it has to have a videogame, a soundtrack, 27 trailer spots, and a million billion tie ins. Given that assignment, I thought it was amazing how he made it into a real movie, the story of how this ridiculous group of people became a team.

    My objection to this review isn't her opinion, it's that she uses a lot of snarky statements which she doesn't explain or justify.

  • Mr. Morden says:

    Stephanie, it was actually Captain America who broke up the fight in the woods between Iron Man and Thor, but thanks for paying attention.

  • Amarie says:

    Good grief, Stephanie, you're taking this WAY to seriously. This was just pure popcorn chomping campy fun. And I thought it held together just fine, oddly enough because I thought there WAS some character development. And this thing about the point of comics being story and character development, um, really? My husband, who knows all about all these comic heros, loves comics (learned to speak and read English because of them as a child) and thought the movie was very entertaining. Can't remember when I've beento a movie where people laughed and clapped and cheered. Entertainment, even "mindless", is good for the soul once in awhile. Lighten up. We had to return our tickets for a later show because theater for the first one we went too, while not sold out when we bought the tickets, was so crowded thirty minutes before the show that we couldn't find two seats together except way down in front. Relax...

  • chasmosaur says:

    I would like to note that this movie was given the same score as the really horrible "The Raven." The so-so (yet, I concede, gorgeously cast and costumed, as I would expect from Tarsem Singh) "Mirror, Mirror" was given an 8.5.

    I stopped reading MovieLine months ago because of Ms. Zacharek's reviews. Critics are entitled to their opinions, but I have found the tenor of her reviews to be extremely off-putting. It's as if she goes into movies determined to love or hate them, and reviews from that standpoint. Perhaps a hiatus for the lady is in order, or at least less exposure to the pre-marketing campaigns and industry gossip. Go in with a cleaner palate, as it were.

    I thought maybe I'd come back to MovieLine with the summer movie season ramping up again. But this review confirms I made the right decision. Back to other sites with other reviewers who seem to offer more consistent reviews.

    • Brian says:

      I agree completely, Chasm. I did however enjoy "The Raven" as my daughter has been studying Edgar Allen Poe recently and we both sat on the edge of our seats the second half of the movie.

      I grow tiresome of many ad-campaigns when it comes to movies, but I never let them sway my opinion BEFORE I go see a movie. Ms. Zacharek was truly a victim of "The Avengers" ad-campaigning... What did she give "John Carter"? I'm also curious to see what she gives to "The Dark Knight Rises" and "The Amazing Spider-man"...both of which will surely receive their share of mass ad-campaigning.

  • Brian says:

    Stephanie Zacharek seems to think EVERY movie made should be up to her standards apparently. Her standards seem to be like that of an ancient Roman Emperor who watches gladiators duel in front of her... Each wondering if they will get the infamous "thumbs up" or "thumbs down".

    A "C" for this movie? Rarely do I care what self-absorbed and self-righteous movie critics think about movies, but this rating is..well, temporary insanity at it's best. Perhaps the millions who went to see this (and the hundreds of thousands who paid to see it several times over) watched a different movie than Stephanie. Perhaps Stephanie was just having a bad day, but after seeing her scores in EW, she seems to have many bad days. (Except for the Three Stooges Movie which she gave a "B"...perhaps she received a refill on her Prozac that day?)

    It's a good thing the masses don't seem to care about what movie critics think these days, or millions of people would have missed the funnest movie of this young century. Perhaps rethink your career, Stephanie? I hear TMZ needs more fodder material.

  • Adam Pelaez says:

    "The idea, maybe, is that people already love Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk and Thor so much — like, so, so much — that all a filmmaker really needs to do is put them all into a big stock pot" -Well no duh if people didn't love these characters it wouldn't have had such a good as turnout as it did. "Filled with elaborate set pieces and some knowing dialogue and he’s golden." Now your just ripping into Josh Whedon.

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  • Bingo says:

    Gross. Take a look at this creepy misogynist. That people like this are really out there is... ew.

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