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