Joss Whedon was handed a huge task in both writing and directing Marvel's The Avengers, given that it's the culmination of a sequence of half-a-dozen other movies. How well did he assemble his Avengers?
I should note that, due to the way I'm going to tackle this, the review here is going to be massively, awfully spoiler-filled. If you haven't seen The Avengers yet, you may not want to read on. Just in case you clicked by accident, here's the trailer to fill some blank space and allow you to hit the back button gracefully.
All good? Right, then.
Any film review is going to bring the reviewer's biases with it; if you're a fan of French New Wave cinema, then your review will be informed by the works of François Truffaut. Equally, if you've fallen through a time portal from 1920, you'll wonder why everything is so noisy, and why there's so little Charlie Chaplin material around these days.
I'm neither of those things, but I am a massive comics geek dating back many, many years. That is always going to flavour my reception of any comic-derived films, but especially so with The Avengers, because it's the culmination of a cycle of Marvel Films (The Hulk, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America) that have been pretty decent. I want superhero films to be both a good interpretation of the source material -- not necessarily slavishly faithful, but at least respectful -- as well as good movies. Could a Joss Whedon-helmed Avengers movie satisfy my need for authenticity and entertainment?
No, not that The Avengers, which is why the movie I saw was, technically speaking, Marvel's The Avengers. That's a clumsy way to write about it, however, so I'll refrain from doing so again.
I still remember the dark, grim days of Marvel movies. While Tim Burton was making the generally well received Batman and Batman Returns, Marvel fans got… well… this:
And were it not for the fact that is was made purely so that the company involved could hold on to the film rights, we could well have also been privy to this particular "gem".
They… weren't particularly good movies, and that wasn't just a factor of the special effects technology of the day. It wasn't until 1998's Blade that Marvel fans got anything acceptable, and by and large since then the films have been on a upwards trajectory that culminates (for now) with The Avengers. Still, ensemble pieces are tricky to pull off within a limited running time, and fan expectations were high for The Avengers. It's on general Australian release now, so I checked out a screening yesterday. ((Necessary disclosure: Norton offered me tickets to a 3D screening; I took them. I would have gone to see the movie regardless, but probably wouldn't have sprung the extra for 3D. We'll return to that point later.)
What I liked
Joss Whedon knows comics geeks (and once stated that the Internet was invented for him), and he knows his Marvel history. There are countless little nods to not only pop culture broadly, but also to Marvel history specifically, skewed throughout this film. If you're a broad Marvel fan, you'll have a ball spotting them all.
Whedon's writing history is replete with ensemble casts, from Buffy to Angel to Firefly to Dollhouse and beyond, which made him a rather obvious choice for at least writing The Avengers, and he avoids most of the obvious traps when it comes to this kind of complicated cast interplay. He gives characters both time and dialogue to breathe, and this means you do get the sense of Captain America's "man out of time" backstory and slight officiousness; Tony Stark's intelligence and cockiness; and even Loki's motivation alongside his villainous nature.
That also allows Whedon to flesh out characters we've seen much less of, from The Black Widow to Hawkeye to Nick Fury. Samuel L Jackson is still in fine scenery-chewing form, but he's not the stereotypical spy guy that.. ahem.. this guy is (I did mention Marvel went through a really bad patch of movies, right?)
Instead, Fury is layered, both a hero standing up to the council behind him and a magnificent bastard in one.
Mark Ruffalo's turn as Bruce Banner is a particular highlight, and it took me a little while to work out why. Rather than use Eric Bana or Edward Norton's versions of Banner as his inspiration, he's instead used Bill Bixby as his base, and it pays off.
Video, naturally, courtesy of Popsugar
Ruffalo's Banner isn't just a milksop scientist cliché; he's a rounded human being with a sense of humour. Whedon again displays his Marvel history knowledge here, as Lou Ferrigno voices Banner's alter ego, even though he never really spoke as the 70's Hulk previously. Again, it's a tiny nod to the long-term fan that doesn't alienate those new to the concepts.
The real standout in this ensemble casting is the Hulk, and here Whedon plays to something that's often a weakness for this kind of multi-character effort. If you look at, say, X-Men: The Last Stand, it's muddied by the desire of the director to throw every character in there just for the sake of it. As a result, nobody has any character. Whedon inverts this; there's not a whole lot of the Hulk in this picture, but that's for a very good reason. The Hulk's a bit like Superman in that he's essentially unstoppable, and Whedon nicely lampshades this with Banner's comments about putting a bullet in his mouth ("The Other Guy just spat it out").
As such, too much screen time for the Hulk would reduce his impact and make him dull, because there's no real risk to the character. Instead we get Hulk in limited doses, which makes him all the more powerful. It also helps that he gets the ragdoll sequence with Loki ("Puny God!"), which is flat-out one of the funniest things I've seen in a mainstream superhero film for years.
That being said, the heart of this film isn't Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Steve Rogers, Thor or Nick Fury. Instead, it's Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson and his pack of Captain America playing cards. Whedon paces out the joke of Coulson's fanboyism nicely so that it's at first amusing, then chucklesome… and then worrying when Loki casually murders him.
Coulson's easily the character that a geeky audience (and I'm sure Whedon himself) will most closely identify with. While we've all got our moments where we'd like to Hulk out (I had one while trying to leave the carpark after the movie), or would like an Iron Man suit to fly above life's problems, Coulson's the everyman that this picture needs and uses to excellent effect. From a nomenclature viewpoint, the Avengers had to avenge something, and it's Coulson that fills this role, albeit via a bit of rather nasty manipulation on Fury's part. Unlike the Marvel film cycles of the 1990s, the more recent efforts have put more into characterisation rather than just the… well, marvel of superheroes, and doing so via a relatively ordinary everyman is a great move.
What I didn't like
At two hours and twenty seven minutes, The Avengers is a lengthy film, and thanks to the slow burn pacing in the first hour, it really does feel like it. By the time the final battle kicks off, I'd been left waiting for it just a touch too long. That's not to say that the preceding time was entirely wasted; still, a straight two hour cut of The Avengers would deliver a slightly more satisfying spectacle.
Loki's the main villain, and he's very well realised, but the same isn't true for the alien army he has behind him. They're terribly generic; a kind of mashup of Predators, Aliens and Resistance's Chimera. That does make it simpler for the heroes to simply mow them down in waves, but it also removes a lot of the element of risk. If we don't care about the aliens in any way (not even being frightened of them, as they're not seen as that tough, the big flying wormy things notwithstanding), there's little doubt as to how the battle will play out.
Equally, I did find it a little puzzling that a world-conquering force would only choose to come into New York in very small waves. There didn't even seem to be that many massed aliens waiting when Iron Man flew the nuke into the dimensional portal!
It would have been rather tough for anyone going to see The Avengers not to realise that it features characters that have all had their own films in recent years, but it's worth mentioning that if you haven't seen all of them, there are nuances you'll miss. Not in the long-term-Marvel fanboy way that I alluded to earlier, but in straight character explanation. The Avengers drops straight into its story and presumes you'll just know all this stuff because you've seen all the other films. Again, it's a tough problem to overcome, as adding character identifying exposition would have made The Avengers run even longer.
It's a minor critique, but the end of credits bonus scene isn't actually at the end of the credits. It's a nice scene if you do know what's going on, but surely everyone who worked on the movie deserves to be credited (and thus have the audience stick around), not just the lead players?
While I'm on the personal nitpicky trail, Cobie Smulder's role of Nick Fury's sidekick is played well, but anyone who's watched any decent amount of How I Met Your Mother may have trouble not snickering when she first shows up on screen. Although it does have to be said that she looks very nice in a tight fitting body suit, but again, that's almost a Whedon cliché.
I saw The Avengers in 3D, and it's a 3D film that goes relatively light on the in-your-face 3D effects.
That's good on the not creating upchucking scale, not to mention breaking the audience out of the narrative, because if you've got to stop while an alien head flies past your left shoulder, you're not otherwise paying attention. At the same time, it means that the use of 3D is just a gimmick within this film; I came out of it with slightly tired eyes but a realisation that you really wouldn't miss anything at all watching it in plain old 2D. As an added benefit, your wallet would be a couple of dollars heavier, and weightlifting is said to be good for you.
I was originally only going to write 50 words on The Avengers, and then hand it over to you Giz readers to make the rest of the review. Instead, I've ended up with something a little more detailed. So that's my take -- what's yours?