Review: The Avengers, 2012, dir. Joss Whedon

The Avengers didn’t have to do much to impress me. Being as honest as possible, Joss Whedon’s attempt at making a respectable entrance into the 2012 summer season with the capstone picture of Marvel Studios’ long-gestating superhero bonanza just needed to be tolerable to get a pass from me. Put bluntly, C-level material alone would have been a treat. So imagine my surprise that The Avengers, against all my jaded anxieties, happens to be better than serviceable; in point of fact, it’s  pretty incredible, an exhilarating, eye-popping, and exhausting time at the movies and one of the most well-done blockbusters in recent memory. There’s nothing better than relinquishing one’s cynicism for unabashedly optimistic and joyful mayhem.

What The Avengers is not, however, is singular– treat this as a standalone film and you may be lost, but bring along a Marvel guide and you’ll thrill at Whedon’s creation as much as the next guy. You could also watch the five Marvel films leading into The Avengers‘ events (a truly radical idea), but the idea here is simple: take the main protagonists and supporting heroes from each of those productions, put them on one side of a cosmic line in the sand,  place a world-threatening entity on the other side, and see what happens.

The lucky winner of the latter role? Tom Hiddleston, reprising his role as Loki from 2010’s Thor; he’s jilted, he’s angry, he’s power-hungry, and he has an army (the Chitauri) at his disposal to wreak vengeance on Earth before installing himself as ruler supreme. Enter the Avengers, stage right– Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner/the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, playing the third iteration of the character), and regular humans Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow/Natasha Romanov (an on-fire Scarlet Johansson), S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and his two top agents, Maria Hill (How I Met Your Mother‘s Colbie Smulders) and the beloved Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Of course, everything isn’t so simple as all that. Teams have to work together, after all, so when you take a handful of characters accustomed to headlining their own films– and fill in the cracks in the concrete with secondary good guys who, lacking extraordinary powers, content themselves hovering at the upper echelons of martial prowess– you’re bound to see some fireworks.

The Avengers builds to a climax that begins aboard a gargantuan airship and ends in the streets and on the skyline of Manhattan, but leading up to that there’s in-fighting, squabbling, discord, and snappy banter to spare; the film itself is something of an origin story, telling the tale of how Earth’s mightiest heroes learn to work together and repel an intergalactic invasion as one. Which leaves little room for greater emphasis on the individuals. No doubt some may find that off-putting, but The Avengers has Whedon in its corner, and few people in the business understand how to make a group function on-screen better than he does.

If we never get in-depth exploration of each superhero involved in the production, we still come away with the necessities and more; maybe the best thing Whedon does with his cast is allow their baggage and hang-ups to resonate throughout the over-arching narrative, thereby allocating time to all of them without letting any one character truly dominate the screen. Marvel’s always been more oriented on characters before ideas anyways, and here the focus is taken off of the one and applied instead to how the many interact and gel with one another. This isn’t an Iron Man film or a Hulk film; it’s The Avengers. Dedicated character studies need not apply.

The Avengers smashes, crashes, busts, booms, burns, crushes, and zaps its way through a last act purely devoted to havoc for the purposes of inviting superheroics, but that character work might be the movie’s best attribute. Of course, Whedon’s efforts with his cast yield material that’s so good that The Avengers suffers in the first twenty minutes or so, when none of these figures are on the same stage. There are other issues, too; the take-off, as a general rule, is bumpy and somewhat rote. The goal, of course, is to get the principals in the same location, and The Avengers struggles in this endeavor, littering the way with some wonderful moments (particularly the reintroduction of Bruce Banner) before finally taking off.

The ascent is remarkable. Anyone hostile toward the machinations of Whedon will likely find the resultant dramatics to be unbearable, and after collecting his players together the Buffy showrunner does what he does best: play characters off of one another. Often, their interplay springs from dialogue, but nearly as frequently their frank exchanges of ideas are translated into fight scenes; Whedon’s gleefully satisfying his curiosity over who among these characters would win in a slugfest, cleverly sating our own in turn.

But none of the hallmarks typical of Whedon’s proclivities as a director truly prepare us for the scope and span of the action he orchestrates in the second and third acts. Frankly, the two big aforementioned set-pieces here very nearly bleed into one another to the point of becoming indistinguishable. This isn’t a criticism, of course, but rather a testament to the dizzying heights of spectacle The Avengers carries us to; the in-between moments don’t feel like a barrier separating a pair of large-scale FX-heavy battle sequences as much as necessary breathing room. The Avengers anchors itself to the ground and launches us through the air in its last half hour, ending on a protracted, ceaselessly varied “bang” of a note; it’s almost impossible not to be gratified by that climactic display.

And yet there’s something more underneath it all. The Avengers, through its surface, visible merits, seeks to remind us why we love superheroes and why we thrill at watching them defend the innocent and combat evil. That’s only natural, I think. Gathering together some of the most iconic comic book heroes from the page and the screen can only have that nostalgic effect. But the film points to that idea in more nuanced ways as well. The very concept of the Avenger Initiative feels as though it’s born in fan worship and upheld by tenets of belief in superheroism; it comes from faith, and the hope that a few gifted individuals can change the world.

Ultimately, then, The Avengers plays like one big celebration of the genre; however much you choose to read into the film, there’s no doubting that primary aim. For me, it arrives not a moment too soon. I’ve long been losing interest in comic book films, which with a few notable exceptions are growing into formulaic trash more often by the year. Maybe The Avengers won’t change that, but if nothing else, it’s proven to be a soaring, dazzling, and endlessly entertaining tonic of superhero adulation.

13 thoughts on “Review: The Avengers, 2012, dir. Joss Whedon

  1. Pingback: The Avengers | My Seryniti

  2. What an absolute blast of an experience. Between this, Prometheus and The Dark Knight Rises, this summer is going to be awesome.

    • Agreed, I loved the hell out of this– obviously. I really hope that Prometheus can measure up and be excellent in its own way; meanwhile, I really hope that The Dark Knight Rises manages to find the entertainment side of its story and really wow me.

      If that happens, and if other films– like Brave and Beasts of the Southern Wilds and so on– can fill in the non-spectacle gaps, then 2012 should hold one of the best summers in recent memory.

  3. “an exhilarating, eye-popping, and exhausting time at the movies”

    Yup yup and yup. It sure is. It IS a “Celebration of the Genre” with the emphasis on celebrate. I love the fact that the movie is devoid of the darkness and cynicism that plagues so much of today’s Superhero movies (Thanks Batman!). It emphasizes the virtue and bravery of its heroes as opposed to their… issues. Not that their issues are dismissed, mind you, but… you know what I’m sayin.

    I’ll give it to your boy Whedon (LOL) This was a perfect blend of action, humor and character. It was an EXPERTLY balanced movie. It added up to an extremely extremely entertaining movie. The fights were great, each character had their moment in the sun… I mean, I cant say enough. Awesome, awesome flick. 😀

    • Well, I wouldn’t call Whedon my “boy” exactly; I don’t really care for Buffy or Angel, and really only ever got into Firefly (though I do like the guy well enough). But he’s won me over with his efforts this year. He knows characters, he knows set-up, and he knows how to blend all of those elements you mention while working in a group setting. This was a nearly ideal project for him given his strengths as a director and writer.

      Interesting point about the “darkness and cynicism” you mention; Castor made a similar comment in the Avengers thread on AM (the “what do you think” thread, not the review). I don’t really see it. Most superhero fare we get is in the same vein as this– from Thor to The Incredible Hulk to the Iron Man films to Green Lantern to Captain America to X-Men: First Class. The only really “dark” superhero movies I can think of off-hand are Watchmen and Kick-Ass, and the former can’t really point to TDK as its point of origin since it started production before TDK ruled the world; meanwhile, the latter feels half-in the serious, grim side and half-in the light, fun side.

      I do think that TDK‘s influence is beginning to spread– look at The Amazing Spider-Man as an example– but for the most part superhero films have remained in the same camp as The Avengers.

      The Avengers just does it all better than any of ’em. I really can’t wait to see it again.

      • Are Nolan’s Batman films really dark and cynical, or are they just planted into a world that Nolan would like to be as comparable to our own as possible? Obviously, not technically being a superhero puts the Batman character into a more realistic world from the get-go, though we’ve obviously seen the extremes that filmmakers can take that world, to set it in an outsized metropolis that’s such an exaggeration from anything we have as to be unrecognizable.

        I don’t know if I need “dark and gritty” to be the overarching feel of a comic book film to take it seriously, but attempts to ground the story with physics we can buy into is a solid start.

        That being said, The Avengers has no such interest in taking place in a world like that, and that’s perfectly fine, too. But I don’t feel like one has to be successful at the expense of the other, either. Nothing wrong with getting great films that take either of those approaches (or something even different from them).

        • Why can’t it be both? I wouldn’t argue at all that TDK isn’t a dark, cynical film, but I also wouldn’t say that Nolan isn’t intentionally fitting his story into a world that very closely resembles “reality” (insomuch as a movie about a multi-billionaire playboy business genius who wears a bat-themed bondage suit to fight a man dressed as an evil clown can fit into “reality”). In fact, that’s part of my problem with his approach– not that it’s serious, but that it’s serious at the expense of embracing its inherently ridiculous conceit.

          There’s no need for Batman to go full-on silly again (we saw what that looks like when Schumacher took over from Burton after Returns). But I think trying to play more like Heat and less like a comic book movie can be detrimental. Be serious, but be honest about your roots, if you know what I mean.

          For the record I don’t think Avengers and TDKR need to succeed at one another’s expense; I expect the latter to dominate in July on release, just as TDK did in 2008. But I do think it’s worth comparing the two of them once Rises is in theaters, because they represent such a stark disparity in approaches to making comic book films.

          • But, as you mentioned, we’d seen those other versions (and visions) of Batman’s story. What Nolan did by taking Batman’s story and setting it inside Heat was that he made it, automatically, way more memorable and distinctive from every other comic book adaptation out there. That on its own might not be enough to call it great (though it’s a start), but that he did make them great, combined with that makes them classics.

            I have no problem with Nolan’s films being “serious at the expense of embracing its inherently ridiculous conceit.” By toning down the ridiculousness to ideas that we can buy into – logical, step-by-step approaches that make sense for the audience, the concepts at play become 100% believable, and that’s what I love about them.

            • The problem, though, isn’t just that he set it inside Heat; he set it inside Heat and also tried to completely ignore the inherent silliness of men in costumes beating each other up. There’s nothing wrong with presenting these stories using a more somber framework, but I think acting like your film is above the pulp aspect of the comic book causes tonal dissonance; it’s a movie defined by overwhelming real-world gravity that also features Batman.

              It’s almost like Nolan’s ashamed of the source material. I know that he’s just working with it in the way he knows how, but all the same the issues of tone bother me. By downplaying that ridiculousness, he just makes it all the more notable. I mean, they’re certainly good films– I think calling them “classics” is jumping the shark a bit, especially Begins— and I’m looking forward to TDKR even in the face of the problems I have with the rest of the series.

  4. Pingback: Untitled Joss Whedon/Avengers Post « A Constant Visual Feast

  5. Pingback: “The Avengers”: All about the superheroes « Radu presents: The Movie-Photo Blog

  6. Pingback: The Avengers | Creating Serenity

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