An Inapropriate Spoiler-Heavy Review of The Avengers
May 7, 2012 § 2 Comments
Shortest Review – I liked it.
Slightly longer but still short review – It did a very good job of disproving that big action movies have to be stupid, brain numbing, and offensive. It did an excellent job of taking what I dislike about superhero movies, about Joss Whedon’s writing, and about ensemble movies in general and turning those into strengths that I enjoyed.
And now, spoilers atop of spoilers upon more spoilers.
There have been good and bad superhero movies. The 70’s Superman movie and its sequel were at least good, and at times great. The X-Men movie, Iron Man, Batman Begins and Dark Knight, these were all worth watching. And then there’s your Superman 3 and 4, your Fantastic Four movies. Your Spider-Man 3’s. What makes the Avengers interesting to me is that, on paper, it should be forced into the later camp. There’s so many characters, the story isn’t terribly deep, and the ending is basically just a massive brawl which could so easily devolve into mindless explosions. And yet it works.
Credit really has to be given to Joss Whedon here, who managed to find a way to take a quirk of his writing I’ve never liked (his overly quip laden snark) and hammer it into a device for storytelling. Agent Coulson’s earnest dialog, Tony Stark’s astonishing ego, Bruce Banner’s sardonic, world weary demeanor, it all works. Character personalities are established with astonishing brevity and economy (we find out a great deal about the Black Widow and Hawkeye in very few lines of dialog, for instance, and we establish Captain America’s larger than life persona in two exchanges, one of which takes place during the big action climax) and I have to admit the very same dialog that does a great deal of the heavy lifting has Whedon all over it.
The plot is simplistic. The Tesseract (the goddamn Cosmic Cube by another name), an artifact of vast, cosmic power, is in SHIELD hands following the events of the Captain America movie. The appearance of Loki and the theft of the Cosmic Cube (THAT’S WHAT IT IS SO THAT’S WHAT I’M CALLING IT) puts SHIELD on alert, especially when Loki shows that he has the ability to warp and control people’s minds, including several SHIELD agents like Clint “Hawkeye” Barton. From here, we get the usual getting the team together, can they learn to function as a team story. Really, taken purely as a plot, it’s simplistic, it’s basic, you’ve seen it before. And Whedon isn’t interested in trying to prove how clever he is as a director by making it fancy. Instead, like a master craftsman, he accepts that a box is a box is a box and simply goes ahead and makes the best goddamn box you’re likely to see this year. This thing has goddamn bas reliefs carved on it and inlaid with platinum.
The acting is pretty uniformly good to great. Clark Gregg must be singled out for playing Phil Coulson, his perennial recurring character from Iron Man, Iron Man 2 and Thor (I can’t remember if he was in Captain America or not). He delivers Coulson’s lines with just enough earnest sincerity that his ultimate fate brings pathos without seeming maudlin or contrived. You believe he would act as he does, and his “I don’t even know what it does” doesn’t seem like bravado, but a simple statement of fact. Scarlett Johansson finally made me accept her performance as Natasha Romanov with her interrogation skills, which were well presented in the story, and I liked the idea that she can even play on Loki’s arrogance to get what she wants out of him. Also, her fight scenes were a lot more believable this time around. Jeffrey Renner’s Hawkeye is a trifle underdeveloped but his big grin at the end as Loki is being taken off to Asgard made me like him.
Robert Downey Jr is a force of nature that could easily derail the entire movie, but is channeled and controlled so that his scene stealing is under control and works to help, not hinder. He’s still my favorite character, if only for lines like Dost thy mother know that thou are wearing her drapes; I also really, really enjoyed his interaction with Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner. The two smartest men in the room are both interestingly damaged, and it’s telling that Stark, of all the characters in the film, absolutely believes in Banner’s innate heroism, more so than even his own. Ruffalo delivers a Banner who is at terms reserved, sardonic, controlled, disdainful of authority, incisive and a quick study of character. He actually manages to out-play the Black Widow in their first interaction in a scene that establishes both how good she is at what she does, and how good he is at sensing undercurrents. I’m not sure how much of the Hulk is actually Ruffalo, but it’s a nice turn. Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury is Nick Fury as Samuel L. Jackson and it works just fine. Cobie Smulders does more to make me like and root for Maria Hill in two hours than Marvel managed in ten years. And Chris Evans does a very good turn as Captain America, showing the resilience of the character as a man out of time who spends almost no time moaning about it.
Chris Hemsworth doesn’t get to show all that much of the character he did in his own movie as Thor, but even so he gets a few good moments. Mostly in interaction with Tom Hiddleston as Loki, who is flat out fantastic. You need a good villain for this kind of story to work, and Loki here is a preening, strutting, arrogant and yet strangely vulnerable character. He does horrible things, murders people in cold blood with no more concern than you or I might give to the bacteria we kill with our mouthwash, and does so with a combination of relish and aggrieved superiority. And he even displays a bit of humor about himself. The scene with Loki and the Hulk is simply perfect in deflating Loki’s larger than life petulance and protestations of divinity.
The real secret of The Avengers is that it is, in its own way, a character piece. It’s the superhero version, of course, so there’s explosions and punching and helicarriers falling out of the sky, but all of that is incidental to the movie’s effort to show you what it would be like to put a super solider, a god, two of the biggest geniuses in the world, the ultimate spy and the ultimate marksman in the room and let them bounce off of each other. And each of the character conflicts serves to open up the narrative in later scenes. When Captain America taunts Tony Stark over his inability to sacrifice himself, Stark readily cops to it, even going so far as to argue against the idea that you should ever have to sacrifice yourself. And yet, it’s Iron Man who takes what could be a one-way trip through the portal at the end of the movie, proving that for all his character flaws Iron Man really is a hero despite what both Captain America and Tony Stark himself said earlier. When Phil Coulson speaks earnestly to Captain America about how the old fashioned ideals that he represents are still relevant, it sets up Cap in New York demonstrating via competence and tactical acumen why Coulson was right. Natasha’s initial scene shows her ability to play an enemy’s arrogance against him, which she uses to great effect against Loki. Stark and Banner’s conversation in the lab highlights how both men are very, very different and yet feel a kinship, if only one based around their isolation from the world due to their great gifts, and also the prices they’ve paid because of them. I’m missing so many scenes that could illustrate these points because the film is superbly constructed (going back to that box analogy) with every scene fitted with grooves to slide it into the overall framework. We could have spent a great deal of time establishing who Loki and Thor are, for instance, but instead their appearances are immediate and waste very little time.
For a movie that ends with a huge battle in New York City, this is not a film that tries to bury you in violence and special effects. Instead, the violence and special effects are used to establish what’s going on, what the stakes are, and what the costs of failure will be for everyone involved. Agent Coulson’s death, while very sad, allows him to go out a hero and puts a bow on the fact that this is the culmination of his work. The Avengers in this setting wouldn’t exist without Coulson in the background of each previous film, bringing us closer and closer to this moment. Fury’s pragmatism and willingness to do whatever is necessary is tested, and in the end we find exactly where the line is for him, and it’s nice to see that established not by speeches but by him striding onto the deck of his own flying aircraft carrier with a rocket launcher. Maria Hill survives a collapsed tunnel and a grenade in her face and keeps fighting. Her car chase against the mind controlled Hawkeye establishes that she’s absolutely no slouch in the shooting and fighting department. In each case, even the Iron Man vs. Thor fight, the violence sets up characterization and themes that will come into play later. And that last act, which is essentially a chaotic battle across New York itself, works because the rest of the movie has been building and building to it. In fact, the entire helicarrier sequence with Loki being captured serves as a perfect chrysalis for the Avengers as a whole.
The script never assumes the characters or the audience are stupid. Everyone knows Loki was captured too easily. Everyone knows Loki is trying to play them. And yet, he still pulls it off. He’s just that good at it. Before the helicarrier, there is no Avengers, there are people with personalities and egos that clash against one another. The metaphor of Loki’s staff in the room, increasing their natural antipathy, is a perfect objective correlative for the theme of the story, and Loki’s escape serves as the crystal in the solution bringing it to saturation. After Coulson’s death, after working together to save the helicarrier, after witnessing the events and seeing how far Loki is willing to go, they are the Avengers, because they have something to avenge.
In a way Stark’s confrontation with Loki serves to highlight this perfectly. Loki can’t suborn or control Stark because Stark has made of his heart a thing of iron, symbolized by the nice touch of Loki never realizing he’s trying to use the staff on a completely artificial thing, the miniature arc reactor in Stark’s chest. Meanwhile, Stark lays out for Loki the ultimate flaw in his plan, that in attempting to manipulate and suborn the Avengers he has motivated them to personally want to defeat him, which ends up being made manifest by the Loki/Hulk confrontation.
Which, by the way, is an intensely satisfying one, as Loki’s melodramatic “I am a GOD” speech is cut short. Haven’t you wanted to see that happen in every movie where the villain has such a speech? And man, Hiddleston really sells Loki in every scene he’s in. I know I already said that, but I really enjoyed his performance.
The special effects were good – I saw the film in 3D, which kind of hurt my eyes, but even so ILM did some fantastic work here. Unlike some other movies with lots of special effects, this one grounded them in as much of the real world as it could, and it made the battle for New York somewhat painful to watch at times. When you see alien snake robots leveling city blocks, you cringe, because you know there are real people in those buildings. When Captain America takes command of the local police (and answers why they should listen to him by deftly defeating several of the alien attackers) you get a sense of why they want a basically human soldier as their leader, and the scene where Cap tells everyone their assignments works for that reason. And the line “Hulk… Smash.” I admit I nerded out for that.
This is a movie that doesn’t try and be deeper than it is. It embraces that it is, ultimately, a big action movie with a big cast of characters, uses those characters as the engine to ramp up the torque it unleashes at the end, and never makes the mistake of conflating ‘big action movie’ with ‘big dumb action movie’. The plot is simple, but it uses that very simple framework very, very well indeed. This is a movie that takes a comic book and makes a movie out of it that knows it is still a comic book. It’s a very different kind of good movie than, say, The Dark Knight was. In a summer with Battleship coming out, this is the movie that says “Hey, you can have robot aliens and explosions and ultraviolence and not be stupid.”
There’s a lot more I could say about it, but that should be enough. It’s worth your time.