Lower your expectations: Avengers good, not best movie ever

The Avengers, assembled and ready to bust some blocks.

By now, Avengers is well on its way to becoming a true global blockbuster, blowing past its $220 million price tag in limited overseas market release, before it even hits the US, on midnight Friday. It’s had near-universal positive buzz and reviews, with some people calling it the best superhero movie of all time.

All of this is a good thing, as writer-director Joss Whedon justly deserves greater recognition and appreciation. But in deference to the masses, and potentially endangering my Whedon fandom creds, I’d sum the movie as, “good, but not great.”

Look, I’m a comic book geek of the bronze-age school, growing up on Marvel’s classic titles in the 70s and 80s, around the same time as Whedon’s comic consciousness was being formed. In kindergarten, I had an Avengers poster on my bedroom wall, and owned a full-sized Mego action figure of The Falcon— Marvel’s first black superhero— which I managed to lose on the roof of a nearby apartment building while getting him to “fly.” Even today, stored away are four long-boxes of comics, the bulk of which are Marvel titles extending back forty years. This should go towards preclude any notion that I don’t get The Avengers. I do, and perhaps that’s the problem.

As a dyed-in-the-wool Whedonite, I have rather high expectations for my entertainment. That, too, is a problem when dealing with an actiony movie like this, which carries the weight of an existing comic book world and film prequels to deal with.

For the most part, Whedon succeeds in juggling the needs of general audiences against those, like myself, who understand the intricate backstories that make up the shared Marvel Universes.

If you haven’t seen Avengers and are spoilerphobic, stop now.  Otherwise, click below to read the review.

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First, the good: the superheroes who make up The Avengers are finely drawn, each getting to spotlight their particular skills in set-pieces that play like character vignettes. In particular, Mark Ruffalo shines as the world-weary Bruce Banner/Hulk. As expected, the Whedon-humor is extensive, and for the most part works, although a couple of jokes fall flat. The special effects are well-used and action sequences are fun, and often badass.

The not-so-good: non-superheroes are given short-shrift. Except for Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), who gets his own mini-arc as a fanboy substitute, the others— particularly Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury— are uninteresting and underdeveloped. Colbie Smulders as Maria Hill barely registers. Further, this is a true sequel. Without having seen all the previous Marvel Cinematic Universe films, the characters and their relationships don’t make much sense to a neophyte audience member.

The bad: Loki (Tom Hiddleston) just isn’t a particularly threatening Big Bad.  It’s not clear he can really go toe-to-toe with any of the Avengers— early on, he surrenders to Iron Man, later getting unwittingly pumped for intel by the Black Widow, and in a closing comedic bit is tossed about like a ragdoll by the Hulk. He doesn’t come off so much as a dangerous baddie as a confused narcissist. A superhero movie is only as engaging as its super-villain, and in this case, Loki’s just not a heavy enough counter-weight to the forces massed against him. Trying to channel General Zod, he can’t even get an old guy to stay kneeled to him. Glory was scary as a powermad goddess in Buffy; this Loki is kinda pathetic.

What there is of a plot comes down to this: Loki, literally fallen from Asgard, manages to get himself Stargated back to Earth, having decided to enslave its people. Why, we’re never really told. Maybe it’s just a thing that happens when you claim to be a god. For this, he’s made a pact with an alien called “The Other” (whom we also never really get to know, but is played by an unrecognizable Alexis Denisof)  to provide the Ultimate Universe’s version of the Skrull, the Chitauri, as Loki’s mindless army. Why Loki needs an army, when he can apparently get people to follow him by touching their heart with his magic spear (embued with nifty blue Infinity Gem) is also unclear. Some of the story is a reworking of The Ultimates and stage-setting for the inevitable Avengers 2 in which Thanos will be a bigger player.

Basically, it’s all set in motion by the MacGuffinish Tesseract (AKA “Cosmic Cube“) which appeared at the end of Thor, and was last seen at the bottom of the ocean in Captain America. Loki needs the Tesseract to open a portal to bring his alien buds in. Earthlings want this plot device to use its supposedly unlimited power for energy, weapondry and future script possibilities.

Up against Loki is S.H.I.E.L.D., the super-secret shadow peacekeeping/espionage force led by Nick Fury, who apparently answers to a likewise shadowy elder council of Powers That Be. Fury’s got himself a plan: enlist a bunch of “extraordinary individuals” and let sparks fly. Cue the Avengers.

We’re introduced to the most interesting future Avenger first: Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Being that Whedon has a penchant for “strong female characters” (a claim he’s sick of responding to) it’s no surprise that as Natasha, Johansson kicks ass and doesn’t bother taking names. Forget James Bond, what we need is a Black Widow spy movie.

The other characters, Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.)  and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) are brought together quickly, getting in an inexplicable fight scene just to show off, moving us into act two. Thus we find ourselves aboard the awesome Helicarrier, where we’re subjected to ten minutes of technobabble overlaid with exposition that slows the story to a crawl, before we get back to the interesting bits.

Whedon has said this was his “war movie” but if there was one thing it really needed, was more of the actual “war.” We have to wait to the end to get a scant 20 minutes of fighting the scary, supposedly unstoppable Chitauri army in Manhattan. For high-tech soldiers, they’re surprisingly easy to knock off, even for Black Widow armed with just a couple of guns.

If it sounds like I’m complaining, it’s only nit-picking. Avengers is an enjoyable romp through to the end, which has an Independence Day moment. Some of the movie’s issues may have little to do with Whedon, but rather, the dictates of Marvel Studios, which reportedly offered their own expectations of what to include. Said Joss, “They had their idea of what the third act should be in one sentence, ‘Army, Portals…’ which was great. [...] I know where I’m going. That’s fine, all I have to do is find the path, which is not easy to do, but it is easier when you do have a compass.”

None of this, of course, should should give anyone pause; an imperfect Joss Whedon movie is scores better than the non-stop assault on the senses of any recent Michael Bay-helmed mess.[/showhide]

Simon

Simon Fleischmann founded the Whedonverse Network in 2010, an expansion of WhedonAge.com He has been involved in fandom since launching SaveAngel.org in February 2004.

5 Comments:

  1. Michelle O'Donnell

    I completely agree with your review. You are one of the few, honest fans who have reviewed the movie so far, simply by not agreeing that it is “the best superhero movie of all time”. I was disappointed in the storyline for its forced application of Loki as the main villain and the “war” with an alien army that had no explanation of why they were present. I feel like most people who will see this movie will think it’s amazing, just as a cat thinks a moving string in front of it is amazing. Millions of people will go see the Twilight movies for the “story” but fail to realize the poorly executed story in The Avengers in replace of the quick action shots.

  2. Thanks for the comment. In reading an interview with Joss published in Wired a few days ago it seems that Marvel enforced some storyline limitations: “The company told him the villain had to be the evil god Loki, from Thor. Execs said the movie had to have a big fight among the Avengers. They wanted a set piece in the middle that tore the team apart somehow. And there had to be an epic final battle.

    I think, under such restrictions, Whedon did a yoeman’s service. It met the beat points, had lots of explosions, and entertained without being overly complex. The movie did what it was supposed to do. I just kinda wanted more. But now, with such a high profile success under his belt, we can hope that Joss will get more clout to call the shots next time.

    As to the alien army, the argument might be made that the story suggested a quid-pro-quo arrangement with “The Other” — and that Loki was merely an intermediate stepping stone for an attack on the earth, and was required to open the portal for their passage, on orders of someone even more powerful. Problem is, IMHO, the aliens just weren’t that impressively tough or army-like. Was their purpose destruction or conquest? An army is supposed to be organized, and have an ultimate goal; and in this case, they seemed more like the proverbial ants Loki mentioned– getting crushed, rather than the boot doing the crushing.

  3. I also enjoyed the film but I never felt like the good guys were in danger. Yes, the planet is being invaded, but with bad guys pouring out of the sky we’re supposed to believe that Iron Man can enforce a three block perimeter by himself? Also, we see Iron Man take a shot at the device which created the portal and the sphere of energy/force field protected it. Why not just blast away at the building right below the device causing it to fall to the street below? The only other thing I would have done (and Joss probably didn’t have the permissionto do this) was to throw in a cameo of a Marvel character lwho just happens to be nearby when the attack happens. We see Cap racing towards what he thinks is a civilian being mobbed by aliens only to find it’s Luke Cage and he can take care of himself. It’d also introduce a black superhero which would be cool. Most people wouldn’t even get it but it would have been an amazing fanboy moment.

  4. Excellent point, john. I think that was part of what didn’t work for me, either: the heroes never seemed out-matched, out-witted or out-gunned– because whatever was thrown at them, they sort of knocked over. And good call on the plot-hole of the building. Considering that the device was on the Stark Tower, and tied into the Tower’s energy field, you’d think Tony might have some sorta alternate plan to shut it down.

    I’d also love to have seen some cameos of other Marvel characters. After all, NYC is hero-central. Are we to assume that it’s just these guys who noticed an alien invasion?

    Granted, Marvel/Disney currently have licensed away Spider-Man (to Sony) and Daredevil, FF and X-Men (to 20th Century Fox); which kinda tri-furcates –if I can coin a term– the Cinematic Universe. But there’s a whole stable of other, un-licensed characters, like Luke Cage or Doctor Strange, who would be awesome to sneak in. There’s been development by Marvel in getting a movie for Black Panther, which even Stan Lee says he wants to see next– but so far, it hasn’t progressed past the script-shopping stage.

    [ETA: add'l comment about Stark Tower]

  5. John, I agree with most of what you said but ESPECIALLY about Luke Cage. And that would set up the Iron Fist movie.

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