The Avengers (2012)
Director : Joss Whedon
Screenplay : Joss Whedon (story by Zak Penn and Joss Whedon; based on the comic series created by Jack Kirby & Stan Lee)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2012
Stars : Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark / Iron Man), Chris Evans (Steve Rogers / Captain America), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner / The Hulk), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow), Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton / Hawkeye), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Clark Gregg (Agent Phil Coulson), Cobie Smulders (Agent Maria Hill), Stellan Skarsgård (Professor Erik Selvig), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Paul Bettany (Jarvis), Alexis Denisof (The Other), Tina Benko (NASA Scientist), Jerzy Skolimowski (Georgi Luchkov)
One could argue that the long-awaited arrival of The Avengers marks the cinema’s closest approximation to date of the extreme breadth and flexibility of the comic book universe. Up until now, the movie industry has been content to seize on a single superhero and spin out a series, usually lasting three or four films over a 10-year period before running out of gas or becoming bloated and decadent and going into hibernation until it is rebooted (see, for example, Warners’ Superman series from 1978 to 1987 and Batman series from 1989 to 1997, as well as Sony’s Spider-Man series from 2002 to 2007).
The recently formed Marvel Studios has successfully developed a risky new approach, churning out individual superhero films that kickstart their own series of sequels and act as prequels for a separate omnibus superhero series (Marvel has come a long way from their economically disastrous and aesthetically embarrassing forays into movie-making in the 1980s and early ’90s, which resulted in duds like the George Lucas-produced Howard the Duck, a forgettable low-budget Captain America starring Matt Salinger, and a junky Roger Corman-produced Fantastic Four). The potential ramifications are mind-boggling for individual viewers and exhilarating for shareholders, as each new film can work double or triple duty, spinning off sequels while contributing to other interlocking franchises, thus creating a potentially infinite cinematic universe of superheroics. Whether this represents a new depth of multi-modal storytelling or the greatest corporate coup in modern cinema is yet to be decided.
It all started when Samuel L. Jackson appeared in a brief scene as Nick Fury after the end credits of Iron Man (2008), and every Marvel Studios film since then—The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), ThorCaptain America: The First Avenger (2011)—has been tailored to fit into a larger, pre-planned schematic, the culmination of which is The Avengers. It brings all of the superheroes together in a $220-million, nearly two-and-a-half-hour behemoth of a movie, the underlying concept being that bigger is always better and more is always, well, more. Written and directed by Joss Whedon, creator of the cult television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Angel, The Avengers works well enough on its own as sound and fury, but any real enjoyment from the film will come only to those who have spent time with the characters in the earlier films, which serves the broader corporate interests in compelling viewers to consume the whole package, rather than just individual components. It’s the industry’s new version of block-booking, the old studio practice of forcing exhibitors to lease pre-packaged sets of films rather than choosing them individually, except now it’s aimed at viewers.
Viewing pleasure in The Avengers lies in the simultaneously competing and compatible personalities and skill sets of the various characters, who together form a kind of “freak show” team of superheroes of the mutant, supernatural, and self-made varieties. Thus, some of the film’s best scenes involve the characters engaged in interpersonal squabbling, rather than CGI-fueled pyrotechnics. The best scene, in fact, takes place aboard a giant flying aircraft carrier where the disparate members of the team are assembled together for the first time and find that they don’t get along so well.
Billionaire industrialist/playboy/witty quip maestro Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), who encases himself in a sophisticated metal suit as Iron Man, immediately hits it off with Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, following in the moody footsteps of Eric Bana and Edward Norton), a physicist whose exposure to gamma radiation causes him to morph into the green-skinned behemoth Hulk when angered, if only because they speak the same scientific language. It is for the very opposite reason that Stark clashes so vividly with Steve Rogers, otherwise known as the super-soldier Captain America, who has recently been unthawed after seven decades and still thinks in terms of World War II-era patriotism and homespun values and therefore cannot fathom Stark’s modern cynicism and grand-standing egocentrism (not to mention sarcastic sense of humor). Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Norse demigod whose younger brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), is the villain de jour whose world-threatening antics require the Avengers to band together, is always at one remove because he is the only nonhuman in the group. And then there’s Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), whose “red in the ledger” background is left ill-defined, thus offering no real challenge to her primary role as fetish object, and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), an expert archer whose character is even more ill-defined and spends the first half of the film under Loki’s control.
There is plenty of mayhem to go around, although interestingly the first half of the movie focuses primarily on the Avengers fighting each other before they finally pull together as a team. Thus, Iron Man goes head-to-head with Thor before their fight is broken up by Captain America, the Hulk goes after Black Widow, and Black Widow must fight Hawkeye to get him to snap out of his Loki-induced evil servitude. Once they figure out they should all be fighting on the same team, they focus their attention on saving the world from Loki’s plan, which involves using that glowing blue cube we saw in Captain America to open a wormhole to another realm that allows the Chitauri, an army of villainous fiends who look like Orcs redesigned by H.R. Giger, to invade lower Manhattan, which is (of course) mostly destroyed in the ensuing battle (a humorous coda to the battle finds a New York senator railing against the Avengers and how they need to be held accountable for all the property damage inflicted). Whedon handles the large-scale stuff with ample aplomb and enough visual coherence to make it exciting rather than simply headache-inducing, but at times the film threatens to overwhelm itself with too many characters, too many battles, and too much at stake at any given moment.
That is, of course, par for the course in a movie with such grand physical aspirations, and at its best it maintains an impressive juggling act in keeping all the characters simultaneously at the forefront without allowing any one to completely take over (although Downey Jr. does his best, given that his character is the most clearly defined and interesting). Unfortunately, it fails to create much depth, even of the comic book variety. I couldn’t help but wish for some socio-political gravitas in the vein of Bryan Singer’s X2 (2003) or Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), or even the psychological and aesthetic daring of Ang Lee’s much maligned Hulk (2003), but The Avengers remains stubbornly literal in virtually every regard. Given the boffo box office of its first weekend, there is no doubt that The Avengers 2 is already in the planning, and the only question is how Iron Man 3, Thor 2, Captain America 2, and whatever title they derive for the third Hulk movie will play into it. While the film certainly suffers from gigantism, it is a self-inflicted malady, and for fans of the series it is like manna from heaven. On the other hand, those who are even a little bit suspicious of any corporate-fueled multi-media franchise this gargantuan are likely pondering if it is the movies that have finally taken over comic books or vice-versa. Either way, there is no end in sight, and whether that’s a good or bad thing is yet to be seen.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Marvel and Paramount Pictures