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REVIEW: Marvel’s The Avengers

May 29, 2012

Rating: 2½ stars (out of 4)

The Avengers (2012): Written and directed by Joss Whedon. Story by: Zak Penn and Joss Whedon. Based on The Avengers comic books by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, and Samuel L. Jackson. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, and a mild drug reference. Running time: 143 minutes.

Marvel’s The Avengers: fan service and mass appeal guaranteed.

Joss Whedon’s The Avengers comes on the heels of his other 2012 film The Cabin in the Woods (directed by and co-written with Drew Goddard), a film which sought to take the rug out from the horror genre.  His new film is less a subversion than a celebration of its own genre—the superhero flick.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it also means that even an alleged provocateur like Joss Whedon has a hard time making such familiar material feel fresh.

Apparently America does not share my weariness at yet another superhero film, because the movie earned over $200 million in its opening weekend.  The result is a decent film which brings together multiple film universes while offering nothing extraordinarily new.

Plot comes secondary to the ultimate goal of the film, which seeks to put multiple heroes on the screen and let ‘em knock some heads in.  A mysterious blue object called the Macguffin (I mean, the Tesseract) has been stolen by Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the trickster god from 2011’s Thor movie, from a secret government facility.  The facility is run by S.H.I.E.L.D., a homeland security outfit whose apparent task it is to combat only the most ludicrous of national security breaches.

In an embarrassing debacle (all in a day’s work for any government department), Loki not only steals the Tesseract but also gains mind control of a S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist (Stellan Skaarsgard) to unlock the power of the Tesseract.  When unlocked, the artifact will open a portal to another world, allowing an alien army to attack New York.  It’s basically a set-up for the climactic battle you’ve no doubt already seen hints of in the coming attractions.

To combat the threat, Fury assembles a team of gifted individuals (steering clear of mutants) the likes of which we’ve seen in all the trailers and the previous films.  There’s Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), the metal-wearing master-quipper; The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), in all his green meaniness;  Captain America (Chris Evans), a blue-suited jingo who fights with a shield on loan from 300’s Leonidas; and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Norse god of thunder and also of archaic language.

Rounding out the team are Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, an archery expert (yes, bow and arrows) and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in a skin-tight suit.  Because for a writer-director with a reputation for writing strong female characters, Whedon certainly has no qualms about sticking them in the most revealing outfits he can find.

The film has some fun picturing how these characters, with their flagrant differences in personality and ideology, might interact with one another.  It’s surprising to see the mild-mannered Dr. Banner and egotistical Tony Stark palling around, then aiding each other in battle in their alter forms of Hulk and Iron Man.  Or to see how Captain America becomes both an effective leader and a defuser of egos.  If only the film had stayed focused on the heroes and cut out the bureaucratic S.H.I.E.L.D. buzzards around them.

The film does have the ability to spoof itself, but look out when it takes itself seriously.  The climactic super-battle boasts impressive visuals, in an apparent attempt to out-do the climactic super-battle from the recent Transformers flick.  But why should we care whether the innocent civilians live or die?  In one scene, they’re just fodder for the film’s special effects.  In another, they make up a set-piece for demonstrating the team’s awesome power.  It’s like substituting the scale of battle for any real sense of investment.

Isn’t this superhero stuff getting silly by now?  There’s even a groan-inducing moment toward the end of the film where a grateful civilian interviews a local news team extolling the heroes.  It’s a ploy we’ve seen a million times, done exactly the same way, without any trace of irony.  Was Whedon filling out a “superhero film” checklist?

I don’t want to take away from what the movie does right—the best moments come from the Avengers clashing with one another or finding ways to utilize and combine their abilities.  Few writer-directors can develop group dynamics as well as Whedon does, which should come as no surprise to fans of his television work.

But I expected more from Whedon, who wrote the screenplay and co-wrote the story with Zak Penn.  We do get some of Whedon’s witty dialogue and anticlimactic humor which he might as well have trademarked, but The Avengers is more of celebration of big-budget blockbusters.  It’s a bit disappointing for a writer-director who gained popularity for his genre-busting work.  I suppose he’s a selective genre-buster.

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