$207,438,708 … Divided By Six

The Avengers (2012)     4/5

Written & Directed by Joss Whedon (Walt Disney Pictures)

The superhero flick is in trouble. What was once a fresh, fun genre has descended into two categories: the dark, psychological drama reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, and the more lightweight, cash-centered gloss of the Marvel movies. It seems heartbreaking that Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, which was released an astonishing ten years ago, has now been pushed into the background by Marvel’s reboot of the record-breaking franchise, the hipster-friendly Amazing Spider-Man. The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan’s conclusion to his “Dark Knight trilogy,” will also be released this summer. I have no doubt that both will be highly entertaining, Nolan’s blockbuster (despite a horrid title) likely to be the better film. Yes, I have begun this review with cynicism, but the point I am trying to make is this – superhero movies are everywhere in the 21st century, so how do we separate the cash cows from genuine works of fanboy creativity?

Since we first saw Iron Man in 2008, Marvel has been gradually building toward The Avengers, a super-mashup of the comic book label’s greatest heroes, and an obvious ploy for lots and lots of dough. Disregarding the actual quality of The Avengers, it is obvious that audiences will attend no matter what, hence the opening-weekend record included in my title. But summer box-office success relies on two other, essential mechanisms – repeat viewings, and word-of-mouth. So why not make The Avengers , well … good? (Or at least convince audiences that their money is being well-spent). That is exactly what Marvel (now owned by Disney), has done with their magnificent assembly of ass-kicking greatness. It could’ve easily gone the other way. But the people running this show aren’t dumb, and they know that to some extent, audiences aren’t either. So naturally, they hired Joss Whedon.

Whedon, king of the nerds, having created such successful cult programs as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, has simply written a killer script; The Avengers is funny and explosive, aided by the ridiculously clever interactions between our favorite heroes. You can tell that Whedon simply loves the characters, and thankfully enough, believes that there is enough strength left in the genre to craft something special. His efforts mirror those of the superheroes in film, coming together (despite each being freakishly singular) to accomplish a seemingly impossible goal. Cheesy, yes, but highly effective.  In order for this to work, talented people must be involved. Whedon certainly has them.

I saw The Avengers without having previously viewed last year’s Thor, the only film of the “Avengers saga” I have missed (those that lead up to The Avengers include Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger). Although seeing Thor would have certainly aided my background information entering The Avengers, in addition to enhancing my excitement and anticipation, seeing all of those previous films isn’t necessary. However, viewing them will definitely add to the fun. Whedon does a fantastic job for rewarding fans who have sat through each of Marvel’s releases, incorporating story elements from all (the narrative most closely follows story elements from Thor), yet still touching on everything important for the newbies. But if you still don’t know what a “Hulk” is, regrettably, The Avengers probably isn’t for you.

The main heroes involved, organized by Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson, a momentously excellent decision), the director of secret organization S.H.I.E.L.D., are Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Dr. Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, replacing previous angryman Edward Norton), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Their nemesis is Thor’s brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who plans to use a device called the Tesseract (well-known to those who have seen the previous films) to summon an alien army that will conquer Earth. Nothing quite special about that plot synopsis. But that is forgivable. When six superheroes are involved, delivery is what matters. And if there is one thing The Avengers does, it is deliver, deliver, deliver.

Whedon writes fabulous dialogue, so it is no surprise that the film is consistently humorous, and in some instances, clever to the point of hilarity. But his principle success is how well he writes these familiar characters, and uses their individual personalities to create both conflict and fusion. Downey, who reprises his role as Tony Stark, is terrific as ever, egocentric and sarcastic until his heroism is called upon. This characterization contrasts with that of Evans as Captain America, who is both wholeheartedly courageous and wholesomely valued. Mark Ruffalo, snagging the role played by Edward Norton in The Incredible Hulk (Norton is infamously noted for his lack of being a “team player”), also provides a satisfying, more mellowed-out vision of the Bruce Banner character, who has attempted selflessness as a way to avoid the big green guy within his soul (and who will eventually become unleashed with full, CGI velocity).

Meanwhile, Hemsworth plays Thor with just the right amount of English-accent camp, showing muscle when it matters, and mixing terrifically with his brother, whose villainy is portrayed successfully by Tom Hiddleston, applying sinister/pathetic equally, and therefore allowing us to better understand the underlying, brotherly conflict at hand. The relationship between Black Widow (Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), however understated, also provides much-needed, underlying character development. It is not elaborate by any means, but like many aspects of The Avengers, is skillfully snuck into the film.

As for the action sequences, it is great to know that The Avengers was made by people who actually know what they’re doing. From one awesome set-piece to the next, however quick-cut, I was able to fully observe continuity between shots, and therefore, actually know what was going on. The digital effects are breathtaking, as are the cool things that cinematographer Seamus McGarvey does with the camera. He plays with low-angles, focus, camera position, and in one instance, stages a continuous shot that made me want to applaud. At this point, each of our heroes is fighting in a separate location within the same cityscape, and in one, sweeping movement, McGarvey manages to capture the action of each mini-battle within a long-duration shot.

The key to action sequences is to know when to cut; Michael Bay would prefer to do it every half-second, not allowing us to observe continuity or where people/objects actually are within a physical location. The final battle of The Avengers takes place in New York City, and despite how exciting, well-shot, and superbly edited it is, irony stems from the fact that Michael Bay already did this in the Tranformers movies a billion times. Granted, The Avengers‘ sequence is better filmed, and in general, more awesome than it was in the Transformers films, but the daytime locale, robotic alien ships (although the creatures themselves are very well-designed), and exploding buildings seem all too familiar at this point.

Despite how entertained I was by this climax, I felt slightly underwhelmed when it was over. I would like to note that I didn’t see The Avengers in 3D (which was converted in post-production), although I’m sure I would enjoy doing so upon a second viewing. Although post-production 3D is generally an invitation for disaster, the filmmakers surely recognized that this conversion would occur, and have staged their scenes with enough depth of field to warrant an extra dimension.

There may be several aspects of The Avengers that are by-the-numbers, but the way Whedon presents the material makes it seem new again. So let’s give credit where credit is due. Joss Whedon has made a superhero movie that reminds us how much we love superhero movies, through nothing other than giving us exactly what we want – action, humor, character, drama, heart, emotion, and best of all, something that doesn’t take itself too damn seriously. For better or worse, The Avengers convinces us that men in tights are still alive and well. We’ll see what happens from here. For now, let’s just consider it 2002.