Verdict from ES.COM’s own supernerd.
Review – THE AVENGERS (Spoiler-free)
So The Avengers came out last weekend in North America with the single biggest opening weekend box office take in history. Immediately, fans who were just recently declaring all non-grim-and-gritty superheroes “campy” and dated are declaring it the best superhero film ever made. And I admit, it’s a pretty great achievement. To have built a continuity out of six films, all building to an epic crossover event that does not end up being a letdown, to have put on film so many great images that have hitherto existed only in the pages of comics and in the imaginations of rabid fans; that’s an achievement.
I myself, after seeing the film, lauded it as satisfying over thirty years of waiting to see a genuine, unapologetic superhero comic translated to the big screen. The Avengers accomplished what it set out to do, and what it set out to do was ambitious. No question. It was fun, and colorful, and well-written with a great cast.
A lot has already been said on the performances, the effects, the crafting of the film, etc. That’s all fine and dandy, dandy and fine, but what I want to address is the best-superhero-movie-ever label I’ve been hearing in the past week, and maybe bring the conversation back down to Earth a notch. I had a blast watching The Avengers. I cheered, I laughed. I think I even applauded at one point. But coming down from that experience, I can’t quite shake the feeling of a really satisfying meal of empty calories. Now that I’m free of the excitement of the moment, I wonder if maybe I shouldn’t have had a carrot or two in there somewhere.
One of the things I’ve complained about often regarding modern superhero stories, is the fact that it seems at the end of the day these characters are doing little more than cleaning up their own messes. For example, ask yourself, given the internal logic of the film, what would the world of Superman: The Movie be like if Superman had never shown up? California would be gone. Millions of people would’ve fallen into the sea. Lois and Jimmy would be dead. Lex Luthor would be a rich real estate tycoon, and there’d probably be a beach resort town called “Otisburg.”
Given the internal logic of the films, Clark Kent’s arrival on Earth and decision to become Superman was a net positive for the world. That’s what a hero is, to me: an active participant in the world looking to make a difference. It isn’t someone who’s reactive, getting dragged through circumstance into a position of admiration. It isn’t someone who goes through growing pains and figures out how to undue the bad things he’s brought into other people’s lives.
Cards on the table here, I have been a fan of superhero comics for literally as long as I can remember. I’ve been reading these characters for the majority of my life, which I’m sorry to say is leaning toward the middle of three decades. But I’ve never been more than a fairly well-read tourist in the Marvel Universe. I’ve always been and probably always will be a DC Comics fan first. Like many tourists, there are times when you’re visiting someplace and you think how great it’d be to move there. But you always go home.
When Marvel made a big splash in the comics world in the 1960’s, they did it by creating flawed heroes. Heroes with real-world problems who didn’t always get along. So it’s not surprising to me to see the Avengers of the film mired in constant bickering, or stopping the action for pointless “misunderstandings” relating to superfights that resolve no conflict, establish no understanding, and feel as manufactured as their comic book counterparts. It’s the same kind of constant in-fighting that has turned me off of Marvel comics years ago.
Using the internal logic of the films, it’s only because of the Avengers that the Earth is imperiled in the first place. So the fact that they managed to pull us back from the brink, while appreciated, is not what I’d call inspiring. It’s kind of the least they could do. In the final analysis, The Avengers is yet another example of a superhero story about colorful characters playing out their personal dramas on an epic stage, essentially in-fighting and (at best) cleaning up their own messes. I wouldn’t say that the movie did a bad job representing the characters in that way. It’s just, to me, superheroes are kind of above that kind of thing. If you can’t muster the maturity and professionalism to work together, then you don’t belong there.
However my biggest gripe about the film is much simpler, which is that I don’t believe the motivation of the villain. It doesn’t make any sense, if Loki’s goal is really to get back on top as a power broker after having been exiled into the depths of space, that he would choose the one place in the cosmos that his brother is guaranteed to fight him for. Perhaps you’re thinking Loki is too blinded by revenge to notice the utter futility of attacking Thor’s adopted world. Revenge is one thing, but it would be completely against character for Loki to engage in any endeavor for which he doesn’t know he has the upper hand. He’s a trickster; not a martyr.
The only way I see Loki’s motivation as anywhere near plausible is if his true goal the whole time was go home, and he was trying to save face by appearing to put up a fight he knew was destined to fail. He couldn’t just ask to come back. He had to make a show of it. He had to make Thor sacrifice something. That I could believe, I suppose. But that also supports the idea that The Avengers is really more about in-fighting and family squabbles than making a positive difference to the world. And it really guts the sense of jeopardy the film depends on.
Which brings me to another nagging problem: I never felt the stakes were high enough. There were plenty of moments where my jaw dropped because someone did something cool, or I laughed at a clever one-liner. But I never really believed the characters were in danger, and there was nothing personal on the line. Well, not nothing, but nothing that particularly connected with me or made me invest in the characters emotionally. Cap’s back in action, because he’s a soldier; that’s what he does (and consistently the most heroic character in any of these films). Iron Man seems to be there because he likes the attention. Thor is primarily motivated by a sense of obligation to family. Black Widow is making up for past crimes. Hawkeye’s out for revenge.
Of the entire team, only two characters have something close to what I’d call a transformational arc of some kind: Tony becomes a little more selfless (though I’m sure he’ll be back to his lovably narcissistic self come Iron Man 3) and Hulk finally channels his rage into a positive force rather than simply losing control (thus, I assume alleviating at least some of his inherent guilt).
When you boil it down, this should be Thor’s story. It’s Thor’s family drama at the center of everything, and the threat from this film is essentially repeating what we saw in Thor’s stand-alone film. Instead of Loki sending a big bad robot to Earth to antagonize his brother, now he’s sending a big bad army of guys on hoverboards (who can’t shoot any straighter than your average Stormtrooper) to antagonize his brother. Only this time, there’s actually less at stake for Thor, because he’s already gone through his transformational epiphany in the last film, when he became worthy to wield the hammer. This time all he has to do is show up. Rinse, and repeat.
In The Dark Knight, Bruce spends the first half of the film looking for some way to abdicate his responsibility and finally have the happiness he’s denied himself. One well-placed explosion shatters both of the people in his life that would’ve made that possible. So all he’s left with is the dream of the life he could’ve had, that he would’ve had if it weren’t taken away from him. We know, as the audience, that that dream is based on a lie, because Rachel already given up on him. So when Alfred makes the decision not to deliver that letter, to let him retain the dream, even as a lie, that gutted me. I remember sitting in the theater, just almost in physical pain over that scene.
Likewise when Spidey gave it his all to stop that train from going off the rails in Spider-Man 2. Or when Superman lost Lois to that earthquake. That one gets me every time; the look on his face when he pulls her out of the ground, how he cradles her taking her body out of the car. The time lapse effect that makes it seem like he’s been sitting with her body for how long… we don’t even know. And the emotional release when he launches into the sky with one final act of rebellion against his father.
Those are the kinds of moments I’m talking about, that give you a visceral, physiological reaction and make you care about the character beyond hoping he punches the bad guy real hard (or says something clever about it). There was nothing like that in The Avengers. It was a really fun ride, but at the end of the day, it felt like empty calories. It was the definition of a popcorn film: funto eat, but mostly hot air.
Don’t get me wrong, I liked The Avengers. A lot. In fact, I’m going to see it again in the theater tonight. Some of the images it managed to create were joy upon joy. Seeing Iron Man deflect his repulsor off of Cap’s shield. Seeing Cap taking charge on the battlefield. Seeing the Hulk… SMASH. It was glorious. The Avengers got a lot right and managed to introduce a whole new generation of fans to these characters, without (for the most part) comprising what makes them unique and memorable. But at the end of the day, these characters are about telling great stories.
Joss Whedon is a very talented writer and director, and he has accomplished a lot here. But the one thing that has always bothered me about his work is that he seems more focussed on being clever than on connecting with the audience on an emotional level. All the witty one-liners and super-cool hero fights in the world can’t manufacture that feeling you have when you’re personally engaged with a story, when you feel the triumph of their victory as well as the depths of their defeat: that feeling in your gut when you get why this story matters.
Not even seventy bajillion dollars at the box office can make up for that.