The Avengers: Joss Whedon Creates The Perfect Assembly
If this review is incomprehensible, you have to forgive me– The Avengers just turned me into a ten-year-old boy again, and my ability to properly organize my ideas has been shattered. Joss Whedon, the writer/director of Avengers, has pulled off the impossible: he took characters from multiple franchises, dealt with studio notes, actor’s egos, audience expectations, and what must’ve been a shoestring budget for how epic and expensive the film looks… and he turned it into the greatest superhero film of all time. It is more epic and ambitious than any comic book film to date, while still emotionally investing an audience in its fully realized characters. This will make a billion dollars worldwide and sets an impossibly high bar for every other film coming this summer. From script to cinematography to editing to costuming to special effects to acting, The Avengers represents the full potential of big-budget cinema being fulfilled. It’s magical to behold.
Without revealing much, the plot revolves primarily around elements established in the previous Marvel films. SHIELD, an espionage agency, has gotten ahold of The Tesseract, a cosmic energy cube of unspeakable power. When Loki (Tom Hiddleston) steals the Tesseract and threatens to use it to take over the world, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), head of SHIELD, attempts to assemble a group of superheroes to work as a team to save Earth. Among them: Captain America (Chris Evans), the unfrozen super-soldier of the World War Two era; Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), the billionaire in the super metallic suit; Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Norse god of thunder; Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), highly skilled Russian spy turned American agent; Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), the best marksman in the world; and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who turns into the green rage monster known as The Hulk when angry. However, this gathering of superheroes is full of ego and personal vendetta, making their success seem unlikely.
Whedon has captured these characters. He manages to toe so many lines here: he makes it seem iconic yet personal, funny yet tense, effects-driven yet character driven. Each character has a clearly defined arc, and we see the characters grow and change through action not exposition (usually a problem in comic book films). Captain America only knows how to follow orders and lead fellow soldiers– the modern world and the unstable styles and egos of the others puts him in an uncomfortable place. Iron Man hates following orders, period, and doesn’t feel like a hero. Thor is wrecked with guilt over introducing Loki to Earth in the first place, as every human being that dies at his hands is Thor’s cross to bear. Hawkeye and Black Widow, who seem on the surface to be far less interesting characters, are each given compelling human angles to play, and their skill in battle is incredibly impressive while a constant reminder of what a toll these types of battles take on “normal” humans– even the most skilled people in the world couldn’t take down the forces at play here.
And then there’s The Hulk. I’m not sure even how to express my overwhelming joy over how absolutely right they got The Hulk. The previous films have struggled with how to balance the two sides of the Hulk– you have to properly nail the struggle with letting loose the inner monster, but you also have to nail the fun of watching someone’s green id smash the hell out of people. The Hulk will almost certainly emerge as everyone’s favorite in the film, not because it’s the best special effect in the film (it is) or so infinitely superior looking to the previous Hulk films (it is)… it’s because they properly strike that balance. The Hulk is both scary and utterly hilarious. It helps that Mark Ruffalo is by miles the best Bruce Banner to date; he’s a clearly nervous and vulnerable nerd who still carries credibility to his threat. The decision to make the Hulk motion-capture also has paid off in spades– the movement is gorgeous, the facial expressions nuanced. I lost count of how many times my audience cheered at something the Hulk did.
The other performances are all up to par as well. Robert Downey Jr., whose shtick we are all overly familiar with by now, fits into the proceedings flawlessly, dropping one-liners and derogatory nicknames like a robot Sawyer from LOST. He also has new gadgets on display and a couple of big moments of emotion and vulnerability that he nails. Chris Hemsworth is sometimes hard to relate to since, well, Thor isn’t human, but the struggle between brothers is like watching fine Shakespeare– it was the best part of the Thor film and was a pleasure to see again now. Scarlett Johansson made the young woman next to me at the film overjoyed at seeing a woman kick such serious ass and be one of the boys while not losing femininity– I feel like most women will love her inclusion, and she’s not an eyesore for the fellas either. She manages to make Black Widow interesting among gods and superhumans– no small feat. Same for Jeremy Renner, who admittedly has the least to do, but he carries himself with such swagger that I can’t wait to see him inevitably carry his own franchises.
The two other performances that left me giddiest were Tom Hiddleston and Chris Evans. Playing a villain this big, especially as such a young actor, can’t be easy, and at times in the Thor film, Loki wasn’t given much to do other than whine and send others to do his bidding. Here, Hiddleston puts himself on the level of the other great supervillain performances (McKellen, Molina, Ledger)– Loki gets to show off not just his power of manipulation, but also his sheer POWER. When he’s at his peak, he’s hard to stop. Slow, sure, but stop? Not likely. Wielding his bag of tricks and an awesome scepter powered by the Tesseract, Loki is a malevolent wannabe dictator who still clearly suffers from issues of inadequacy caused by his brother. Hiddleston balances both the grandeur and the sniveling envy beautifully. And Captain America… he’s the earnest do-gooder, which can be enormously boring in a film like this. Yet Evans sucks you in with his earnestness. I got goosebumps on several occasions during The Avengers, but a few notable goosebumpy moments came as a result of watching Cap in action. Here is the perfect manifestation of a character I loved growing up. You watch Evans as Cap, and you feel the surge of patriotism you’re supposed to feel. It’s magnificent. (Note: when writing this review, I went back and re-read it before publishing, and saw that in the second paragraph, I wrote that Captain America was played by “Steve Rogers”… if that’s not the sign of a great performance, I don’t know what is.)
The performances wouldn’t mean a thing without the story though, and while some deride the story in The Avengers as being “fun”– when did that become a dirty word?– it took exceptional craftsmanship to make it as fun as it is. Note how we see numerous scenes in which two of the central characters interact, and these duo scenes all build up toward a scene in which the heroes are all in a room bickering at each other, tossing accusations. I literally sat watching this scene with my mouth open… *this* is what the backstage drama of an actual superhero team looks like. The build makes the audience response earned. Similarly, towards the end, we watch our heroes individually fighting villains, and then in pairs, and then finally we see them all working together against the forces of evil in a long continuous shot that might already have its position locked in as my favorite shot of 2012. It brought out my inner child. It made me feel like I was a kid on the sidelines of the battle watching these heroes risk their lives and fight for ME. It’s funny, it’s dramatic, it’s exciting. Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography is gorgeous in this film, making heavy use of low angle shots to help with the epic feel, and combined with Alan Silvestri’s rousing score, you can’t help but feel surges of pride and joy. Even shots of the characters donning their costumes feel instantly iconic– they even managed to make Loki’s outfit look awesome instead of costumey! Every element of the film’s design, performance, and composition creates the impression that what you’re watching you may never get to see in a film again. It’s bold adventurous filmmaking: you don’t need your movie to be dark or gritty for it to be ambitious. Anyone who watches this film’s third act or notes the character relationship build in the first two acts can’t tell me with a straight face this film is “simple” or “fun” in a snide manner.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be writing this review. It’s tough for me when a superhero movie goes so right for me to do my best to objectively criticize immediately after seeing something so epic execute so deftly and stick the landing. I’ll say that if you’re looking for this film to perfectly tie in to the events of the previous films (in particular, the stuff surrounding Hulk), it doesn’t– but that merely puts it in the same boot as any other franchise that’s dealt with reboots and sequels. Other criticisms:… there’s a shot of Cobie Smulders with a cut on her head where the cut looks fake. Seriously, when a movie is done this well, and I’m trying to find imperfections, it comes to this. I’ve been able to criticize the Iron Mans, the Batmans, the Spidermans, the X-Mens (though X2 is the closest film to perfect of the bunch)– all these characters I love in movies where I can still earnestly note imperfection while loving the film. This one has me legitimately struggling. Perhaps when I see it again. Which I will. Many times.
This is the type of movie that makes me want to write movies. It should fan the flame of passion in anyone who loves the action genre or the comic book genre or the sci-fi genre to try to buck up and do better, to reach farther, to write wittier. It’s a reminder that in a world that is far too eager to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a piece of mostly computer-generated entertainment, there are still people who care about story and maximizing their dollars spent. Most importantly, this film is a game changer. It very well may break the all-time record for biggest box office, and landing in the top two of all-time domestic and worldwide box office seems likely as well. Much like The Dark Knight spun the table towards “darker hero fims,” The Avengers has defiantly spun it right back. With clever writing, developed characters, exceptional visual storytelling, and the right man at the helm, you can make earnest fun entertainment that captures the magic of cinema without needing gritty realism or darkness. I would be unsurprised if DC execs see this film, green light loads of scripts for smaller DC characters, and urge Zack Snyder to mention other DC heroes in next year’s Superman film in hopes of getting the ball rolling on a Justice League blockbuster. They are years and years away of making that happen, if at all, whereas Avengers 2 is a virtual lock for 2016 or so. The fact that The Avengers happened on a screen at ALL was a huge improbability– the fact that it’s pure magic unlikelier still. Joss Whedon and company: tip of the cap. Enjoy the massive bonuses coming your way, you’ve earned them.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to put on my Hulk hands, go outside, and pretend like I’m in The Avengers. Ten-year-old Russell smash.
~ by russellhainline on May 3, 2012.
Posted in Film Reviews
Tags: Alan Silvestri, alien invasion, Asgard, Avengers, Black Widow, Bruce Banner, Captain America, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Clark Gregg, Clint Barton, Cobie Smulders, Cosmic Cube, Dark Knight, Dark Knight Rises, DC, epic, Hawkeye, Iron Man, Jeremy Renner, Joss Whedon, Loki, Maria Hill, Mark Ruffalo, Marvel Comics, Marvel film, Marvel movies, Nick Fury, Phil Coulson, Robert Downey Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Seamus McGarvey, SHIELD, Steve Rogers, superhero, superhero film, superhero movies, Tesseract, The Avengers, The Avengers film, The Avengers movie, The Hulk, Thor, Tom Hiddleston, Tony Stark