Well here we are – it’s May, and The Avengers, my second most anticipated movie of the year (out-shined only by the behemoth that is The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey), has finally been released. Under the direction of perhaps one of my favorite writer/directors, Joss Whedon, my expectations for the film were tempered only by some mild criticisms from the first few folks who got a chance to see the film well in advance of the premiere. And alas, as mentioned in some early buzz, The Avengers does in fact have a problematic first and second act. However, they are followed quickly by a spectacular finale that evens everything out into a far above average superhero flick.
I’m just going to come out and say it – all I could think of as this during this movie was that it was in fact a bit too “Whedon-y” for me. That’s right – I thought that Joss Whedon’s script was a bit much. As a devout Browncoat who founded and currently runs a fan community of almost two thousand people devoted to Joss Whedon’s Firefly, this may sound treasonous; nevertheless, it must be said. Please note that I’m a total sucker for the quirky, Western-influenced dialogue in Firefly and Serenity, but I believe that is because that jargon fits well in said universe. Here, it’s not a style that strikes me as appropriate for every character.
For example, Black Widow has a line where she talks about a debt she owes to another member of the Avengers team:
“I’ve got red on my ledger; I’d like to wipe it clean.”
This sounds like a bit straight out of Firefly, with Black Widow describing her obligation using such antiquated and distinctly Joss-like terminology that it feels strangely juxtaposed to both the character and the tone of the movie. To make things worse, this particular line is repeated twice in the film, accentuating how out-of-place it feels.
On the other hand, characters like Captain America and Thor benefit greatly from Whedon’s writing. Captain’s antiquated view of the world and very old-fashioned sensibilities work very well within the confines of Joss Whedon’s idioms – I heard “back in the world” come out of his mouth, and it felt as natural as when Malcolm Reynolds said it so many years ago. Similarly, Thor’s strangely classical speech feels like a direct and proper lift from a Shakespeare’s oeuvre, a body of work Whedon reportedly spends his vacation time reading with his actor friends at his house.
I enjoyed the fact that Whedon clearly knows his target audience and the medium of comics so well having worked on Marvel’s Astonishing X-Men, Civil War and Runaways series, as well as graphic novel versions of his own franchises like Buffy and Serenity. Some scenes were even set up in a fashion where you could almost imagine the speech bubbles in a print comic depicting the on-screen events, which was very interesting to see. Additionally, the sense of escapism I so appreciate in these Marvel Studio films, and what I find lacking in Nolan’s Batman universe adaptations, was felt in abundance during The Avengers.
This may seem odd, but you should also be prepared to laugh. A lot. The humor in The Avengers is phenomenal; I heard my audience roaring during this film far more than most comedies I’ve seen at the theatre. Sure, some jokes were a bit “easy,” but if you’re the guy who finally gets to bring the dream team to the big screen, it’s hard not to want to stick in all the gags we might expect – Whedon wisely chooses to throw in a few curveballs, as well, and those are what kept the crowd going. What is also interesting is the almost fourth-wall breaking jokes that permeate the script, but do so without ever truly breaking immersion. Indeed, what really lends to Joss Whedon’s sense of wit is the self-awareness of the movie – many jokes are had with a nod and a wink to those comic book fans for whom The Avengers was truly made. In the end, if anything works to a polished shine deserved of the very highest accolades, it is certainly how The Avengers wholeheartedly brings on the funny.
The cast all performed beautifully together, with a seriously impressive showing from Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, which was particularly surprising to me since I thought the character pretty throwaway in Iron Man 2. It stands to reason that the primary female character would be well-done, however, as that is one of Joss Whedon’s calling cards. At this point, I would say Black Widow is actually cool enough that in the right hands, she might make a for a pretty awesome solo or co-op film despite the fact that she has no superpowers whatsoever.
I know that the recasting of Bruce Banner is still forefront on many of your minds, but let me preface what I have to say with this: Ed Norton is my favorite actor, and I confess that for a minute I did try to imagine him as Bruce Banner in this film. But, upon retrospection, I realize that was the wrong place to come from as an audience member – letting Mark Ruffalo supplant Norton in your mind is the best possible course of action here, as he gives an inspired performance that is matched only by Robert Downey, Jr.’s now well-practiced pomp as Tony Stark/Iron Man. I loved Ruffalo’s Hulk, and I particularly liked how much the big green guy so closely resembled his more human counterpart that it genuinely felt like the same character. The fact that Ruffalo did a bunch of motion capture for the film probably helped.
The film benefits from a massive budget. The special effects are all top-notch and feel as natural as they possibly could given the fact that a Norse god, a man in a cybernetic suit, a big green Hulk, and and alien army are doing battle. As for the cinematography, I unfortunately must point out that frenetic action and strange camera angles during some of the smaller action pieces prior to the third act are so jarring and unclear that I often had a very difficult time following the movements of the characters. One particular fight I quite literally had no idea what was going on at all; maybe I’m just getting jaded or old, but those scenes felt a little too Bourne Supremacy and not enough Bourne Identity for my taste. On the flip side, the aforementioned action-packed finale suffers from none of these complaints.
I heard some folks saying that this was the “the best superhero movie ever” and that “there’s literally nothing to bitch about in that film.” To take it a step further, my extremely hyperbolic friend called The Avengers “probably the best movie [he has] ever seen ever.” This may be chocked up to post-nerdgasm hype, but I have no doubt he will be extolling the virtues of this movie well into the future. For my part, I am a bit sad to say that I ultimately preferred Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. While I agree that nerds, and specifically comic nerds, may have little to nothing to whine about when it comes to how Joss Whedon handled The Avengers, moviegoers looking for flaws can and will find them for they are most certainly present.
Despite my nitpicks, though, I would say that The Avengers made for a very strong showing and I am eager to see Joss Whedon get another whack at the franchise. Even for someone who specializes in the ensembles, a superhero team-up feature with so many powerfully unique characters is a mean feat. Joss Whedon makes it all fit, giving nearly everyone their due screen time – and in that task alone, I do believe no one else could have succeeded to this level of polish. If you see The Avengers, and you come in without some preexisting bias against comic book movies, I guarantee you’ll walk out of that theatre well-satisfied.
Verdict: Movie Win
A Note on “The Joss” Self-Referencing – I’m pretty sure there’s an overt nod to Wash (Serenity, Firefly) in this movie. You’ll know what I mean when you see it.
Note on Post-Credits Shenanigans – Make sure you stay for both of the two post-credit scenes; they’re not long but they’re worth the wait.
A Note on 3D – While unobtrusive, it was a totally and wholly unnecessary waste of money. Plus, it often distracted from what I’m sure were some carefully framed shots that would have been more meaningful and robust had the depth of field not totally distracted my brain. Did I mention I hate 3D?
Note on Chris Evans – Did his jaw get… squarer in this movie? Or is it just me?
A great and even more positive review than mine for The Avengers over on Monster Popcorn: http://themonsterpopcorn.com/2012/05/04/review-the-avengers/
The review at NPR made some interesting commentary on The Avengers and its place alongside Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise: http://www.npr.org/2012/05/03/151937768/the-avengers-superheroic-popcorn-fun-at-its-best
A more negative review of The Avengers from Josh Rosenfield who saw it twice in one day over on Popcorn Culture: http://popcornculture1.wordpress.com/2012/05/06/some-assembly-required-a-review-of-the-avengers/