My friend Josh Rosenfield over on Popcorn Culture recently wrote a critique of The Avengers. While it was a well-written analysis, it was, shall we say, somewhat less favorable than I was with my review. I felt that the points I wanted to make into rebuttal to that post were too much for a comment, so I decided to post about it instead. Keep in mind, I’m also the guy who wasn’t head-over-heels in love with The Dark Knight, so I understand what it’s like to feel like the odd man out when you don’t like a film that most people are totally smitten with – nevertheless, a review is always itself open to critique, and it is from this standpoint that I am writing this op-ed.
Let me begin by saying that I do not immediately disagree with the majority of the points that my colleague made about Joss Whedon’s second big screen effort. The film is indeed messy as it stands on a scraggly two-legged set-up – nevertheless, it is also capped off by a phenomenal finale that makes us forget much of its weak spots through its humor and genuine feel-good message. These elements hold us over as an audience in the first two acts and act as a through-line so that the third feels like a natural and logical conclusion instead of a last-ditch effort to save the film from mediocrity.
“The Avengers stays confined to only a handful of locations. We spend more than half our time on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s flying aircraft carrier, and the rest of the movie battling in New York. Aside from a brief trip to Germany and a fight (between the heroes!) in a forest, the film barely moves an inch. Not only that, but the entire plot happens over the course of a single day. Tony Stark never even changes his shirt. Because of this, the film feels incomplete. Even though it seems to have told a complete story, it only felt like the first two acts (at most) of the story.”
The film does in fact make no effort to imply that the world is in danger beyond the boundaries of New York City as my colleague mentioned, and avoids an X-Men: First Class-style globe-trotting adventure almost entirely. Even still, I found that the venue of New York was a satisfying choice for the final showdown, and gave some serious weight to the fight since New York is one of the most famous, most important, and largest metropolises on the planet. I do concede that the nature of the build-up and subsequent conflict in the film lead to some pacing issues, but outside of that, I think Joss Whedon pulled off exactly what fans were expecting and what they deserved; perhaps in the next movie he will have an opportunity to iron out the kinks and construct a more personal, more worldwide threat that better fits the three act format and superhero genre.
I must confess I am confused by my colleague’s initial complaint that the film sports too much set-up…
“1.) It consists of more setup when we were promised a final payoff.”
…but then proceeds to say that the film didn’t do enough to develop the characters…
“I was positive that Whedon would not only give each Avenger equal screentime, but also develop them in such a way that it would reverberate into their follow-up stand-alone features. Oh how wrong I was. The film contains not a hint of character development, or even exposition.”
…which would have meant yet more set-up than we actually got. In any case, I think that the first two-thirds of the film did last a bit long considering that it hardly matched the tour de force that was the final battle.
As far as developing the characters is concerned, I made an attempt as I was watching to see how much I could glean from the movie had I been someone who had not seen any of the other Marvel Cinematic Universe films. Surprisingly, I think I more often than not found the nods to previous entries to feel non-exclusive due to their subtlety, and I thought that the basic inter-character dialogues really helped bring in a neophyte audience. Obviously longtime fans are going to get more out of the movie, but I also thought that newbies would probably enjoy themselves quite a bit regardless.
The one point which I absolutely agree with my colleague on is that The Avengers is a perfect comic book movie.
“Now you’re probably wondering, ‘After all that, how can he say that it’s a perfect movie of any kind?’ Well, look again at the things I complained about. The film takes no time to explain its characters, it feels deliberately inconclusive, it sounds just like…wait for it…
A comic book.
The success of The Avengers is in the way that it emulates its source material so exactly.”
It’s true – every scene, every plot development, and every joke in the film is delivered as if it were in a panel of a classic Avengers comic. In this sense, I think it is a brilliant realization of the source material, and perhaps matches the likes of 300 or Watchmen in how much respect it has for its origins. This is of course no surprise given Joss Whedon’s background in the medium, but it is an admirable feat nonetheless.
I must point out, though, that my colleague makes a point of stating that the perfect comic book movie somehow precludes it being the perfect movie.
“For years, Marvel movies have been convincing me that I was. But those movies were, well, movies, and this really isn’t a movie so much as a comic book in the way that it tells its story.”
It is unfortunate that he feels this way, but I understand where he is coming from; it is certainly my belief as well that many times with film adaptations, the rigid adherence to the source holds back the movie from achieving greatness. Part of what makes Alfonso Cuarón’s The Prisoner of Azkaban or Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy so great is that while they capture the spirt of the series, the directors made changes where necessary in light of the switch to a new and very different medium.
With comics, though, I think that the parallels are much closer than that of a book. I mean, what else are film storyboards but comic strips? The hybrid visual/textual nature of comics is something that should suit the medium perfectly to a transfer to the silver screen – and I think that The Avengers proves that. Sure, the movie has issues, as I mentioned in my review. But in the end, it is an enormously entertaining endeavor that succeeds so often that it can hardly be faulted for its shameless pandering and steadfast attachment to the world of of the comic book superhero.