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Assemble: The Avengers Review

May 9, 2012

I come to a movie version of The Avengers not as someone who is necessarily a fan of the comics. To be honest, while I may have read a couple of issues when I was a kid, I don’t remember them that much (I was more into Batman, Superman and Spiderman). I’ve watched animated versions of the comics, but mostly, that was Batman and Spiderman again, along with Justice League and the X-Men (there was a short-lived animated show based on The Avengers, but I never saw it). I have seen all of the live-action movies leading up to this movie (except for the Edward Norton The Incredible Hulk), and have generally liked them all (I even liked Iron Man 2, Thor, and the Ang Lee version of The Hulk, which all received decidedly mixed reviews). No, my main interest is in the man who co-wrote (with Zak Penn, who receives story credit; he also co-wrote the Edward Norton Hulk movie, as well as the second and third X-Men movies) and directed this blockbuster, and that’s Joss Whedon. Whedon, of course, made his name by creating Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and has gone on to create such other well-regarded shows as Angel (a spin-off from Buffy), Firefly (as well as the movie spin-off Serenity, aka The Big Damn Movie) and Dollhouse. It hasn’t always been easy to be a fan of his, partly because of constant network interference (especially in the cases of Firefly and Dollhouse), but also partly because, while Whedon definitely has his strengths (smart, funny dialogue, compelling characters, the ability to re-work myths, and the ability to make audiences connect to his stories and characters emotionally), he also often doesn’t know when to quit, often requires a lot of “retconning” (what I would call “ass-backwards” storytelling), and has made some, shall we say, questionable story choices (I’m not the only fan of Buffy who becomes apoplectic at the mere mention of Spuffy and “magic addiction”). Happily, The Avengers shows him delivering, if not a transcendent work, at least a satisfying and entertaining one.

In the Marvel Comics universe, almost every major character has either been an Avenger or worked with them, but for the purposes of the movie (and, of course, because of rights issues), they are Tony Stark, aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (Chris Evans), Dr. Bruce Banner, aka the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, taking over for Norton), the Norse god Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). All but Black Widow and Hawkeye had appeared in their own movie (Black Widow appeared in a major supporting role in Iron Man 2, while Hawkeye appeared briefly in Thor). In interviews, Whedon has said the six of them shouldn’t even be in the same room together, let alone fighting together, and at the beginning of the movie, they aren’t. Barton is working with Professor Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), who was in Thor, on an energy source known as the Tesseract (basically, a giant cube) when Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s malevolent half-brother, comes to Earth through a portal, steals the Tesseract, and brainwashes several members of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division), including Barton and Professor Selvig. This leads Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) to call on Romanoff, who is “interrogating” a group of villainous Russians led by Jerzy Skolimowski (she’s actually handcuffed to a chair and over a trapdoor, but it turns out to be part of the plan), and she in turn finds Banner, who is in a remote village in Kolkalta (nee Calcutta), India. Coulson also calls on Stark, who is currently building Stark Tower with his girlfriend/assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Rogers, of course, has been staying at S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters since he was revived at the end of Captain America when S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) calls on him. Finally, Thor comes through the portal while Captain America is trying to capture Loki and regain the Tesseract in Berlin.

Loki does end up being captured (by Thor, Captain America and Iron Man) and imprisoned on S.H.I.E.L.D’s ship, but it all turns out to be a ruse for Loki to have the Avengers turn against each other (it doesn’t hurt Fury hasn’t told the Avengers of his real purpose for the Tesseract), with Banner turning into the Hulk and destroying everyone. Loki is also working with the Chitauri, an alien race out to conquer the galaxy who will let Loki rule the Earth and help him conquer it in exchange for the Tesseract. This, the destruction and death Loki causes on the ship (including one death I won’t spoil), Barton’s shame at being brainwashed, and Stark’s realization of how Loki manages to carry out his plan is what motivates the Avengers to finally fight together as a team, and they take on Loki and the Chitauri in an epic battle over New York City.

Anyone who has followed Whedon’s career over the years knows he is loyal to those who have worked with him before (Renner was on an episode of Angel as a vampire, Alexis Denisof – Wesley on Buffy and Angel, and a senator on Dollhouse – plays The Other, leader of the Chitauri, and Enver Gjokaj – Victor on Dollhouse – plays a cop), has a fondness for allusions to his favorite works (in a casting gag, Harry Dean Stanton plays a security guard who asks a just-fallen-to-Earth Banner if he’s an alien), and has his favorite recurring obsessions and storylines (when Romanoff explains the backstory between her and Barton to Loki, and why she won’t give up on him even though he’s brainwashed, it sounds a little like why Faith won’t give up on Angel). However, while he’s written, co-written or doctored several screenplays (the movie of BuffySpeed, the first Toy Story, and the recent Cabin in the Woods, among others), and has directed several TV episodes (not only of his shows, but also episodes of Glee and The Office), this is only the second feature film he’s directed (Serenity being the first), so few knew how well he’d be able to handle a film not only of this scale, but also with so much hype and expectation around it. For the most part, Whedon handles it well, striking a nice balance between a movie for comic book geeks and a movie for those who aren’t as familiar with them. Though, by necessity, the characters aren’t drawn as well as they were in their individual movies (there’s apparently more footage of Rogers trying to adjust to modern life that will be included on the DVD), Whedon does paint them with the right brush strokes to make them interesting. And while the final, long battle is the weakest part of the film – it is CGI heavy, and even with Whedon’s touches of humor (more on that below), it still feels special-effects driven more than anything else – at least it doesn’t make you feel like you’re being pounded into oblivion while watching (like, say, a Michael Bay film does). Until that battle scene, everything is scaled nicely, so it doesn’t seem like an elevated TV episode (like Serenity, as good as it was, sometimes felt). Finally, while there may not be as much heart to the film as there is in previous Whedon works (some might joke Whedon didn’t get to kill off as many characters as he usually does), which also lessens the impact somewhat, he still brings enough of an emotional impact to the film (like when we see Thor’s love Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, who only appears here as a photograph; her pregnancy prevented a cameo) in a safe place, or how the characters react to a death) to make it more than just a money project.

As much as the emotion he brings to his projects, and the way he puts all of his characters through the ringer and even kills some of them (when he announced he had directed a small-scale production of Much Ado About Nothing, some wondered which of those characters would die), Whedon’s humor is his defining characteristic. Whedon had shown his facility towards funny dialogue early on in his career – he worked on Roseanne, and was later revealed to be responsible for all of the funny dialogue in Speed – but it was on Buffy the Vampire Slayer that made him known in this regard to the world at large. Whether through word reversals (Captain America: “We need a plan of attack.” Iron Man: “I have a plan; attack!”), humor juxtaposed with a tense situation (when Iron Man says he’s “bringing the party” to the rest of the Avengers as he’s being trailed by a giant alien creature, Black Widow responds, “I don’t see how that’s a party”), references to other works (when Fury wants to know how Loki could turn Hawkeye and Selvig into “his personal flying monkeys”, Thor has no idea what he’s talking about, but Captain America, to his delight, does), or what has been dubbed “Buffy Speak” (Coulson: “This is urgent!” Stark: “Then leave it urgently”). It’s not just dialogue, of course – Captain America bets Fury $10 nothing can surprise him anymore, but when he sees the S.H.I.E.L.D. ship (a combination of helicopter and aircraft carrier) take off, he hands the $10 to Fury without a word – but the dialogue is what makes this snappier than most blockbuster movies.

While Whedon of course wrote much of this, he was working with Downey, who is not only known for his improvisational skills (he improvised much of his dialogue in the two Iron Man movies), but is also, like Whedon, a control freak. Still, Downey manages to fit into the movie quite well (it helps he still has Paltrow and Paul Bettany (as Jarvis, the voice of his computer) to play off of), and in this case, familiarity does not bring contempt. Hemsworth, Hiddleston and Jackson are appropriately stentorian in their performances, though even they get to snark occasionally (Thor stands up for Loki because he’s his brother; when Black Widow points out how many people Loki has killed, Thor responds, “He’s adopted”). Johansson and Renner are merely supporting players here, but they also get their moments both serious (their fight scene, Romanoff confessing their past and Barton expressing remorse for what he did under Loki’s control) and funny (while fighting the Chitauri with ease, it reminds Black Widow of Budapest; Hawkeye responds, “You and I remember Budapest very differently”). Gregg has been a solid supporting performer in many of the Marvel movies, and does so again, even providing some heartfelt moments (his hero-worship of Captain America). The real surprise here, however, is Ruffalo. Though I’ve been a fan of his since 2000’s You Can Count on Me, and have liked him both in indie fare (We Don’t Live Here AnymoreMargaret) and more mainstream fare (Collateral, Zodiac), I thought he’d get lost amid all of the action sequences. But he’s perfect as Banner, getting the intelligence and the fear, not just the anger (although he does that well, from the scene first scene he has with Romanoff).

The mania for comic-book movies isn’t going away anytime soon, as this genre – and the fantasy genre in general – seem to be the ones that we explore mythology of all kinds. For that reason, I’m okay with comic-book movies as long as they’re good, but I worry the drive for them because of box-office is so acute that (1) we’ll end up with more movies like Green Lantern, which takes a hero that frankly has no business having a solo movie made about him (Batman, Spiderman and Superman at least have the mythology and the stories, and if Green Lantern merely appeared in, say, Justice League movies, I’d be okay with that), and (2) I definitely don’t want them crowding out other kinds of movies, and I know people who say the latter these days are treated like Chicken Little, but I still worry (there’s also the problem, of course, that comic-book movies seem open only to male superhero movies; where’s the Wonder Woman movie? But that’s part of a larger discussion). My only hope is with the success of The Avengers, studios will realize comic-book movies will only work if you give the reins to someone like Whedon; someone who knows the genre, someone who can kid it and yet take it seriously, and someone who is going to put their own spin on it rather than give us the same old bland product. Generally speaking, those are the movies that will turn out the best, or at least entertaining, as The Avengers was.

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