I’m at the right age for seeing Marvel’s The Avengers. Previous posts on this blog have explained why I believe that the total confluence of big movies getting released this year has hit me at just the right time in my life. Here is the first great example of that. I haven’t yet grown out of the ability to sit back and enjoy a superhero movie, although I’m starting to feel like that day might be coming. What I can do (that I couldn’t ten years ago) is stand back afterwards and critique it from a cinematic perspective. This is a comfortable balance — letting the big screen envelop me for two and a half hours, then returning to the light of day and soberly assessing what makes the greatest films better than what I just saw. The Avengers is in no way among the finest of its subgenre, but I found it thoroughly engrossing and entertaining nevertheless.
First, I’m happy to recount the things the movie does well. For anyone who’s been excited about this project since the first tease at the end of Iron Man in 2008, The Avengers absolutely delivers the requisite scope, set pieces and heroics. It looks great and sounds great. Even the Transformers-esque city destruction at the climax was at least relatively easy to follow.
But without interesting characters, none of that would matter. The hype for this movie was due exclusively to the promised assembling of the heroes. Here, also, the film does very well. The script is admirably balanced, with plenty of interesting scenes among different characters. Robert Downey Jr.’s performance still steals the show, of course, but it wasn’t for lack of trying to give the other characters interesting subplots. Captain America, the Hulk, and even Black Widow are all given compelling issues to deal with. Marvel still hasn’t convinced me that Thor is worth my time, which is disappointing considering his crucial relationship with the film’s villain, but he’s really the only weak link in this chain.
The characters and their conflicts are all set up with wonderful patience; the pacing of this film is terrific. The opening exposition about the Tesseract was completely uninteresting to me, but otherwise I admire the willingness to build up expectations slowly. Nowhere is this more effective than in the story of the Hulk. I haven’t seen either of the two Hulk films, but I imagine the presence of a new actor (Mark Ruffalo) in the role will make him seem like a new character even to those familiar with him. Regardless, there is a whole lot of buildup to this character’s transformation, and when it finally happens, it’s everything we were expecting and more. I was sufficiently wrapped up in this film not to pay too close attention to the quality of the CGI, but it’s kind of irrelevant anyway. I could spend the whole movie focusing on the special effects and find plenty of things that look “fake,” but that wouldn’t be much fun. And anyway, Ruffalo’s terrific. He makes the character work.
In summary, this film somehow manages to accomplish its main goal: bringing Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the Hulk together into one story, making them interact, debate, quarrel and finally work together as a team. The villains of the film — even including Loki, played quite enjoyably by Tom Hiddleston — are really just MacGuffins. Their job is to fight the good guys and be powerful enough to make the good guys use all they have. The Avengers contains all of the thrills this subgenre requires, and even a little emotional resonance. But that’s really all there is to it. And that’s where the film falls a bit short.
The main thing that holds this film back, in my mind, is the fact that no matter how spruced up the characters are, they’re still essentially B-listers. I don’t think it’s insignificant that none of these heroes has a secret identity. That means that their lives can’t be all that complicated — certainly not compared to Superman, Batman or Spider-Man. Maybe I’m being too hard on Captain America, but his waking-up-in-a-different-time-period predicament isn’t nearly as thematically powerful as the predicaments of those three. Or at least it isn’t the way it’s conveyed here. Anyway, this doesn’t mean these characters are bad, just that I can’t rate this movie above the greatest movies about Superman, Batman or Spider-Man. What those movies have shown us is that a blockbuster superhero extravaganza can also explore deep truths about the human condition, truths deeper than “we need to set our egos aside and work as a team.” What they also show us is that the villain in the story can be just as interesting as the hero, and his or her goals can be more interesting than “let’s blow up the planet.” Thrilling though The Avengers may be, it suffers from a lack of something to hold onto after the credits roll.
All things considered, I’m excited to see this movie again. There’s definitely enough going on in the film to make another viewing worthwhile. But I’m not sure how many subsequent viewings this film can survive. I’m also not sure how well I’ll remember it after seeing The Dark Knight Rises in July. But all of that is stuff to be pondered over in the light of day. Movies are about more than just that sort of pondering. They’re also about the experience, and no matter what happens, I’ll still have the memory of a very fun time I had in the dark one Sunday, resting in spectacle.