It took four years and at least five other movies, but The Avengers is here and eager to please. A culmination of Marvel Studios' meticulous film-as-comic-book serialization, the film could have gone one of two ways: leave out any pretense of explanation or setup in order to tack on an extended finale to every film in the stable, or play as a bonus crossover that stands above and alone for anyone to enjoy. Well, if the slow creep of content from the post-credits tag into the films themselves wasn't enough indication, the hiring of Joss Whedon to write and direct should've been a concrete indication of the former: this is a guy who knows geeks, and hiring him to write and direct is as obvious a play for the hearts of fanboys and fangirls the world over as any.
The story is less than a clothesline -- it's hardly even a string. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is back on Earth with a plot to steal the Tesseract (from Captain America) and use it to open a dimensional hole, through which an army's worth of aliens can pour and claim the planet in Loki's name. A few further wisps of material exist for each character: the question of how much control Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) has over his rage, the presence of mysterious backstory between Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) arguing with a small board of shadowy government officials whether a team of superheroes is a good idea, but 90% of the movie is devoted to stopping Loki.
Whedon's strength has always been snappy dialogue, and this is no different. His accuracy in replicating the characters as defined by the other movies is as much about proper sequelization as it is perfecting the banter -- knowing Captain America (Chris Evans) inside and out allows him to sling a better barb at Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.). Then again, Whedon also has the opportunity to define a few characters himself: the Bruce Banner character shown here is leagues above and beyond the character presented in either Hulk film, inverting the forumla that flopped twice before. Whedon also shows a remarkable skill in directing action. Although he has plenty of television and the feature film Serenity under his belt, all of that material might as well have been two people sitting in an empty room compared to the chaos he has to manage here. He starts slowly, pairing characters off for miniature get-to-know-you fights before launching into the film's two big action sequences, one inside the Avengers' mobile headquarters, and the other in the streets of NYC. The first one lacks a strong sense of geography and strands many characters (Cap and Iron Man) with mundane tasks, but the NYC action is smooth and spectacular, if awkwardly PC (not one visible civilian death!), perhaps to mute any residual discomfort at seeing New York full of explosions and smoke.
At the same time, The Avengers is much of a muchness: it's all so big and so amped up that it practically becomes monotonous. No one expects a summer movie to be heavy on story and light on action, but it's surprising how little dramatic meat there is on the bones of this two-and-a-half-hour movie. The "get the MacGuffin" nature of Loki's plot might be more forgivable if Whedon either had a self-contained story to tell about The Avengers as a team, or did a better job of handling the threads left open by the previous films, but the film is one big action beat from beginning to end. The Avengers are separated and divided for most of the runtime in order to make the finale more exciting, but the lack of a group dynamic, even a dysfunctional one, is frustrating, and new characters get the short end of the stick (I don't know more about Hawkeye now than I did before, and I'll be surprised if the average viewer realizes Cobie Smulders' Agent Hill is more than a glorified extra). Yeah, some of the quippy dialogue is meant to serve as character development, but it's brief at best (Bruce Banner's big transformation is practically done inside a sentence), and it begins to build up with the same tone until the viewer can hardly distinguish one cutting one-liner from another.
The original Iron Man was fast and fun, unburdened by the desire to leave the Marvel imprint on the movie industry. The success of that film opened the door to bigger and better things, but the films themselves are still scrambling to return to that watermark, to find freedom within the creative constraints of a bigger picture. The Avengers is meant to be the payoff to all the hard work, but it's basically just a big cotton candy ball of wish fulfillment. Although it's everything the other movies have told you to expect in the codas, tags, and epilogues (and although an Avengers film would always be a form of wish fulfillment), I wish in retrospect that Marvel's goal had been more specific than "everyone in the same movie," that their grand scheme was about a story and not an idea. As summer spectacle goes, The Avengers hits a high note; I'm just not sure the highness of that one note makes the tune any prettier.
Note: The post-conversion of the film is decent but unimportant. See it in 2D.
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