[Review] - The Avengers

A rag tag group of nine people, struggling to survive despite their differences and allegiances and personal moralities. Constantly at one another's throats, they are brought together to help aid humanity against unknown corruption and impossible odds, because they believe it is the right thing to do. This is... Serenity, actually.

When they announced that Joss Whedon had gotten the job writing and directing the Avengers, I had no doubt in my mind that he was the best man for the job, even if Serenity had been the only thing he had ever produced. But it wasn't. He had a CV filled with proof, in both screen and print, that if anyone would be able to figure out a complex group dynamic, tell a genuine, human story, and fill it with tense action sequences, lung-draining humour, and heart wrenching emotion, it would be him.

So, it came as no surprise when the Avengers, a movie that no one would have considered making even ten years ago, an idea that has on multiple occasions brought DC Comics to a grinding halt with their own team film, an idea that didn't really work when Bryan Singer unleashed X-Men more then a decade ago, is a complete success, and possibly is the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies to date. That being said:

God damn you, Joss Whedon.

Hit the jump to read the review, which is surprisingly spoiler light.

The sheer size of the Avengers should have caused it to collapse in on itself. There are too many characters for any one to stand out, for any one to get enough screen time to feel like they aren't just putting in a cameo. And, indeed, for the first half an hour, it feels exactly like that. Even by the end, there are very few scenes in this film that feature all the heroes together. But the thing that Whedon has realised is that, yes, a team must stand together occasionally, but even if they are working apart, so long as they are working towards the same goal, they are still a team. By establishing that these characters do co-exist, Whedon is able to then segment them, while still making it feel like they are working together.

Most of the scenes in the Avengers take place between two characters. Which two changes with some regularity, so you might have Stark and Banner, then Thor and Fury, then the Widow and Banner, and Stark and Cap. What this does is affords the characters an opportunity to reveal themselves on a more personal level. Yes, we know that Banner turns green when he's mad, or that Stark wears a cool set of armour. But man on man, they can reveal to each other, and to us, what they truly are. Whedon's gift to the audience is that he didn't stop at the costumes, something that most superhero movies to this point have been guilty of. He's less interested in the super heroics, and more interested in the person performing them, and why. Which, considering the number of action beats, and explosions, and computer generated theatrics that fill this two+ hour film, makes it impressive that it is as personal and intimate as it is.

And it's accessible. Yes, like any sequel, having seen the prior films is expected, but Whedon doesn't rely on it. There is very little evidence of the Arrogant Presumption. Some time has passed in the movie world, so events are starting fresh, to the benefit of the new viewer. Events of past films influence this one, but don't command it. The villain is borrowed from one film, the MacGuffin from another, but both are introduced as if this were the first time. Same too with each character, and their motivations. Small, off the cuff bits of dialogue fill in gaps of what the audience needs to know without over burdening those of us who may have watched the other films in a cheesy-dust laden marathon the night before. There is no over reliance on flash backs or call backs. A fine balance has been achieved.

It is not without it's failings, mostly because of the sheer number of characters to write for. On a TV series this is easy. One character isn't featured in an episode, until next week when they become the focus. It has been Whedon's greatest failing in both his cinematic contributions, that he sacrifices certain characters for the good of the whole. In Serenity it was Shepard Book, and Inara. Here, it is Hawkeye and Maria Hill. Hill in fact, puzzled me through the entire film, leaving me to wonder if Whedon added her himself, to have another woman in the cast, or if her appearance was mandated by Marvel, which is odd considering how minor and recent she is an addition to the books. Whedon has stated before that he prefers working with comedic actors because comedy is hard, and if they can do it well, then they can do drama, and Cobie Smulders is certainly impressive in what she's been given. Aside from an impressive turn in the opening sequence though, she is of very little of importance in the film, her lines easily could have been split between Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury, and Agent Coulson (the ever remarkable Clark Gregg), though he has more of an emotional burden to carry here. Hawkeye though, spends the first half of the film almost completely absent, then trades places with Bruce Banner, who all but disappears in the second half. It's a justifiable trade off though, as Banner and his technobabble is no longer required once the action starts.

Because of the attention to detail in terms of character, setting up the plot tends to feel rushed, and certain things that might have demanded more attention get hand waved away, most glaringly a one line explanation of how Thor, left in exile in Asgard at the end of his own film, was able to return to Earth here. Similarly, the way of curing characters of Loki's mind control is almost hackishly simple, the stuff of bad soap operas. The opening sequence moves very quickly, introducing threats and motives at a break neck speed, too fast perhaps for some. Luckily, the movie slows down considerably after this. Too slowly, I would suspect for some, to the point that until nearly the half way mark, there is little superheroing at all. Whedon maintains that his first cut was over three hours, and my guess is that most of it came from the first half, when characters were being established and there is a lot of talking going on. I enjoyed the slower pace, though that may not be the popular opinion.

As is always the case with Whedon, his dialogue crackles. Sometimes it gets slightly purple when getting deeply emotional, but for the most part, he keeps it light, the interactions and reactions of the cast perfect. On top of very Whedonesque word play, pop culture references and conversation tangents (shawarma, anyone?), it is the little moments that he freckles the piece with that make it feel like these are actually people. Characters enter scenes mid conversation, like they actually exist when they are off screen, or the child like joy on Captain America's face when he exclaims with pride that he understood a reference, made all the funnier by Thor's complete misunderstanding of the same. Not surprisingly, Robert Downey Jr. makes the words work the best, the sarcasm Whedon is best known for sounding the most natural coming from the most sarcastic superhero not dressed as a spider. He's clearly having the most fun, and I wouldn't doubt if Whedon's involvement in likely sequels being a precipitating factor in Downey Jr. sticking around for more.

Despite Whedon's insistence that he framed the story around Captain America's perspective, it is Black Widow that gets the most screen time, and the most character development. The other characters are well established in their own films, leaving them little room to grow further (though each character does have a very clear arc, something that Whedon takes very seriously). Widow, though, was mostly wasted in her Iron Man 2 appearance, and Whedon develops her into the film's surprise star. Not so surprising, maybe, considering that he has written three television series about young women who are trained assassins. Probably more expected, I guess.

The real props, though, go to Tom Hiddleston, as Loki. In Thor, he was more of a jilted lover then anything else. He felt petty and betrayed and exposed. His world had been torn apart, and he wanted to get things back on an even keel. Here, he is in complete control. He's had time to think about what to do. He wants revenge, yes. But he wants power more. He had a taste, and he liked it, and figures that he can take down two birds with one stone. At one point in Thor, Hiddleston is nearly brought to tears. There is none of that here. If anything, here he's a bigger rage issue then the Hulk. For most of the film though, he's in Hannibal Lector mode (right down to a mask at one point), showing off to prove how much better, how much smarter he is. Hiddleston plays him so slippery you can nearly feel it on your hands. This is a mature, calculating Loki. He also gets a one on one with nearly every one of the film's stars, little Lector moments where Loki tries to figure them out, make them tick, then kick their legs out from under them. There isn't a single one of these scenes that doesn't make the movie worth watching, but the best by far is the one he shares with Scarlett Johansson. It's electric.

We also get to see a comedic side of Loki. Not intentionally comedic, like Stark, but a lost sort of desperation when things got go his way. Loki very obviously cannot comprehend failure, and his only available reaction if a befuddled sort of dislocation. The biggest laugh of the film for me came from the over drawn reaction he has after an encounter with the Hulk. Whedon knows the power of the pregnant pause, and uses it with great aplomb in several scenes, all of them, now that I think of it, involving the Hulk.

The computer animation is top notch, and the nearly thirty minute invasion sequence at the end of the film is a showcase of what CG is capable of if enough time and money and pride is given. Nothing looks hokey, nothing looks cheap. This is clearly a movie that cost 200 million dollars to make, but it's also a film where you can tell where the money went. This sequence is a film school on how to pace, shoot and maintain action, without loosing focus, without crowding the screen, and most importantly, remembering to breathe.

A final thought. A couple weeks ago, during all the pre-release press for The Avengers, and Cabin in the Woods, Whedon expressed his desire to no longer being known as "the guy who kills people." You know how you stop getting that reputation? By not killing people. It is obviously a plot device that he loves using. And, it is one that he has learnt to use quite masterfully, in terms of the emotional effect and the dramatic push it has towards other characters. But god damn you sir. You kill the things we love.

But we love the things you kill.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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