Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Film Review: The Avengers

In comics, I have a feeling that for a while Loki was the villain in most of the schemes the Avengers had to foil. When the Avengers caught on, they'd just send the Hulk to punch Loki whenever a scheme went down, because they knew sooner or later they'd connect him to it anyway, because Loki was just about always involved. After a while of getting his face rearranged by a giant green fist, Loki thought, "Screw it, if they think I'm always involved and punish me for it anyway, I will be always involved." After that, whenever any Avengers-related crime happened, Loki would haul ass as soon as he heard about it to join in. HYDRA attacks New York? Loki flew one of their ships. Crimson Dynamo? Loki gave him a magical power source. Some local hoods knocking over a 7/11? Loki held the door. If you're gonna do the time, you might as well do the crime.

Of course, that's only a theory, and as you can tell this isn't exactly a serious review of The Avengers. My serious review would be very brief: it's a great movie; go see it. It's some great action peppered with plenty of humor, and a theater filled with people laughing is the perfect environment for it. It's loud, wild, and full of the kind of huge emotional turns only a movie with killer aliens, Norse gods, and super soldiers can provide. In one tense moment that led to a huge moment of shining heroic glory, a kid in a row in front of me jumped up with one fist in the air. In another scene, the kid sitting directly in front of me hunkered down in fear covering his ears. It was just that kind of movie. Or maybe the speakers were just turned up too high. Deep down, this film speaks to what we love about superheroes. Yes, the weight of the world is on their shoulders. Yes, they are flawed and deeply human, despite being superhuman. And yet, at the very bottom of it, we all know that being a superhero would be fun.

 Superhero carnage, just like mom used to make.

I wasn't sure which hero was the focus of the film, but that's not necessarily bad. We see the most of Captain America and Iron Man, and less of Thor and the Hulk. Black Widow and Hawkeye have meatier roles than they did in Iron Man 2 and Thor, respectively. The difference in powers between the characters does get a little distracting, turning to gimmicks to keep certain characters involved. In one scene, Iron Man tears through the side of damaged machinery, flings around huge pieces of broken metal, and turns a giant turbine while Captain America... pulls a lever.
The Avengers is the kind of movie you see with a big smile on your face. Perhaps its biggest charm is that it gives you the feeling of the power, the thrill, and the sheer joy you get from being a superhero. It has the kind of building-wrecking, eardrum-shattering, edge-of-your-seat action I imagine when I think of superheroes. The jokes are frequent and light, with plenty of quippy one-liners, the kind you throw out because you're having just too much fun knocking a monster's block off. But it also explores the other side: the responsibility and heavy burden that falls on the shoulders of those who bear the mantle of hero.

The film is firmly a product of our times. In Captain America's struggle to come to terms with the modern world and its nuances, the movie makers ask us to consider the balance between loyalty and freedom. In a world of deep distrust of authority and warmongering, we also have to face the role that superheroes have. Are they weapons? Who controls them? What guarantee do we have that they won't turn against us? The film also asks us to look at things from the other perspective. It is inherently about gathering a group together and making it work, and the personalities of people as different as Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, and the Hulk make it difficult to keep them together and bring them to serve a purpose. Where does true leadership come from? Does it come from controlling others, from inspiring them, or from setting an example? It has plenty of old team-movie tropes about togetherness and needing each other, but it also approaches more sophisticated questions of what it means to call yourself a hero and to try to do the right thing, even though you haven't been trained for it and there is no clear path forward.

 Many of the film's moral ambiguities are contained in Nick Fury, who believes in superheroes... but not too much.

One of the biggest joys of the film is watching the characters rubbing elbows. Thor, with his heroic and theatrical personality,  creates sparks with self-obsessed Iron Man, who also squares off with Captain America, the humble soldier who tries to always follow orders and do the right thing. Overall, I was hoping for more of these moments. I felt the film split up the cast too much, which is too bad, because they're a talented bunch and worked well together. Out of all the major characters (the ones with movies named after them), Cap was the only one who fell a little flat, perhaps because he has the least dynamic personality. My hat is also off to Loki's actor, Tom Hiddleston, who wasn't so much comic-book, cackling villain, but seemed like a genuinely tortured guy trying to pull of a scheme he realized was getting out of hand. The real standout, though, was Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/the Hulk. His performance had a soft touch that went from quiet to intense in moments, suggesting all kinds of shifting layers beneath a mild-mannered exterior that works just perfectly for the character.

He gets bigger later. And greener.

The film does have its weaknesses, of course. Too much of it takes place on the SHIELD Helicarrier, which, though an impressive set piece, does get a little claustrophobic. In the colorful world of superheroes, we shouldn't spend a third of the movie in gray and white sets. There is also a long sequence during a lull in which every character questions his or her motivations in turn. It's good character development, but it could have been split up over the course of the film instead of going from one character to the next like going around a table.

A friend of mine went to a special marathon in which every other Marvel superhero movie leading up to The Avengers was shown, followed by the midnight premier of the film. He says he was still jazzed (though he didn't use that exact word) at the end of it all. I think that's the best praise I can give The Avengers. It left me leaving the theater pumped up and excited about superheroes, wishing I could go out and watch more about all of these great characters. Judging by the financial success of this film, our favorite heroes will keep kicking cinematic ass for years to come!


  1. I did think it was a bit much that Loki was the main antagonist in both the Avengers movie and the first season of Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes, which are doubtless the two most high-profile appearances of the Avengers in recent years.

    Of course, the real advantage of making Loki the villain for the movie was that it gave Tom Hiddleston fangirls a chance to squee over him again!

  2. I enjoyed the movie a lot more than I thought I would. I have not even seen all the movies leading up to The Avengers, but now I want to.