I will open by saying that, as a blockbuster action comic book film that was designed to generate revenue (and it has done plenty of that), The Avengers is as good as anyone could hope. The acting is fine, the special effects are effective, and the script is smart. I enjoyed my time, which is more than I can say about most summer cinematic dead zones.
If that is what you want, then go watch it. Chances are, you already have.
But here’s the thing. I was hoping that The Avengers would TRANSCEND the boundaries of the summer blockbuster, rather than sticking to them. There is precedent for this – Iron Man is a great film that shattered many comic book blockbuster stereotypes by making the the story less about “good versus evil” and more about a man’s evolution and a war of beliefs.
To accomplish the same goal, The Avengers would have to take its ensemble, which comes from wildly different films, and not let any of the characters outshine the other. They would each have to be, simultaneously, as fully realized as their counter parts (for example, Iron Man could not come across as a more interesting character than Thor, or else we would only wish this was an Iron Man sequel) and as part of a whole team. Also, the film would have to be natural; we would have to find a way to individually feel for each character, rather than being told that we are supposed to care for them.
Does The Avengers accomplish this lofty goal?
The Avengers involves Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who is now some sort of alien creature, coming to earth to capture the MacGuffin – sorry. It’s actually called the Tesseract, and it acts as a portal between worlds. Loki wants to summon an army from Asgard to conquer the world. After he captures it, Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) of previous Marvel films, recruits the superheroes from around the world to address the problem. These include Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), who created a super weapon that he wears, The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) who’s got an anger management problem, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) who is a Russian assassin and thief, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who excelled in archery as a boy, Captain America (Chris Evans), who was the result of a WWII experiment before he was frozen, and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) who is another Asgardian alien/ancient god/interdimensional being/whatever. Each also seems to completely hate the other, but after Loki demonstrates how far he is willing to go in his plans, they put aside their differences to fight the Asgard army in Manhattan.
What I admired most about the film is the fact that it works well as a drama about the conflict that would emerge from such dramatically different people working together. Some of the characters like each other (Stark and Banner, who are both scientists, get along well) and some simply do not like each other. The best scenes in the film are not when the heroes are blowing up stuff good, but when they are all fighting about vain each character is. It makes their gelling later in the film more poignant and feel more meaningful, rather than just the typical “we’re on a team because the script says so” level of scriptwriting.
Additionally, each character is properly flawed and three dimensional (so at the very least PART of the goal I described above is accomplished) and the actors play them well. I had not seen Captain America or Thor prior to this, but I want to now. Thor especially seems to be a very peculiar character who interacts well. And Downey Jr is firing on all cylinders yet again as Tony Stark. It’s great just seeing them interact, which is half of why the film is effective. It’s important that the characters were not heroes for the sake of being heroes (or existed for the sake of destroying major metropolitan areas while looking vaguely cool) but were complex and had their own goals for joining the team. Of course, making complex characters would make it difficult to have certain ones not overshadow the others, but the film would have been absolutely terrible.
However, simply realizing your difficulties and pointing them out is not the same as addressing the problem. And the problem is that certain characters overshadow others, even though director Joss Whedon does not wish for this to occur. Whedon includes several little moments that do not work for the characters, and end up being the distracting and tiresome. I do not necessarily blame Whedon for failing; working with an ensemble of characters and making audiences connect with all of them is one of the hardest things for a film to do. But it is still a shortcoming that prevents The Avengers from being perfect.
For example the potential romance between Hawkeye and Black Widow could be a turning point in the film’s dramatic arc, but it never goes anywhere, because The Avengers is content to tell rather than show. The two characters discuss events we never see, and seem to be flirting with each other just so we care more about them. It doesn’t feel natural, and their scenes together are nowhere near as good as, say, the scenes with Thor and Loki. Captain America appears useless half the time (his super power seems to consist of throwing a shield and jumping around a lot) but somehow becomes the de facto leader of the group, in a way that is never properly explained. And Hulk…well, he’s just confusing and despite the wonderful dynamic he introduces to the team (where he’s set up to be both their greatest asset and hindrance) he seems good just because The Avengers need Hulk to join them. Again, it does not feel natural but predestined by a scriptwriter’s pen. More comic book movies are aiming to be deeper at this point in time. So was The Avengers most of the time, which makes its shortcomings appear that much more grating. Why take such tired shortcuts in developing these popular characters?
I really want to emphasize that The Avengers is not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, if more Hollywood blockbusters were at this level of quality, then we would be a lot better off. But it is not a perfect film, and seemed to set itself up to do too much. There were undoubtedly be a sequel (although the tease at the end of film regarding the next villain went over my head) and hopefully this means that they can iron out the kinks.