May 6, 2012

Avengers and Low Expectations, Assemble!

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There is no reason to review The Avengers. If you love it, go tweet “#Avengers is awesome / See it!” and be done with it. If you hate it, your words will fall on ears deafened by the cha-chings of $207 million in opening weekend box office receipts, or maybe a Furious Samuel L. Jackson. And if you neither love it nor hate it, like me, then — who cares?

The flaw and triumph of The Avengers is that it succeeds so well in capturing its source material and nothing more. That source material is a line of Marvel comics that started in the 1960s and throws some of Marvel’s most popular characters together to save the world against “foes no single superhero can withstand.” It is a fun, pulpy series, with a lot of macho banter between, and during, action scenes in place of true character development seen in the individual heroes’ stories.

Those superheroes are Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Hulk, Hawkeye, Black Widow and Nick Fury. Say goodbye to the reality of the Iraq War that set the scene for Iron Man, and hello to Norse mythology besides a gamma-radiated beast and former Nazi hunter. Their foe is Thor’s adopted brother, Loki, who seeks to enslave the world with some magical cube that unlocks a portal to another universe. The stakes are so high that it is hard to care. It is more Loki’s ability to sustain perfect posture and speaketh in faux-Middle English while wearing egregious golden horns that convinces me that, yes, this is a job for more than one.

This film is clearly not The Dark Knight and does not pretend to be. I see that as a relief. IMAX agrees, for it holds a strict summer quota on “brooding, depressing, not-so-super hero tragedies.” But The Avengers is not even a hearty, standalone comic adaptation in the vein of Spider-Man 2. Director, co-writer and nerd-throb Joss Whedon basically crafts a superior version of Michael Bay’s Transformers films: irresistible to the eyes, with wit and fan service to spare, yet still without a thread of substance or speck of beauty underneath it all.

Despite the love Whedon is given by Internet culture, his talent displays itself sporadically in the film. With a movie set to top a billion dollars and a budget of over $220 million, it’s disappointing that many of the dialogue scenes possess a cheap aesthetic. To juggle all the characters, the film jumps from one character to another, often using dolly or crane shots to quickly establish a sense of place and familiarity with someone you might not have seen for three minutes (an eternity in a blockbuster). Filmed digitally, a lot of the dialogue looks like that of a TV show — no surprise considering Whedon’s Buffy and Firefly history. But there is a disposable, uninspired feeling to these shots and, further, to whole scenes. Our few moments with, say, Hawkeye are recorded in the same stock fashion as just another ensemble cable drama.

Given its rather simple expectations, however, The Avengers might just benefit from these artistic shortcomings. It is one of the most faithful comic book film adaptations in recent memory, with all the pretty visual motifs, ridiculous scenarios and emotional shallowness you can find in its inspiration. The S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier — an aircraft carrier capable of stratospheric flight — looks crazier in motion than it could possibly appear on hand-drawn panels. Iron Man flying through the city, back facing the ground, is an iconic image brought to life, as is the 360-degree rotating shot of The Avengers, cornered by foes and New York City skyscrapers, prepping for battle. These scenes are just about copied from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s original work, but it’s the kind of flattering plagiarism everyone can get behind.

The special effects are obviously remarkable, dazzling, super-duper. I am continually impressed by the different ways Iron Man enters and exits his suit; when he lands on the open-air pad of his own skyscraper, Tony Stark quickly emerges as spinning discs and robotic arms disassemble the intricate exoskeleton. Stark is, of course, blasé to the whole display. In the final action sequence, the camera swoops down streets and up buildings in an uninterrupted, natural flow that follows each hero kicking ass and farming testosterone. Don’t ask who their enemies are (Wikipedia says they are Loki’s army of “Chitauri,” and I am not sure the film said even that) and ignore that they look like a poor mesh of Gears of War’s Locust army and Transformers 3’s flying monsters. Just enjoy the show.

Detailing the story would bore me more than you: Things happen, things are explained, things are never explained. You could toil over the numerous plot holes, or you could just read the comic book — the answers are there, I hope. I did notice some light contemporary political commentary, with Nick Fury as the neoconservative hawk pushing for action, Bruce Banner (The Hulk) as the frustrated diplomat and Captain America as the old-fashioned ideologue of World War II-era America. These tensions manifest in one key scene of verbal conflict and are not addressed afterward, but the film deserves an ‘A’ for its effort, right?

Speaking of The Hulk, Mark Ruffalo’s portrayal of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde pacifistic beast steals the show. Ruffalo is a naturally reserved and faintly awkward presence on screen — Bruce Banner incarnate. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark continues to rob all the witty one-liners (before he flies off with Hawkeye in his arms, Stark deadpans, “Clench up, Legolas”), but The Hulk has a few key moments of winning physical comedy, one joke of which set my theater off in an uproar of laughter that didn’t cease until halfway through the next scene.

So, The Avengers is funny as well as entertaining, attractive and exciting. What’s not to love? Truthfully, most of the film’s problems arise from the concept more than the execution. You can say, “Well, it was the best ensemble superhero movie ever!” And I would agree, with such stiff competition and all.

But look: This movie is going to make a billion dollars. Far more than that, actually. With only three days in the States and 13 worldwide, it has already accrued a staggering $650 million. This is not the last Avengers movie, nor the last Marvel sequel or spin-off. The Avengers sets a decent precedent, one of cheery mirth and harmless arousal. It is not the plethora of explosions and jokes that rubs me wrong. Rather, it is the notion — nay, insult — that we cannot handle anything more.

Original Author: Zachary Zahos