Saturday, May 19, 2012

Movie Review: The Avengers

Directed by Joss Whedon. 2012.

N.B. Due to recent criticism I have taken special effort to ensure all images used are precisely appropriate to the review.

Samuel L. Jackson shoots down a fighter jet with a bazooka.

This review will proceed for the two of you not satisfied with the above.

The Avengers should have been a disaster. It should have had a lame end-of-the-world plot, wall-to-wall and incomprehensible action, generic dialogue, and the big name franchise characters stuffed in to draw the crowds. What we got was not only competency in all said areas but a whole which is a good deal more than the sum of its parts.

The plot is bound to be the weakest link in an action movie and though The Avengers is no exception its plot succeeds largely because it lacks the pitfalls of a slight script inflated to accommodate 100 minutes of action. We are spared decoy maguffins and the trading of essential items back and forth umpteen times. We are spared double, triple, and quadruple crosses as well as double-agents, betrayals, inexplicable changes of heart, and suddenly finding out who the "real" enemy is.

Instead Joss Whedon decided to keep it simple: a bad guy wants to take over the world and he needs a device to do it. Stop the bad guy and take the device. There is little to say about the plot other than that it works and lacks the usual cliches. The characters are introduced swiftly and quickly realize they must work together. There are no unnecessary delays because one of them must be persuaded or cannot be found. No one takes a powder or throws a hissy fit. Although tempers flair, and Whedon's snappy wit is a delight in these scenes, the characters realize the world is at stake and remain onboard the plan.

This is not to say the plot is wholly devoid of juicier fare. In fact we are treated to a few intellectual morsels. First off, we learn about the ideology of head bad-guy Loki. He doesn't just want to rule Earth but thinks humans are unfit to govern themselves. Yes, the idea of ruling rather implies that people need to be ruled but it is fair and good to see the implications of authoritarianism explicated a bit. More specifically he calls freedom a great lie and asserts that people want to be ruled, that people are lost in their individual quests for purpose and identity.

I would have liked to hear some more retorts to these old Platonic criticisms of liberty from the heroes beyond Captain America's response, paraphrasing, that "The last time I was in Germany and one man stood over others, there was a disagreement," which doesn't really address the arguments. This is not to say Captain America's response is foolish or naive for although it does not address all of Loki's points with an argument, Captain's statement does respond to the notion that "people like to be ruled" by citing an instance in which people refused such an "offer." I wasn't expecting a philosophical debate about liberty in the middle of a battle but I hoped somehow these ideas could have percolated up somewhere in the movie.


Nick Fury
S.H.I.E.L.D Director Nick Fury also presents us with some ideas to chew on when he lays out his problem: there are too many individuals with extraordinary powers who cannot be stopped. Fury had had two plans to fix this. The first was to acquire the Tessaract and use its power to create an arsenal of weapons to defeat these new powerful enemies. The second, the AVENGERS Initiative, involved recruiting the best individuals to meet the challenges S.H.I.E.L.D, which is to say ordinary people, could not. If we recall that Fury works for some secret council, one which seems to claim unlimited authority when they make the call to nuke New York to stem the invasion, we see all three fundamental types of government represented. Loki represents an absolute monarch, Nick Fury's bossy council represents oligarchy, and the Avengers democracy. Loki and the council seem obvious enough villains, but what do we infer about democracy from the Avengers?

For all their fighting Fury recruits the Avengers with great ease. Too he expects them to return when needed simply because they are needed. Such makes a powerful and rather unambiguous statement about the practicality of democracy. They come together after relatively little persuasion, they quarrel a little but work together for the greater good, they depart with no reward or extra authority, and they'll return when needed. Politics solved! The important political question, though, is how to get the best people to step up and prevent the worst from doing so.

It is Fury who accomplishes this and if we view the Avengers as agents of democracy we can see Fury as a presidential figure. Yet he wasn't elected even though he seems to represent ordinary people. The Avengers certainly don't trust him, with both Tony Stark and Captain America spying on him and ultimately discovering his secret plan to build weapons of mass destruction. Stark, ironically given his own powers, criticizes him for his plan of nuclear proliferation. Later, one of the Avengers says that Fury has as much blood on his hands as Loki. Really? Surely criticism of him could be made if we knew more about him, but without such information isn't that verdict a bit much? The scene in which Fury's plan is revealed and the Avengers begin to criticize him and fight amongst each other has a very democratic flavor consistent with the symbolism we discussed above. Because we don't have enough information to judge these other issues the scene becomes more about the problems of democracy than any one issue in particular. That the Avengers are attacked during this debate seems to carry an obvious implication: internecine problems to shrink in significance when an army's at the door. Is this so?

Agent Phil Coulson
There is, however, one more unusual bit. About halfway through the movie Earth's situation looks grim. S.H.I.E.L.D.'s flying carrier-battleship has been attacked and Loki has escaped. Dr. Banner and Thor are lost somewhere. Agent Coulson has been killed. How will Fury rekindle the team spirit? He shows them Coulson's prized Captain America trading cards, covered in his blood. Out of all that could have motivated them, he thought they needed a martyr. That Fury lied about the cards being on Coulson's person at the time of his death is not as significant as the fact that he decided to use the agent's death as an example at all.

Overall Whedon's script is commendable. He avoids many action movie pitfalls and cliches and succeeds in infusing some meaningful ideas and questions. There is very little essential dialogue in which to get tangled and there are no inessential reversals, deceptions, et cetera to gum up the works. This feat ought not be underestimated; I think this script cost Whedon no small amount of grief.

That said, The Avengers is two hours twenty minutes long and most of the attention is not on the aforementioned intellectual bits but action and snappy dialogue. Both satisfy.

Alien Invasion
The opening heist scene is probably the worst action in the movie. With its generic car and helicopter chase and the collapse of the S.H.I.E.L.D. compound lacking all depth it looks like part of a much chincier flick. The final action scene, however, is deftly handled. Whedon develops and maintains a clear sense of space but I still grew a tad weary watching the nameless aliens get whacked. Despite this, the scene ought not be underestimated. Whedon does a fine job making each hero seem heroic even while other heroes perform more impressive feats. Hawkeye's arrows aren't as spectacular as Iron Man flying around but he seems pretty powerful picking off the invaders. Captain America is not as strong as the Hulk, but he looks powerful fighting as he is. He does not seem less heroic fighting ground troops while the Hulk is fighting some giant flying creature because he is doing what is appropriate to him and his abilities.

The Hulk
Ultimately these characters are the highlight of The Avengers and though I would want more development of the ideas it is hard to complain after seeing these characters interact. Robert Downey Jr.'s cocksure Iron Man is as disarming and grudgingly entertaining as ever. Captain America as a by-the-books soldier is as good a foil for him as Roadie was in the Iron Man series and Iron Man is a better foil than Captain America had in his own movie last year. There is a palpable and logical tension between the narcissistic Tony Stark and the self-sacrificing Captain Steve Rogers. Chris Hemsworth's Thor has an appropriately aristocratic flavor with his accent, diction, and physical stature which pleasantly contrast Stark's 21st century playboy and Captain America's dutiful humility. Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner is a surprising treat. There is a subdued tension to his comportment which lends credence to what would be a silly one-liner in a lesser movie. Likewise a brief moment on the deck of the carrier  where he awkwardly shuffles around some passing soldiers with refreshing subtlety how he's rearranged his life and who he is to control the Hulk. It also helps explain a later scene when he is able to turn into the Hulk seemingly at will.

Flying Battleship
Speaking of the flying battleship-aircraft carried, I didn't care for it. Too much of the movie takes place aboard it. I think Whedon ran into a setting problem with the script. "Where should all of this take place? Does it even matter? I guess it should be in a S.H.I.E.L.D. base but then they're underground the whole time and the enemies have to come to them and then we need a vehicle for them to get around in anyway. Besides that'll remind people of X-Men. Tony Stark's lab is too small and people have seen it already. A submarine is worse than a base, a ship is too much like the military and a plane is too small. Hey. . . wait. . a flying ship!"

Natasha Romanoff
Anyway, Hawkeye and Black Widow seem the least drawn of the characters although Whedon cleverly works in their backstory at the service of the plot instead of as plodding exposition. Hawkeye spends most of the movie as a bad guy which is helpful because Loki has no underling and there are enough good guys to keep track of but it doesn't help his character. Natasha Romanoff / Natalie Rushman / Black Widow is most fun in her opening scene doing her spy thing but is not particularly well-utilized later on although her posterior is clearly the principal element of several shots.

Overall The Avengers is splendid entertainment. It is a rare example of an action movie where as much care was put into the writing as the visual elements. That it is so simple is a result of needing to keep clear so many other elements which could easily tear the film in many directions and thus apart. It would benefit from a little trimming of both dialogue and action while firming up the ideas, but still it's hard to complain about too much of a good thing. Cheers, Mr. Whedon.

Joss Whedon

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