Review: The Avengers

What happens when you put together a narcissistic billionaire, a war hero out of time, a scientist whose temper threatens all those around him, a fish out of water god whose pride is his downfall, and two assassins who have no experience fighting an invading alien force? If it sounds like the world’s most gifted yet dysfunctional family, then that is absolutely correct. In a time where many action and superhero films revel in their set pieces and skimp out on character development, The Avengers takes these larger than life characters, tears them down from the inside out, and unites them against a cause greater than any of their individual selves. Although it may not be perfect, The Avengers unquestionably sets a new standard for Marvel Studios.

To be blunt, the plot of The Avengers is straightforward and fairly predictable. This is not necessarily a fault of director and screenwriter Joss Whedon, for it makes complete sense that Marvel intends on continuing the stories of its heroes, and therefore, this film simply serves as the catalyst for their future team ups. However, simply because there are no broad revelations in store does not mean that there aren’t a few tricks up Whedon’s sleeve. The devil, after all, is in the details. In between all of the major beats of the plot are the character moments, and this is where the film thrives. One could make an argument that the individual Avengers where developed in their standalone films, but those arcs existed for those titles exclusively and not for the purpose of this film. Therefore, despite using five films as exposition for its characters, The Avengers remains largely a character piece. Some may find it frustrating that their ultimate team up does not occur until after the film’s second act, but the ultimate point of the film is not about saving the Earth from annihilation (that is simply the film’s catalyst). Rather, it is about a group of people who, due to their physical and psychological flaws, are unable to assimilate with neither with each other nor with the rest of society. It is when they learn to put aside their egos and differences to band together that they can truly realize the best in themselves. In this sense, its on the same playing field as Brad Bird’s The Incredibles and (to a lesser extent) Alan Moore’s Watchmen, for it serves a deconstruction of the genre.

Despite its lofty ambitions and well developed themes, the execution in The Avengers is not always perfect. For many of the scenes which feature fun interplay between our heroes, there a couple here and there that feel stilted and halt the film in its tracks. Having the five previous films as exposition helps, but in the case of Black Widow and Hawkeye, for instance, there is little to connect with due to the audience’s general unfamiliarity with them. Though the dialogue is quite strong and witty (this film is often laugh out loud funny) there are occasional pieces straight from the textbook of cliche action cinema. Nevertheless, the actors’ commitment to the roles is abundantly present on all accounts. One of the best accomplishments of this film is how nicely it balances all of the characters and every actor has a moment in the center stage light. If there is one character who attempts to dominate that stage it is Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, and for obvious reason. Downey Jr. is as playful and fun here as he was in the first Iron Man, and has a terrific number of one liners which energize the film’s light tone.  However, his other cohorts also exhibit strong moments of their own. Chris Evans finally reveals some of Steve Rogers’ insecurities that were sorely missing in Captain America: The First Avenger, especially when butting heads with Stark. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor has the most personal conflict, and he has some very nice moments, both comedic and dramatic, especially when dealing with his demonic brother, Loki, played with admirable gusto and devilish charm by Tom Hiddleston. The newcomer here is Mark Ruffalo, Marvel’s third casting decision on Bruce Banner, and he plays the scientist with his typical shy intellectualism. It may feel off putting for some, but Ruffalo actually plays his Avenger with the most nuance and texture, for less is more when it comes to the Hulk. Once he is unleashed, a few motivational points are questionable, but his raging id allows for him to be among the most enjoyable characters on screen.

When it comes time for The Avengers to deliver on its action beats, it rarely disappoints. Joss Whedon’s visual sensibilities keep everything comprehensible, considering the chaos that occurs throughout much of the film. For instance, one particular long take (though achieved through CGI) travels through the urban chasms of New York providing the audience with the spatial relationship of all of our heroes. Each shot is composed coherently, and rarely is there frenetic editing simply for the purpose of creating tension. It may initially appear that the film’s 1.78:1 aspect ratio feels more televisual than cinematic, but it actually translates to action wonderfully. What is most refreshing is that each action sequence is integral to the film’s story and plot, and never feels tacked on. A couple beats from the battles might not be completely convincing, but each fight and battle has its own structure and purpose, a nice antidote to so many films which capitalize on action for action’s sake.

When it comes down to it, The Avengers as a film is remarkably similar to the characters it chronicles. It is not without its flaws, but it overcomes them by virtue of its best components: strong character development through structure and performances; a sense of self deprecation through wit and humor; thrilling, intelligible action scenes; and most of all its self-deconstruction in order to reassemble and become a far superior entity.

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~ by romancinema on May 4, 2012.

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