Wednesday, 30 May 2012

BLOCKBUSTER: The Avengers (2012)

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The Avengers (USA, 2012)
Directed by Josh Whedon
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson

IMDb Top 250: #37 (30/5/12)

It's hard to think of another film in recent memory which has been subject to anything like the hype that The Avengers has enjoyed. While The Dark Knight enjoyed a huge amount of coverage in the wake of Heath Ledger's death, hype about The Avengers has increased with every Marvel adaptation, to the extent where whole sections of the more recent films felt like extended trailers for a film that didn't exist.

 
So, after what could be called the longest marketing campaign in history, we finally have The Avengers, which sees Marvel's multitude of superheroes coming together under the guidance of Josh Whedon. The easy thing to do would be to brand the film as a disappointment that couldn't possibly live up to its hype. But the end result, while by no means perfect, is still full of pleasant surprises, with enough in the way of blockbuster fun to satisfy the fans and make the snooty naysayers reconsider.
 
In short, The Avengers is the best we could possibly have expected from what the studio tent-pole to end all studio tent-poles. Without previous Marvel efforts hitting their targets on opening weekend, it is unlikely that we would ever have got this far. Just as you would try and get Superman or Batman right before attempting the Justice League, so The Avengers only exists because of the success of Iron Man, Thor and Captain America. That doesn't mean that the film is just a cynical marketing exercise like Transformers, but it is worth understanding how we got here before we start showering it with praise.
 
The big question that always crops up with projects like this is whether we need to have seen the previous instalments to understand or enjoy everything that happens. You could argue that this has been made mainly for the fans, but it still has to stand as a film in its own right to work for the casual viewer who may be coming to Marvel for the first time. And here there is good news, because The Avengers doesn't rely extensively on prior knowledge. There is a calculated attempt to reintroduce the Hulk, enabling the filmmakers to gloss over the shortcomings of both previous adaptations, but just enough backstory elsewhere to allow newcomers to keep up.
 
The film has its fair share of ridiculous moments which test its internal logic. In Black Widow's opening scene, we see Scarlett Johansson go from a tied-up damsel in distress to butt-kicking champion in 30 seconds. Clearly she had all those abilities to begin with, so why not start with her beating up the henchmen? Then there are on-going problems with the Hulk. Not only have they not solved the problem about his clothes, but the transformation is inconsistent; the first time Mark Ruffalo changes, it takes ages and looks very painful, but the next time it's as simple as flicking a switch.
 
To some extent this ridiculousness is innate within the Marvel comics, and therefore it is pointless to attack them. The level of threat the characters are exposed to is not emphasised as greatly or as seriously as it is with their DC cousins. We always feel that our heroes will get out of a tight spot with relatively little pain or mental damage, so that when Hulk falls out of the plane, our first thought is "he'll be back". Perhaps The Avengers doesn't embrace its silliness as well as Kenneth Branagh did with Thor, but in the grand scheme of things that's a relatively minor criticism.
 
The big risk with a film this big and this expensive was that there would be no directorial voice, guiding us between set-pieces and giving us some heart in the midst of all the pyrotechnics. But Josh Whedon rises to the challenge and mostly succeeds, providing us with a series of witty scenes which give this blockbuster genuine character. All of Robert Downey Jr.'s banter is fantastic, demonstrating how well he understands the character as well as he good he is at wisecracking. His quick-fire one-liners and banter with Mark Ruffalo is not just as good as Iron Man, it's on a par with some of Eddie Murphy's work in Beverley Hills Cop.
 
Chris Hemsworth also gets a number of peachy lines for his attractively booming voice, and his line about Loki being adopted being one of the best in the film. But the physical humour in The Avengers is also up to scratch, with the biggest belly laugh coming when Hulk throws Loki around and leaves him whimpering in a dent on the floor. At a time when the majority of mainstream blockbusters are so witlessly mechanical, it is so refreshing to find a mainstream film with a genuine sense of humour, with jokes that don't feel like they were written by a committee.
 
Not only does The Avengers have wit, it also has quite a bit of brains. If you go in expecting Nolan-esque levels of substance, you will be disappointed - there is no Nietzschean philosophy here, nor probing questions about the rule of law and the ethics of vigilantes (at least until the end). But the film does occasionally forsake the pyrotechnics for the emotional fireworks, looking at the people who are trapped within their superhero identities and unsure of how to deal with it.
 
The best scene by far in The Avengers is the conversation on the plane where the Avengers are all arguing about how best to recover the tesseract and prevent Loki's forces from invading the Earth. One by one the insecurities of each character are invoked or exposed, and for a few crucial seconds the masks slip and we feel for the real people underneath. The scene plays to Ruffalo and Downey Jr.'s strengths, with both having good track records for playing characters who are trying to cover insecurities. Even if the rest of the film was terrible, Whedon deserves great credit for including this scene and for allowing for it to play out so naturally.
 
The balance between substance and spectacle has been a bone of contention among film fans for decades, and particularly among comic book movie fans. Those who go for the special effects and destruction are frequently labelled as meat-headed philistines, while those who only want the subtext and 'talking' are dismissed as being snobbish and "not real fans". In the end you need a balance of the two, something that Nolan understands only too well.
 
Whedon also understands this, and he delivers on both as best he can, considering that the fans' expectations are incredibly high. The set-pieces in The Avengers are big and eye-popping, containing very impressive CGI effects but without necessarily justifying their need to go on for so long. The film doesn't fall into the Transformers trap of 'more is more, and loud is best', but the final battle does become repetitive.
 
The vast majority of the performers are very strong. Mark Ruffalo slots into the Hulk role so well that we struggle to think why Ang Lee or Louis Leterrier didn't consider him for their attempts. Whedon has always had a knack for creating strong female characters, and Scarlett Johansson is given a lot more proper screen time than she got in Iron Man 2. The one weak link is Tom Hiddleston, whose Loki is every bit as wet for the most part as his character in The Deep Blue Sea. Surrounded by actors who have found their niche and perfected their characters, he looks like he's trying too hard to hold his own, and simply isn't angry or malevolent enough to be convincing.
The Avengers is as good as we could possibly have hoped for, given the nature of the project and the amount of commercial success resting on its shoulders. There can be denying its silliness or bagginess, and it's not going to challenge the mantle of Christopher Nolan's Batman any time soon, whatever the fans may say. But when it is taken for what it is - a silly, lumbering blockbuster which is also witty and spectacular - it will do very nicely. 

Rating: 3.5/5
Verdict: As good as we could have hoped for

2 comments:

Ever since the X-Men movies came out I have been a huge fan of Marvel films. I wasn't too knowledgeable about the Avengers, but since I got the Blockbuster @ Home movie package I was able to get up to speed with movies like Thor, Captain America and the (good) Hulk. Having watched these beforehand I was glad I didn't look like an idiot watching Avengers with my kids. My boss at Dish told me about the package, and I'm pumped I have over 100,000 movies, games and TV shows to choose from. It costs less than Netflix, and you can actually get it free for 3 months. It's a great way to save money and get all kinds of films!

Thanks for commenting erock - despite your blatant advertising

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