Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The Avengers compelled me to write this review immediately after seeing the film, which is totally not my style

I've read the backlash against The Avengers by the Serious Movie Advocates like A.O. Scott and Andrew O'Heir, and at my most disenchanted moments, I sympathize with them. However, it's a mark of the success of The Avengers that when I came out of the theater, I had turned into a fan of the purest, most obnoxious order... I wanted to go back to their reviews and post snarky responses about how they obviously didn't give it a chance, and they just didn't get it, and no matter how even-handed they sounded, I felt offended by the sneering subtext in their meta-criticism.

And as much as I find Samuel L. Jackson's snap at A.O. Scott to be childish, I understand where it came from. Just watching the movie made me want to stand up and cheer for it... I'd imagine that working on the film, acting the part of inspirational supervisor, can turn you into an unequivocal defender of its honor and integrity. Even the "splatter" graphic beside some Rotten Tomatoes reviews was enough to piss me off when I got home from the cinema. This is a testament to the very primal effectiveness of Whedon's film.

If I listed all the great things about the Avengers, I would certainly mark myself as a partisan. But I can't go and write a detached, ruminating reflection on its strengths and weaknesses, either, because I would severely understate its appeal. It's a film that feels great, even through all the spoilers, all the predictable twists, and all the formulas. So I'll take an entirely different angle in reviewing it: I'll list all the ways it COULD have gone wrong, and didn't.  All the pitfalls it managed to avoid.

NOTE - Minor Spoilers Below

1 - sidelining any particular character, either in terms of plot-significance, or in terms of screen time

With Captain America and Tony Stark as the two sides of guiding authority, and Hawkeye and Black Widow acting as sharpened but compromised tools of team cohesion, the other Avengers are free to take on rogue personalities and profound narrative significance. In fact, arguably, Banner and Thor are both the best-rendered characters and the most interesting individual stories within this omnibus. Reegardless, all six Avengers are absolutely given their due, which is a lot to ask in such a broad ensemble film.

As other critics have pointed out, the dialog is also written with remarkable agility, giving each character a unique voice that becomes clear immediately and remains refreshingly consistent. I won't harp on it. Joss Whedon knows how to handle characters.

2 - failing to create sufficient tension and chemistry between the protagonists

A number of critics point out how important it is that the Avengers have to face one another for a while before they get around to saving the world. It does indeed entertain the old comic book impulse of asking, "Who would win? Thor, Iron Man, or the Hulk?" But saying it that way makes it sound like a gimmick, a mere necessity, checked off a comic book fanservice checklist. It's not.

These moments showcase the primal appeal of comic books and give it a platform to become universal. In particular, when Thor's hammer strikes Captain America's shield, or when Iron Man starts showing signs of distress in Thor's grip... these moments are the small climaxes and reactions that keep the adolescent male imagination engaged.

For the record, the writers of The Avengers also manage to create a surprisingly subtle ecosystem of emotional relationships between the heroes. By the end of the second act, tensions within the group have risen to dangerous levels, but this tension is always ambient, an inexact collision of big egos and cross-purposes. If the writers had reduced it to simple binaries at any time -- authority versus renegade, confrontation versus surrender, interpersonal vendettas, etc -- it would have cheapened it. Instead, the characters' relationships retain their complexity and ambiguity throughout the film.

3 - failing to create a central, compelling antagonist

Loki was not thoroughly sketched out in The Avengers. A good deal of this work was left to Thor; The Avengers treated him as a fairly generic fascist supervillain. Nonetheless, Tom Hiddleston does justice to the role, giving Loki the burning, resentful self-importance that the character needs to set the end of the world in motion. His sheer malice gives a special endearing significance to all his confrontations and evil speeches, and it makes for a whole array of great moments.

4 - failing to raise the stakes enough for us to care

Throughout the course of the extended climax, there are a whole range of things for us to be vicariously protective of. The world as a whole... New York, which is a focal point for an alien invasion force, threatened by both the invaders and by its own supposed protectors... Tony Stark's life, which he offers as a chip in an intergalactic gamble... and Tony Stark's love for Pepper Potts, which is tapped as a corollary to his potential sacrifice. There is a great deal on the table by the end of The Avengers, and the film insists on our continued investment.

5 - not giving us enough huge, city-blasting special effects

Okay, so they obviously weren't going to make this mistake.

A good deal of the credit for The Avengers goes to the film for reasons that are hard to nail down. In particular, it balanced dialog and action in an elusive way -- somehow it functioned as a "screwball comedy" tucked within a constant stream of combat set-pieces, as if a personable, charismatic virus had infected a Michael Bay film. To fans of comic books, this creates a universe in cosmic harmony, because we're used to a medium where people manage to make long expository speeches in the middle of hectic combat. Its overstated dramatic moments (big speeches, flashes of sentimentality) also resonated with that comic book artificiality, which becomes a worthy aesthetic in its own right when it's applied with conviction.

The Avengers was so committed to its audience and so respectful of its constraints that it might feel disappointingly pedestrian if it's not taken in a certain spirit. However, pedestrian it is not. For a 2.5-hour film, it moves incredibly fast. For a massive high-flying actioner, it's amazingly human. And for an obvious ensemble franchise entry, it's strikingly intimate. Whedon was given a pile of bricks and mortar, and out of it, he fashioned a sculpture that respects the materials, and at the same time transcends them, and all our expectations.

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