Review: The Avengers (2012)

Even as it smashed box office records this weekend, Hulk style, I’m still not sure I buy into the hype that Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (2012) is the greatest superhero film ever made. Though it is as good a film about Marvel’s premiere super team as I could have wished for as a young man growing up on a steady diet of comic books and one of the most enjoyable kick-offs of the summer movie season since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) one decade ago.

As a child I reveled in my father’s old chest of Silver Age comic books, the smell of old newsprint and simple stories of superheroes. Among them were early issues of The Avengers (Vol. 1, Issue 9 with art from Jack Kirby was a favourite),Tales to Astonish and Tales of Suspense featuring Iron Man, Captain America, The Hulk, and others. As a college kid I enjoyed Mark Millar’s reimagining of The Avengers in The Ultimates; comic book geeks reveled in the “realistic” grittiness of Millar’s flawed heroes, and the “wide screen” art of Bryan Hitch which attempted to inject a “cinematic” sensibility onto the printed page.

Joss Whedon’s film - which is the culmination of several years of Marvel character films such as Iron Man (2008), and last year’s Thor (2011) and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) – owes more than a little to Millar’s reimagining, down to the inclusion of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, upon whom Hitch based his illustrations in The Ultimates. It make sense; Hitch’s art could have served as storyboards for a film version of the characters. Though, ultimately, Whedon’s Avengers avoids the misanthropic streak that characterizes much of Millar’s work.

Where The Avengers truly succeeds in being such a “comic booky” film is in establishing the idea that all of these characters inhabit a shared world and that they could, if the threat were big enough, team up to save that world is part of what lends the Marvel films their comic book bona fides.

The Avengers more than makes good on the promise of those other Marvel film. Whedon’s giftedness in crafting stories around diverse groups of individuals (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly) means that each character gets their due. No one is really short-shrifted in this film. Even supporting heroes like Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who stand as the supporting heroes to the big four – Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and The Hulk – get their moments. It could have been very easy for the charismatic Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man to dominate this party, and tempting given his box office performances. Black Widow in particular is given far more to do than her rote introduction in Iron Man 2 would have suggested, though given Whedon’s propensity for strong female characters it’s not surprising.

Whedon even manages to give Clark Gregg’s supporting character, Agent Phil Coulsen some wonderful scenes. His interactions with his hero, Captain America, show that he has a warm screen presence but also emphasizes how the desire to make us care about his presence in past Marvel films felt forced and manufactured until this film is going full tilt. Though anyone who knows anything about Whedon’s storytelling M.O. knows why it was so important to make us like Coulsen.

The best elements of the film are when the team finally gels and takes on the threat of the Chitauri invasion that Loki (the reliable and charming Tom Hiddleston) unleashes on New York City. Each character shines and the extended battle is choreographed so that no one seems redundant, even lesser powered heroes like Captain America or Hawkeye.

The character who most stands out is Bruce Banner’s raging alter ego, The Hulk, this time round portrayed by Mark Ruffalo. Ruffalo has made a career by playing likable and easygoing characters, and so his Bruce Banner is all the more contrasted with the monstrously enraged Hulk. He gets some of the best scenes in the film, as the use of motion capture technology injects the actor’s personality into the green colossus.

The special effects in this film are really top notch. That is one of the film’s crowning achievements, but also the place where I begin to feel a bit exhausted and worn out with it at the same time. Without the special effects that exist today, it wouldn’t have been possible to pull off this manifestation of my childhood stories, and yet, the desire to create such spectacles lends the film at times a cookie-cutter feel. How different are the Chitauri from the mechanical monstrosities in Michael Bay’s Transformer films, or even the upcoming Battleship?

I find the art design on creating these aliens comes from the same overly cluttered design found in so many recent blockbusters. One thing I appreciated about Branagh’s Thor was the willingness to embrace how goofy the characters look, but instill them with a Shakespearean gravitas.

As much as Whedon’s trademark wit and geek sensibility is present, it is diluted with the desire to please the generic Michael Bay-loving crowd. Militarization makes The Avengers more plausible, but also ends up playing into the war fetish that seems to plague so many of these films. Still, I have to admit that S.H.I.E.L.D.’s flying, invisible aircraft carrier is pretty cool (ripped straight from the pages of Millar/Hitch’s Ultimates).

In the end the biggest defenders of this film have insisted that this film is the “most comic booky” film, as if the comic book was a style to be embraced cinematically. Comic books are a particular way of telling a story in still images, juxtaposed side by side (perhaps in some ways Chris Marker’s experimental short La Jetée (1962) is the most comic book like film?). If there is a way that Marvel has embraced the story telling techniques of their comics on the big screen most successfully, it is in the creation of a shared universe where characters from different films can show up and interact (notice a fleeting shot of Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster to remind us that those other characters still exist). And I love that.

I come away from The Avengers satisfied and impressed that the parties involved were able to pull such a thing off. But the manufactured elements of these kinds of big blockbusters are difficult to overcome (something that makes Nolan’s auteur-driven Batman films all the more impressive). The Avengers was a good time and a great way to start the summer movie season, but I’m not dying to watch it again right away.

The Avengers (2012)

Directed by Joss Whedon; screenplay by Joss Whedon; story by Joss Whedon and Zak Penn, based on the Marvel Comics characters; starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgård, and Tom Hiddleston.

7 out of 10