Rating: 4 stars out of 5.
(NOTE: This review does contain minor spoilers, so read on only if you’re comfortable with that.)
I am prepared for the firestorm of controversy that this opinion piece will cause. For people who disagree: Bring it on. I love to be taken to town on issues like this, as it allows me to expand my worldview beyond the way I currently perceive it—I post this review with an open mind.
Let’s start with the good. I am a Joss Whedon devotee, and the film is definitely a showcase for the strengths of the Joss. The characters are well drawn through dialogue that’s very clever—much smarter and wittier than any other superhero film released—and they all feel very much like real people. The plot is well structured and plant-and-payoff is well utilized. The visuals and action are gorgeous and well thought-out. Everything was fun and there wasn’t really a dull moment. It was, all in all, an excellent escapist, camp film experience.
The ‘escapist, camp’ part is where I take issue with the film. Joss Whedon has made excellent, brilliant camp and escapism—see his TV shows, “Buffy” and “Firefly”. However, when he wrote those beautiful works, he included subtext, usually feminist in nature, which gave unprecedented depth to the story. That was what was revolutionary about “Buffy”. If it didn’t have that, it wouldn’t nearly be as special or as good without it. Imagine “Firefly” without the brilliant existentialist musings of “Objects In Space” as its conclusion. “The Avengers” lacks any of that. In an era of some of the highest-quality, deepest, smartest superhero films of all-time—“The Dark Knight” and “X-Men: First Class” to name two—“Avengers” shuns any possibility of subtext (feel free to point out if it does contain some subtext, ’cause I very well might like the film a lot more). The common argument to that statement is that it’s intended as pure escapist camp entertainment. But just because something is escapist and camp doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t have depth and subtext—Whedon mastered that, and Marvel themselves proved that it could exist in a superhero film with the 2002 “Spider-Man” film.
Some of you might argue that Whedon’s “Cabin in the Woods” also had little to no subtext or depth. This is true. At the same time, it is not a film co-writer/producer Whedon and co-writer/director Drew Goddard intended to be seen and adored by the average masses (in fact, it received a CinemaScore of C+ from American moviegoers), and worked very well as just a fun movie, because that’s all that’s expected of it. As a horror film, it in fact raised the bar for how that type of film, normally built on plots, characters and settings tailored to mildly sentient doorknobs, could be constructed. This is a film, like “Dark Knight” and “The Hunger Games” before it, with a rare and exciting opportunity to influence and possible even change a large amount of people’s worldviews and actions towards others in a positive way, and, in a way, is expected to do so, with all the hype surrounding it, the recent trend of thinking-man superhero films, the glowing reviews and of course the predispositions to smart, subtextual entertainment of Whedon himself. If you don’t think movies can influence perspective, that’s fine and I respect that, but that’s the way I see it.
I think my mild disappointment exists because I came into the film knowing that the consistently brilliant feminist Whedon was its mastermind (and thusly, I came into the film with an absurd amount of hype).
Now I’ll go into my very specific issues with the film. All are relatively minor, but I’ll go into them anyway.
The iconic image, the standout image for me—beyond the post-credits scene with the most awkward moment of all time… that was brilliant—was that of Loki getting smashed all over the place by a raging, brutish Hulk (not Bruce Banner or Tony Stark or Natasha Romanoff or Hawkeye or even Captain America). It was a great punchline to a good, if somewhat worn joke that received a hearty laugh from the packed audience, including myself. However, I believe it was the worst image to place in the head of a young kid with a bully mentality—there’s gotta be a few of those among the record-breaking number of attendees—and here’s why: looking at the film from the perspective of a kid between 6 and 13, they see Loki intelligently pontificating (like an asshole, but at least an intelligent one) and Hulk yells “PUNY GOD” and starts smashing him everywhere, to the delight of everyone in attendance. The message I think kids receive from this—and feel free to argue with me, as this is a completely arguable point—is not that Loki is an asshole and Hulk beats him up for being an asshole, but that Loki is a smart asshole and Hulk beats him up for the ‘smart’ part, more than the ‘asshole’ part. Many smart kids are perceived as being too intellectual, too in-your-face, as it were, with the way they might voice their intelligence at that age and some are bullied and ostracized for it, not necessarily in a physical manner, but nonetheless bullied for it, at least a little like Loki. That image condones, exacerbates and encourages it in a person with villainous tendencies—hearing the audience laugh at it, seeing that image as iconic, rather than the excellent banter between Stark and Loki before all alien hell breaks loose or the Avengers’ final takedown of Loki—and that’s not a good thing at all. It’s a funny joke, but it could be reworked to remove that negative subtextual angle. If Loki didn’t speak intelligently beforehand and simply acted like a blundering fool in the presence of the mighty Hulk, or said something like: “You don’t scare me”, then I could easily vouch for the humor and the fun of the joke.
The Hulk, though a fun and interesting character, still underwhelms on screen. The coolest moments of his character don’t come when he’s a raging green dumb Hulk, they come when he’s the intelligent and almost nerdy Bruce Banner, and no filmmaker has truly realized that yet. His ‘hero rules’ are also the weakest. I get that your movie is PG-13, but you can work around nudity. I’m getting really tired of the jokes about how he landed butt naked when he has clothes on, somehow, as the Hulk. They’re funny. But it’s inconsistent. Also, this is incredibly minor, but at the end of the last “Hulk” film, with Edward Norton, Dr. Banner was shown as able to control his powers…that obviously vanished in the time before the events of this film. How? And also, how does he learn to control his powers with such skill between his air-battleship rampage and the final sequence? Did he re-learn? But I digress. His character did provide some great moments.
I’ll end again with the good. Whedon knows his characters so well and makes the comedy brilliant and perfect to the situation. He even kills off a character he made you care about (a Joss signature). The action sequences are creative and, again, stunning in their complexity. The 3D conversion wasn’t painful at all. The dialogue was, well, Whedon-esque (I know I’ve mentioned that before but I thought I should again).
All in all, it’s an amazing movie that’s a lot of fun. If this came out before “Batman Begins” in 2005, or arguably even before “X-Men: First Class” (which proved that a superhero film with a large ensemble and a relatively light sensibility can still maintain a certain level of depth and subtext) last year, I would be praising this film left, right, up, down and sideways.
But it didn’t, and now I have higher standards for tentpoles. This is a film from the Spielberg/Lucas, “Indiana Jones” era of filmmaking, and that is a vestige of a time since passed. Doesn’t mean the movie isn’t really good, but as Robert Zemeckis himself noted to me when discussing the current state of films with him, it’s time for a change.
Just because it’s a mainstream film doesn’t mean it has to have no depth. In fact, because it’s a mainstream film, I think it requires it, for the benefit of society as a whole. We in America underestimate our audience, and we shouldn’t. The intelligence quotient in America is at an all-time high, and for the most part movies have risen to the occasion with that rise in intelligence, bringing us somewhat subtextual, somewhat deep, wildly entertaining tales such as “The Hunger Games”, “X-Men: First Class”, “The Dark Knight”, “Watchmen” (to some extent), “Spider-Man”, “Spider-Man 2”, “Star Wars” and “Batman Begins”, etc. Those films are what tentpoles should aspire to be like, not “Transformers 2” or “Green Lantern” or “Fantastic Four” or even “Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol”.
“We can do better and we must do better.”
I’m sure you’ll level the criticism at me of: “It was a fun movie! Can’t it just be fun and leave it at that?” If it had any really excellent emotional resonance, like “Inception”, “Kick-Ass” or similar excellent, just fun movies, then it’s a great fun movie—it’s cliché, sure, but aren’t movies supposed to make you laugh and cry and shit your pants? That’s great fun. “Inception” and “Kick-Ass” are great fun. “The Avengers” only made me do two of those things, which can count as two more than most movies, and I had good fun, but I miss the ‘god DAMN’ feeling I got from “Inception” and “Kick-Ass”, which I suppose the most subjective thing I’ve written in this review. And I’d be very surprised if you thought that “The Dark Knight” wasn’t great fun—because, let’s be honest, it totally was.
If anything, I hope that this movie allows Whedon to do a pet project of his that might bring the subtext, emotion, humanity and depth of his earlier works to the mainstream.
All that said… I really enjoyed the movie, for all the reasons I briefly touched upon in this essay’s open and close. I just know it could’ve been more.
In March 2012, Joss Whedon stated that he would want a sequel to be “…smaller. More personal. More painful. By being the next thing that should happen to these characters, and not just a rehash of what seemed to work the first time. By having a theme that is completely fresh and organic to itself.”
…now THAT I can look forward to.