Excuse me while I geek out for a moment.
Okay, I’m cool now. Until this past year, I’ve never really been a comics or superhero type person (and I still don’t read much Marvel, though DC has their hooks into me something fierce), but Marvel’s movie series has been getting my business ever since I heard Joss Whedon would be directing The Avengers. But as the lead-ups have gone on, I’ve found myself more and more invested, even though I can definitely see flaws in Thor, Iron Man 2 (okay, I kind of hated Iron Man 2, but more on that in my April recap, hopefully coming shortly), etc. Would Whedon bring what I love about his work to such a big and bombastic franchise that’s been so long in the making, or would it end up being just another big summer blockbuster wanna-be?
The short story is I loved this film, almost from start to finish. It’s witty, funny, well-paced, well-shot, with plenty of thrills and applause-worthy action moments at all the right times. If you somehow haven’t seen it yet and it made $200 million last weekend without your $$$, then just stop there and go see it. The rest of this post will be spoilery as heck.
Things I Liked
The Character Interactions and Dialogue
These are all established characters, most of them with whole movies of their own, not to mention decades of comics. They’re all reasonably well-defined, and more importantly, they’re all alpha-type people, able to carrying their own stories and used to being in charge of their own activities. Tony Stark is “volatile, self-obsessed, and doesn’t play well with others,” Thor is an arrogant alien-god, Captain America is a true-blue patriot, and Hulk is, well…Hulk. As Bruce Banner suggests, throwing all these people into the same room is like setting a time bomb. It’s a perfect set-up for a dysfunctional family plotline, which is what we get, but there are so many ways this could go wrong. It could devolve into mean-spiritedness, or rely on utter cliche, or skim the surface of superficiality. But every interaction here feels totally organic, even though a lot of them are inevitable and set up by many films and comics well before The Avengers ever got the green light. Of course these characters are going to behave this way and interact this way, but instead of making it feel like we’re going through rote motions and checking script boxes, Whedon makes everything flow together perfectly, and gives us some truly great moments of not only conflict, but also connection (Banner and Stark bonding over science geekery). Everyone gets their moment to shine, everyone gets their chances to interact with each other, and the balance between these six main characters is well-nigh perfect. In terms of dialogue, everyone is pitch perfect (credit goes to the actors, too, for embodying their roles so well), and every one of Whedon’s jokes hit. He’s one of the best writers of dialogue working today, and he proves it here, and the actors and editors carry out his impeccable sense of timing wonderfully as well.
The Hulk / Bruce Banner
Hulk has had two movies devoted to him, but without the kind of continuity that the other characters have had. Edward Norton’s The Incredible Hulk is considered canon for leading up to The Avengers, but Mark Ruffalo is new to the role here. And he hits a home run with it. He’s got just the right amount of quiet, resigned nervousness as Banner – knowing he’s got a modicum of control over the monster, but also knowing he could lose it at any moment. He’s the only superhero out of the bunch that could just as easily kill his allies as enemies, who frankly doesn’t WANT to turn into his superhero form ever if he can help it. He’s a fascinating character, and Ruffalo gets all of those nuances across in not that much screen time. The other characters play off this well, too, as there’s always an undercurrent of actual fear that “the other guy” could come out and they have very little chance of controlling him if he does. But when Banner does bring out Hulk intentionally for the climactic battle, he gets all the best moments, and he’s truly awesome on screen, as he hasn’t been in the earlier movies. Stopping the giant snake thing that Iron Man’s been taking ineffective potshots at for ten minutes, no problem. Slamming “I’m a God” Loki around like a rag doll. Punching Thor for no reason, and yet, why not? The audience was left wanting more Hulk, and that’s quite something after relatively coolly-received films. Didn’t hurt that the mo-cap was really quite good, too.
The Ineffective Villain
I know, I know, supervillains are supposed to be the bread and butter of superhero comic book stories – most of them, in fact, are defined by their villain, and I’m sure future installments of these movies will be. But I actually found it kind of refreshing this time that Loki is frankly not that effective as a villain. He seems to be at first, and he’s got that glowstick of destiny that can turn people to his side, but really, he’s just a pawn in whatever game his alien overlords are playing. And he’s not even that effective at doing that. Which works for this film because this film is about setting up the Avengers as a team, and they do quite a good enough job tearing themselves apart without too much help from Loki. He’s got some amount of divisiveness in mind, but I really think he didn’t do much to incite them against each other that they wouldn’t have done on their own. They give him credit for coming on board and setting them against each other, but I almost think they give him too much credit, blaming him for things they’re doing to themselves. It was kind of an amusing undercurrent that every advance he made was almost accidental because the Avengers hadn’t managed to get it together yet, not because of anything really intentional or long-term he was planning.
The Long Action Take
I’m such a sucker for long takes. I know on some level this one wasn’t really real, since the final battle scene is a CGI fest, but watching the camera fly through the entire Manhattan battlefield, the focus of the shot being handed off from character to character as we move along until we’ve seen every hero and every individual fight in the air, on the ground, and on top of the buildings was pretty freaking awesome. I had heard about this shot, but I’d forgotten to be looking for it until it was probably halfway over and I realized what was happening. Loved it. It gave a really succinct and well-laid out look at the geography of the battle, gave every character their due in the fight, and was kind of the capstone shot to an entire film filled with well-done fight scenes. No shakicam or lightening-quick editing here, which went a long way toward making this film as awesome as it is.
Leave it to Joss to take a character who’d been in all the other films, increase our emotional attachment to him, and then kill him off. That’s what Joss does, and even though he was forced by the limits of the project to use a more peripheral character than he would in his own shows, he manages to give Coulson a quite moving and meaningful death, even giving him his own hero moment. It’s effective because not only have we gotten to know Coulson a bit through the other films, but Joss really lets him have some memorable bits early in the film, including when he first arrives to recruit Tony and he and Pepper Potts get a little bit of banter to make Tony jealous. It’s a slight scene, but I enjoyed it, and that sort of attention to character detail paid off in the end. There’s some amount of Firefly scattered throughout this film, and I think it’s at its most potent here.
Individual Smaller Things
Every time Hulk was on screen. :) Captain America’s shield vs. Thor’s hammer. Iron Man’s suit at 400% capacity. Thor’s overblown Shakespearean speech in the same room with Tony Stark’s sarcastic quips (and Tony quipping back at him mockingly!). Banner’s resigned retelling of the time he tried to commit suicide. Natasha Romanov’s introduction fake-out, something of a cross between Buffy and Alias‘s Sydney Bristow. Steve handing over the ten dollar bet to Fury just based on the flying carrier – Steve, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The gimme shot of Hawkeye shooting the alien speeder behind his back. Seeing Cobie Smulders in something other than How I Met Your Mother. Tony one-upping the travel kit suit from Iron Man 2 with an airborne projectile version. Just enough backstory on Black Widow and Hawkeye to intrigue me, but not enough to slow the movie down. Steve getting the “flying monkey” reference and being proud of it.
Things I Didn’t Like
The S.H.I.E.L.D. Section
The lead-up into the story is overlong and dull. The whole set-up at S.H.I.E.L.D. would’ve had me worried if I hadn’t already heard so many good things about the rest of the film. It’s not quite interminable, but geez is it dull. The gathering of the Avengers might’ve been a bit on the long side, too, but I didn’t mind it so much. It was mostly the S.H.I.E.L.D. break-in and out section that got on my nerves a bit. On the plus side, the end of it did have a nice visual callback to the end of Buffy‘s final episode, which is fun for us Whedonites in the audience.
So the way this played out in The Avengers was pretty cool, actually – Thor flying in and grabbing Loki out of the plane for a brotherly heart-to-heart. But at the end of Thor, it was made pretty clear that Thor was stuck on Asgard and could never get back to Earth. It was kind of a big, emotional plot point. And then here they blow that off with a one line thing about how Odin must’ve gathered all the energy or something to send Thor back, and I was like “uh, whaaaaaa?” Yeah, I know they make these kind of shrugged-off retcons all the time in comics (does anyone ever really die in comics?), but I would’ve liked just a tad more explanation about that, and what it means. Is Thor stuck on Earth now, since Odin blew all their resources getting him back here? Is he cut off from Asgard forever now, or just until the next movie, when they’ll conveniently find a way to get him back there? It’s a nitpick, but I loved the movie so much I had to nitpick to find even two things I didn’t like. :)