The following article has NO spoilers for the movie in question. You may proceed without any caution whatsoever.
As evidenced by this interview (excerpts from which I’m going to quote in the review), Joss Whedon gets it.
How do you take a green monster prone to rampage, a billionaire playboy with an overwhelming suit of armor, a serum-enhanced soldier who’s the epitome of earnestness and the Norse God of Thunder and cram them together in a team?
It makes no sense, it’s ridiculous.
How do you create a threat big enough to call for their teaming up and structure a story that doesn’t shortchange any of them while being entertaining and satisfactory on its own feet?
Ultimately these people don’t belong together and the whole movie is about finding yourself from community. And finding that you not only belong together but you need each other, very much.
And, finally, how do you deliver spectacle and thrills the kind of which are implied by a premise of such nature and a venture of such magnitude?
Obviously this will be expressed through punching but it will be the heart of the film.
He just gets it.
And thank God he does.
With The Avengers, Whedon has risen to the occasion, tackled all the challenges mentioned above (along with various others) and, by the end, come off looking like a damn fine superhero himself.
I won’t recap the plot because (a) it won’t change your mind from seeing (or not seeing) the movie and (b) I may end up spoiling something you wanted to remain blissfully unaware of till you walk into the theater. Instead, I’ll directly discuss the screenplay. Zak Penn (behind the awful Elektra, mediocre X-Men: The Last Stand and the passably entertaining The Incredible Hulk) wrote the first draft. But Whedon stepped in to rewrite and his fingerprints are all over this thing. A few minutes into the film and the quick, light and easygoing nature of conversations reveal that the man behind Firefly hasn’t lost his sheen. If anything, he has honed his craft over the years, almost as if building it up for this very moment. Few people write witty and funny banter like Joss Whedon writes funny and witty banter, and The Avengers significantly benefits from how flat-out funny it is. There are some great one-liners, some biting comebacks, some sublime throwaway gags and just a lot of things to laugh at. If you are wary of preferential treatment being given to, err, some fan favorites, you can stop fretting: Just about every member of the ensemble makes the crowd guffaw in equal measure.
And the crowd won’t just guffaw. As pleasurable as watching a horror flick on your laptop screen with headphones may seem, there’s nothing that can match up to the joy that comes from watching a good ol’ fashioned adventure with hundreds of other people out to have a good time. Movie-watching is a communal experience and a film like The Avengers‘ main strength is just how successfully it works a crowd. Over the course of its 143min runtime, the film made the audience at my screening shout, hoot, laugh, gasp and clap. If nothing else, just that third act is one of the single most crowd-pleasing things I’ve seen in a long, long time.
Oh, the third act. If you’ve seen the trailers for the film, you must have noticed how most of the action seemed to come from just one sequence set in New York. And if you are presumptuous, like me, you may have taken that to infer that the movie would be, sadly, limited in scope and scale. Well, I’ve been proved wrong on multiple occasions and rarely have I felt so happy to be done so. The bulk of The Avengers‘ problems arise from the first two acts but the third makes up for all that and more. Once The Earth’s Mightiest Heroes actually assemble, what follows is a gigantic battle lasting at least 40min that’s spectacular, thrilling and immensely satisfying. You’ve waited years to see these heroes team up to fight a common foe, and when they finally do it does NOT disappoint. There are bits in the climax that are sure-shot all-timers, as Joss Whedon creates images that will become iconic as soon as the movie goes public. This is how you create universally pleasing action and emotional beats.
It’s not just the images which will become iconic, the heroes will become a legitimate phenomenon too (if there was any doubt of them being one already). The film successfully straddles the insanely difficult and delicate line of doing every character justice, and the actors bring their A-game too. There’s no tipping the scales, no pandering to egos and certainly no glorified one-man show. Robert Downey Jr. is so good at playing the smug, charming and genius douchebag he could sleepwalk through the role. Thankfully, he doesn’t. Oh, and his back-and-forth with Gwyneth Paltrow is one of the comedic highlights in a film full of comedic highlights. With Captain America being given probably the most emotional heavy-lifting, Chris Evans needed to be great here and, as a straight-faced hero, he is. Chris Hemsworth continues to pile on the charisma he displayed so much of in Thor. It’s very hard to pick one but he gets (and kills) what is probably my favorite joke in the movie. Edward Norton made a great Bruce Banner and Mark Ruffalo had some pretty big boots to fill, metaphorically and literally. And boy, is he good. His benign and playful demeanor as the scientist allows him to steal some great jokes. His repartee with Downey’s Stark is of particular delight. However, what he will go down in the history books for is his portrayal of Hulk. The Avengers, after two failed attempts, finally gives us the giant green monster we deserved (and the one it needed). I regret seeing the trailer for this film if only because it reveals what would have been one of THE great theater moments (hint: it involves Hulk).
One of the biggest question marks for me before walking into this movie was how were they going to justify the necessity of having a woman who kicks good and a guy who shoots arrows accurately in a team which already consisted of such heavyweights. And, thankfully, it justifies very well. Hawkeye, in particular, comes off as a hero in his own right. His arrows aren’t just arrows, and he gets some especially badass bits in the climax. Scarlett Johannson also does well with whatever’s given to her, and by the end it seems hard to imagine SHIELD (if not the Avengers) without these two in it. Samuel L. Jackson is Samuel L. Jackson. ‘Nuff said. However, the standout for me (and not just imperceptibly) was Tom Hiddleston as Loki. Hiddleston is just so, so cool as Loki that he immediately enters the pantheon of best superhero villains ever. My only complaint about his performance is that there isn’t enough of it in the movie.
Now that I’ve spent more than a thousand words fawning over the movie, it’s time to rein in and offer up the few gripes I had with it. The third act is great, yes, but the first two acts are slightly sluggish. Not that both of them needed to have a mind-boggling battle in a major metropolis, but it’s just that they have to do a lot of heavy-lifting in terms of setting up the plot, getting the characters together, explaining everyone’s motivations and reservations and more. Funny chatter and a fast pace can only get one so far as there’s a palpable sense of “setting up the pieces” to the first act and “biding time till the big showdown” to the second. There’s a huge action setpiece towards the end of the second act that’s, quite frankly, boring. It splits action across at least three-four locations simultaneously and, unlike the climax which handles this beautifully, this sequence doesn’t excite in many ways. Joss Whedon’s generic staging of close-quarters action hurts too, as (for example) a brawl between two characters is kind of tedious. The film also suffers by not having a memorable score. Alan Silvestri disappoints as he isn’t able to provide a musical cue to act as a through-line, a memorable theme to take home. Oh, and Stan Lee’s inevitable cameo is cringe-inducing: a joke so on-the-nose it’s no longer a joke.
But that’s about it. These things don’t harm the movie much and the sheer crescendo it ends on obliterates most memories of these qualms. The Avengers takes all the promises Marvel had made over the years, all the expectations it had set up with five superhero films leading to this collaboration and it delivers.
It’s the best film to come out of Marvel Studios till date. This the superhero ensemble you’ve been waiting for.
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Photo Credit: Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Pictures