Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Avengers

Let us consider the task awaiting writer/director Joss Whedon when he accepted the challenge of The Avengers, the first grand payoff of Marvel's series of linked films purporting to provide the definitive take on several long-running characters. Whedon was working with actors and characterizations largely shaped during the making of the previous films; if you expected Robert Downey, Jr.'s Tony Stark to be anything other than a prickly, reluctant hero then you wasted your money. Chris Evans is as square-jawed and wistful for the past the first Captain America film set him up to be, and Chris Hemsworth just as befuddled by his presence on Earth as he was in Thor. Newcomer Mark Ruffalo is a world-weary Bruce Banner, conveying the effort involved in constructing a life that doesn't release The Hulk. Whedon's wisest move is to give his built-in audience exactly what they expect in a new coat of paint; The Avengers never loses sight of what's best about these characters, and the personalities of the actors are strong enough to carry the film over a few soft spots.

In a pre-credits sequence we encounter both the threat the Avengers must battle and the film's biggest problem. Thor's brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, whose understatement is welcome) knows where the Tesseract* (*energy source and space portal opener featured in earlier Marvel films) is and is willing to hand it to some aliens in exchange for control of Earth. (There's no going back to Asgard it seems.) The aliens are never developed or individualized, and their goal doesn't seem to be anything other than power. While the extended closing fight would have meant more if the aliens had been better developed, if Whedon had slapped some alien makeup on Derek Jacobi and written him a monologue about humanity's flaws, The Avengers is of course an origin story.Whedon is savvy enough to know that seeing how, for example, Captain America and Thor work together on screen is the kind of fantasy that knits our mass movie-going culture together, and he honors our need to see that moment play out. (Captain America handles the battlefield like a soldier, while Thor's concerns are more personal and run as deep as a Shakespearean revenge plot.) That closing fight sequence I mentioned is wittily done, by the way, acknowledging the spatial improbabilities that the heroes can overcome while never losing sight of where all the pieces are on the battlefield. Not everything works. I was unmoved by the heroes' anguish at the revelation that S.H.I.E.L.D., the agency that employs them that’s run by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), was planning to use the Tesseract to make weapons of mass destruction. A great deal of time is spent on the S.H.I.E.L.D. vessel, where it’s not always clear what’s going on, and the attempt to develop the characters of the S.H.I.E.L.D. support staff (Clark Gregg and Cobie Smulders) doesn’t really take root.

Whedon’s biggest contribution to The Avengers besides his sense of humor is the foregrounding of Black Widow, aka Natasha Romanoff, the tightly clad assassin played by Scarlett Johansson. Whedon knows something about heroic yet vulnerable young women, and Johansson benefits both from that fact and from not being bound to our received ideas of what her character should be. The word “avenge” gets thrown around a few times, most notably in a conversation between Iron Man and Loki, but Black Widow engages on a more personal level as she attempts to redress the wrongs done by the person she was before. Johansson does everything that could be asked of her and more, and as the Marvel Universe films come to a fork in the road I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there was talk of Black Widow getting her own installment. The end of The Avengers hurriedly introduces the idea that the public is afraid of these new heroes; the sequence felt dragged in from one of the X-Men films. The theme itself is worth exploring though, and I hope in a second Avengers film (the next, too-similar mission is hinted at) that Joss Whedon or whomever directs will get a chance to put the stars in sharper relief against a world that doesn’t always know what kind of heroes it wants.

1 comment:

Dan O. said...

Jam-packed full of action, humor, special effects, and superheroes, The Avengers is the perfect way to start off the Summer blockbuster season. I hope that Whedon returns for the sequel that they're talking about doing, but then again, it may be another 4 years until we get to see that again. Nice review Simon. I wonder what will be a bigger flick this Summer: this or The Dark Knight Rises? Can't wait to see that one either!