May 4, 2012

The Avengers (2012): B

Whether by nature or coincidence, event films, or tentpole pictures (like this one) frequently serve to remind us of the different ways we consume our culture, or our entertainment (another distinction reliant on how we frame our perception of the world). Those who cannot fathom the kind of person who wouldn't like this movie fail at the fundamental ability to step sufficiently far enough outside their own perspective; the same holds true for many groups defined by shared, perhaps overzealous opinions. Clearly, when someone like A.O. Scott moderately panned the film (only to be rebuked by Samuel L. Jackson's "opinion" that fans should help to get Scott fired - this before most of them had even seen the movie in question), it wasn't that he had seen a different movie, or necessarily even experienced it differently. His technical analysis is exactly in keeping with what this critic saw at an exhuberantly packed theater last night, and what many such fans fail to grasp is that there was nothing of deep enough meaning in the film for Mr. Scott to find it worth more than a respectful pass. Anyone who takes offense to this needs to seriously reexamine their values in life, period.

Which is all a sort of ridiculous throat-clearing before I explain my own high/low praise of the film. For over two hours, I was thoroughly entertained and happy to be burning the midnight oil before a morning shift. (Having just stumbled off my lethargic morning-after duties, that's high praise.) Of this, there is no doubt, and so, as per the Tomatometer, The Avengers gets a "fresh" (my love/hate relationship with Rotten Tomatoes is steadily leaning towards the latter, but since most of those reading this are doing so thanks to that site, I may as well be frank). Joss Whedon's handling of mostly predetermined, prepackaged material is to be commended for infusing personality into what otherwise could have easily been rendered as the summer movie equivalent of a stale breakfast cereal. The Avengers was clearly made not only for the kind of audience that would, uhm, assemble, hours beforehand, but by one of their own. It has a genuine spirit that money-hungry studio heads can only hope to acheive, and in this case, they played their business cards very well.

In a nearly 150-minute film, it is perhaps inevitable that there are a few moments I would have trimmed had I final cut authority -- some of the many expertly choreographed fights could have been shortened, and there are times that the comic relief goes on too long (Clark Gregg is funny but misused in a largely thankless role) -- but the fact remains that the audience-pleasing success ratio clocks in around 92% (if I had to guess at a figure) and, given the sheer saturation of such carefully orchestrated moments and punchlines (roughly four every ten minutes, give or take), such makes this a sterling example of its kind. The cast is committed (even Gwyneth Paltrow smoulders in what amounts to an extended cameo, but it's Mark Ruffalo as the brooding Bruce Banner who steals the show), the dialogue is almost organic, and the action satisfies that basic craving for juvenile spectacle. It ain't subtle, and I for one don't care. It's necessary sometimes.

Broad, pop culture storytelling brilliance abounds in this long-awaited franchise culmination (four prequels altogether, and only two of them worth a damn by my measure), but setting aside the exacting nature of the film's amusement park mechanics, there really wasn't much there to keep me wowed in ways beyond momentary bliss. The character conflicts and impending resolutions are both schematic and heartfelt (you know, from the moment Steve Rogers aka Captain America criticizes Tony Stark's narcissism, that Iron Man will make some sort of risky personal sacrifice before the day is out, etc.), and with a lesser hand, they might have felt disingenuous. They don't, but they don't speak anything in the way of a greater truth, either. For my own personal insight: if it were even three or five years ago in my life that this movie came out, I'm sure my rating would be one or two ticks higher than it currently is, but now past a quarter century, I have a hard time saying I love something when it strikes me as so generally weightless. As many chuckles as the dialogue was worth and gasps the scenery induced, it was only the brewing torment experienced by the Hulk who gave me something to really chew on, and the villainous Loki (Tom Hiddleston) makes out with some impressively fleshed-out motivation as well.

The Avengers is exciting, funny, nail-biting, relentless and even scintillating at times (thanks to Scarlett Johansson, I now have something of a fetish for getting beating up and bitten by the opposite sex), but it's never about anything more than itself in the moment. This motley crew of characters is sufficiently developed and more than expertly performed to lend a sense of genuine conviction, but I found nothing to take with me into my life outside once it was all said and done. Great escape, but no deeper truths. As fate would have it, a special screening of The Godfather, Part II preceded the midnight release of The Avengers by just a few hours, and in case you're out of touch with the general consensus on that sequel amongst serious cinephile types, I'll reiterate a comment I made during said film's intermission: "It's the kind of movie that reminds you what a complete waste of time most others are." Much as I'll fondly remember last night's debut, The Avengers is ultimately little more than one such well-made time waster. Whedon's creation is exactly what most people seeing it will want it to be, and more, and if it's a little unfair comparing it to what is arguably one of the greatest works of film ever made, well, that's life, and so be it. It doesn't have to be a great movie to provide a great experience.


  1. D Carter12:59 AM

    Probably true, but did you really expect the avengers to be a piece of literature? Comic movies are for escapism. If you are looking for something to chew on, then you should watch "The Lives of Others".

  2. Anonymous9:23 AM

    I loved your review. Every line of it. Well, except to poor defense of A. O. Scott. The reason he was panned wasn't because he didn't like the film. He wasn't the first critic to speak negatively of the film. Nor the second. Nor the 3rd.

    The reason was that he panned the film out of a pure prejudice for "superhero" movies. He has stated in other reviews as well as the one in question that he feels the "genre" has run it's course. It is the same kind of artistic snobbery that open-minded people always reject. No one reads a critic's review to be told that they have bad taste for even liking "this kind of movie. "

    I quote:
    "The light, amusing bits cannot overcome the grinding, hectic emptiness, the bloated cynicism that is less a shortcoming of this particular film than a feature of the genre."

    He wrote an entire article BEFORE Avengers was launched where he actually HOPED that the genre would decline.

    Prejudice has no place in film criticism. No only is that a lack of professionalism (he should avoid writing about the genre if he can't evaluate a film on its own merits), but it is also a betrayal of his own readers trust in his opinion to evaluate art objectively.

    1. The whole point of talking about "genre" is to talk about particular films in a context, in terms of bigger trends that inform the sensibility of a particular film. I happen to agree with Scott's observations about where the genre's gone, that it's succumbed to the mindlessness of a (commercially) successful formula. It's not even a surprise, this is just what happens with genres, especially expensive ones. "The grinding, hectic emptiness, the bloated cynicism" Scott describes (very nicely, IMO) is the logical result of a commerical superhero genre because the genre is ultimately founded on spectacle. Even Mr. Humanick here has said that we might never see again the kind of verve and idiosyncrasy shown in Ang Lee's Hulk or the first Spider-man movies, which were made when the genre was first defining itself.

      Personally, I thought The Avengers blew really hard. It's not prejudice against the genre, it's just that the genre is now by-and-large a cynical corporate enterprise. I actually respect the genre enough to not rule out the possibility of it producing a good work of art. If you enjoyed the movie, that's fine, but it's not snobbery to point out that the movie is very, very stupid.

      p.s. Prejudice has no place in film criticism? Evaluating art objectively? Dude...

  3. Anonymous1:57 PM

    What he said. I thought the acting very good,the characterization well fleshed out,and the dialogue downright pithey,at times. The absence of an actual thought-up plot,as opposed to the off-the-shelf model used, didn't really bug me. Much. Don't hold your breath for the Kree-Skrull War,Encounters wth Squadron Supreme, or anything involving the Grandmaster. Oh, yeah:pray for The Vision, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, Goliath, Black Panther & (maybe) Starfox.

  4. I'm going to start by using a hackneyed expression, sorry about that, but *sigh* they said it couldn't be done. The Avengers is one of those supposedly "impossible" movies, like Lord of the Rings, I guess. The fact that it was written and directed by Joss Whedon is more-or-less the stuff of high school fanboys' fever dreams. The notion is not entirely unlike a Batman movie by Orson Welles, a Godzilla movie by Akira Kurosawa, or even a Popeye movie by Robert Alt-whoops, never mind. That said, I'm well aware that Whedon has yet to earn what those before mentioned directors have earned.

    But after having seen it recently, it's surprising and somewhat depressing that the movie turned out to be so, well, dull. I'd summarize it as 100 minutes of mostly by-the-numbers dreck, followed by 40 minutes of not bad, could have been better. The thing that gets me is how uniform the film mostly feels. I find that the post-Iron Man Marvel movies feel almost like the same thing, save for a few instances here and there. I'm not against committee-controlled movies, so long as the committee has the movie's best interests in mind. Here it feels like another over-regulated blockbuster. Perhaps not as bad as some, but still pretty bland. Elements, like the forest fight between Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America, feel forced, unnecessary, and just plain dumb. Thor is basically an attempted murderer in my eyes after trying to smash Captain America with his hammer, I mean, did Thor actually know that the shield could withstand the hammer?

    One last thing I want to address is the CGI. I don't hate CGI, far from it in fact. I don't believe that "traditional" special effects are superior. Some have used terms like "too much CGI" when speaking of movies like this. I don't think the problem is so much the CGI (without which, most movies like this would probably have been "impossible"), I think the problem is that too many movies like this, summer films basically, go too far out of their way to make sure we notice the CGI. Nearly everything in The Avengers has this fake, plasticy look to it. Even the flesh-and-blood actors, save for perhaps Mark Ruffalo, look almost manufactured. I understand that many filmgoers like to see attractive people in movies, particularly "thrill-ride" movies like this one, but I think this notion has gone overboard in recent years. Try watching Jaws. Notice how real the people look and act in that movie, and then look at The Avengers. It's weird that Jaws basically invented the modern summer blockbuster, because it's highly unlikely it could get made that way today.