Why The Avengers Worked (no spoilers!)

Saw the new 3D Avengers along with my 17-year-old daughter, and though neither of us is a comic book fan we found ourselves – begrudgingly – really enjoying the movie.  Of course, we are not alone:  this mega-franchise tent-pole has already grossed over $700 million worldwide, with $200.7 million domestic from opening weekend alone (setting a new record, natch).  Disney has already announced the development of a sequel, as any sane studio would.

Now, commercial clout is not the gold standard when it comes to quality (think Titanic and its dreadful script; the even more dreadful Twilight Franchise (though I liked Catherine Hardwicke’s take on the first one).  The real surprise of Avengers is how good the film actually is.  Joss Whedon has pulled off the seeming impossible, taking a confabulation of characters, some of whom already had their own “prequels,” and meshing them together in a film that has a coherent plot, a good script, snappy dialogue, and something we’ve lost for about the past 20 years:  character.

The “spine”, as William Goldman would say, is not the flashy effects, though they rival anything in recent CG history, including the execrable Transformers.  Kudos to ILM, Weta , Scanline VFX, Hydraulx, Fuel,, Evil Eye Pictures, Luma, Cantina Creative, Trixter, Modus FX, Whiskytree, Digital Domain, The Third Floor (previs and postvis), and Method Design ( for the killer 3D titles).  Janek Sirrs, who supervised VFX on Ironman, did an amazing job wrangling every FX house in Hollywood and beyond.  The final battle in New York uses 3D as more than a gimmick, especially with those Chitauri cruising through a wormhole on their sky-Skidoos.

However, none of this would matter a damn (see:  the first three Star Wars) if the characters were weak and/or interchangeable.   All of the actors involved do a superb job evoking their particular superhero, especially Robert Downey Jr. as Ironman.  This guy is so lithe you almost want to see him dance Fosse.  He makes an obnoxious, self-absorbed billionaire someone you actually care about.  He’s so good I could even stand Gwyneth Paltrow for the first time this century.

Chris Pine is wonderful as Captain America, and may have the best line in the film (regarding Norse god Loki):  “There’s only one God, ma’am, and he doesn’t dress like that.”  He absolutely captures a 40’s sensibility without belaboring the fact that he’s been on ice for 70 years.  The fish out of water broadness was apparently reserved for Dark Shadows, whose trailer makes it look cringeworthy.

Chris Helmsley hits just the right tone as the imperious Thor, and has the biceps to convince us he can hurl that hammer across worlds.  Mark Ruffalo is delightfully understated as Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk, making his transformation into a raging green monster that much more striking.  Watching him and Downey verbally spar over Tesseracts is one of the highlights of the film.

The auxiliary Avengers, Black Widow and Hawkeye, are perfect in rounding out the group.  Scarlett Johansson is dead-on as Russian spy Natasha Romanov, even speaking a mean Russian when we first meet her.  She kicks ass and takes no prisoners with the same aplomb as the guys.  Jeremy Renner is great as the initially brainwashed Hawkeye and he shoots every arrow like his life depends on it.  Augmenting the core is a sinister Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, a comical Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson, and even the acclaimed Jenny Agutter as a member of the World Council.   The British Tom Hiddleston could not be better as Loki:  Whedon chose his villain well.

What makes this movie stand out is that the Good Guys don’t get along initially.  In fact, they’re so disparate and egotistical that their arguments – and physical brawls – seem much more than trumped-up action beats.  Thor versus Ironman is a hoot, while Downey tells Pine, “Everything about you that’s special came out of a bottle.”  Everyone fears the unleashing of Hulk, which Ruffalo, as Banner, accepts with world-weary sarcasm.  Jackson, who spearheads the revived “Avengers Initiative,” is a slippery ally as he retains secrets of his own.  Johansson as a superspy is eminently believable when she wrests key info from Loki by playing on his arrogance.   The sexual interplay between Downey and Paltrow as Pepper Potts is fun without being a toss-off:  it seems real, not just a feeble nod toward having “a girl” in the picture.

Watching good actors with well-defined characters reciting literate dialogue is something I haven’t experienced since All About Eve (1950).  Unlike the Supermans, Spidermans, and – dare I say it – Batmans, this script doesn’t seem to strain or paint by numbers in reaching its set pieces and climax.  The final image (and I won’t give away any spoilers) is downright brilliant.  Someone, probably Whedon, actually sat down and thought about its impact.   It’s a nice finish to an excellent film.

Don’t get me wrong:  I’m not going to pretend that Avengers is Citizen Kane or Sunset Blvd.  It’s just that compared to its comic book ilk, it’s a refreshing piece that delivers on all levels.  I thought that X-Men:  Last Stand was intriguing, but the story was an incoherent mess (ironically, Zak Penn, who wrote the story for this one, was the screenwriter on X-Men).   Alas, even James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence – who have all been great in other roles  — couldn’t save that one.

It’s nice to have a summer film, finally, which is more than just huge grosses and provides bonafide entertainment.  Hunger Games was excellent, but its dystopian story is a downer, to say the least.  Avengers is what a summer film should be:  fun, layered, well-written, awesome SPFX, doesn’t take itself too seriously, and leaves you wanting more.  It reminds me of Star Wars – the real one, Episode IV.  Something to infuse life back to the studio film.  Disney, you are hereby forgiven for John Carter.

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11 responses to “Why The Avengers Worked (no spoilers!)

  1. I’m glad you liked it. I knew Joss could do it. Can’t wait to see it.

    Amy, does WordPress give you an option for an RSS feed, for us older folk who still use them on our Google Reader, with onions tied to our belts, as was the style at the time?

  2. Funny you mention the characters as the strong point, I felt they could have done a heck of a lot more with them, and the whole group dynamic. For a good superhero film look at Spiderman 2 (even Ebert gave it 4 stars!) or the first Ironman (another 4 star winner.)

    Avengers wasn’t completely terrible, but the massive world-wide established audience for the comic books is the reason it’s doing so well at the box office. Just like *every* Batman movie does well with box office and merch sales, regardless of the strength of the script, because so many kids read the comic books. A built-in audience means the studio doesn’t have to try much, just throw some stars in and presto!

    My problem with it is it had the same cliche Hollywood stuff that happens in every summer blockbuster… act I, II and III are all underdeveloped in order to have a 30 minute crazy-CGI-explosion-filled “climax” that goes on and on as Tinsel Town proves they are the world experts in showing us how to destroy New York on film, alien battles and explosions. I need more than a hulk smashing cars into spaceships over and over to keep me mentally interested and engaged. Then there are the ridiculous costumes, the absurd evil sci-fi overlords and a completely ridiculous, two dimensional villain who would be an embarrassment even in a James Bond flick. The first Ironman had real character development… by comparison this film was full of nonsensical fluff and weird, mashed together otherworldly storylines that went way beyond the limits of suspension of disbelief.

    (And for the record, as a native Russian, I will mention that both Scarlet’s and the generals Russian dialogue was so bad as to be almost completely incomprehensible. Not surprising though since it’s that way in EVERY Hollywood flick, including the resent Salt with Angelina Jolie. Don’t they have dialect coaches in that town!?? Or a few actors who are actually capable of speaking Russian to play these parts? It’s always such a shame to listen to your language being so painfully butchered on the big screen. :/ )

    • *recent
      Also if I expect too much from a summer superhero film it might have something to do with my being in a six-month, intensive screenwriting master class right now. Perhaps my standards are too high for the Avengers 😉

      • Sounds like you are not a particular fan of comic book films, and normally, either am I. Having seen a rash of terrible films recently (THE IMMORTALS, WRATH OF THE TITANS, FIVE YEAR ENGAGEMENT) I found AVENGERS to be a welcome relief. This is the only summer film I’ve enjoyed along with HUNGER GAMES. I don’t know the Marvel backstories and I don’t really care, but as a standalone film, I thought that the characters worked, fought, and played well together. I appreciated that the cast consisted of skilled actors and not bimbos, himbos, etc. I was able to follow the plot which I normally don’t give a damn about in these types of blockbusters.
        I like your point about speaking Russian!

      • I don’t really distinguish between “comic book films” and any other kind of films – I hold the scripts to the same standard. Like I said the first Ironman and the second Spiderman were fantastic movies regardless of what they were based upon. And Burtons Batman movies were huge influences upon me – Batman Returns was the first film I ever saw in a theater. It’s just unfortunate that with a built in audience there is so much slack, and these summer films are always created with the “whoever-has-the-most-explosions-wins” formula. I mean look at the first Pirates movie with Depp. Huge budget, equally outlandish fantasy plot elements, but a MUCH better film all around because they had to *create* an audience. Then predictably, the sequels were all downhill from there…

        Sorry you haven’t seen many good films this summer. Guess that’s why I watch so many classics! 🙂

  3. I think you have to make a genre distinction in judging films. Obviously, popcorn films are not going to resemble art films from Sweden. You go in with certain expectations, and if they’re met and you’re entertained, they’ve achieved their purpose. I actually liked Burton’s BATMANS better than Nolan’s (sacrilege, I know!). And I don’t deify Heath Ledger’s performance — he was playing a garden-variety psychopath, which you can see in quite a few “B” films. The licking of lips, etc. are cliche’s from the 40’s. But today’s audience doesn’t know that.

    • But Ironman and Spiderman II were superhero popcorn films 🙂 They rocked regardless of genre- with well developed, sensible stories, a long character development arc and empathy for the hero, as well as a certain logic to all the events of the plot. Summer movies don’t have to be mindless CGI and eyecandy, even if they have a ton of CGI like Pirates or Independence Day, they can be good at the same time. I think people forget how great a blockbuster can be. Gone are the days of Indiana Jones, Jaws, Armageddon, Die Hard… now those were some spectacular summer movies!

      And I completely agree with your assessment of Burton vs Nolan version of Batman. The Dark Knight has got to be one of the most overrated films of all time. This sums up my thoughts about that plot quite nicely… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vbgLapRAloQ

  4. Well, summer is when the studios target this stuff to kids. For serious, Oscar-worthy films, look to fall. I didn’t see Ironman and I can’t remember Spidey II, though I know that Spidey III was -terrible- (that whole emo thing was embarrassing). I guess I was pleasantly surprised by AVENGERS since Ashley & I had been on a bad movie marathon!

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