Movie Review: The Avengers (2012)
WARNING: EARTH’S MIGHTIEST SPOILERS!
This is the one.
Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” is the superhero movie we’ve been waiting for. It’s imbued with the same spirit that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought to comic books in the early 1960s, saving, or at least altering, and certainly growing, the industry. Comics under Stan and Jack grew like Bruce Banner under gamma radiation. They grew not only in sales but stature. They grew up. There was a new seriousness—superheroes had problems, superhero teams fought each other like family members—but there was also that pizzazz, that lack of seriousness, that insouciance. Jack’s drawings brought the gravitas and Stan’s personality the lighter-than-air pizzazz. Stan had his tongue in cheek when he called it “the Marvel Age of Comics,” but soon that’s what it was. Face front, true believers! Make Mine Marvel! All for only 12 cents an issue.
Whedon’s “The Avengers” has that same spirit. It’s fast and fun and contains laugh-out-loud moments. It’s epic and smart and never gets bogged down. I saw it at an IMAX theater, in 3-D, and beforehand we were told by theater employees that the movie was two and a half hours long. I practically groaned. Two and a half hours? Really? Then it started and picked up and kept going, and at one point I looked at my watch and nearly two hours had passed. Foosh.
The Alfonso Cuaron of superhero directors
“The Dark Knight” doesn’t have this spirit. Comics became darker in the 1980s under Frank Miller and Alan Moore. They became almost Nietzschian: Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster. Our heroes were still heroes but they became heavy with monstrosity, and that’s the spirit of “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” and 2003’s “Daredevil,” and somewhere young men, in their teens and 20s and 30s, who should know better, still get off on this crap. They think it’s cool seeing a silent sentinel staring down at a corrupt city, cape flapping in the breeze. Me, I get bored. I wonder where the fun is. I wonder what Stan is up to.
Standing in line, I wondered if “The Avengers” had shot its wad in the trailers. Were all its best lines, its best scenes, used up? What could be better than Tony Stark saying to Loki “We have a Hulk”? But Whedon and company keep them coming.
- “I thought his first name was Agent.”
- “The last time I was in New York I kinda broke...Harlem.”
- “I am a God, you dull creature, and I will not be bullied by a—”
- “That’s my secret, Captain. I’m always angry.”
- “And Hulk? Smash.”
This is the movie that finally saves the Hulk. It moves us away from the lonely wanderlust of the TV series and from Ang Lee’s humorless Freudian angst and brings the fun. What did Hulk have to smash before? Puny humans? Scene-chewing father figures? One abominable drag of an enemy? Here he gets to fight Thor, and a giant alien army, and Loki, bragging, above, to which Hulk’s reaction is just ... perfect. Lesson #1 from the Marvel Age of Comics: Don’t mess with Hulk.
How about the scene where all the aliens go after him? Twenty on one. How about that long, epic, tracking shot that shows us each Avenger in the midst of battle, like some two-page, single-panel extravaganza from Jack Kirby or John Romita or John Byrne? Christopher Nolan in his Batman movies uses quick cuts like he’s directing an MTV video for our distracted age. Whedon seems to be asking himself: How much epic battle can I contain in one tracking shot? He’s the Alfonso Cuaron of superhero directors.
Loki vs. mere mortals
Are there false notes? The way that, you know, Obadiah Stane is suddenly everywhere at the end of “Iron Man,” and the way the Joker is suddenly everywhere at the end of “The Dark Knight”? And every second of both “Fantastic Four” movies? Because I’m not recalling any such problems in “The Avengers.” Sure, the Hulk as part of a team, that’s always problematic. How do you point the Hulk in the right direction? How do you make sure he doesn’t go off in your face? (See: Thor.) Hulk knows no team, really, which is why he eventually left the comic-book “Avengers.” But at least they bring him on board because of Banner’s brains rather than Hulk’s brawn. S.H.I.E.L.D. needed his expertise in gamma radiation. We needed to see him flop Loki around like a rag doll.
Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is actually a weak villain, isn’t he? There’s great malevolence in him as he stares, captured, in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s cell, but his desires are puny. They’re large, in that he wants to take over the Earth, but they’re puny in that he wants subservience, and that’s the province of weak men. The two who inflict the most damage on Loki aren’t super; they’re mere mortals, and they do it with mere words. Loki escapes his cell, runs his blade through Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), who, dying, tells him:
Coulson: You’re going to lose.
Coulson: It’s in your nature.
That gets to the heart of it. He keeps losing to Thor, his brother, and Odin, his father. He’s powerful but it’s not enough, it’s never enough, because losing is in his nature. He needs so much to make up for all that losing.
Earlier Loki gets some mucky-mucks at a black-tie affair in Stuttgart, Germany to bow down to him. An entire plaza full of people. He tells them, “You were made to be ruled,” which is a good line. He tells them that they don’t really want freedom, which is another good line. We don’t, sometimes. Having so many choices in life? It’s hard, sometimes. But then Loki goes too far, and one man, looking like a concentration-camp survivor (Kenneth Tigar), stands up, and refuses to take a knee. He talks about men like Loki and Loki laughs, knowing himself to be a god:
Loki: There are no men like me.
German man: There are always men like you.
That’s so fucking smart. Loki says his line because he’s not a man and the German says his line because there are always dictators borne of smallness: Pol Pot and Hitler and Napoleon and Ozymandias. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” they say, but the lone and level sand stretches far away. That’s what our German survivor knows. Loki knows it, too. The loser.
All the best battles take place in New York
Plot. What we used to call the cosmic cube, but is now apparently called “The Tesseract,” is being used by S.H.I.E.L.D. in a lab to create weapons of mass destruction. Then it starts operating independently. Loki arrives, takes out half a dozen agents, and makes several, including a bow-and-arrow assassin called the Hawk (Jeremy Renner), who used to be called Hawkeye, and the scientist Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), do his bidding, literally glassy-eyed. Time for the Avengers initiative.
But what do they really have in the beginning? Iron Man and Captain America and Black Widow and the Hawk ... with the Hawk on the wrong side for much of the movie. The two strongest members of the Avengers are accidents. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) arrives because of Loki and Hulk arrives because of Bruce Banner’s big brain. Is this a false note? Or is the assembling of the Avengers team like what directors call the movies themselves? A series of happy accidents.
The Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) gets the best intro. Tied to a chair somewhere in Russia, being interrogated by three leering men, being watched by millions more. Except, of course, she’s doing the interrogating. She’s not giving, she’s extracting. This becomes apparent when she gets a call from Agent Coulson. She almost rolls her eyes, then takes down these guys 1, 2, 3. The twiddling-the-thumbs look Coulson has on the phone as he waits for her to take care of business evoked laughter. Clark Gregg will be missed.
S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t very smart with Captain America (Chris Evans), is it? The man’s frozen for 65 years and they have him working out with heavy bags rather than, you know, learning the last 65 years of history and technology. Puny Steve Rogers wasn’t a dim bulb, after all. He had smarts. But it sets up the most interesting of the potential sequels: Captain America, coming up to speed; trapped in a world he never made.
The intro of Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) is peppy and witty, and contains a cameo from Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). It’s also relevant. Tony Stark, former weapons manufacturer, working now with clean energy, lights up the new Stark Industries building in midtown Manhattan with an arc reactor. “Like Christmas but with me,” he says of the STARK building. And that’s where Loki and Selvig, needing a strong energy source, will set up their Tesseract-created portal to allow an invading Chitauri army to enter our realm. Which is why the battle takes place in midtown Manhattan, which is where we want it. In the Marvel Age of Comics, all the best battles took place in New York.
Mark Ruffalo is the third man in a decade to play Bruce Banner, and I like what he brings. There’s a halting intelligence that meshes well with Robert Downey’s frenetic intelligence. He also knows he’s the biggest implied threat in the world. Mess with him and you mess with “the other guy,” as he calls the Hulk. He can’t be threatened.
Initially I assumed the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier was simply a cool transportation device but it’s really the setting where much of the action in the movie takes place. There, members of the Avengers bicker, and we get a few actual fistfights (Thor vs. Iron Man), but there’s also bonding (Stark, Banner). Much of the bickering is the result of Loki’s staff, no, which is stored in the lab, and is somehow bringing out the worst in everybody. At the same time, this kind of bickering/making up is not only classically Marvel but the movie’s theme. In times of peace, we bicker. In times of crises, we bond into a functioning team. You could say it’s the vision America has of itself. It may even be true.
Our imaginations onscreen
Let me add this about the battle royale finale: If someone had shown me these scenes in 1974, when I was 11 and collecting comic books, and relying on Saturday-morning fare like “Shazam!” and Electric Company’s “Spidey’s Super Stories,” I probably would’ve wet my pants. I might’ve had a heart attack. At 11. This is stuff that’s never been seen before except in our imaginations. “The Avengers” is our imaginations onscreen.
So I went into “The Avengers” shrugging and left after two and a half hours feeling giddy and high. The question with Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” isn’t whether it’s good; it’s whether it’s the best superhero movie ever made. Many will argue “Dark Knight” but I say, as I’ve always said, Make Mine Marvel.
Stan 'the Man' Lee, who made mine Marvel, at the premiere of “The Avengers” (2012).