Friday, May 11, 2012

Just Another Tired Action/Superhero Movie: Joss Whedon’s The Avengers

Coming out on the heels of his inventive horror movie The Cabin in the Woods, I’d certainly hoped that writer/director Joss Whedon (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Serenity) would work his cinematic magic on The Avengers, the much-anticipated Marvel superhero movie which brings together various characters from the Marvel universe: Thor, Captain America, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk among them, as the new crime fighting unit called The Avengers. Unfortunately, this latest superhero movie is just another tired, pedestrian film whose elaborate special effects pretty much bury anything original, witty or creative inherent in the material. In short, it’s the same old thing: an impersonal franchise movie with little entertainment on offer.

Carefully calibrated in terms of storyline, and following on the chronologies of The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man and Iron Man 2, Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor (all conceived by Marvel Studios as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe), the movie features most of the same actors in their parts (only Edward Norton who played the last incarnation of the Hulk didn’t return, after contract talks broke down. He’s been replaced by Mark Ruffalo in the role). Incidentally, the current comic book version of The Avengers line-up showcases some other characters, including Spider-Woman, Red Hulk and Protector, whom I’m not familiar with. X-Men’s Storm is also a member, but The Incredible Hulk and Black Widow, both of whom are in the film, are not.

Scarlett Johansson as The Black Widow
The group – which includes Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), the Hulk (Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) – are brought together by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the head of secret spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. as part of a project called The Avengers Intuitive. Originally shelved because of Fury’s doubts about the wisdom of putting together such a volatile mix of strong-willed personalities together in one group, the Initiative is revived when The Tesseract, an energy source of unknown origin and powers, is stolen by Thor’s adoptive brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who’s been promised complete dominion over Earth by an extraterrestrial race known as the Chitauri. Along the way, he’s hypnotized superhero Hawkeye and scientist Dr. Erik Selving (Stellan Skarsgård from Thor) to make them go over to Loki’s side. In a bid to save the Earth from enslavement, The Avengers eventually square off against Loki and the Chitauri.

The operative word here is eventually, as the movie takes an awfully long time to get where it’s going. First off, The Avengers have to squabble among themselves, engage in one-upmanship, and fight each other before overcoming their differences and uniting as a team against Loki and company. That’s on top of the excessive exposition on tap in the movie – why not assume fans of The Avengers, who will, no doubt, make up the bulk of this film’s demographic have seen all or most of the other Marvel movies and are up to speed on who’s who in this cinematic world? It’s pretty slow going, but once The Avengers hits its supposed stride, the film still doesn’t improve much. I’m not sure if Whedon felt constrained by the rules Marvel sets out for any film adaptation of the comic books – let’s not be too radical here! – or, more likely, that he felt intimidated by the responsibility of helming such a big-budget extravaganza and displayed excessive caution for fear of fucking things up. In any case, the film evinces virtually none of his trademark wit or style. Other than a few good physical jokes, usually involving the Hulk, this movie could have been directed by any competent director, that’s how little personality it actually has. (He’s on record as blaming the studio for gutting his three-hour, supposedly more personal cut of the film; the final bland version runs 2 hours and 20 minutes.) Oddly, the film’s (too) many actions sequences are especially disappointing since he demonstrated such a remarkable facility with those types of set pieces in Serenity – Whedon’s superb big-screen adaptation of his equally distinguished Firefly (but quickly cancelled) TV series.

Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury
Stuck in the middle of all this is the film’s mostly talented (and mostly wasted) cast. Only Ruffalo shines in The Avengers; he brings some potent emotional power to his role as the conflicted Dr. Bruce Banner, who’s always painfully aware that the monster within, The Incredible Hulk, can burst forth and swallow him up in the process. The rest of the actors are underused or asked to needlessly reprise what they’ve done on screen before. We’ve already seen Downey’s sarcastic shtick as Iron Man’s alter ego, industrialist Tony Stark in Iron Man (and presumably Iron Man 2, which I didn’t bother with). It wears thin here. Hemsworth’s Thor seems lost without Natalie Portman to play off as his putative love interest. The lightweight Evans is just as dull as he was in Captain America. As for Jackson, well he seems to be chafing to do more with Nick Fury than he’s allowed to. I wish The Avengers were at least R rated; a profane Jackson is a lot more entertaining than the linguistically neutered character he plays in The Avengers. Even Hiddelston’s Loki, a fascinating quasi-villain in Thor, has been simplified in The Avengers. Now he’s just another run-of-the-mill bad guy/god. As for Johansson and Renner, good actors both, well, since they’re not superheroes as much as spies, as the Black Widow points out, their characters can do little to compel us to follow them in their adventures. She has some martial arts skills; he can fire a crossbow, hardly unique powers. An archer with a crossbow, really!

And while Skarsgård and Clark Gregg, as S.H.I.E.L.D. special agent Phil Coulson, aren’t given that much to do in The Avengers, the biggest waste is Cobie Smulders as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill. If you’ve enjoyed her acerbic wit and sly characterization as reporter Robin Scherbatsky on the long-running sitcom How I Met Your Mother, well keep watching it. All she gets to do in The Avengers is look fetching and worried, hardly a proper use of her talents.

Tom Hiddleston as Loki
There are other problems with the movie’s storyline. It lacks grit. When New York is attacked by Loki and the Chitauri near the film’s conclusion, all we see (in 3D, natch) are a lot of destroyed buildings and cars but no civilian causalities, which lessens the effect of the destruction meted out to the Big Apple. That would likely have necessitated a more restrictive, in terms of an audience, R rating and lesser profits, of course. And the whole nifty idea of Captain America, who was frozen in ice in the 1940s only to be revived in the present and thus challenged by a new world that largely doesn’t understand or appreciate his iconic status as an American war hero, is folded into this film instead of standing out in its own movie. A few scenes with him reacting as a fish-out-of-water aren’t nearly satisfying enough.

I grew up reading Marvel comics, preferring their conflicted, angst-ridden heroes and heroines to their D.C. counterparts who generally struck me as kinda boring, actually. D.C.’s Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, even Superman, just didn’t seem to have as riveting back stories or complex villains or nuanced story-lines as the Marvel brand did. (D.C.’s Batman, with his tragic history, profound ambivalence about being a crime fighter, and nebulous relationship with the citizens of Gotham City, always seemed more like a Marvel superhero to me.) The irony – now that Hollywood has gotten its grubby mitts on the characters, and even though Marvel ostensibly now has more control on how its creations end up on screen then they used to – is that the cinematic Marvel movies aren’t nearly as interesting or as layered as the comics that gave birth to them, even though presumably the unique nature of those comics were the reason they were chosen to be adapted into film in the first place. The very qualities that attracted me, and so many others, to the prickly Marvel universe of characters have, for the most part, been subsumed in favour of special effects that render the Marvel movies as indistinguishable as any other SFX driven superhero movies. (There are a few exceptions, Spider-Man 2 was a masterpiece that captured Peter Parker’s tumultuous world perfectly, and Thor had a genuine low-tech B movie charm, but that’s about it.) The Avengers is now a massive hit and the sequel, alluded to after end credits, is a done deal, but even if Whedon signs on to it, I can’t imagine it will be much better than the original. I harbour a faint hope that Whedon will be allowed to let his inner id to run wild as Joe Dante managed to do in his superior Gremlins 2, but it’s only a faint hope. There’s too much riding on the Marvel movies to take those types of chances, but I suppose if the fans flock to the Marvel productions anyway, it doesn’t much matter whether the films do justice to their antecedents or not. But if that’s the case, they should have left well enough alone and adapted something else to the screen instead.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, and is currently teaching a course on American cinema of the 70s.

1 comment:

  1. It was pretty entertaining though... In my opinion