Friday, June 1, 2012

Friday Film Review: Avengers

[The truth is] in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.” –Anton Ego, Ratatouille

I’m going to try to make a weekly feature a film review.  I will also try to keep the Friday film reviews as contemporary as possible so you can decide you’d like to spend a few hours in the theatre or avoid the loss of your money by watching crap.


This movie is a marvel (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun).  Before we get to the actual movie, you cannot overlook the huge gamble the studios made.  This isn’t just another big franchise.  This is a big franchise built on top of and combined with 4 other established franchises.  I don’t know that this has ever been done before. If Iron Man 1, Iron Man 2, Captain America, or Thor had been bombs, this movie would never have been made (I can imagine the studios second guessing themselves after the lukewarm reception of The Incredible Hulk).  Avengers was built on a house of cards, and if this final movie was not perfectly balanced, the whole enterprise would have crashed to earth like Mjolnir (Thor’s hammer for the non-geeks).

Thankfully, Marvel hired the great Joss Whedon.  This was also a gigantic risk.  His big break in writing was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which has to be remembered was a box office bomb.  His biggest budget film, Serenity, was a cult favorite but also lost money in theaters.  It took a heroic amount of faith to place this movie in the hands of Whedon.  And that faith was repaid and then some.

To recap, the Avengers is a sequel to the above superhero films.  Elements that have been pieced together from the previous adventures now come to a head here.  Thor’s evil brother Loki has made a deal with another evil unseen cosmic overlord to use the evil Tesseract (the weapon used by the evil Red Skull) to lead an evil alien army to take over the earth.  A friend of mine mentioned that the villains were a bit one-dimensional.  I agree to some extent, but I can’t stop feeling pity for Loki.  Even at his most evil, Tom Hiddleston’s performance as the trickster god gives me the impression of someone desires selfish gain but then ends up in over his head.

But the threat presented Earth requires SHIELD director Nick Fury to call the mightiest heroes around.  The first half of the movie deals primarily with bringing our players together and seeing how they interact.  And this is where the genius of Whedon pays off.  Every character is written with a unique voice.  But even more important, every character’s relationships are tangibly different.  Cap is critical of Iron but gets on all right with Banner, who terrifies Black Widow, but admires Iron Man.  If that sounds complex, it is.  But Whedon makes the relationships seem so real and so tense that it’s almost as if our heroes don’t even need a villain for there to be massive action showdowns.  And added to that, Whedon makes all of the characters fun to watch.  I would venture to say that watching Avengers was the most fun I’ve had in the theatre in years.  There were more laughs in this movie than in most comedies lately, and yet none of the humor took away from the intensity.  Instead it added to it.  The balancing act I mentioned earlier was done flawlessly by Whedon.  This doesn’t seem like just an Iron Man movie or Thor movie or Cap movie or Hulk movie.  It feels like an Iron Man movie and Thor movie and Cap movie and Hulk movie mixed together and baked to perfection.  I could not imagine anyone else writing this movie or any sequel to it.

As noted earlier, the first half the film is about assembling the Avengers.  But when the actual invasion begins, the movie kicks it into full throttle and does not let up.  Here Whedon must also be given credit for visually engaging us in this story.  Heroes this epic need a movie epic in scope, and Whedon delivers.  It is colorful and dynamic and a spectacle for the eyes.  I’ve seen the movie twice, once in 3-D, and it is some of the best converted 3-D I have seen.  The tone and pacing of the battle are top-notch.  Whedon knows when to just unleash chaos and when to pull back for small character moments and laughter.  And by the time we get to the 3rd act, we see how each of the Avengers plays an important role in taking down the threat

Two characters should be given special attention.  Everyone who has seen this talks about how awesome the Hulk is, and rightly so.  Besides the high-octane carnage he brings, this Hulk has something the others did not: personality.  Newcomer Mark Ruffalo deserves credit for bringing this new Banner to life.  He is a man who wants to be calm and peaceful, but always has a monster lurking beneath the surface.  But the CG team for this Hulk gave him more wit than previously, expressing himself not with words, but with fists.  The second point needs to be given to Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man.   While there wasn’t a great deal of character development in Iron Man 2, you can see the changes Tony goes through from the beginning to the final part of the battle.


This takes us to the theme of heroism.  The Avengers are not just super-powered people.  Their extraordinary powers make them special, but they are not just special.  They are heroes.  Whedon has spent most of his adult writing career meditating on the nature of heroes.  As an atheist, Whedon struggles with the ultimate meaninglessness of life against the inner urge to be noble.  Dr. Bernard Rieux, the main character of Camus’ The Plague is an atheist trying to be good.  He believes in 3 things that can’t all be true: 1. The purpose of life is to be a saint, 2. You can’t be a saint without God, and 3. There is no God.  I’ve often seen Whedon struggle with this in a similar way, because he believes in heroes.  And the strongest mark of a hero is one who puts the good of others before himself.  In his other works, I’ve seen Whedon wrestle with this: 1. Heroes sacrifice themselves, 2. You can’t sacrifice yourself unless it has some meaning, 3. Ultimately, life is meaningless.

The existential dilemmas are absent from Avengers, but Whedon clings to the ideal of heroism.  This has been building up in the other movies too.  Thor offered himself as a sacrifice to the Destroyer to save his friends, thus becoming worthy of Mjolnir… becoming a hero.  Captain America sacrifices himself by crashing his plane into the Arctic to save New York (which for the life of me I cannot help but be reminded of United 93).  That sacrifice made him a hero. 

In Avengers, Agent Colson understood this too.  He had no powers, but he took on Loki because it was right.  He was a hero.  And in the end it is Iron Man’s turn.  Tony Stark didn’t believe in heroes either.  When Cap asks him if he’d lay down on a wire to let the guy behind him live, Tony says, “Why not just cut the wire?”  But when the time comes, Tony makes the choice he hasn’t had to make yet in his other movies: does he lay down his life as a ransom for many? 

Avengers is not about how to make ordinary people special.  It’s about how to make extraordinary people heroes.

5 out of 5 stars.

1 comment:

  1. I came across this theological interpretation of the Avengers today: The reviewer is a priest from Cleveland.