At The Movies

The Avengers
Written and directed by Joss Whedon
Review by Malcolm Maclachlan and Tony Sheppard

Malcolm: I was thinking about skipping “The Avengers” before I found out it was written and directed by Joss Whedon, who was apparently given free-reign to do basically whatever he wanted. Not because I was ever a huge fan of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (though I did like “Firefly”). Instead, it was because it seemed like if anyone could make sense of the confusing pile of characters and plot lines he’d been handed, it was Whedon. And how.

Tony: Agreed – Whedon is on a recent roll, having also co-written and produced the surprisingly fun “The Cabin in the Woods.”

Malcolm: “The Avengers” is easy to follow, true to the characters, and has great pacing and a nice mix of characters and action. Unlike Kenneth Branagh’s “Thor,” which dragged on and seemed to want to be a grander story than it could be, or “Iron Man 2,” which got bogged down in the psyche of Tony Stark, “Avengers” clicks along and a fun pace, masking it’s 142 minute run-time.

Tony: I actually liked the way that “Thor” was put together, with a more grown up tone than many comic book properties. A year ago, when it was released, I wrote the following: “Thor exists in the same story series as Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and Captain America – and the separate movie properties are all being released in advance of “The Avengers,” which will unite all of the characters (planned for this time next year).  The success of that project may depend on the ability to bring them all together with a tone that suits them all.” But the outcome succeeds – there’s a coherence to it that is reassuring, especially given that variety of tones and styles of the predecessor films. In that sense alone it’s a noteworthy achievement.

Malcolm: One of the things which I thought would be a weakness turned out to be a strength—that is, that a couple of the heroes aren’t superheroes at all, just well-trained regular humans. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner, who looks pretty silly at times standing next to the others with a bow) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, who may have actually gotten too much screen time, though it was kind of cool that her best power is just being smarter than almost everyone else) are just really talented SHIELD agents without supernatural (Thor) and super-scientific (Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America) powers. Even among the supers, Captain America clearly isn’t as powerful as the others. But like a sports team, they work in ways that take advantage of everyone’s talents, and it doesn’t come off as (that) contrived.

Tony: It’s an interesting group of characters and the interaction between them is quite believable, with some initial distrust followed by a smart-alecky rivalry and competition.  But despite the diversity of talents and powers, as you’ve just described, there’s little other diversity among the variously gifted, with five white men and one white woman. They do have a boss of color in Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury – but even he was white in the comic books and it’s clear that we’re still watching a cast of characters formed several decades ago. If this was a new story with new freaks…err, heroes…they’d look more like a Benetton ad.

The other problem is that their powers and strengths seem to vary from moment to moment. There doesn’t seem to be any consistent pattern of who might win in any given fight in any given scene. They take turns beating on each other early on and fight as a team later, but the relative supremacy seems to change. It’s not a problem of reality, which isn’t to be expected, it’s a problem of consistency within the story.

Malcolm: Even in the world of willful suspension of disbelief, the physics didn’t entirely work. At one point we’re asked to believe that something so absurdly strong as the Hulk could hit Black Widow without turning every bone in her body to jelly. And I’m also a little bugged to once again see space age bad guys—this time sort of undead fish men under robot armor—who lack the ability to put together a decent fighting strategy, and who are so weak they can be taken out with tasers and handgun bullets.

Tony: True. They can travel across the galaxy but they can’t navigate a tight turn on a city street. And there are more problems that are a tad spoilery, especially towards the end of the film. Although Hulk probably has the most scene-stealing moment in the entire film, he also has the most abruptly convenient character development at a key moment that comes almost out of nowhere. Meanwhile, the conclusion of the battle makes very little sense and looks a lot like the end of “The Phantom Menace” (which was flawed in far more significant and different ways but which at least made some sense in the context of that film). It’s all fun to watch but there’s a point at which you simply have to stop thinking about what’s on screen. Which is a shame, because to some extent it works far better prior to that point.

Malcolm: Still, this is nitpicking with what I think is probably the best film in the series—certainly the one with the best dialogue (a Whedon signature). The characters clash and come back together in ways that make sense, and there’s a ton of good eye-candy. Arty websites like Salon may be obsessing over Whedon wasting his time, but when was good silly fun ever a waste of time?

Tony: Again, agreed. This is a fun film and I have no problem recommending it to anybody who ever enjoyed a film of this series or genre in general. But it’s not flawless and some of the plot problems aren’t that profound, which makes relatively easy fixes seem more surprising for their absence. It’s a long film but, as you said, it moves along well and, overall, it’s an upbeat start to the summer season.

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