Click To Play Video

A movie like "Marvel's The Avengers" doesn't need critics and critics don't need it. Of course, it's perfectly reviewable in mainstream journalistic / consumer guide terms (story, character, action, effects, acting, etc.). My own hunch is that it's not going to be subjected to much in-depth critical analysis. Not of its aesthetics, anyway. Somebody might write about how it changed the movie business (if it does), or study the mythology of the "Marvel Cinematic Universe," or examine the technologies used in making it, but they're not going to study the filmmaking, which is serviceable but little more. There just isn't all that much going on from shot to shot (I'm a fan of Whedon's "Buffy," but he isn't that kind of director). As M. Leary says in a piece at Filmwell on the movie's fleeting references to theism, "The primary purpose of the film is to be awesome, and it certainly accomplishes that." No need for criticism if that's all there is to it. Somebody says "It's awesome!" and somebody else says "No it's not!" and that's the extent of the discussion (which has nothing to do with movie criticism). We're simply back in Monty Python's Argument Clinic, where there's no argument, just contradiction in the most simplistic terms.

—Jim Emerson, Scanners With Jim Emerson

Stronger Than Sominex

I actually dozed off three times during The Avengers, which wisely appended an extended prelude and drum roll to the inevitably disappointing super-heroics, but was jolted awake by The Hulk on all occasions. With The Avengers, Marvel Studios seems to have settled comfortably into a pattern of live-action cartoons while missing the point that the best of those old cartoons evoked incongruously serious observations about the human condition. Oh, there’s some blather here and there about the greatness of the human spirit and so forth, now back to The Hulk, but The Avengers is all but empty of humanity or anything that engages my conscience, pathos or intellect. It is precisely what it appears to be: nearly three hours of mindless fun. Which isn’t to say don’t go see it, but understand what you’re buying a ticket for.

This is, in many respects, a sequel to the almost-right Thor, a film where the main character was run over and stomped by Tom Hiddleston’s brilliantly nuanced Loki. The character was written so well in Thor that it (nearly) rose to the genius of Heath Ledger’s unparalleled reinvention of The Joker. In Thor, Hiddleston deftly performed the dance of seven veils, revealing multiple layers of the conniving, jealous adopted brother Loki in a complex and nuanced portrayal that was impossible to look away from. Sadly, both Loki and Hiddleston are wasted in The Avengers, as is Samuel L. Jackson who phones in a fairly useless Nick Fury whose main function is to stand around and look tough while all the white guys come off as far more lethal and competent. But, hey, at least there was a black guy.

As uninteresting and flat as Chris Hemsworth’s Thor was in his own film, he is improbably flatter and less interesting here. The challenge to any writer of an ensemble cast is to somehow make all of the gang interesting and important to the audience, indispensable to the story, and to have the audience invested in both. This is a very tall order in a feature, easier to do in a TV series where you have at least a dozen episodes to build out the cast. It was chiefly for this reason that I never had any real interest in writing The Avengers comic book series—not that I’d ever have been given a shot at it. I was briefly assigned writing duties on Justice League America before Grant Morrison made a deal with DC and I was unceremoniously un-hired before turning in a single page. But, I digress.

Wasted:: Tom Hiddleston’s brilliantly complex Loki.

Pee-Pee Time

Robert Downey Jr. owns every scene he’s in. He’s the big dog and he knows it. He also knows his fans are in on the joke so he doesn’t even pretend to be a functional part of the story, serving instead as more the Greek Chorus to all of the outrageous silliness. This time around, director Joss Whedon has reined Downey in just enough to keep the film from being the shocking disaster Iron Man 2 was while letting in just enough scarbously denigrating humor to make the film a little easier to sit through for those audience members with more than one functioning brain cell.

Speaking of the audience: I just hate going to the movies. I keep hearing the movie theatre business is looking increasingly like a dinosaur. Far as I’m concerned, that’s precisely what they deserve. Ticket prices are outrageous and they refuse to police attendees bringing toddlers and even infants (there were at least two babies-- babies) into a film that is far too violent and contains drama far too adult for the wee little ones, who talked and cried through much of the first scenes where most of the exposition and attempts at “acting” were taking place. The film’s frequent eruptions into chaos startled and frightened the several babies brought in for God-only-knows what reason, so there were frequent outbursts of crying, other babies joining the chorus, throughout the screening, and constant back-and-forth up and down the aisles as little ones were trudged off to the potty or bigger kids, bored with the talking, pretended they had to go just so they could wander around.

It puzzles me that, this far down the road, the general American mindset still seems to be that super-heroes-né-comics are for kids, when this has not been true for several decades now. Mainstream super-hero comics have been written at an at least college level since O’Neil/Adams Batman/Green Lantern/Green Arrow. Marvel and DC seemingly abandoned the kids market decades ago when DC pulled the plug on Impact! Comics. Turning a blind eye and deaf ear to most anyone under age thirteen (along with women and minority markets), the comic book “industry” has pandered almost exclusively to white males with power and sex fantasies. Young kids, say age eight and below, are introduced to super-heroes largely through watered-down animated series and other merchandising, but the live-action films have consistently been biased toward teens and above. Yet I counted at least a dozen toddlers waddling the aisles, confused about where they were or why, many of whom became frightened when the lights dimmed.

Taking very young children to these films is an act of child abuse by really stupid people, most of whom have not read a comic book ever or at least in a very long time. My guess would be that actual comics fans, knowing what to expect, would practice some level of parental guidance and not simply bring every age group from zygote to Power Ranger into the theatre. The wee little ones were bored and noisy all through the long first act, and lost interest in the film even when the noisy and clichéd super-hero battles began. There was lots of little ones not using their “indoor voice,” ruining quiet scenes and disturbing me to the point where I would have walked out if I didn’t have to step over a half-dozen people to do so (or if I wasn’t sitting next to my friend’s incredibly hot 20-year old goddaughter, but that’s another essay). This is the primary reason I prefer to attend films at 10 AM Tuesdays when the theatres are mostly empty save for the ubiquitous crowd from the senior center looking for a way to pass the day, sitting in the theatre confused about where they were or why, many of whom became frightened when the lights dimmed.

If theatres want my money, I expect them to give me a better and more satisfying experience than I can have at home, starting with not having to put up with children young enough to still be wearing Pull-Ups, for whom 80% of The Avengers went right over their heads. Then there’s the 8-12 year old crowd and their stupid, stupid, idiot, moron parents who don’t know enough about movies or kids to walk their children to the bathroom before the film begins. Okay, get your seat, go spend your fifty bucks on the expensive sugary poison down at the “snack” bar, sit thru a few trailers, but five-ten minutes before show time, please walk junior to the restroom. The refrain, from my young nephews, was usually, “I don’t have to go.” Ignore them. Kids never pay attention to their own bodily functions until its way too late. The Avengers audience was in constant motion with (mostly) mommies trudging up and down and up and down and up and down walking Billy to the bathroom. Billy is a kid and his mom is an idiot for thinking an 8-year old is going to suck down a Big Gulp and sit through a two and one-half hour film he doesn't even understand and not repeatedly ask to go potty.

Beyond that, I don't understand the mentality of moviegoers who act like they're going to starve to death if they don't have some greasy, noisy, cellophane-wrapped garbage to ingest during the movie. My staunch rule is No Movie Food. It's garbage, it's not healthy, and the prices are beyond outrageous-- six dollars for a handful of corn the guy who grew it earned less than a nickel for. And you idiots, yes you, continue this insane tradition of emptying your wallets at these places when real food at reasonable prices are only a couple hours away. But here's mommy, sitting Billy down with a 64-oz cup of sugar water he will inevitably spill, the sticky liquid cascading down throughout the theatre, even as the child's tiny bladder fills up before the opening credits conclude. People are idiots. I hate going to the damned movies.

A Much Better Idea:: Cap's uniform from his own film. He looks ridiculous in the Avengers "super" costume.

Heart Failure

The Avengers lacks any heart or compelling human performances. All of the characters, including Downey, just phone it in and collect their paycheck. Gone is the brilliant tug-of-war between the cartoonish aspects of the first Iron Man film and the demons Tony Stark wrestled throughout the film. Downey’s clown act in Iron Man was transparently about denial, Tony Stark keeping the laughs and the booze and the gals going while denying the fact he was facing the end of a life not worth living. Even his born-again experience and turn toward heroics was, as I took it, disingenuous. On one level it worked for the single-brain-cell crowd, but the throughpoint of Iron Man was the brilliant subtext of Stark’s redemption attempts and heroics actually being distractions from having to confront the fact he is, pardon the pun, an empty suit. The dichotomy between those two elements, along with the genuine humanity of Gwyneth Paltrow’s nuanced performance (wasted in an Avengers cameo) made Iron Man play brilliantly on multiple levels.

This is all lost in The Avengers, whose 142-minute run time left no room for even a short scene of Tony alone, tinkering with his armor, confronting his demons: What Am I Doing Here? Or Stark taking a drink as Steve Rogers observes and asks him, “You really think that’s a good idea...?” Missed opportunities all over the place. In this light, Iron Man’s heroics in The Avengers could and should have been looked upon as a suicide attempt. At some point, Captain America should have called Stark on his behavior, which would have been a much better use of Chris Evans’s Captain America, a man out of time who should have been more obviously struggling with issues of existence and meaning. There is actually a scene between Downey and Evans where Downey angrily spews out useless exposition about the device in his chest (which we practically never see) and how he is always mere millimeters from death. Evans’s Cap (or, most certainly, mine) should have read Stark right there. Had this been an actual Captain America comic book, written by skilled comic book writers instead of the Hollywood gang who have pushed so many of them out of the business, Cap would have. Cap would have sidelined Stark as a guy in this for the wrong reasons, and he would have been right. Downey/Stark would have spun off on his own B-story with he and Paltrow struggling through this, only to resolve the issue at least long enough for Iron Man to save the day in the third act. But, apparently, nobody thought of that.

I should mention, just for the record, how utterly ridiculous Evans looked in his costume. The costume from Captain America worked much better than this attempt at a “super-hero” costume, and there is no compelling reason why Evans needed to wear the cowl, which costume designer Alexandra Byrne failed utterly to make believable (has she never seen Batman?).

Speaking of which, The Avengers simply does not exist on the same plane of creativity as the current Batman franchise. I am holding my breath for The Dark Knight Rises because The Dark Knight was so brilliant that I presume we can’t help but be disappointed by the conclusion of the trilogy. I am already groaning about Bane, a bad idea when I worked in comics, a worse idea now. Bane is ticket repellent, the very idea he is in the film suggests camp. What Marvel Studios misses about the Bat franchise is the films work without the bat suit. In other words, had Christian Bale never put on a cape and just played the entire film in civvies, the film still works. Director Christopher Nolan made a good movie first, then added the larger-than-life stuff. With the exception of Iron Man I, this cannot be said about any Marvel movie. Each one seeks and succeeds on whatever level to dazzle us with spectacular imagery. Nolan sought to make a good movie. I find it impossible to imagine how Rises can succeed. Of course, we’ll all go see it, but I am expecting the kind of disappointment I felt sitting through Iron Man 2.

Thief:: Ruffalo's cartoon steals the show.

The Hulk Smashed

The Avengers surprise, for me, was The Hulk. I was very impressed at Mark Ruffalo’s grounded humanity, maybe the only character in the film who seemed real to me. The lonnnnng drum roll to the Hulk’s appearance was actually quite satisfying. I dreaded the Hulk’s appearance because the Hulk is a CGI puppet in whom I could not possibly become invested. Ruffalo was perhaps the most watchable actor in the film, and I found myself wishing he’d stick around and just never turn into The Hulk, which, obviously, was a ridiculous request. To my shock and, I’ll say it, awe, The Hulk simply stole the picture. The best moment in the film, the first business anyone who’s seen this movie thinks about, came from The Hulk. It caught me completely off-guard and, yes, amazed me. This bit with the Hulk was, for me, absolutely worth the price of admission. If you are reading this years later in some old dusty archive, I’m sure you’ll know what I am referring to. I was also incredibly impressed by the motion capture: The Hulk looked exactly like Ruffalo, with an impressive range of emotion and depth. Of course, they left the beast’s pathos on the cutting room floor, assuming the script ever included the vital core of who this character is.

I have no idea at all why The Black Window did not speak with a Russian accent. This annoyed me throughout the film, despite a decent performance by Scarlet Johansen.

For the most part, the branding and advertising for The Avengers showed mainly shadowy images of the logo (which, perplexingly, they did not use in the film). There was a reason for that. Just standing there, in those costumes, the characters look ridiculous. There’s a reason Hollywood keeps redressing beloved super-heroes in black leather: they look ridiculous in the costumes and film designers, for whatever reason, can’t seem to think of anything other than black rubber suits. Last summer’s disappointment, Green Lantern, was the rare exception, where the characters not only looked true to the comic book but *startlingly* true: in intimate and deeply satisfying detail. Visually, the film worked. It just had no script and no idea what to do with Hal Jordan or why that character is much more interesting than DC has ever made him with the notable exception of the brilliant Denny O’Neil.

The Avengers is loud. It is noisy. There will be lots of kids there, most too young to actually understand what is going on. Teen audiences, for whom the film is a much better fit, may see it, may not, because no teen wants to be labeled a geek. Like all of the Marvel films and most certainly the Batman franchise, this is not, not, not a film for little kids. I would not bring an 8-year old to see this, but would let them have the DVD so their short attention spans can skip right to The Hulk. The Avengers offers only jokes to adults. There is no storyline in here that does not insult (or, certainly, annoy) the sensibilities of people with jobs and drivers licenses. I am not even sure it’s fun. It is loud escapism that makes absolutely no effort to actually be about anything. It will make huge gobs of money but will only further erode the super-hero movie fad rather than contribute to the infrastructure in any meaningful way. It misses the lessons of Batman, of the flawed but visually brilliant Watchmen, and even of its own franchise standard bearer, the first Iron Man film, in that it fails to engage adult intellect or empathy in any meaningful way. There’s bunch of creatures invading Manhattan. We don’t know who they are and we don’t care. There is one or two amazingly brilliant moments with The Hulk, who just walks off with this movie in his back pocket, and the best and perhaps most brilliant scene in the film comes after the credits, after the kids have scurried down the stairs racing to be the first to the toilet and minivan.

I’m sure there are another ten just like it in the pipeline, because, whoever is calling the shots at Marvel Films just doesn’t get it. And as long as the cash rolls in and we keep lining up for these cartoons, he has no reason to actually make a good movie.

Christopher J. Priest
7 May 2012
Posted 4 November 2013