2008 was a big year for comic book movies. Not just in releases, but in relevance. In an over-saturated market, three big films emerged and rejuvenated the genre: Iron Man, Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, and The Dark Knight. With Iron Man, began a big gamble by the newly created Marvel studios to present characters without recognizability in a big marketing pull leading to an Avengers franchise. More importantly, the film relied on its strong cast and thematic relevance rather than flashy special effects. In fact, it could be argued the plot was fairly weak: the film was about power, about terrorism and ultimately about the American psyche. Not bad for a mediocre comic book film. Then there was Hellboy 2, the most aesthetically stunning superhero film ever made, with a timeless story about tolerance and equality. And of course, The Dark Knight, which changed the game forever. The Dark Knight was not just a good superhero movie. It was an excellent film. It showed that no longer are audiences okay with being pandered to, that intelligence can be more compelling than effects and that superheroes are still an essential part of the American mythology. So what does this have to do with Avengers?
The Avengers represents the culmination of what started for Marvel Studios in 2008, the final product of a huge marketing gamble. Written and directed by fanboy favorite Joss Whedon (of Buffy and Firefly fame) the film juggles a large cast with a myriad of personal problems and the standard “save the world or the aliens win” plot. The film starts with velocity, but shows Whedon’s television roots rather obviously. The opening scene eschews stage setting- all of the films leading up to it are that. It begins with Loki, the Norse god of mischief and main villain from Thor making a deal with an apparently evil alien race whose crimes include looking like they were dug out of Guillermo Del Toro’s reject bin and desiring world domination for no apparent reason. Loki, still suffering from a psychologically problematic inferiority complex, decides to team up with the aliens to enslave humanity so he can take some kind of revenge against his brother, Thor. His motives thus poorly explained, Tom Hiddleston’s fine performance that elevated last year’s Thor, the weakest of the Marvel efforts, takes over. Who needs to know Loki’s motives when he’s so charismatic, so tortured, so gosh darn fun to watch?
After a boring car chase Samuel L. Jackson and/or Nick Fury decides it’s time to unite all of the strange people we’ve paid good money to watch the origin stories of already against the threat of Loki and his newly stolen inter-dimensional portal, and the real fun kicks in.
As is characteristic of Whedon, the real strength of Avengers lies in how well it manages a huge amount of characters. It reunites (most of) the casts of the previous Marvel efforts and shows just how well their chemistry works. Robert Downey Jr is of course always impossibly likable in his tailor-made Tony Stark role and he plays nicely off of the earnest performance Chris Evans gives as Steve Rogers. Joining them is newcomer Mark Ruffalo, replacing Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, the tortured scientist who turns into the Hulk. While it’s a shame to see Norton and his pathos as Banner go, Ruffalo captures a new side of the character and brings his rage and social ineptitude to life beautifully. Chris Hemsworth, Samuel L. Jackson, and Jeremy Renner complete the male cast with varying performances, each getting in memorable moments. Scarlett Johansson and Gwyneth Paltrow return to represent key female characters Black Widow and Pepper Potts respectively. While the latter is severely underused, it is worth noting that Whedon’s track record of writing fine female characters remains intact with Black Widow, who not only gets to be eye candy, but is also one of the most surprisingly awesome characters, getting to own several of her own fight scenes, carrying a portion of the drama, and having the backbone to stand up to Loki on her own, without any superpowers. Color me impressed.
Still, for the many strengths of the cast and their playing off of each other, the film itself does not represent the height of superhero film, not by a long shot. As is a side effect of combining characters from unlike genres, the film and its high energy action scenes often come across cartoony, rather than compelling. Moreover, while there is a good 20 minute or so span that jumps from one minor character development to the next, its clear that this is only a breather, we are meant to understand each character’s personality, and the film hurries from one action scene to the next with reckless abandon. As awesome as it is watching downtown Cleveland be demolished by an alien menace, watching the newly improved CGI of the Hulk smash, and watching the Iron Man suit go through various states of destruction, these scenes pale in comparison to intensity of the drama that should be explored between Loki and Thor, for example, or even Hawkeye and Black Widow.
Furthermore, somewhere in the laughable makeup effects and sometimes silly Asgardian costumes, the film gets so self consumed it goes into a slight self destruct mode. The thematic resonance is lost. It’s a film that is pure escapism- there’s nothing wrong with that, but compared to the real world overtones of Iron Man, or the sincere patriotism of Captain America: The First Avenger, it seems that the film is a step backwards. It feels like a fine comic book movie- but a comic book movie only.
This is where 2008 comes in. That year showed that comic book movies could also be good movies. But Avengers loses sight of this, for all of its many strengths. It feels like a circus of action and costumes and CGI, and while it’s an enjoyable circus of attractive people and one-liners, it’s still not offering anything up but entertainment.