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Critical Distance: The Avengers

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Critical Distance: <em>The Avengers</em>

For 10 years, comic-book superheroes have permeated popular movies. After the mega-success of Spider-Man in 2002, costumed white fellas saving the world became multiplex staples. Once all the iconic heroes were accounted for, studios found continued success with second-tier characters, from the previously obscure (Iron Man) to the uncomfortably jingoistic (Captain America: The First Avenger). The circuit escalated into the late 2000s, spawning remakes, reboots, sequels, and prequels with a frequency that only the most ardent fans could keep up with. A few X-Men spinoffs, a Superman hybrid, and two Hulk films later, we now arrive at a moment of superhero saturation, wherein each new release affirms the general consensus that these films represent a creatively dry enterprise.

Critics get a bad wrap for being “out of touch” with the masses, but Tomatometer listings indicate that critics have been surprisingly forgiving of superhero fare. While there will always be a contingent that remains vocally negative to the idea of such absurd tales taking up a huge portion of the market, the superhero story is by no means an unworthy concept. Film is a medium defined by its paradoxical disposition as “commercial art” and houses some of most beautiful and absurd visions—unbound from logic or reality. Regarding superhero films, the problem isn’t the concept, but the execution. With the possible exception of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, many superhero movies are neutered by increasing pressures to both please fans while remaining digestible for the broadest base of viewers. As a result they don’t feel like real movies. More often they come across as massively budgeted visual companions to comic books, loaded with referential bits to the Marvel lexicon, but with a corporate stamp, lacking in imagination and relevance.

Thus, what better way to signify the death knell of the comic-book film adaptation than a “super”-sequel connecting the mythologies of other superhero films? The movie is The Avengers, a long-in-development project that culminates plot threads and characters from a handful of earlier Marvel films. Given that the likes of Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America each featured extensive in-film and post-credit teasers for The Avengers, record-setting box office numbers were a forgone conclusion. Yet despite appearing as the terminal symbol of Hollywood’s evaporated originality, The Avengers is a genuinely compelling film. Unlike its recent brethren, it doesn’t get by on fights and tights alone. It’s instead a more virtuoso piece with a foundation of crisp writing and characterization. Credit that to writer-director Joss Whedon, who remains faithful to the established universe but recognizes and corrects what didn’t work about the previous movies. In addition to providing The Avengers with a sound structure, Whedon supplies it with thematic layers—touching on the fears, concerns, and broader sensibilities of contemporary society—while also implicitly acknowledging its intrinsically absurd nature.

But let’s start with the upfront details. The film’s most obvious quality is its efficiency. From a narrative standpoint, The Avengers is a clinic in compact screenwriting. Whedon establishes the stakes in the sluggishly expository opening scenes, but then starts turning the cogs toward the eventual convergence of the heroes. Whedon’s precision at assembling the likes of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is evidenced by the handful of memorable physical and verbal confrontations between them. Of course, it helps when you have actors like Ruffalo and Downey Jr. on board. Ruffalo is especially good as the tortured Bruce Banner; that this is his first foray with the character adds to his quietly engaging performance.

Seeing such titan-sized egos repel off of one another is great fun (especially in a forest-set three-way standoff between Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America), but this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Whedon’s television work. One of his great strengths as a storyteller is how he augments conflict with humor, which shines through in his dialogue. Shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly thrived on these qualities. Like these, The Avengers also maintains a pointed narrative focus that relies on how the disparate pieces fit together as part of a larger mosaic rather than on any one component.

The tradeoff comes with a story that can best be described as conventional. The plot involves a power-hungry villain named Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who wields a mysterious substance that grants him command over an alien army that threatens to invade and pillage Earth. In response, S.H.I.E.L.D. (a secret government military agency, in case you haven’t been following) enlists the world’s top superheroes to stop Loki and his minions.

As you might guess, just about every plot turn is recycled from other fantasy or superhero stories. This may in part explain why critics offered such muted praise of the film. Despite a 93% standing on Rotten Tomatoes, there’s an air of contempt toward the film among much of the critical elite, as if begrudgingly acknowledging that Whedon has made all the right moves with a tired foundation. This is broadly true. But it’s worth noting that Whedon, to his credit, never pretends that the story arc is particularly significant. He instead supports it from the bottom up, with solid structuring and careful characterization. For example, despite a weak plot, Whedon gets all the mileage he needs out of Hiddleston’s exceptional performance. He bellows phrases like “Kneel before me!” about as convincingly as an actor can, and his demonic smile works to great effect when beaming through that metal-horned helmet of his.

The AvengersAnother notable aspect of the film is how it assimilates a range of tonal and stylistic tropes of popular cinema. Whedon’s visual approach borrows from the likes of Michael Bay and Christopher Nolan without outright mimicking them. Some of the low-angle shots of S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, stiff as ever) and slow-motion shots of destruction are Bay-esque, while the general movement of the action invokes Nolan’s quicker, and quickly cut, no-nonsense approach. There’s also a wonderful Spielbergian moment during the finale when the camera zooms across the city in a single shot to show what each of the heroes are up to.

The drawback of emulating and enmeshing a variety of noted styles so effectively is that the movie lacks a strong authorial voice of its own. Fortunately, given the ground the film has to cover, Whedon’s pastiche aesthetic detracts little from the proceedings and actually may constitute a unique contribution to the blockbuster lexicon due to its restraint.

Its low-key methods notwithstanding, The Avengers isn’t short on big moments. (The slow reveal of the lumbering techno-vessel emerging from the ocean to float invisibly in the sky especially stands out.) But for being such a behemoth, and despite having all the ingredients of over-stuffed, overdone, and over-stimulating contemporary blockbusters, it operates nimbly and purposefully. In this regard, The Avengers recalls James Cameron’s Aliens—perhaps the best example of no-frills action filmmaking—in its steadiness and attention paid to rhythmic narrative pacing. Consider the scene in which Loki launches an assault on the Avengers’ base. As the sequence unfolds, every character has a specific function, which the film’s editing depicts clearly and evenly. All the while, Whedon creates tension by funneling the action through the dynamics of the characters’ relationships. It’s a bit mechanical, but nonetheless it’s played to exciting effect. This is a credit to both the writing the understated visual approach, which evens out the inherent epic-ness of the film’s premise.

The Avengers also has a rich, if not subtle, thematic backbone that suggests real-world events. The inevitable third-act demolition of Manhattan contains images that strike an uncomfortable chord in the wake of 9/11. There’s nothing particularly horrifying about the visions of alien creatures pouring out of a black hole suspended over the city, and yet the images of fleeing crowds and streets full of dusty rubble invoke the specter of 9/11. These images tie into the film’s larger concern with the nuanced implications of ensuring safety in an increasingly dangerous world. For example, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s shadowy dealings suggest an underlying corruption that makes for an effective contrast to the squabbling among the Avengers themselves. That the heroes are enlisted by and answer to S.H.I.E.L.D. adds to the murkiness the film associates with representing a powerful force for good. “You lie and kill in the service of liars and killers,” Loki tells one of the Avengers.

Real-world parallels abound in The Avengers, a departure from the patterns of previous Marvel movies (the X-Men movies being a notable exception). On the other hand, another major comic-book franchise—Nolan’s Batman series—has dealt with similar themes head-on. Though Whedon’s aesthetic appears to have been influenced by Nolan, it turns out this also extends to the thematic texture of The Avengers. Its preoccupation with post-9/11 relations notably conjures The Dark Knight, such as how Loki channels the Joker in key respects. Both villains are interested in power for its own sake and espouse a cynical view of the human race. Loki is more interested in subjugation than chaos, but his philosophical underpinnings and casual sadism are similar to those of the Joker. These motifs constitute the dark core of Nolan’s less formally accomplished Batman movies, whereas Whedon juxtaposes them with a simpler idea of heroism that grows out of necessity from the tumultuous relationships of the protagonists. The overt message about putting ego aside and working together is straightforward, but it takes on added significance with the additional themes regarding S.H.I.E.L.D. and Loki’s quest for power.

Laced together with the sharp dialogue and economical aesthetic, the thematic center is one of many details that The Avengers showcases as part of its brisk, lively aura. This is both an accurate description of both its strengths and weaknesses, however. Whedon’s impressively smooth orchestration of an array of constituents amounts to a self-consciously ephemeral experience. This is most apparent during the action-heavy third act, which churns out one cartoonish chase sequence after another. All the dramatic energy mustered in these moments comes from how the characters collaborate to defeat Loki’s army rather than from the action itself. These sequences therefore evoke the limitations of this storytelling mode. Although the film’s limitations become more apparent toward the conclusion, it doesn’t take away from the film’s many accomplishments. Rather, it places them in perspective.

Joss Whedon’s task with this film isn’t to subvert this style of visual storytelling, but to point out how fun it’s supposed to be and so often isn’t. In this sense, The Avengers is an unqualified success. (Ironically, despite the Whedon’s revitalizing of the superhero film, the high profit margin of The Avengers will likely bequeath another decade’s worth of underwhelming comic-book films to which his rendition is an antidote.) Whedon deserves credit for his skillful integration of a wide range of aesthetic and thematic elements into a slick commercial package. The Avengers represents a pristine iteration of the superhero film. In addition, it’s an amalgam of the transient pleasures of modern blockbuster mythmaking. Unfortunately, the proficiency with which it operates also highlights the restricted potential of the modern blockbuster (which would probably require a total overhaul to yield another genuinely great spectacle). Nevertheless, even though the days of great big-budget filmmaking may well have run their course, The Avengers is an agile tribute to the passing pleasures that the best of it produces. It may be inconsequential, but, boy, does it hum.

The Avengers

Ted Pigeon is author of the blog The Cinematic Art. He also contributed to the recently published book, Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction: Film, Pleasure and Digital Culture, Vol. 2.