For better and worse, The Avengers is less a movie than the world's biggest (un)limited-edition collector's issue. Since 2008's Iron Man, audiences have dutifully clipped the proof-of-purchase tags tacked onto each of Marvel's comic-book movies — the post- or mid-credits bonus scene showing the snaky, labyrinthine beginnings of a later saga to come. Each clip gathered new players and parceled out story teasers, at a pace familiar to any child who has pursued a puzzle from cereal box to cereal box. Your ticket to each installment in this Avengers Initiative ensured the next would be made.
The promise remained the bonus prize at journey's end: a storytelling feat where the heroes would get together to do awesome things. Now that the proofs of purchase have been collected and cashed in, the hotly awaited payoff is The Avengers, the summer's first big-ticket action movie — and for a tedious opening hour, its most curious disappointment.
There's no question that writer-director Joss Whedon has managed to take an insanely expensive summer tentpole film and turn it into something a bit weirder than expected. At its best — mostly in the second half, when the chemistry among the teammates begins to work — the movie brings the Marvel universe to life with some of the character complexity, sharp-witted dialogue and concern for the genre's mythic underpinnings that marks Whedon's best work, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer through the current The Cabin in the Woods. To get there, however, the movie slogs through a first half full of the alpha-male bullshit and contrived conflict that Whedon's past projects either jettison or satirize.
The Avengers' closest antecedent isn't a superhero movie so much as those 1970s/early '80s Agatha Christie adaptations like Murder on the Orient Express. These mysteries were gloriously overstuffed with guest stars, yet a workable tone gave every character and performer his or her proper due. Picture a Death on the Nile where everyone's a Bette Davis — an icon clamoring for its own space, story and star billing — and that suggests something of the logjam that is The Avengers' early exposition.
So despite the end of last year's Thor indicating that Asgardian trickster Loki (Tom Hiddleston) was hiding out in the subconscious of executive scientist Stellan Skarsgård, we find that he has instead teamed up with an alien armada called the Chitauri. With them to wreck the earth, he can take over and re-establish the kingdom that was stripped from him. The means to this end is the Tesseract (big ups to the memory of Madeleine L'Engle), an Asgardian artifact that can turn a good man bad, make things explode, and open interdimensional gateways for the alien menace. The stage is set for the heroes to swoop, dash, stomp and charge in to the rescue.
Alas, the assembled Avengers waste most of the angst-y first half squabbling through various manufactured confrontations on the battlefield and in their laboratory. It's as if one of those Fake Hulk Tweets were delivering story notes from the sidelines: "More fight. Want more fight." So you get more fight, almost continuously. Somewhere, someone with some power really wanted to know if Thor's hammer could shatter Captain America's vibranium shield, or if Iron Man's repulsor tech could mess with Asgardian invulnerability.
Ordinarily, trumped-up drama would seem unnecessary when the world's fate hangs in the balance. But the Chitauri are ill-defined to the point of being almost nonentities. They pummel New York into a pile of shrapnel and rubble from end to end, but it's hard to tell exactly what they're doing on a one-to-one basis. They have mini-Tesseract spears (I think) and flying sleds and giant biomechanoid flukeships that resemble a Juggalo take on the Acanti from the old X-Men comics, but mostly they're just placeholders to give the heroes a foe when Loki is otherwise occupied.
Ironically, one reason The Avengers takes so long to find its footing is its very concept: setting all these characters loose in the same toybox. The earlier movies were a jumble of looks, styles and tones. Kenneth Branagh's Thor, with its Maxfield Parrish/Led Zeppelin approach to cosmic warfare, has more in common with the goofy psychedelic pizzazz of the 1980 Flash Gordon than with the techno-Dean Martin charms of Jon Favreau's Iron Man films — let alone the straight-faced jingoism of Joe Johnston's delightful retro-futurist Captain America. Accordingly, apart from Jeremy Renner's underused Hawkeye, Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans suffer the most as the movie splits the difference among the three tones, settling on Tony Stark's snark.
Even so, that proves to be The Avengers' saving grace. Robert Downey Jr., who leavens every scene he's in, relieves the ponderousness weighing down the film's first hour. Whenever his Tony Stark ducks in with a masterful quip or a sharp elbow to the subtext, you feel like you can breathe again. The happiest surprise is Mark Ruffalo, a newcomer to the franchise as the touchy Bruce Banner and his lovable green id (who gets Whedon's best lines). He brings gravitas, nerdy charm and energy, and enough big-screen charisma to wipe everyone but Downey pretty much off the radar; he has one scene with a cinematic legend that has more heart, humor and off-kilter joy than anything that comes before it. Here's hoping he gets a new Hulk film that has the artistic daring of Ang Lee's vastly underrated 2003 version.
The Avengers frustrates partly because Whedon so clearly understands the mind of the genre enthusiast. As even a glance at The Cabin in the Woods, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog or Firefly shows, this is a guy who knows how to incorporate an expansive palette of characters into a cohesive whole. This time, though, they're not his characters, and you often get the sense that he's not playing by his rules. He's got a remarkable gift for resourceful and tough female characters, for example, but here he has only a couple to work with (and the jury's out on Gwyneth Paltrow in Daisy Dukes). The biggest beneficiary of this particular skill set is Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, who gets a great Dollhouse-y intro as well as a killer scene with Hiddleston's Loki that hints at a weirder, more emotionally spiky film lurking within.
And yet the movie pulls off moments of sheer magic. One long take during the giant climactic battle covers several different planes of action involving all the principal characters; it has the kind of iconic majesty that defines entire summer blockbuster seasons. That shot demonstrates the appeal of The Avengers as a concept: placing these characters in a common space where their disparate skills allow them to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, it takes the movie more than half its length to find that synthesis.
One technical note: if the 3D post-conversion is merely inessential, the digital IMAX experience is ludicrous. Its image, comparable to any digital presentation found at any multiplex, hangs there like a lie on the giant screen meant for actual 70mm film projection. Hollywood's rush to slough off celluloid will eventually (and justly) deprive it of this ancillary stream, because other than reserved seats, the format has nothing to offer. IMAX is supposed to mean 70mm film, or at the very least a 70mm blow-up — but you just can't seem to blow up a file to fit the expanse of those giant screens. What theaters are peddling with this lackluster process is the opposite of super and heroic.
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