The Avengers (2012)

Continuity. It is the key to Marvel’s long-term film strategy. It’s also the reason I got turned off to the Marvel universe after Iron Man 2 came out. Spending  a lot of valuable screen time setting up characters, situations and plot threads that won’t be satisfied for a couple of years makes for a larger film experience I’m just not interested in having. Therefore, I haven’t seen Thor or Captain American: The First Avenger.

I think this might be why I find the first thirty minutes of this film trying. There’s this cube that promises perpetual energy but also makes interplanetary portals and then this guy called Loki (Tom Hiddleston) shows up through this portal and starts attacking everyone and steals the cube and they’ve got to get the cube back and that’s why Samuel L. Jackson decides to retry the Avengers initiative.

The opening act reminds me why I’ve never gotten into any superhero universe in any real depth: it’s just too convoluted for me. Who is Loki? What is his plan? What is this cube? Where did it come from? How is Captain America (Chris Evans) here? Afterwards, my younger brother gave me the high points of the Marvel film universe, which retroactively made the first act make sense, but in the moment, the film did a terrible job of explaining what it all means.

This leads me to believe that this act, which primarily serves to introduce these elements to people like me who haven’t seen the first two films, fails. Here’s what you do instead: Opening scene: Loki comes through cube portal, steals cube, and flees. Second scene: introduce Avengers in montage, assemble them and then explain what the crap is going on. Also, give Loki a plan that makes sense, one that doesn’t make it clear that even if he succeeds, he fails.

Once the Avengers are together, and Samuel L. Jackson lays down the situation and the stakes the film hits the ground running. Instead there’s this whole elongated sequence where Loki has to steal this super rare metal to cool the cube so he can open a portal or something. It’s stupid. It makes no sense. It wastes time. It’s the kind of convoluted garbage that makes people scoff at superhero stories.

The film gets into gear when Loki starts getting into The Avengers’ heads and turning them against each other. And director/screenwriter Joss Whedon is able to so effortlessly tease out these conflicts naturally. The improvisational, worry about the consequences later, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) buts heads with Boy Scout, by the book Captain America. Likewise, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) soon discovers shady elements of S.H.I.E.L.D. that make him angry.

It’s also a great critique of the egos at work in the superhero genre. Whedon recognizes that all these characters are on some sort of ego trip and uses that to call into question how self-sacrificing these heroes really are. Some certainly are more admirable than others, but Whedon brings out the worst in them in order to make a compelling ensemble piece.

And, this being Whedon, there’s got to be some critiques of power. S.H.I.E.L.D., the agency that brings the Avengers together, has its own ulterior motives a play. Samuel L. Jackson, who up to this point has been a cool dude with an eye-patch, becomes a subtle manipulator, attempting to pull all the strings and hold all the right cards to get what he wants. On the other side, Loki is playing mindgames with the Avengers, pitting them against each other to give him the time he needs to launch his plans. The Avengers become pawns in a chess game with a picture much larger than any of them suspect.

Whedon also demonstrates his great comedic sensibility. Besides a lot of jokes being clever and witty wordplays and references, there are a handful of great visual gags. Whedon isn’t afraid to make a joke or two that requires the audience to connect a couple of dots, and the payoff is all the more satisfying. Also, there’s a hilarious, show-stealing cameo from an actor I never expected to see in a Marvel film.

The action in the film is passable. As great of a writer as Whedon is, he’s doesn’t have the best action sensibilities. The sequences aren’t as incoherent as some action flicks these days, but more than a few fights are spatially difficult to trace, especially when he starts intercutting between several different fights. Also, a lot of the action sequences are a bit too straightforward and simple.

There is one great action shot late in the film where the camera transitions through Avengers amidst the final battle, sweeping from character to character elegantly and effortlessly. While it’s been argued CGI dictate the need to have so many edits, or to obscure parts of images in order to cut down on rendering, this demonstrates that there are some fantastic things you can do with CGI without relying on editing as a cover.

Joss Whedon hasn’t redeemed the Marvel universe for me, there are certain characters I don’t think would work for me in their own movie (*cough* Captain America *cough*), and Loki’s plan is pretty stupid, but he’s made the first Marvel film I’ve enjoyed in years. For now, I’m still holding to The Cabin in the Woods as Whedon’s best effort of 2012, mostly because Goddard is a better director than him, but The Avengers is a solid superhero outing after a deluge of terrible and mediocre superhero flicks.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing