Caution: The following review was written by a moviegoer who has been suffering from superhero-movie fatigue since X-Men 3 back in 2006. You have been warned.
Don’t worry — I get it. My review of The Avengers won’t make a dollar’s difference in the box office results. The best stunt you’ll see now that the film has opened is its rocket-blast rush toward breaking all records and busting all blocks. It’s faster than Iron Man in a hurry.
So I’m not going to try and persuade you to see it or not to see it. You’ve probably already seen it.
And I’m not going to bother with a detailed plot summary. About a thousand plot summaries are being posted today, and you are welcome to read as many as you like. Besides, the cards in the superhero deck are so easy to shuffle, you could have told pretty much the same story with a completely different cast of characters. (No doubt, we will see the same movie with different characters soon.) So why bother with particulars? Suffice it to say: There’s a magic cube, and it’s a portal, and there’s a bunch of nasty aliens on the other side. What can save the world. God? Love? No… a bunch of guys who, once they’re done fighting each other, will join forces and demonstrate that they’re better at violence than the villains. In the name of goodness and America and old-fashioned something-or-other.
I’m also not inclined to spend more than a few lines considering the themes of the movie. Why bother? It would be like writing an essay on the nutrition you will glean from a box of Oreo cookies, or telling the crowd at a monster-truck-and-tractor pull that the guys behind the wheels are patriots who really love their families, and that 10% of the profits will go to charity. How inspiring!
And besides, if you’re really interested in what The Avengers selects from the five or six basic flavors of comic book superhero movie themes, what honorable notions it pins like accessories to its flamboyant costumes, I can point you to plenty of reviews like that. Those reviews will applaud the movie’s simplistic stories of undisciplined egomaniacs who humble themselves to become a team; who get over themselves and put aside their differences for the greater good; who risk their lives to save others; who overcome fear and set aside grudges, etc. It’s like a cage-fighting tournament for peace. It will serve up sermon-illustrations for man-centric pastors across the country for the next several months.
But it would feel like a waste of time to rationalize my enjoyment of what is, essentially, a two-and-a-half-hour demolition derby. Let’s face it: While The Avengers gives good lip service to such American virtues as democracy, teamwork, courage, and sacrifice, ultimately it exists to fulfill the fantasies of adolescents — adolescents of all ages. For every admirable alliance established between temperamental champions, several city blocks will be destroyed. Don’t worry, the movie won’t stop to shed any tears over human casualties (unless we happen to lose a member of the team — this is a Joss Whedon film, after all) or consider the consequences of urban devastation. Everything has been carefully calculated to restore the fun we used to have watching terrorists destroy skyscrapers before we were taught what such a thing really costs.
Bored of movies in which a superhero, seemingly outmatched by a supervillain, manages to come through like Rocky and The Karate Kid in the end, saving the world with violence that the movie has carefully prepared us to embrace as justified and reasonable? Well… boy do I have the movie for you. The Avengers brings not one, not two, but a crowd of superheroes together. And, before they’re drawn into war with their Supervillain of the Month, they have to fight each other so we can see their powers going off like fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Once we’re convinced that they’re all pretty much equally invincible, and we’re feeling exhausted from the time and energy spent in such collisions, then we can watch them coordinate their efforts against a madman who is clearly in over his head. And we’re right back in the thick of the melee we came to see: an exquisitely complicated and violent ballet that will save the world from a familiar mayhem made of aliens and guns and sharp pointy things and lasers and fast flying vehicles and big nasty teeth.
But, believe it or not, it is not my intention to condemn the affair. I enjoy a good superhero movie the way I enjoy a bowl of ice cream, and this is a six-scoop sundae covered in toppings. I’m just here to point out that it’s not a particularly healthy form of entertainment, it is calculated to give us what we want rather than what we need; and it’s full of artificial ingredients. To put it another way: It’s basically history’s most expensive Itchy and Scratchy cartoon. And it so focused on fulfilling adolescent fanboy fantasies that it makes X-Men: First Class seem like Shakespeare in the Park.
Still, while I may be 41, I’m also 14. I’ve always enjoyed ice cream sundaes just as I’ve always been thrilled by blockbuster Fourth of July fireworks shows.
And as fireworks displays go, The Avengers delivers the awesome.
So, let’s abandon the essay. It seems more appropriate to respond to explosions with explosions. That’s what I’ll do.
Since the movie isn’t so much a work of storytelling as it’s a marathon of wish-fulfillment moments for comic book enthusiasts — punches peppered with punchlines — here it comes: A movie review made of comic-book style exclamations from my inner 14-year-old, which should easily fit into dialogue balloons. I’ve even put quotation marks around a bunch of outbursts for your convenience. And I’ve included exclamation points, since no movie has ever made them so necessary.
What can we say about writer and director Joss Whedon?
- “Bringing the brilliant banter that made Firefly a cult classic series, Joss Whedon turns in an Avengers adventure that may be impossible to top!!”
- “Hey, FOX: You do realize that you took this filmmaker’s best material and canceled it, right? What a proud moment for you!”
- “Sure, the action scenes are phenomenal! But it’s the electrical storm of Whedon-brand dialogue that may make The Avengers the biggest crowdpleaser in the history of superhero movies!”
- “I’ve never been a part of a moviegoing audience that roared with more laughter and applauded in more slack-jawed amazement!”
- “Supeheroes haven’t been this much fun since The Incredibles!”
- “It’ll make you weep for what X-Men 3 could have been, if it had been given to Joss Whedon instead of Brett Ratner!”
- “Like a world-class maestro, Whedon conducts these dueling divas in thrilling cycles of dissonance and harmony until the audience is exhausted by the crescendos!”
So… how’s Iron Man? And Thor? And Captain America? And Black Widow?
- “With the same kind of crackling chemistry that made Mal, Jayne, Zoe, and Simon so engaging in Firefly, Tony Stark, Thor, Black Widow, and Steve Rogers could carry a whole movie without a single action scene. Their banter is the film’s best special effect!”
Wait, Black Widow? She’s not the weakest link here? She actually belongs on this team?
- “We should have known. Joss Whedon, the man who gave us Buffy the Vampire Slayer, somehow takes the least interesting Avenger, and the only rep for girl power, and makes her the movie’s biggest surprise — a superhero who kicks just as much ass as her teammates, if not more so!”
- “Scarlett Johansson turns in a real performance here, and she does so without ever looking like anything less than a comic book geek’s dream. If she were a man, she’d be Scarlett Jo-handsome!”
What about Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye?
- “Jeremy Renner seems to be joining every action franchise these days, but I’ve yet to see a movie that suggests this is a bad idea.”
- “How cool is Hawkeye? He fits right in on the Avengers team, without a flashy costume or elaborate powers. That’s a superhuman feat in itself!”
- “You’ll want to see Katniss Everdeen leave the The Hunger Games and run off with Hawkeye into intergalactic adventures, saving the universe with dazzling archery!”
Okay, how about the Incredible Hulk? After two attempts to make him a big-screen star, is the third time the charm?
- “Hulk smashes in all the ways fans of the comic book hero have ever dreamed he might! Then, he goes on smashing… smashing in ways no one’s ever dreamed!”
- “Man, it’s not easy being green! Hulk makes the Tasmanian Devil seem cool, calm, and collected!”
- “You will cheer every time the Hulk lands a blow! His punches are punchlines!”
- “For better or worse, Mark Ruffalo — so Oscar-worthy in You Can Count On Me — has just turned in the performance that will make him immortal, as the most sympathetic Avenger and the most human Bruce Banner yet!”
Okay, what about the supervillains?
- “As Loki, Tom Hiddleston is a welcome relief from villains we’re asked to take seriously. He’s a prancing buffoon with a glow-stick, likeably insane. I found myself rooting for him to survive!”
- “The Loki/Black Widow showdown is clearly inspired by the battle of wits between Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling… and it’s just as delicious!”
- “Like the battle droids in The Phantom Menace, these alien drones on speeders seem to exist in order to give the heroes something to smash!”
- “For all of the exhausting violence, these villains never inspire even a moment of tangible fear. And for all of the violence they unleash, they do surprisingly little harm to any actual human beings. But it’s fun to see how hell-bent they are on destroying every motor vehicle in Manhattan!”
- “The conversations are so imaginative, why does the last half an hour have to look so much like a Transformers movie?!”
- “Really? They’re going to capture the bad guy and put him in a secure, transparent chamber and then interrogate him through glass? Have they been watching X-Men movies?!”
- “Really? You’re giving Iron Man a scene previously performed by the Iron Giant?!”
- “Really? After all of these surprises, and so much ‘Wow, I’ve never seen that before!’, you’re giving us one of the most familiar action climaxes of all?!”
- “Really? After so much memorable dialogue, the movie ends with what may be the movie’s most mundane line?!”
- “As the end-credits roll for The Avengers, it’s clear which superhero holds the future in his hands! Now, at long last, Joss Whedon is in the place where his longtime fans have wanted him to be. He’ll have all of the resources he could ever have wanted to realize his dreams.”
- “I wouldn’t hesitate to put him at the helm of the next Star Trek, the next Indiana Jones film. I’d even ask him to reboot Star Wars.”
Okay… I’m exhausted. But before we wrap up, here are a few grains of salt for the post-screening discussion.
Like I said, you can find a few nuggets of meaning in the melee. But I’m more concerned about what moviegoers will learn from entertainment like this, as opposed to what we might hope they learn.
Read the comments section for any Avengers review that dares to point out the movie’s weaknesses, and you’ll see that hordes of devoted Marvel fans will Hulk-out at the slightest provocation. (Even Samuel Jackson is throwing fuel on the outrage: “#Avengers fans, NY Times critic AO Scott needs a new job! Let’s help him find one! One he can ACTUALLY do!”) The target audience for this movie is wired to react with thoughtless rage, spectacular violence, and barely any evidence of the restraint that Bruce Banner would do anything to regain. And why not? They’ve just been cheering for a movie that treats the Hulk’s temper tantrums as if they’re a religious experience. Hulk thrills audiences by unleashing relentless destruction, and makes us look forward to moments when his curse is at its worst. And his superfriends are a bunch of overly aggressive egomaniacs who, like five-year-olds, act like it’s some kind of Herculean feat to quiet down and cooperate on a task.
Isn’t it fair to say that what these heroes might yearn to be, what they might learn to be, gets drowned out in the thrills of the supremely impressive violent spectacles that they’re assigned to provide for our pleasure?
So, with all of that in mind: Yes, I enjoyed these fireworks. I enjoyed this super sundae. But now I have an ice cream headache, and I think I’ll stick to salads for a while. For better or worse, The Avengers is the biggest, funniest, most relentlessly entertaining superhero movie so far. Only God can save us now.