The Avengers is great fun. I thought it might be. Grantland.com called it “last summer’s best movie,” and it’s true that last summer’s string of superhero action movies got pretty tedious. I liked Thor, liked Captain America a little less, have liked both Iron Man movies, loathed The Green Lantern. There weren’t Black Widow or Hawkeye movies, and Mark Ruffalo wasn’t in the latest Hulk. It’s just felt like there were so many. Knowing they were heading towards an Avengers movie with all these preliminary offerings didn’t so much create a sense of expectation as ennui; crap, they’re doing another one?
Of course, it’s also possible to not see them. That is a choice. I could have actually skipped a few. The problem is, if you love movies, and if you decide to start skipping the popular, populist ones, you place your soul at risk. If you’re not careful, you could find yourself on a path to terminal hipsterdom. Too cool for school. Bored with everything. Superior snobbishness. Blarg.
Me, I’m all about art films. I can epater la bourgeoisie, in the right time, place and mood. I have absolutely seen more than my share of morbid, slow-paced movies, with subtitles and lots of rain in them. But sometimes, you just need ‘splosions.
And The Avengers is great fun. I kind of thought it would be. It’s a Joss Whedon movie, after all.
Here’s the thing: Whedon knows that even an action movie, even a genre movie, needs to be rooted in interesting human characters. The Avengers takes its time. Each character is introduced with his/her own action set piece, the one exception being Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) who ends up being about the most interesting Avenger during the film’s final battle scene. And then, when all the Avengers are finally assembled, turns out they don’t get along. Thor and Iron Man have a nasty battle scene, Iron Men mistrusts Nick Fury (Sam Jackson, world’s coolest actor, with a gratuitously coolness-adding eye patch), Captain America thinks they should just be good soldiers and obey orders, and meanwhile everyone sort of walks on eggshells trying not to piss off The Hulk. We know they’re going to work it out, get along, learn to fight together. But they’re people, they’re interesting.
Best of all: the villain. Tom Hiddleston was great in Thor and he’s great here–Loki is completely untrustworthy, and Hiddleston has genuine charisma, with a gleefully evil grin. He’s even a complex character, hiding his insecurities with bluster.
Great stuff. Maybe my favorite was Scarlett Johansson, as Natasha (Black Widow) Romanoff, a spy turned superhero-powerless-superhero. She’s got an interesting backstory–her ledger’s in the red, as she puts it–and she can seemingly turn on the vulnerability at will, strategically. There’s a scene you’ve all seen from the trailers, in which the camera pans all the Avengers–there’s Hawkeye with his bow and arrows, Captain America with his shield, Thor with his hammer, and. . . . Scarlett Johansson with her handgun. I laughed out loud. And we know why she’s in the movie: we all like some sex with our violence. But she holds her own; Scarlett (and her stunt double) are seriously plausible at fight scenes.
Of course the movie ends with a big CGI fight scene, as mandated by federal law pertaining to American-made movies. But the big fight scene is even good here, better than most and light years better than any Transformers fight scene. It’s funny. That’s, again, a Joss Whedon speciality. He’s maybe the best ever at the funny fight scene, at tongue-in-cheek violence.
Which is why the violence of the film remains for me so inoffensive and genial–it’s funny. Whedon knows the premise of the film is silly; that superheroes, in their costumes, are silly. He also knows we have to genuinely feel some sense of menace and danger. Those two impulses strike us as irreconcilable. But Whedon balances them. The final battle takes place in midtown Manhattan, and we see lots of ordinary citizens terrified by the extraterrestrial monsters Loki has recruited for his army. Their fear seems genuine; the running crowds aren’t superfluous. Captain America takes charge, directs police attempts to protect folks–Chris Evans is great in those scenes. But then comes the moment when the Hulk faces off against Loki. “I am your God,” Loki commands, “kneel before me!” And Hulk grabs him and smashes him to the ground a few times. “Puny God,” he mutters. It’s hilarious.
Okay, I admit, I’m a Joss Whedon geek, of the most obnoxious Firefly-quoting variety. He hasn’t made a film for a long time, and now he’s got this, and it’s going to make buckets of money (maybe even more buckets than any other movie ever), and that presages an artistic freedom in the future that I basically can’t wait to see what he does with. The bad news, of course, is that there will be an Avengers sequel, which Whedon will not direct. That’s okay; we don’t have to watch it, (though I probably will). The good news is, he’ll be doing something else just as awesome.