Or should that be “Okay, so I saw Marvel’s The Avengers ?”
In any case, I wasn’t going to. I was determined not to participate in the so-called “biggest event of the summer” because I’m flat-out tired of seeing Marvel (and, by extension, Disney) rake in hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars off the fruits of Jack Kirby’s imagination while “The King’s” estate gets more or less nothing (although in fairness — or should that be unfairness — they do get some sort of pittance for anything featuring Captain America in it, since he’s officially recognized as Cap’s co-creator along with Joe Simon). Stan Lee’s recent comments about Jack didn’t do much to up my enthusiasm level for this latest blockbuster either, and basically reaffirmed my opinion that he’s a major-league asshole who was lucky enough to glom onto the works a true creative genius that now he doesn’t even have the decency to acknowledge, much less thank, so yeah — it’s fair to say I was pretty cool to this whole thing and found most of the absolute gushing over it that’s been infecting the internet, Twitter in particular, to be annoying in the extreme.
But then the folks who are trying to put together The Jack Kirby Museum came up with a novel idea — donate the price of your ticket to their brick-and-mortar fund, so that future generations can have an actual, physical place to go and experience first-hand the power of the unfettered creative genius that everyone else but his family has gotten rich off. That sounded good to me, so for the price of a $7.50 admission and a matching $7.50 donation, my conscience was suitably assuaged — hey, I guess I always knew there was some price at which my principles could be sold out, but it’s rather depressing to think that it could be so cheap. Still, best not to spend too much time dwelling on that —
Anyway, before I kick over the hornet’s nest of fan opinion, let me state for the record that I found The Avengers to be a perfectly fun, generally-well-executed, thoroughly entertaining superhero romp. But (and you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you?) — that’s all it is.
Sorry, assembled hordes of fandom, but it’s not “groundbreaking,” it’s far from “the best superhero movie ever,” (hello? The Dark Knight? Batman Begins? Spider-Man 2? Superman : The Movie?) much less “the best comic book adaptation ever,” (hello again? American Splendor? Ghost World? Sin City? A History Of Violence?) and it doesn’t “prove” that co-writer/director Joss Whedon is a “visionary,” or the “new master of the superhero genre.”
And all those quotes I pulled are, frankly, just a sampling of some of the less effusive praise I’ve seen bandied about online in regard to this flick. I’ve also seen it called “the new benchmark by which all others will be judged,” “the summer blockbuster to end them all,” “a singular work of astonishing breadth and scope,” and “the defining cinematic statement from the undisputed master of the craft.”
In this armchair critic’s opinion, unpopular as saying so is bound to make me, it’s none of those things. Not even close. Whedon has concocted a nice little script and brought it to life in an appealing and pleasant manner, but this isn’t a movie that bears any authorial signature whatsoever — if the credits were blank and someone told you it was directed by, say, Jon Favreau, you’d believe it, because it plays out pretty much exactly the same, in tone and style, as either of the two Iron Man films, and it doesn’t have anything like the individualistic flair of Kenneth Branagh’s Thor or Joe Johnson’s Captain America : The First Avenger. Hell, it even completely overuses the tedious inside-the-helmet perspective shots of Robert Downey Jr.’s head that Favreau is so annoyingly fond of.
In addition, our guy Joss shows no particularly deft touch with his cast. The acting ranges from surprisingly good (Mark Ruffalo positively nails it as Bruce Banner) to completely lethargic (Scarlett Johansson is completely listless as the Black Widow and is the least-convincing Russian superspy in movie history). Downey plays himself, as always, and the talented Jeremy Renner is criminally underutilized as Hawkeye, while both Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, the central villain of the piece, came off much better in Branagh’s flick. Samuel L. Jackson pretty much owns every scene he’s in as Nick Fury, but I don’t think there was ever really any doubt that he would. All told, the whole thing has the feeling of a director who just told his cast “okay — have at it” and then let the cameras roll.
In his favor, fandom’s newest and biggest crush does do a nice, pacy job with the action sequences, of which there are many (although even he can’t make the bog-standard CGI alien invaders that attack the Earth at the end and, yawn, double-cross Loki seem interesting), and doesn’t overplay his hand in the pathos department — he gives each and every character a nice little individual “story arc” that never taxes the imagination too much and remains dimly interesting without seeming intrusive vis-a-vis the “bigger picture” — which is, of course, to show all these folks coming together and fighting a menace big enough to require their assembled talents and abilities. And while Whedon has an annoying habit of defusing every potentially tense situation with a pithy little quip of some sort, on the whole the interplay between the various characters is reasonably well-handled and plausible (as far as these things so).
So The Avengers has some pluses in its favor, as well as some minuses working against it. It’s good, solid, mindless summer entertainment with a nifty, if thoroughly uninspired, visual sensibility; it plays to what the fans want in a generally competent manner; and it keeps you at least modestly interested in the proceedings throughout. It doesn’t have the mythic scope of Donner’s Superman, nor does it redefine the possibilities inherent in the superhero genre in the way Nolan’s Batman films do. It doesn’t take the time to examine the gap between what these characters symbolize and who they actually are in the way that Marvel’s two far superior summer blockbusters of last year (again, Thor and Captain America : The First Avenger) did — hell, it doesn’t even have much of anything to say about the human condition, much less the superhuman condition. And while it’s all pretty fun to look at by and large, it doesn’t have the inventive, groundbreaking, downright operatic visual flair of Burton’s forays into Gotham City. So it’s fair to say that even the things this movie does well have been done a lot better in other films of this same genre.
But it is fun. Not as fun, or as immediate, or as dramatic, or as dynamic, as the classic Avengers stories brought to life by Jack Kirby that it’s essentially a modernized (and, frankly, watered-down — proof that “The King” could do more with a pencil than Whedon can with a couple hundred million bucks) rehash of, but a good time nonetheless — and in a society as desperate for diversion and spectacle as the one we live in, I can certainly understand why it’s such a big hit. But please. Let’s stop pretending it’s anything more than what it is — modestly-well-realized, lively, big-budget summer fun that doesn’t demand anything from its audience apart from kicking back and enjoying the ride. And let’s stop venerating Joss Whedon for what’s essentially a director-for-hire project executed in what’s basically become Marvel’s “house style.” Sure, there’s a good possibility that the financial success of The Avengers means he might be able to write his own ticket in Hollywood from here on out — and more power to him if that’s the case since other projects he’s helmed (most notably the excellent sci-fi TV series Firefly) do indeed show that he’s capable of distinctive, highly imaginative drama — but it’s just as likely that Marvel will replace him on this film’s inevitable sequel with some youthful up-and-comer who can deliver essentially the same product and will work for half the price.
Once the novelty of having all these superheroes on screen together wears off, I predict that we’re going to realize we’ve been had a little bit here — but seeing as how we had a pretty good time in the process, there’s no real harm done.