Okay, So I Saw “The Avengers”


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.

19 responses to “Okay, So I Saw “The Avengers”

  1. I enjoyed the Avengers for what it was — an well-made and entertaining adventure film that featured a lot of good-looking actors having a lot of fun. It wasn’t quite the transcendent experience for me that it was for some but then again, my comic book background is pretty much confined to Strangers in Paradise, a Walking Dead compilation that I got for my birthday, and a book by Michael Chabon.

    My boyfriend, however, grew up reading comic books and he absolutely loved the Avengers because he noticed all sorts of little details and inside jokes that, if he hadn’t told me about them, I would never had even known they were in the film.

    So, to be honest, just the fact that the Avengers managed to hold my attention for two and a half hours is a triumph on the film’s part. 🙂

    That said, there’s a really terrible bandwagon tendency among the online film community, an attitude that anything less than blind praise for a certain movie is the equal of some sort of heresy. It happened with the Dark Knight and then with Avatar and I feel to a certain extent that it’s happened with the Avengers as well. I still occasionally have to deal with angry and snarky comments from people who just can’t get over the fact that I had the nerve to write a post called “10 Reasons Why I Hated Avatar.”

    Personally, I believe that no film (or idea or cause or religion or opinon or whatever) should be judged as being untouchable.

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  2. For starters, I will say I disagree with this review, but it’s a well-written one and one that definitely goes against the grain and trend about this film which is a brave thing to do on the internet. 🙂

    I don’t think you would find me calling this film the best superhero film ever, but I do believe that it’s the most fun one.

    Even with the Kirby question hanging over everything leading up to the film I still went into watching it with an open mind with trepidation that it will not live up to the hype. This was a culmination of over 5 years of build up over 5 different films. To have it come off without a hitch would’ve been triumph enough, but to actually end up being ridiculously fun and pay true homage to the kinetic energy of the comic book page is why it’s been getting praise not just from the “normies” but from most comic book fans both readers and those who work in the industry.

    This film had what other great superhero films lacked since Donner’s Superman and that it was fun. Again that’s the description that this film is best suited for. It’s not the serious exercise in a hero’s duality like with the Nolan Batman films, the theme-heavy X-Men films from Singer or Raimi’s teen angst for the first two Spider-Man, but Whedon’s film had fun on it’s side that those other films lacked to a certain degree despite being great superhero films in their own right.

    Would I call myself one of those who sing this film’s praises?

    Yes, and I do so despite the Kirby question and moreso because it’s the superhero film that’s actually allowed not just long-time hardcore comic book fans, but those who wouldn’t know Black Widow from Black Cat to Catwoman to fully enjoy and…here’s the kicker…actually want to go back to the store or go on Amazon and read up on other stories about the characters they just saw on the screen.

    Any film this big will gather the bandwagoners who will put way too much hype on the film after seeing it and calling it the best ever, but that’s the nature of fandom and no self-respecting comic book fan can get away saying they’ve never done the same about a certain comic book when they were younger.

    As with those espousing the greatness of The Avengers to goofy extent I think the same can be said to those who look to find too much fault in a film because of the politicking that went on behind the scenes in regards to how a creator for the characters on the screen was, and continues, to be treated.

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  3. I travelled to the Gallery of Modern Art (Brisbane) to catch a whole batch of superhero/comic book films earlier this year. I can’t help but think that Arleigh has never seen “Flash Gordon”. That came after “Superman” and it was tremendously fun. Also, how could you forget “RoboCop”? Superhero films are NOT simply films based on comic book characters. They can be written directly for the screen OR derived from panels and ink. “RoboCop” is a superhero, he counts, and I’d pit “RoboCop” against any superhero flick out there, and “RoboCop” would stack up rather well.

    “The Dark Knight” is ludicrously overrated. The Adam West/Burt Ward version of “Batman” remains the gold standard. No, I’m not kidding. Seriously, look at the Tim Burton “Batman” films–they aren’t highly regarded at all less than 25 years later. Guess what? Exactly the same thing shall happen to Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” films. They’ll simply reboot the franchise again and somebody else shall become the flavour of the month.

    I’m not rushing out to see “The Avengers”, to be honest, unless I have a tremendously good reason for doing so (e.g. someone whom I know wants to see it but doesn’t want to go alone). Please don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed both “Iron Man” films, and I’m glad that the reviewer acknowledged “Spiderman 2” as the best of its trilogy, but where does the superhero film craze finish? I’m also a tad annoyed at the whole digital movie craze. What’s going to happen to 35mm? I tend to prefer films that are screening in real film format.

    Having just revisted “Superman”, “Flash Gordon” and “Barbarella” in 35mm on the big screen, it’s safe to say that they’ll never again make films like these. Yes, these movies had FUN written all over them; they had imagination. I didn’t go back for the “Transformers” sequels, since the first in the trilogy, although an okay film, wasn’t anywhere as spectacular as it should’ve been. Given a choice between keeping up with the Joneses at the multiplex and watching the superhero movies from last century, I’ll opt for the latter.

    I recently checked out “Supergirl” on DVD, hadn’t seen it for many years–even THAT was more fun and exciting than a film like “The Dark Knight”!

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    • Ok, I’ll say that you’re right that one doesn’t have to have been written first as a comic book to be a superhero film. I’ll readjust my comment here and say “most fun superhero comic book film” moving forward.

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  4. It’s interesting that Arleigh brings up the “fun” factor, and suggests that this is the only truly “fun” superhero film since Donner’s “Superman.” I’d have to respectfully disagree. Both “Iron Man” films were fun to one degree or another, and, again, both “Thor” and “Captain America : The First Avenger,” while touching on deeper mythic themes than “The Avengers” does, are about fun first and foremost. I also agree with mark that “Robocop” is essentially a comic-book film, as is Sam Raimi’s “Darkman,” and both of those were all kinds of fun, as was, yes, “Flash Gordon,” and let’s add Beatty’s “Dick Tracy” into the mix here as well. I’m also in full agreement that the digital craze is a truly nefarious thing — 20th Century Fox has recently announced that they will cease production of 35mm prints of all their films starting in 2014, so Rupert Murdoch is busy runing everything in the entire world again!, but that’s a larger subject for another time.

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    • I’m not saying Iron Man or any of the films you all mentioned weren’t fun. What I am saying is that The Avengers was the most fun. Even Iron Man to a point was too busy establishing the origin of Stark to superhero status that it lagged in areas.

      All of the Marvel produced films have been fun but they were also pretty much origin stories that, at times sacrificed fun for exposition and/or world building to set-up what would be The Avengers.

      Maybe it’s just me but whenever The Avengers began to shift towards being too slow during scenes of dialogue the writing would bring in a funny line or two that would get a reaction from the audience.

      Maybe what you saw wasn’t the same as what I saw or others saw as enjoyable and that’s understandable. I’m just pointing out that what has made the film such a success wasn’t just all the whiz bang action on the screen but everything about the film from writing to performances and everything in between.

      Is The Avengers the best superhero film ever? No, but its EARNED it’s place in the conversation w/ the likes of Superman, TDK, Spider-Man 2 and X2. One thing for sure it’s no Tank Girl or Barb Wire whose only redeeming qualities would be that they make for a good double-bill of how not to make a superhero film.

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  5. Great review as usual. I echo your sentiments. I have some major reservations about the film, but it’s still an effective piece of pop culture cinema. It’ll be interesting to see if DC will invest in a knee-jerk JLA movie now that this has made a ka-jillion clams.

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  6. Could we even stretch the definition of “superhero film” to encompass “Star Wars”? Hey, all the Jedi stuff falls into the realm of superpowers–the Jedi mind trick, telekinesis, etc–does it not? Darth Vader even ends up having his secret/former identity revealed in “The Empire Strikes Back”!

    A few years down the track is usually enough to sort the superhero films with real staying power from those that are pretty average. Who considers “Watchmen” to be a masterpiece these days? Okay, so some people do. But even at the time, I didn’t find it to be an exceptional work of its genre.

    Since “Superman” has been mentioned, what about “Superman II”? It’s a damn good suggestion for greatest superhero movie of all-time. I’ve seen both of these on the big screen within the past year. Believe me, these films make things like “Watchmen” and “The Dark Knight” look positively ordinary.

    As for “Avatar”, I avoided that one. I don’t need lessons on the ecology and indigenous populations from James Fucking Cameron.

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    • I don’t mind the politics of “Avatar” — although if Cameron were willing to put his money where his mouth is, he wouldn’t have made the film for Rupert Murdoch’s Fox corporation in the first place since every dime that company takes in goes to right-wing causes Cameron probably doesn’t support — but I do think the film itself falls into the “nothing special” category. It’s really just a bland sci-fi adventure runaround, and frankly if I want to see a CGI animated film, which is all it amounts to, I’ll check out a Pixar flick.

      I agree that “Superman II” is a damn fine effort, what keeps it from being mentioned among the best more often than not though is the fact of the whole Donner-fired-and-replaced-by-Lester thing, so most people are unsure just how much of the final on-screen product is the way Richard Donner envisioned it. That’s a fair enough concern, but it’s still a good flick.

      I do think “Watchmen” is a pretty solid movie — certainly better than “The Avengers” — but I think it’s due to what’s on the printed page rather than the screen. As with “300,” Snyder pretty much just uses the existing comic as a literal storyboard and transfers it to the screen. It’s hardly a work of cinematic genius or anything, but it’s a faithful-enough re-telling of the story more or less exactly as it appeared on the page — apart from the needessly-changed ending.

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      • My main issue with the political content of Avatar was that it was all presented in such a boring and precitable way. I have the same issue with the whole “class warfare” subtext to Titanic. Mostly I just resented the fact that Cameron seemed to be saying, “Sure, my film doesn’t feature a single compelling character or unexpected narrative twist but if you call me out on that then that means you want dirty air and undrinkable water.”

        Bleh on that.

        The only thing I want is a movie that won’t insult my intelligence.

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        • I can’t fairly comment on “Titanic” because, believe it or not, I’ve never seen it! I agree that “Avatar” was heavy-handed and featured no interesting characters or anything of the sort. I don’t real mean to sound like I was defending “Avatar” in any way because, to be honest, I found it a pretty disposable and instantly forgettable film.

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          • No worries, I didn’t think you were trying to defend it. 🙂

            Whenever I talk about Avatar, I find myself instantly taking an defensive posture because I know that there’s a good chance that it’s going to lead to an Avatar fanboy suddenly popping up and demanding to know how a movie that made a lot of money coud lose an Oscar to a movie that made next to no money. At which point, I always says, “Don’t blame me! I voted for An Education.” 🙂

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  7. The whole “Avatar” vs. “The Hurt Locker” thing boils down to which type of preachiness you want — the kind that tells us capitalism is ravaging indigenous cultures and polluting the planet, or the type that tells us all our soldiers are brave and honorable guys willing to put their lives on the line to “protect” our supposed “freedom.” They’re both pretty one-dimensional, moralistic films, but when push comes to shove, even if the box office says otherwise, Hollywood will always reward the war propaganda films to show their subservience to their real paymasters. Frankly, I’m with you, I think “An Education” was way better than either of them.

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    • I had mixed feelings towards the The Hurt Locker as far as the Oscars were concerned. On the one hand, I was happy to see a woman win best director and the fact that Kathryn Bigelow did so by defeating her ex-husband kinda appealed to the part of me that enjoys Gossip Girl and Degrassi. Add to that, I really didn’t like Avatar so I was glad that it didn’t win best picture.

      At the same time, I really thought that The Hurt Locker was overrated and, to be honest, rather predictable. I thought Jeremy Renner gave an excellent performance in the leader role but otherwise, I thought it was overpraised.

      I have to admit that one reason why I loved An Education is because I really, really related to and saw a lot of myself and my own experiences in the lead character and it’s hard for me to be, in any way, unbiased in my love for the film when compared to the other nominees. However, I also thought that A Serious Man was also a far better film than either Hurt Locker or Avatar. For that matter, I can also make a case that Inglorious Basterds, District 9, and Up In The Air were all more deserving of the Best Picture Oscar than either Avatar or Hurt Locker. And don’t even get me started on some of the excellent films that weren’t even nominated — Adventureland, The Girlfriend Experience, The Informant!, The Stoning of Soraya M., 500 Days of Summer, Zombieland, Where The Wild Things Are, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Me and Orson Welles, and Bad Lt.: Port of Call New Orleans (which featured what may be the last great performance ever given by Nicolas Cage).

      (That said, I also thought that Precious was an amazingly overrated film. 2009 was kind of a year devoted to critics madly raving about films that really weren’t that special.)

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      • Looking back on “Precious,” I can see that it was overhyped as well, but I’ll give it credit for one thing — it told a story about the kind of character that Hollywood just plain never touches with a ten-foot pole. Believe me, I’ve heard people say that they dumped every negative stereotype into her for maximum sympathy value, but trust me, I work with people every day whose lives are, if anything, worse than hers (well, okay, apart from her contracting AIDS at the end), and the conditions in America’s poor communities are so far beyond what the average person can even begin to fathom that it was nice to see Hollywood pay at least lip service to the reality of poverty for all of about five seconds.

        However, looking back on that year, I do think Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant” was easily the best film that came out. I enjoyed “(500) Days Of Summer” a lot as well, but it gave birth to this phony overtly-cutesy, “ain’t she just adorable?” persona of Zooey Deschanel that’s gotten really old really fast and needs to be stopped at all costs. I swear I want to strangle her with her own iPhone cord halfway through that new commercial. of hers (“I want to stay in and order organic tomato soup, it’s rainy out! Aren’t I just the livn’ end?”) Must — calm — down.

        As for a woman finally winning best director, I would say it was indeed long overdue, I just wish it had been for a more deserving film. “The Hurt Locker” had no character development and almost no real plot — it reminded me a lot of another blatant piece of military propaganda, “Black Hawk Down,” in that it just dropped you into the middle of the so-called “action,” kept its foot on the throttle, and didn;t let up, going for pure adrenaline at all times with little or no concern for actual story. Call me old-fashioned, but it’s far more effective in my opinion to actually care about the characters as people if you want to milk a situation for maximum dramatic impact. I didn;t see the recent quite-obviously-nothing-but-a-big-budget-military-recruiting-film “Acts Of Valor,” but I’m willing to bet it’s pretty much exactly the same thing, albeit with the added gimmick that some of the stars aren’t even actors, but actual Navy SEALs (and if they were actually on duty as is claimed then that means they were literally assigned to make the film, which raises so many conflict-of-interest questions that the press, if they did their jobs anymore, should have been demanding an investigation — that makes it quite literally taxpayer-funded propaganda. But I digress.)Anyway, wringing our hands over Oscar’s past failures is probably the most pointless exercise one can indulge in, since they pretty much never even nominate, much less actually select, the year’s best films as their winners.

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  8. Hi, trashfilmguru. I would like to tell you something:

    Despite that the “inside-the-helmet” shots of Tony Stark were an attempt from Jon Favreau in the Iron Man movies (and an attempt from Joss Whedon in The Avengers movie) to show the actor’s face inside the Iron Man’s helmet, I agree with you that these shots of Tony’s head are overused in The Avengers. For example: In Iron Man, the “inside-the-helmet shots” count of Tony are 23. In Iron Man 2, the “inside-the-helmet shots” count of Tony are 28, although almost all of his shots came from the final battle (without counting the “inside-the-helmet” shots with other characters, of course).
    And in The Avengers, it looks like that the “inside-the-helmet shots” count of Tony are over 40. Also, half of these shots of Tony’s head in The Avengers come from the final battle (this fight with the CGI alien invaders).

    By the way, can you tell me the main reasons of why these inside-the-helmet shots of Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark) are tedious or annoying, trashfilmguru? Some people found these shots as distracting or annoying.

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    • Thanks for the detailed staistics! I find them tedious and annoying simply because of their overuse in and of itself, to be honest. One, to, three, maybe even four per movie — that’s fine wit me. But the constant repetition of the exact same shot over and over and over again gets extremely dull and ,in my opinion, positively reeks of lazy filmmaking. We know who’s inside the helmet, we know what he looks like in there — can we something else now, please?

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