I’ll keep this review as short and sweet as I can. (Editor’s note: like his mother RAH is a novelist and so has a different defintion of short than the rest of the human universe. We won’t get into non-human universes) I’ll start by saying that I really think you should go and see this film for yourself, if you haven’t already. If you’re reading this review just to get a recommendation for or against, I’d definitely advise you to check this film out.
There are a couple of questions I had going into the film that I’d like to answer first. I think the biggest thing that will be on people’s minds is that The Avengers is a pseudo-sequel to the Iron Man series, the Thor film, the Captain America film, and… most confusingly, since apparently the actor portraying him changes… the Incredible Hulk film. With no less than five films of back-story, is there any hope for an uninitiated audience?
Speaking as someone who had only previously seen the first Iron Man film, I’d say there is. Each character is well-portrayed, and their personalities are both easy to read and each sympathetic in their own special way.
Let me also take a moment to comment on character balance, since my last statement alludes to it. I think many will ask, as is always the case with a movie centering on a team, whether the writers have the room to give each character the time they need. That’s one of the movie’s great strengths, I think. I did feel a certain connection to each one of the characters, and when you’re managing a team this large… with two members that are almost unknown to the public thrown in for good measure… that can be a tricky thing to pull off. There are a bunch of giant personalities on this screen, and while they may not always play nice, they play convincingly, and no one really overshadows anyone else. This film gets team dynamics right, for the most part.
Speaking of giant personalities, let’s address another question, regarding the Incredible Hulk. First, some back-story. See, the actor switch-up didn’t register for me at all, because I didn’t see The Incredible Hulk. The reason was the same reason that a lot of other people were hesitant to see it… the film The Hulk, which was released prior to The Incredible Hulk, was one of the most thuddingly awful things I’ve ever watched. Since I was never a Hulk fan anyway, I never bothered dropping the money to give The Incredible Hulk a chance.
I hope by now I’ve made clear that one of my biggest reservations was that the Hulk is a member of the avengers, and I steeled myself in anticipation of a really cringe-worthy, plot-destroying Hulk portrayal. The only question I personally had was, how awful will it be? And then… it never happened. And it was one of the nicest parts of the film. The Hulk is portrayed in a way that even a non-fan like myself really can empathize with doctor Banner, and the film makes good use of what I’ve always considered to be a very limited power set. I’d like to emphasize that first point especially. I think the actor who portrayed Dr. Banner, Mark Ruffalo, was so good at capturing the innate tension of a man who has to guard even his thoughts with extreme care, that it’s almost impossible to imagine that another actor could have portrayed the Incredible Hulk in the original (modern) portrayal. I’m actually tempted to go and look at The Incredible Hulk for comparison purposes, later, because I want to see for myself if the last actor played the role this well.
Most every member of the team besides the Hulk has had a fairly untarnished box-office record, so I don’t feel like there was much concern about the other characters as individuals. But I would like to spare a word for the two aforementioned team members who are not known to audiences, Black Widow, and Hawkeye. I’ll just put it like this: while the film still leaves lingering reservations in my mind over whether they’ll justify getting their own movies later, they do seem like interesting characters in their own right, and definitely add to the team. And in all fairness, this film is more about a problem that faces the team than the problems of individual characters, so there was really no way to flesh out those characters more without breaking the film. I guess if they get their own films we’ll just have to roll the dice and see.
Finally, since it’s a superhero film, and it’s clearly all about blowing things up and fighting, I had the concerns most people going into an action film do… is the plot going to make any sense? Even if characters are sympathetic, will they still end up making decisions that are obviously stupid for the sake of plot convenience? And when there is a twist, is the film going to be so proud of it, it hits me over the head with it repeatedly?
Well, I suspect that few are going to call the plot to this film a masterpiece of complex interweaving. Some portions are, admittedly, a little predictable. But honestly, it didn’t chafe the way it usually does. One reason, I think, is that the plot for The Avengers, in a way that I don’t think I’ve seen in theater in a long time, is a character-driven story. And the only reason it succeeds at that where I feel other franchises … the last set of Spider-Man films, let’s say… failed, is the aforementioned empathy it builds with the characters. But I also never found myself feeling that the plot was clichéd to the point of pain (which is more than I can say for many modern films), and I didn’t see any massive plot-holes, or plotting driven by stupidity.
It doesn’t hurt that when the film does resort to clichés, it soft-pedals them. It’s actually interesting to see how much more effective even really overused ideas and plotting techniques become, when the writer doesn’t make the characters point them out in graphic detail. It’s a complement to the audience’s intelligence, and it’s a solid technique for increasing the subtlety of the film which I’m not used to seeing in action movies. But I’d sure as heck like to see it more.
Possibly the only plotting misstep, to my mind, was that the messaging was slightly fragmented at the very beginning, although it resolved itself within ten minutes, or so. The film threw out a lot of early cues which hinted that it was going to be somehow correlated with green energy, and never followed up on them again. I don’t think it hurts the film, really… the world has enough PSAs masquerading as box office pictures (cough, cough… Over the Hedge, Wall-E)… and the film’s message is a lot fresher, a lot more basic, and arguably a lot more important. I’ll get to that in a minute. Besides which, it would be really hard for a film that depicts a world where Tony Stark has already invented what is essentially the Shipstone from Heinlein’s novels (a source of free and theoretically unlimited energy), to portray with any consistency a world where green energy is several orders of magnitude less easily created or developed.
No, what Avengers really is about is the difference between good and evil. More than that, it’s about the difference between those who want to control, and those who defend freedom. There are many, many examples spread throughout the film, but I can’t name them without giving spoilers. It’s enough to say that the film shows how free people can unite behind a common cause without giving up their individuality. Likewise, it’s a film that points out, in many small ways, that there may be no “I” in team, but there are sure as heck all the elements that make up “me”, in there. In other words, a team may not be a place to put yourself first, but that doesn’t mean it subsumes you entirely. At a time like this, especially since strife can make people willing to trade freedom for strength, I think it’s good to remind people that you can have this cake and eat it too.
This specific analysis of questions is all well and good, but how is the film overall? That’s what reviews are for, right? I would sum it up like this: though its effects and story techniques are fairly up to date, the film is kind of a throwback, in that it leaves behind some of the most egregious sins endemic in the modern film. The bad guy is not a thinly-veiled metaphor for a political figure or a situation, the plot never takes a dark turn for the sake of adding unwarranted “edge” or “grit”, and in fact, the film never takes itself too seriously at all. Actually, I’d be doing this film an unkindness if I didn’t balance all this weighty analysis by pointing out that it’s genuinely funny, end to end. Seriously, it’s quotable as heck. And it makes for the classic emotional roller coaster, with lots of ups and downs that help create a truly entertaining film. On top of which, most of it is a no-holds barred, all-out slugfest with evil, and it has the audacity to cap it with a happy ending. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, under a shiny layer of candy gloss, this film nods to some of the oldest and most respected traditions of a good guy/bad guy conflict in the world… the traditions that made Hollywood so famous in the first place. You could argue that The Avengers is even a little old-fashioned in its approach.
But frankly, to adapt a line from this film, I think old-fashioned might be exactly what we need in films, right now.
Robert A. Hoyt is a full time pre-medical student, a web comic artist, and an author. You can find his work at http://www.robertahoyt.com, and for even more great content check out the titles below, available on Amazon Kindle. (Further Editor’s Note, because I like them: Robert A. Hoyt is the elder spaw… er son, of OG co-founder Sarah A. Hoyt. Like his mother he’s a rather talented novelist. I know this, because yours truly
was dragooned into had the privilege of editing Cat’s Paw. We welcome him to OG mostly because I’m scared of Sarah.)
Bite One, Get One Free
The Last Voice
A Rush of Wings