Reviewing The Avengers is difficult. It's not because the movie isn't good, because it is. It's not because the movie isn't fun, because it is. It's because the movie accomplishes exactly what it is supposed to do, it is exactly what it is supposed to be -- a comic book in movie form, and that's it. As a result, most criticism bounces off of it. It's not supposed to make you think and it certainly hits dizzying heights with its spectacle, so what are you bitching about?
The problem is that the movie is constrained by its own raison d'etra. There are little hints here and there that something more could have come of it and reflection on certain scenes and set-ups reveals missed opportunities. The first Iron Man, for example, cleverly spun the notions of "Might makes right" and "Violence you could cheer for" into its narrative. The Avengers? It is what it is -- an extended action sequence with lots of movement but no fluidity.
This is the result of the first Iron Man becoming the surprise breakout hit of the year -- Marvel started trying to put as many marbles as it could back in the bag. With talent demanding money for being in something guaranteed to be huge (rumor has it Favs was sacked from Iron Man 3 because his asking price became too high) and actors who, naturally, age, Marvel had to act fast to get everybody into an Avengers movie. So Marvel started laying groundwork with Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America so that they would not only merge into one this summer, but they could do it again later in a few years. So you have the very generic plot of the heroes uniting to face a common foe, an invading army of We Swear To God They Aren't Skrulls Because The Rights To Them Are Tied Up With Fox led by Loki.
You're probably thinking that I'm oversimplifying the plot. Nope. As has been said by a critic far wiser than me, good action movies are like good porn -- action action action BOOM! Everyone has a cigarette. The Avengers does what it is supposed to do, delivering a slam bang time, and that is all. When you are dealing with otherworldly, bigger than life characters and situations, there are two approaches, which basically divide along the lines of, "What do you expect from your movies?" There are people like me who watch movies expecting things to fit and make some sort of sense (the Dark Knight crowd), and there are people who watch movies to see things they've never seen before, where being caught up in the imagination of the creators and being wowwed is the important thing (the Transformers crowd). The Avengers firmly and unrepentantly plants its flag in the latter camp. And it's not like there isn't enough here to give everyone a good time regardless of their expectations about film. Given that it's supposed to be the ultimate comic book movie, it has to pull out all the stops.
The director is comic book nut Joss Whedon. Anyone expecting Whedon's previous experiences to act as a road map, forget it. Because The Avengers is supposed to be completely over the top, Whedon has a budget and instructions that free him from any constraints. Any special effect, any camera movement, is his. This is Whedon given complete and utter free reign. His approach combines Sam Raimi's kinetic directing, the Cohen Brothers' unique perspective, and Oliver Stone's sense of manliness. When I talk about manliness, I'm not just referring to the guys' exploits and how they all look great while doing it (Hawkeye's costume change, for example), but there's something else. Despite the fact that she is presented as an empowered, ass kicking female, there is still a casual wiff of chauvinism to Black Widow. Her first appearance has her strapped to a chair in an outfit that had me thinking she'd start singing, "Life is a cabaret." Later on, in the scene where Banner first turns into the Hulk, it's after they've fallen and Black Widow has her leg pinned. The composition of the shot gives a great view of her ass. Don't get me wrong, it's a very nice ass. I prefer something curvier, so I give it an eight out of ten. But it still makes you feel a little ungentlemanly to have noticed it. (Further proof it was just there to carbonate guys' hormones comes when the chase begins, and despite the fall and being pinned like that, her leg appears to have taken no damage.)
The film has some great character informed moments to it. Whedon really knows how to combine that with Jack Benny-style silence to milk the laughs. During the climax, when the Hulk fights Loki, it ends with Loki just lying on the floor, staring up at the ceiling like, "What the fuck just happened?" (the audience was laughing so hard, I missed Hulk saying, "Puny god," as he walked away). The Hulk sucker punching Thor is a laugh riot, too. This also informs the stinger, the bit that plays after the end credits, a masterpiece of comic presentation that nearly brought me to tears. The characters are very engaging, too. Everyone gets some sort of chance to shine here, even the cypher known as Agent Caulson -- his uncontrollable hero worship is not only funny, but anyone who has ever met their most awesome idol (like me when I met The Bruce, The Man Himself, Bruce Campbell) will know EXACTLY what he is feeling.
This, however, is ultimately where the movie gets wobbly. It's never enough to derail things, but it has you wondering. Remember my earlier comment that the movie was at odds with its own raison d'etra? Permit me to illustrate. Hawkeye's quiver (I mean his arrow holder, smart ass). Unless SHIELD's R&D department learned to make a bag of holding, there is no way Hawkeye could have carried as many arrows as he shot in the climax. And even if it were possible, the interchangeable tips and mechanism sure as hell aren't. There's no way the arrows have that kind of range and speed, either. But hey! It's a comic book movie! Quit thinking so hard!
There are a number of elements that have you leaving the theater with question marks buzzing like mosquitoes around your head. It's that old B movie standby, It's In The Script (IITS), where things happen because the script demands it and not because of any reasonable action from the characters or plain happening from the environment (well, IITS and The Atomic Bomb Will Save Us All). As soon as it is mentioned that Loki needs a big energy source to kickstart the Tesseract, I immediately thought of the arc reactor that they took great pains to establish at the start of the movie. Why did no one think of it before then? IITS. Why does the path to the holding cell take them past the research lab? IITS, otherwise we would not be thinking it was part of Loki's master plan when Banner Hulks out. How exactly does a team of mercs and a guy with some trick arrows completely take out the hellicarrier? IITS. There are still actions by Loki I'm not entirely clear why he did what he did or how he could even plan them in advance. Marvel and DC super team comics were known for the heroes bickering with each other (which became so ingrained in the super team genre that everybody, including and especially Radio Comics with The Mighty Crusaders, made sure to mimic it). Tony Stark is an asshole, yes, but the characters still seem to needlessly argue instantly instead of just eventually getting on each others' nerves. I kept thinking they would be more initially focused and at least TRYING to keep things in check with the threat they are facing. Some of the scenes lose their punch, in fact, because there's never really any doubt in your mind that, say, Iron Man will escape the hellicarrier's turbine eventually. You are aware of the cliffhanger manipulation going on here, making it more stunt spectacular than witnessing fantastic events. I say again, they feel like missed opportunities. On the bright side, you don't feel like the filmmakers are jerking you around (I'm looking at you, SuckerPunch).
One of the questions was how Wheedon was going to balance so many characters in the movie. Wheedon said he was going to make Captain America the viewpoint character to help drive the ensemble piece. Well, that didn't come out. Granted, it couldn't work like that, because Captain America is simply a super soldier. The plot requires someone to drive it along, and Tony Stark with his constant needling and prodding is the best to keep the momentum going. Once again, the feeling of missed opportunities. Loki is the ultimate Ayn Rand Objectivist, and each character has some sort of contrast that could really amp up the conflict and get the audience feeling the determination of the characters to stop the nightmare that is coming. Captain America against Loki, for example, is Complete Altruism versus Complete Objectivism. Nick Fury shows he is a master manipulator himself, with goals as questionable as Loki's. This is also the thing that ultimately makes Caulson's death less tragic. When Bucky died in Captain America, it was horrible luck for a character we saw and knew over the course of the film. Here, Caulson has very little to define him other than being a spook and his death is literally what kickstarts the team to act like a team. It's a plot motivation, part of the machinery. The contrasts, however, don't really make it to the surface because the best one gets the screentime, and that's Tony Stark's.
The delineation between Stark and Loki is sharp and telling. Both are Objectivists bordering on being Randroids. The difference is their focus. Loki wants to be worshiped by everyone. Stark wants to be worshiped by himself. Stark will leave alone anyone not impressed with him because he doesn't need them. Loki needs every bit of validation he can get. It's actually very easy to see Stark becoming someone like Loki if his ego changes priorities. But the result of this is the movie is not exactly The Avengers so much as Tony And The Starkettes. It feels very much like an Iron Man movie with the extra characters thrown in instead of an ensemble piece.
Alan Silvestri, who did such an awesome job scoring the Captain America movie, has fallen back on more generic music and cues here, although it's not his fault. With so many voices, giving each one distinction is tough. It can be done (My Little Pony--Friendship Is Magic does it every episode), but without giving it a chance to shine, it's not worth the effort. Once again, we have a movie to barrel through here, so anything that detracts from that has to go to the background. It's not that the score is bad, it's just rather workmanlike. Once again, missed opportunities.
(Side note: thank you for keeping Stan Lee's attention whoring cameo to the end of the film where his "Where's Waldo?"ing couldn't interrupt the movie. Although I did start wondering if I'd see him during the attack on NYC, so not quite perfect, but high marks nonetheless.)
Ultimately, The Avengers is what it is, an adolescent male power fantasy where heroes are always heroes, evil doesn't win, and no one really gets hurt. It's like eating a bag of Oreos -- it's great and immediate fun, but afterwards, you really would rather have something with some heft to it in your stomach.