Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner
Director: Joss Whedon
Runtime: 143 min.
Verdict: An excuse for a privileged few to have a nice indulgent outing. Which makes it a commendable juggling act giving all of them a significant personality in a feature length narrative.
Genre: Action, Fantasy, Superhero
Consider this. Thor criticizes his brother Loki about considering himself superior to humans, about how he misses the whole point of ruling, and how he better not touch his beloved planet. Yet moments before, Thor flies into the little plane where Iron Man and Captain America are escorting Loki to the Shield, knocks the latter with his hammer, and flies out with his brother. I would want to understand the dramatic logic of such behavior, or if there’s any for that matter. I mean, he could have one of those witty little conversations, couldn’t he? And so I wonder if the sequence takes place only to have a silly little action sequence between Iron Man and Thor. And for Captain to join the mud-fight a moment later. The problem here, apart from the yawn such a lack of imagination to cause an “action” sequence induces, is that there’s only so much one can do with having superpowers fight each other. We remember Neo and Agent Smith in The Matrix Reloaded, and we remember Potter and Lord Voldermort from last year, where all one can cause is a whole lot of thunder and lightning and smashes and flying long distances and breaking through walls and all that blah. It is silly. And it is so old everybody knows nobody is going to win, which makes it essentially meaningless footage. Or fun, if you would want to put it that way.
The problem is, if one would want to call it a problem, is that The Avengers seems to be having tug-of-war between wanting to be some sort of ponderous pontificating piffle and fun. Fun as in the narcissistic kind, where the individual (superhero) is more concerned about a general level of coolness/awesomeness than anything else. How else can one consider the Hulk’s second coming, where he reveals his big secret, and then explain what he does on the Helicarrier, where his intentions seem to be to not merely replicate Harlem but to kill Ms. Romanov. He almost kills a pilot alright. Does he really consider them deserving of his destructive self? Or is it merely more of the film’s meaningless fun footage? Or, is it a literalization of the film’s central belief, which much like Watchmen, assumes somewhat of a genre-subversion – that these superheroes are merely weapons of mass destruction that we absolutely need to possess to fight anonymous fantastical other-worldly enemies? Sort of like an argument for war and a justification for all that has happened over the last decade. That energy is at the center of the conflict cannot be just a stock plot-point, right? I mean, the only difference between Mr. Limpet and Jake Sully is merely justification to be on the morally right side, right? What Mr. Whedon intends to propose is a justification for war to be fun and heroic, where the enemies can be safely classified under “others”, and where it doesn’t matter if the warriors are merely puppets/tools manipulated into action. In other words, a simplistic world of black and white.
But let us talk about the other end, mostly addressed by Loki and Thor, and to some extent Nick Fury, which concerns some nonsense about our lack of compatibility with freedom as an absolute, and which is just as perfunctory as that action sequence I described above. And just as ludicrous. Loki, with his illusions of grandeur, turns into his Asgard self complete with robes and horns, so much so that we hear the crowd exclaim in the background. They run. And when he appears in multiple places and asks them to kneel in order to deliver his drivel, they do. It is astonishing how uninspiring the crowd behavior is. Here we are with a demi-God present in multiple places at once, which should at least stun the crowd. Remember the medical staff at the asylum in Terminator2: Judgment Day? But no, Loki speaks, people kneel and when he starts taking free jabs at mankind, an old man stands in defiance and observes – “We’ve had men like you before.” You wonder when.
It is this lack of, let us say reverence, or wonder, for Loki, or for anything that is, well not from around here that places The Avengers in a rather uninteresting place in the history of the summer action blockbuster. Consider for a moment Super-8. There’s no such regard for the uncommon here, much in keeping with the genre’s general disregard for wonder, where big is shorthand for awesome, and where most of the tricks are so tired they are conventions. We’re firmly in a fantastical world where there seems to be no place for the exclamation mark. Which, for some reason, feels some kind of a shame. I mean, if the crowd can believe anything, then why the need to have the Helicarrier invisible. Considering that everybody knows Iron-Man, and that the newsreel footage of The Avengers at work ought to establish them as a fact of daily life, and Nick Fury’s politics is essentially to present these guys as universal deterrents, it probably might be logical to have the Helicarrier wander about in the sky in plain sight. You know, big brother and stuff. Which is what makes me suspicious of a film like The Avengers, which sort of wants to stand for the criticism of Hollywood’s generally liberal behavior. I suppose Watchmen has already provided the answer to Mr. Whedon’s narcissist stance, which finds spectacular manifestation in the Hulk’s utter disregard for Loki. Mr. Ruffalo is one of our great actors and the mischief in his eye is less of a superhero and more of an interesting villain.
Or let us put it this way – let us just have some smashing fun. I mean, that is what it was all about in the end, wasn’t it. All the Avengers were doing is smashing items one-by-one, individual by individual, arrow by arrow, bullet by bullet, and having an absolute ball at that. I mean, they weren’t closing it anytime soon, and it actually took only a single pilot with a nuke to wrap the nonsensical carnage. So yeah, it’s fun. And when it’s not philosophizing, The Avengers seems to be operating in Wile E. Coyote’s world. Thor unleashes the power from his hammer upon Iron-Man, who instead of falling a thousand feet back has the power in his suit charged to 400%. Big centipede beasts run through Manhattan and Iron Man destroys one of them by flying right into it and blasting out. And the big one, where a nuke is sent to destroy all the invaders and Iron-Man resourcefully escorts it to the source in another universe. It would have been outright hilarious too, were it not for the film’s abrupt shift to melodramatic tones. Still, amidst the abundance of meaningless footage (ultra close-up barely legible shots where seconds pass by before we realize what we are looking at), and the philosophizing, there’re some moments of genuine wit. Not Aaron Sorkin staircase-wit, but reverse engineered stuff, wherein you write the punchline first and then come up with a suitable trigger. Hulk pushes Thor out of the frame to have the glory all to himself, and we smile. These are kids, you know, not superheroes exactly. Or maybe they are. I mean, when the Helicarrier is falling and the lives of all aboard is on one man, Iron-man gets to use his genius and literally push the wheel. It is the film’s one true moment of transcendence, where both Iron-man and Captain America, past and present, push the wheel and let it soar. That is, I guess, the stuff superheroes are made of, no?