a zoo in hell


The Avengers (2012)

 On the surface, of course, The Avengers looks every bit like the popcorn-selling, seat-filler that it was made to be. There are very big explosions. There are several extended action sequences. The events of the film are set against an epic scale that spans the globe and the galaxy. With all the action-hero potential for the film, you could almost say it is The Expendables (in Tights).  There’s an alien invasion, and Hollywood really hates aliens. Pretty much all of the eye-candy in the film is delivered via CGI. However, this is countered by a commitment to the story and a vision that is particular. There is a level of self-awareness and self-parody which is pretty rare in the earnestly stupid summer movie category. Like Jaws, The Avengers is a tent pole movie which also happens to be very good filmmaking.

 There’s a problem with the entire super-hero genre. There are seldom believable stakes and threats for the heroes. While a good superhero story can channel the epic power of classic myth, they often lack the tragic turns that great myths turn on. Nothing can really happen to the hero, because that isn’t the world of the film and that isn’t how franchises work. There’s also narrative shorthand within superhero movies that voids the film of the plot and character development that drive narrative. Even you don’t know much about the mythology of Spider-Man, most people understand the arc before they go into the theater. Ever notice how super-hero trailers are short on plot? They don’t show them because they don’t need them, all those trailers have to do is promise that your favorite crusader will do some really awesome looking stuff. The Avengers do plenty of cool looking stuff, but they also do something more important. They act like human beings.

 The Avengers are human beings with exceptional gifts. Iron Man is Tony Stark, Hulk is Bruce Banner and even Captain America is a man struggling with anachronism. Unlike other movies that reduce the hero to a set of abilities and stats like you find in a geeky card game, The Avengers is about the human inside of the superhuman. The story arc is convoluted not by the simple conflicts of brute force, but by the genuine human problems of confusion, envy, chaos and uncertainty. While the Chitauri are plenty to worry about, Joss Whedon and the other filmmakers wisely took this for granted and moved the tension to the harder problems, the ones that can’t be solved with missiles and divine hammers.

Most of the key turns of action in the second half of the film revolve around the damage that is done to the Helicarrier that serves as S.H.E.I.L.D. HQ. This entire sequence rings true and grounds the story in reality. Even superheroes have to deal with repairing machinery in the middle of crisis; something which requires intelligence, courage and skill in combat. The ultimate fate of the Avengers isn’t decided by the brute force of superhuman ability, but by communication, teamwork and creativity. This is very unusual in a genre that is generally defined by independent action and borderline anti-social behavior. Importantly, if this teamwork didn’t happen, it would also rob the film one of the key payoffs, which is decision by a collection of loners to fuse into a sum greater than their considerable parts.

Technically, the film is a tour de force. I’ve read other critics talk about the limits of Joss Whedon’s action filmmaking chops. I have to disagree; the final showdown is a non-stop kinetic storm that recalls the best of John Woo’s golden age, but played out in three-dimensional aerial combat. Frankly, my brain hurts when I try to imagine the awesome coordination that was required to get all that CGI consistent and true to a singular vision. While there is plenty to lament in modern Hollywood’s use of CGI, I think this is a wonderful demonstration of how it should be used. Many of the amazing flights of camera could not be accomplished physically, because we don’t have an anti-gravity steadicam yet (Somebody on Kickstarter should get right on that).

The performances are just fine, as believable as they need to be, but not falling over into complete parody or pretense. The advantage for actors in a movie like this is that nobody really knows what a superhero acts like, though there are hundreds upon hundreds of unbelievable and ham-fisted examples. When creating any number of supermen, a little goes a long way. Chris Evans (Captain America) gives us the earnest wartime hero that he should be; he acts like he stepped out of a John Wayne WW 2 movie. Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) mostly pulls off the vampy spy hero, manages to keep her sex appeal in service of the film and character. Though, sometimes her coldness plays very close to a vapidity that does not do her justice. Mark Ruffalo (The Hulk) is the most exciting discovery in the cast. The discovery being the human being that he found within the role of the green monster. Sorry, Bill Bixby, but most Hulk performances serve as filler between the smashing, and Ruffalo makes the time before the smashing more interesting than the tantrums themselves. Likewise, Chris Hemsworth (Thor) gets rid of a good amount of the camp that infected Thor and gives us a Norse god who is less Point Break.

Jeremy Lee Renner (Hawkeye) is slightly more interesting when he’s bad, as he’s got a bit of boy wonder to him otherwise. He doesn’t quite sell as a good assassin as well as he does an evil one. Tom Hiddleston (Loki) gets to the heart of a god of mischief, but he is sometimes a little too clever to be threatening. He could’ve studied some Gary Oldman or classic Jack Nicholson to bring some more menace to his charms. Robert Downey, Jr. demonstrates his exceptional comedy chops and ability to deliver one-liners, which you might not get until after the scene, has ended. This wit makes Tony Stark’s genius all the more believable. Essentially supporting actors Samuel Jackson, Stellan Skarsgard, Clark Gregg and Cobie Smulders play along well and never let the audience think they don’t believe in the story themselves.

The Avengers deserves the money that is flooding Disney’s coffers. Given that Disney is also the studio that annihilated John Carter’s chances of getting any of the audience it deserved, I can’t really extend much of the credit for vision to the studio itself. As the franchise grows and moves forward, perhaps rivaling James Bond or Star Wars in terms of mythic legacy, let’s hope that someone in a suit is paying attention to what made The Avengers special.

The Avengers isn’t an exceptional superhero movie, it is one of the few superhero movies that was done right. People don’t read comic books because they think they are stupid camp, people read comic books because they find meaningful fantasies played out between the panels and four-color pages. Hopefully, the lesson Hollywood takes from the success of The Avengers is the understanding that they have given people what they need in this bitter era. Audiences have gotten heroes they can and want to believe in.

Article first published as Movie Review: The Avengers (2012) on Blogcritics.