An efficient assembly but no marvel: The Avengers (2012) review
Avengers, assemble! Contractually bound cast, assemble! Generic plot, assemble! Stunt doubles, assemble! Fantasy fetishwear, assemble! Fanboy in-jokes, assemble! Mewling quim, there’s somebody on the phone for you…
(Joss Whedon, 2012)
People often say that they don’t like Westerns because they’re all the same – cowboys, horses, shootouts, yada yada. But once you get past the iconography, you can tell any story in the Wild West because it takes all sorts of people to populate a place.
The trouble with superhero movies (confession: a genre I harbour a lingering indifference to) is precisely the opposite. You can set a superhero movie at any time, any place, but because they are defined by a certain character type, they default to the same narrative template. Superhero overcomes whatever personal issues are plaguing him, faces up to his responsibility, opens a can of whoop-ass. It’s as if every Western was, god forbid, Shane: “a superhero’s gotta do what a superhero’s gotta do.”
The Avengers is therefore a fascinating test case for the genre: what happens when you take multiple molds of the paradigm and force them to work together? On the one hand, subtle differentiations arise – an old-fashioned superhero has different priorities from an alien god superhero, while a cavalier playboy hero with a super-suit looks at life from the opposite angle to a repressed-rage superbeast. On the other, the more superheroes you throw into the mix, the bigger, louder and longer a climactic dust-up you’re going to need.
Even a talented mind like Joss Whedon can’t really solve this dilemma. The Avengers has been a long time coming but – over the course of five previous movies – all we’ve really learnt is that they’re all really good at punching stuff (or hitting them with hammers, or throwing shields at them, etc, etc). Whedon has enormous fun mocking the genre’s inherent egotism by showing what happens in a room full of alpha males, but fails the crack the film’s obvious problem. Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk, even Black Widow, are variations of the same character and, in battle, they do the same thing: fly, fall, fight. This tag-teaming only works if the characters have complementary skills, which is why (in the past 12 months alone) X-Men: First Class and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol leave this film looking far from super.
Is this really the same Joss Whedon who made undead ass-kicking into a metaphor for teenage angst in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, or turned horror upside-down and inside-out in The Cabin In The Woods? Sure, the film has bucketloads of charm and several of those zinging rallies of joke tennis he specialises in – it actually feels unfair we’ve had to wait so long for Robert Downey Jr to work with Whedon. But he’s a writer who specialises in kinks, and yet who is here duty bound to streamline things here in order to keep everybody (the cast, the suits, the fanboys) happy.
There are zero narrative surprises, simply a procession of spectacular squabbles amongst the supes until they band together. It’s disappointing that the ambition of Marvel’s multi-film masterplan amounts to nothing more than engineering the pawns into attack formation, rather than using all the groundwork from previous films to tell a new kind of superhero story. The mark of a good blockbuster has come down to the art of efficient organisation, which perhaps explains the awful UK title, Marvel Avengers Assemble. Yup, that’s pretty much what this film is: an assembly.
Even the action misses the distinctiveness that separates the truly great. A cleverly orchestrated mid-film warship set-pieces keeps several mini-battles raging through sturdy cross-cutting, but by the end Whedon is doing that join-everything-up-in-one-intricate-looking-but-obviously-faked-“impossible”-long-take that everybody with a budget and a computer is doing now. Worse, the baddies are that most generic of alien threats: anonymous silvery soldiers riding anonymous centipedal monsters. The final act’s assault on New York looks and feels almost identical to Transformers: Dark Of The Moon; Bayhem with more wit and intelligence, maybe, but still Bayhem.
Where the film scores best is in the joyous interplay of stars knowing that they’ll never have a better chance of garnering laughs while wearing silly costumes. Whedon has gone on record as saying he treated the film as a super-riff on The Dirty Dozen: a gaggle of misfits thrown together as a last resort because they’re the only ones crazy enough to take on a superior force. That film glossed over its single-minded nihilism by casting well and letting the actors have fun. So does this, with the added virtue that most of them have at least a film’s worth of confidence under their belts. Tom Hiddlestone, in particular, is having an almost indecently good time, and Scarlett Johansson feasts on being Whedon’s only female character of note, making up for the crappest superpower of all time (ooh, she can walk quietly on tiptoes!) by being shrewd and strategic.
Even so, it’s a newcomer who makes – literally – the biggest impression. Mark Ruffalo nails Bruce Banner (and, via mo-cap, the Hulk) so completely it’s a shame he wasn’t cast way back in 2003. Where Eric Bana and Edward Norton played the role as a misery-guts (and always looked halfway to Hulking out even in dialogue scenes) Ruffalo’s stoned, laidback cool makes far more sense for a character trying to keep his anger at bay. Hulk is also the chief beneficiary of the team ethic: as a solo star, his appetite for destruction resulted in boring CGI spectacle; in a supporting role, Whedon gets to treat him as comic relief and finds glorious new meaning to the word ‘punchline’.