Review: The Avengers – The astounding culmination of an extraordinary venture

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(This is a sort of summary of all the thoughts I’ve had about the Avengers movie in the last year or so, some of which I’ve already blogged about. The actual review starts about halfway through the post.)

Universal Studios’ Missed Opportunity

The year is 1940. Imagine you are J. Cheever Cowdin, President of Universal Studios, and you have an idea. Universal has built large parts of its reputation on a slate of genre movies based on gothic novel characters from the last century. “Hang on a minute”, you might say, “all the actors from these iconic roles are still alive, we have them under contract. Why don’t we assemble them in a large-scale gothic ensemble movie and let them have a big adventure together?”

Sadly, Cowdin didn’t have this idea at the time. The best classical Hollywood cinema could come up with, in terms of character crossovers, was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. It took the medium of comic books, both to realize a pan-gothic tale of high adventure (Alan Moore’s “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”) and to lay the tracks for what would become one of the most ambitious projects in recent film history: Marvel Studios’ The Avengers.

When it comes to high-end production values, TV has definitely caught up with movies in recent years. At the same time, though, movies have taken a step towards TV’s more ambitious modes of storytelling. Film franchises, nowadays, are no longer content with telling a single story over a single film. Instead, they lean more and more towards building a cinematic universe that can be filled with stories from several films communicating with each other, as well as other media like games and novels that can run alongside.

Supergroup Mechanics

One of the driving forces behind this development was, once again, comics, and the movies based on their characters, which hit their third big stride (after the Superman films of the 80s and the Batman flicks of the 90s) with the Spider-Man films in the early noughties. Comics had proven over several decades that the characters called into action every week in the serial medium could meet, fight each other and help each other out, sometimes in small ways, sometimes in gigantic climactic battles. These characters were owned by the same company, ergo: they inhabited a universe generally governed by the same rules. A crossover would draw together fans from each of the series, in the same way a musical supergroup can bet on devotees from each of their members’ regular bands showing up at a concert – and later on checking out those other regular bands as well. You don’t need Professor Xavier to see how this concept, in reasonable doses of course, lends itself if not to artistic success then at least to financial gain.

When “The Avengers” first assembled in 1963, they weren’t the first superhero supergroup. Rival comic book company DC’s “Justice League of America” had already crossed over Batman, Superman and other characters several years before. I have read only a few of the “Avengers” comics, but let’s just say that, like many of Marvel’s characters, the team members were mired in all-too-human and superhuman problems, and the actual “Avengers” troupe saw more lineup changes in its fifty years of existence than a badly organized rock festival. Members married, fought, went to war, made up, quarreled and fell in love more often than you want to know. However, they were all still part of one giant narrative called “The Avengers” and overseen by Marvel Comics. (For a brilliant (albeit German) assessment of superhero team dynamics, I recommend Sabine Horst’s article in the upcoming issue of epd film, which she kindly let me read in advance).

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Hinged on a Promise

Movies of course, are a different breed from comics. Making them costs a lot more and they are dependent not only on the imagination of artists and writers but also on the schedules and egos of actors and directors. And it’s very rare to make a movie that starts to tell a story and then hope that the audience comes back next week to buy the next issue (even though Peter Jackson is doing it again at the moment).

Enter Kevin Feige, President of Production of Marvel Studios, who – at least in the media version of reality – is the mastermind behind the astounding feat that is The Avengers. When Feige took over the reins in 2007, the studio had already prepared the road for him. They had their $500 Million deal with Merrill Lynch set up and they had just bought back the rights for Hulk and Thor.

But it took Feige’s post-credit stinger in Iron Man in 2008, in which Samuel L. Jackson (who signed an unusual nine-movie-deal with the studio) first mentioned the “Avengers Initative” to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, for the transformation of comic book mechanics to big budget filmmaking to suddenly seem palpable. Everything that happened since then was no more than a gigantic buildup of expectations towards The Avengers.

Introducing characters in Iron Man 2 that were rather unnecessary to the film’s central narrative; releasing Thor and Captain America only several months apart; actually making Captain America (a film about a character which should have worried at least some executives about its limited potential in overseas markets); ending Captain America with the hero’s love interest lost and many questions unanswered; all these hinged on the promise of an as-yet-unmade movie to be directed by geek god Joss Whedon, which would be released in Spring 2012. One thing was sure: Even if The Avengers sucked, you would at least have to admire the effort.

When Fury Calls

Fortunately, it doesn’t suck. What could have turned into a huge clusterfrog of incompatible story lines, star personas battling for screen time and superhero technobabble, instead was gracefully crafted into one of the most enjoyable, clever, action packed pieces of big budget genre filmmaking in recent years. And at its centre rests, amazingly enough, a remarkable ensemble performance by mostly marquee-worthy actors not seen in this field since The Lord of the Rings.

To see the ensemble in action, however, you first have to put it together. The Avengers takes its time doing so, first introducing its main villain Loki and his attack on the headquarters of SHIELD, where he steals the energy-laden cube called the tesseract introduced in Captain America, turns several of SHIELD’s employees into his minions and plans to unleash an alien army to conquer Earth for him. SHIELD, with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury at the helm, is the smartly-constructed glue that holds the story together. It’s the Avengers‘ MI5, which monitors the superhero universe and calls upon its inhabitants as needed.

This time, Fury decides, the situation is so severe that it justifies a tryout of his masterplan – the superhero supergroup, which so far he has only discussed with the most visible of the future Avengers’ team members, Tony Stark aka Iron Man. So it’s Fury who sends word to Stark and the recently thawed Steve “Captain America” Rogers, and who sends Scarlett Johannsson’s Black Widow to charm Bruce Banner into returning from India – strictly for non-Hulk purposes of course. Thor finds his brother’s mischief on his own.

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Group Therapy

It will take another hour and a half until Earth’s Mightiest Heroes actually get to fight against Loki in the streets of New York. Until then, the team has to discuss among themselves, ulterior motives have to be revealed, a first test of their collaborative spirit has to pretty much go haywire. Someone, in true Joss Whedon fashion, even has to die. Most of the action takes place on SHIELD’s mobile headquarters, an airborne aircraft carrier outfitted with a command centre that would make the USS Enterprise hide in shame. While the action setpieces that dot the first two acts of the movie are well thought out and keep the suspense alive, they are really just an accompaniment to a number of well-choreographed dialogue scenes between the groups’ members.

Lover’s of bare-bones-narratives might find these first two acts of The Avengers a bit lacking in momentum, but I think Whedon plays his cards exactly right. As a viewer, you need this array of quieter moments for the individual characters and their relationships with each other, to get a sense later on that there really is something at stake in this story, both with respect to external threats and internal morale. There is a scene in which Stark, who is obviously fascinated with the possibility of unleashing the Hulk, and Banner discuss their situation as one scientist to another, except that one of them is a loudmouthed playboy and the other one a soft spoken lost soul with what is repeatedly called “anger management issues” in the film. Another moment pits Thor (“You are all so puny!”) against Captain America’s superhuman righteousness, which simply knocks the arrogant norse god out cold. The situation is a little less clear with both Hawkeye and Black Widow, who are given back stories but cannot help but remain fighting ciphers, even referred to by Tony Stark at one point simply as “a couple of master assassins”.

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Despite this maybe somewhat wordy first part of the film, however, the story is still rather lean. Whedon never goes for cheap inside jokes unless they serve to push the narrative forward in some meaningful way. When the group finally stands in a circle in full costume, collects their orders from Cap and then sets out to put Loki’s cats back into their intergalactic bag, the audience has a clear feeling for each character’s motivation and roots for every single one of them. Loki as a villain, of course, makes for a great mirror image of the superhero team, borrowing some traits from each of them – from Thor’s arrogance and Stark’s cunning to Hulk’s uncontrollable wrath. That he still has to be a typical comic book villain with no real motive except a hunger for power stemming from a bad childhood, is a conceit that comes with the genre.

Who is the love interest?

In short: I really liked The Avengers. It’s a spectacular thrill ride for everyone who spent the last couple of years yearning for this moment and should be an entertaining ensemble action flick for everyone else, with a cast of colourful characters to match forebears like The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven. It delivers on all promises made, it’s tightly written and cool enough to look at, featuring a star-studded cast in which the performances of Samuel L. Jackson and especially Mark Ruffalo probably stand out as most memorable. Ruffalo as Banner, the only member of the team who doesn’t wear his superhero guise on his sleeves, gives the film an emotional centre otherwise often occupied by the female love interest.

One last thing though. The Avengers is exhausting and after all that climax it makes you wonder what will happen next. Kevin Feige has already commented on how he plans to avoid sequel-itis in the following years. We shall see if he manages to pull it off a second time. I wouldn’t want to bet against it.

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