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Puny God: What Worked & What Didn’t In ‘The Avengers’

Puny God: What Worked & What Didn't In 'The Avengers'

Given that it made a record-breaking $200 million over the weekend, and has made two-thirds of a billion dollars worldwide in just over ten days, it seems safe to assume that you’ve seen “The Avengers” by now. And given that the film received a rarer-than-unicorns A+ CinemaScore from audiences, we assume that you enjoyed it. And rightly so. Not one, but two of our reviews agree that it’s one of the best comic book movies to date, and one of the more satisfying summer blockbusters in a long time.

However, that’s not to say that it’s flawless. Writer-director Joss Whedon gets an awful lot right, but there’s also a fair few sticking points in there that could perhaps have been better handled. Below, you’ll find five aspects of the film that we had particular issue, as well as five that we think are first among the reasons that the film is connecting with as many people as it is. Warning — we’ll be going into the film in some depth, with spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it yet, bookmark for later use. And if you have seen it, let us know what did and didn’t work for you in the comments section.

What Worked

The Right Man For The Job
Marvel‘s approach to hiring directors has been somewhat scattershot, but they do at least deserve credit for going for some less obvious choices, Kenneth Branagh for “Thor” being chief among them. Joss Whedon was unlikely enough when he was hired that many took the news as an April Fool’s Day prank (the news of his potential involvement first leaked April 1, 2010); though, a beloved geek figure, his sole directorial effort to date was “Serenity,” a $40 million flop spin-off of his own TV series. But it’s clear that Marvel’s gamble paid off in spades, and it’s difficult to think of the film working with anyone but Whedon in charge. His traditional strengths are firmly in evidence, but he’s also wise enough not to overwhelm the piece with too many Whedon-isms, while still writing the hell out of that script. And his directorial skills have come on leaps and bounds since “Serenity,” with a fine eye for iconic framing, pace and memorable action. That sound you hear is a million doors opening for him.  

The Characters Are Done Right
Given that the main four characters had each led at least one movie so far, it was always going to be an incredibly tricky balancing act to develop each one without letting one or the other get short shrift. Not only did Whedon manage to juggle his enormous cast of heroes deftly (with one semi-exception — see below), but he also, perhaps most importantly, gets these characters in a way that few others have managed so far, and with an impressive economy of writing. Tony Stark is snarky and egotistical without becoming smug and unlikable (as he did in “Iron Man 2“) and never overpowers the movie. Thor is used sparingly, but feels genuinely god-like in a way that never happened in the solo movie. Captain America is the golden boy he was in the original, but with a man-out-of-time feel that gives him real pathos (that “Wizard of Oz” line? Great screenwriting). Nick Fury is no longer Exposition Man, and instead is the world-class manipulator that he always should have been. And Black Widow feels like an entirely different person than the blank scenery she proved to be in her previous appearance. And some of the most compelling moments in the film aren’t the big action scenes, but the little character beats when the heroes rub up against one another, or give each other support in the midst of battle.  And all of that is to ignore the biggest character victory of the film…

Hulk Smash
After two attempts in a decade, no one had ever managed to get the Hulk right on screen — until now. Mark Ruffalo was an inspired choice to play Bruce Banner, playing troubled, rather than angsty, and his flashes of anger are genuinely shocking as a result. And once the “other guy” comes out, he’s bang on — frightening and uncontrollable on the helicarrier, and then a ton of fun once Ruffalo is in control and smashing alien heads. The film’s two biggest laughs (Hulk laying the smackdown to Thor and Loki, respectively) are down to the green giant, which doesn’t just serve as a gag, but also a reminder that you can only control the Hulk so much. He’s also sparingly used, with only two Hulk-outs in the movie (the second of which is a cunning character payoff). It’s unsurprising that the clamor for a solo Hulk movie has already started.

The Action Has Real Stakes
Comparisons to the third act of “Transformers 3” have come up when it comes to the final New York-set battle of “The Avengers,” but it’s a useful case study to note what makes it involving, and what makes Michael Bay‘s similarly epic sequences pretty dull. Namely, it feels like something is at stake. Whedon has always been good at making the victories feel earned and losses really hurt, and the heroes are on the back-foot from the get-go, with S.H.I.E.L.D.’s operations devastated and the heroes un-assembled. As soon as they’re together, Whedon then rips them apart again, and in a classic Whedon move that really stings, he kills off Agent Coulson, Clark Gregg‘s scene-stealing comic relief character who’s appeared in three previous Marvel movies. It gives them, as Fury says, “something to fight for,” and also makes you realize that if he doesn’t make it out, maybe the survival of the rest is more in question that you might have thought. And when it comes to the final battle, Whedon keeps upping the ante — as soon as one seemingly unkillable dragon/spaceship thing is vanquished, another dozen come swarming through the portal. Even as the characters start to get overwhelmed, suddenly they’ve got a nuke on the way to deal with. It’s what makes it feel like it matters. It also helps that Whedon keeps the action grounded in character too, as each fights and strategizes like you’d expect them to.

It Put The Comic Back In Comic Book Movies
Christopher Nolan‘s Batman movies were almost revelatory in the way that grounded their superhero characters in a world that felt like reality. But it’s also been a little dull to see other movies move towards that feel, while Marvel’s earlier films have often felt like they’ve been pinching the pennies, with stock locations and small-scale action. “The Avengers” feels important not just because it’s so huge in scale, but also because of the way it suggests that being comic book-y doesn’t have to be a dirty word. The film is bright and colorful without being gaudy (at least in 2D, it’s pretty murky in 3D), and the action seems drawn from the pages of the funny papers, big and expansive and impossible, and yet the direction isn’t in thrall to comics in the way that Ang Lee‘s “Hulk” or Zack Snyder‘s “Watchmen” were. Plus, with Whedon involved, the film is as funny as any comedy of recent note, from Robert Downey Jr.‘s pop-culture wisecracks (“Shakespeare in the Park,” et al) and Thor’s dryly delivered “He’s adopted” to idiosyncratic asides like the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent playing “Galaga” and the Hulk’s aforementioned smash moments. We’re absolutely happy with Nolan’s darker take, but we’re pleased someone’s managed to use some different colors in the pallete to equal success.
 

What Didn’t Work

That Boring, Humorless Opening
By the end of the first reel of “The Avengers,” we’d be lying if we said we weren’t a little concerned. Given how good the rest of the film is, we can only assume that Whedon had the flu when he both wrote and directed the early scenes. That brief early prologue is lame enough, but then we get Nick Fury and Maria Hill arriving at some secret S.H.I.E.L.D base that looks like the combination of a conference hotel and an aircraft hanger. They reel off some clunky technojargon, we see Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson (who mostly sits on the sidelines), Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, and Stellan Skarsgard as Dr. Contracted-To-Appear, and then Loki arrives. The brief fight scene that follows is airless and not even that well shot, and then Loki starts zombifying all those around him. Then the building starts collapsing, and we get some big effects shots reminiscent more of Roland Emmerich movies than anything else. It’s all a bit half-hearted, as though Whedon didn’t really care when his superheroes were offscreen, and had the movie continued along the same lines, we wouldn’t be looking at the giant success that it’s turned out to be.

Hawkeye Is Wasted
Speaking of that opening, it contains the biggest misstep of the plot, making Hawkeye a brainwashed henchman of Loki for over half the running time. With some characters having appeared in earlier installments, it gives you a shorthand to care for them. But Jeremy Renner‘s only appearance was in those crude, obviously-added-in-reshoots cameos in “Thor,” so we’re not particularly attached to him going in. And as soon as we meet him properly in “The Avengers,” he’s immediately turned to the dark side, a personality-free zombie serving Loki. He’s eventually turned back, but the fact that we’ve never been that invested in him in the first place means that his return doesn’t serve as some grand victory. It’s presumably been done to give Black Widow some emotional investment in the whole thing, but it’s hard not to feel that sidelining him is a waste of Renner’s talents, just as it was in “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol.” Attention movie franchises: if you hire a double Oscar-nominee like Renner, try and give him something to do.  And speaking of wasted, we’d hope that Cobie Smulders, a talented comedienne, would get more to do that a humorless riff on Sigourney Weaver‘s computer-repeating character in “Galaxy Quest.”

The Weak Villains
As much as Whedon gets the heroes right, it’s a shame that they don’t have adversaries worth their salt. Tom Hiddleston brought such an off-kilter bruised energy to his performance in “Thor,” but here is reduced to a one-note sneering baddie, without much of the pathos that was one of the highlights of his earlier appearance. And Lord help you if didn’t see that film, and want to know why Loki is so angry. And then there’s his army: why does his hard-on for conquering humanity obscure the fact that the Chitauri are a bunch of space bums who lie down with barely a fight? A quick shot shows a handful of alien soldiers amongst about hundred people inside a bank, hoarding them together so they’re easy to kill. Dude, there’s a planet of us, nice try. Why doesn’t Loki go about assembling an army from Jotunheim to conquer the Chitauri, then set two alien races upon the earth? If the remaining Nine Realms are as full of pushovers as the world of the Chitauri, then this is going to be one boring-ass franchise. If you’re going to involve a race of redshirts (admittedly, kind of a funny idea), don’t have them just stage one sloppy, uncoordinated invasion in the third act of your movie. We’re led to believe their plan was to wait for Loki to procure what, to them, is the ultimate weapon, and then simply jump into Earth feet first and shoot wildly? Yeah, Manhattan took the worst of it, but the rest of the Earth has to be watching and thinking, “Oh, it’s cool, nothing to worry about.”

It’s Kinda Plotless
Yeah, a lot of stuff happens in “The Avengers,” but what’s the story? Loki wants to dominate Earth, S.H.I.E.L.D. assembles the Avengers, and they combat the threat. Seems simple, right? So why is this movie two and a half hours long? Because we must have Avengers infighting! Except that it never seems organic, but could it ever? We’ve got “Iron Man 3,” “Captain America 2,” “Thor 2” and God knows what else on the docket, why would you risk changing these characters in any real way? So instead Loki, who has minions working on the Tesseract, decides to show off a little. First he makes his way to Germany, in a fairly deadening sequence meant to illustrate just how powerless someone like Captain America is against this Norse villain.  Then he merely allows himself to be captured, slapped into a prison for a good forty five minutes, so everyone can fight amongst themselves, without much in the way of a ticking clock. And surprise! His plan backfires, and this supposed God of Trickery only ends up wasting the film’s second act strengthening our heroes. D’oh. Meanwhile, the film’s juiciest suggestion — that S.H.I.E.L.D. is seeking the Tesseract because they want to build weapons of mass destruction — is abandoned, and Nick Fury has a change of heart. Because he knows it isn’t right? Or because he was caught? Or does he simply realize having a team like the Avengers is even more lethal than the Tesseract, a reality-altering power source? Whatever, don’t think too much about it. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s got this, now stop asking questions

The Ending is Rushed
Though a delicate balancing act, Joss Whedon can’t stick the landing at all. First off, journalists don’t seem too interested in the story of how we HAVE to believe hundreds (thousands?) died in one of the worst attacks on American soil. They also don’t seem concerned by the mind-warping realization that a portal opened up at the top of Manhattan and started leaking aliens from another universe. Might want to do a double check on the atmosphere up there, guys. Oh, and by the way, all religions just got a MASSIVE page one rewrite. And then there’s Thor and Loki, gallivanting their way back to Asgard with the Tesseract like it ain’t no thing, as Captain America motorcycles away like a badass. Now what? How is Cap, a man frozen in time from World War II, coping with a future world with iPods, the internet, microwaves and now motherflippin’ aliens? Nick Fury is so confident the Avengers will return that when asked about it, he replies, “Because we’ll need them.” Dunno about that, Nick. Won’t Iron Man be busy discovering alternate energy sources? Won’t Hawkeye and Black Widow be working black ops somewhere? Won’t Thor be in another universe? Won’t Bruce Banner be… wait, what the hell does Bruce Banner do, anyway? Anyone wanna lend this dude some money? Oh, and one more nitpick: given the damage done by Downey Jr. in his Iron Man suit, does it not cross anyone’s minds that there’s another hero with equal abilities knocking around, say, Don Cheadle‘s War Machine? It’s not his exclusion that annoys us: it’s one more character that Whedon would have had to juggle. But at least include a line about how Rhodesy is on holiday, or something.

— Gabe Toro & Oliver Lyttelton

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