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Critic’s Notebook: Does ‘The Avengers’ Belong at the Tribeca Film Festival?

Critic's Notebook: Does 'The Avengers' Belong at the Tribeca Film Festival?

The Avengers” will play like gangbusters at the closing night of the Tribeca Film Festival this Saturday. This is less prediction than absolute certainty. A movie that yells at you and geeks out in equal measures, the Marvel-Paramount excursion marks the triumphant climax of a five-year effort to merge several tentpole movies into a single explosive whole. Directed by ultimate fanboy/genre auteur Joss Whedon within an inch of his life, it has the exemplary polish of a brilliant commercial achievement in the most literal sense: It plays like several mini-sequels strung together in a spectacularly fluid combination, as Marvel comics have for decades, illustrating convergence culture on a massive scale.

Once Whedon goes through the motions of assembling his colorful team, a motley gang of action figures comprised of Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Captain America and Hawkeye, his swirling camera can’t get enough of them, indulging in multiple Avengers glam shots that, yes, marvel at their sensational pop beauty. It’s a monumentally successful attempt to show off, the first genuine superhero crowdpleaser.

It’s also undoubtedly too long and too loud. The snazzy display gets exhausting, and I have a hard time imagining anyone remembering it too clearly in 20 or 30 years. Despite the rush of the action, the technical splendor of “The Avengers” never feels particularly groundbreaking or distinctive. Singularly great visual gags involving the Hulk, and characteristically snarky one-liners from Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, carry the movie far better than the steady cascade of explosions.

“The Avengers” is grand escapist fluff best appreciated in the context of its release as a major event movie. That makes its spot as the closing night film the Tribeca Film Festival an ideal venue. However, when “The Avengers” was first announced as Tribeca’s closing selection a few weeks back, I detected plenty of grousing from a lot of people who don’t ordinarily pay much attention to the film festival world at all. Why, they wondered, would an alleged haven for independently produced, artistically sound movies make room for this unapologetic example of blockbuster excess?

In this case, the backlash is unfounded. Hardly anyone levels missives at Cannes for showing celebrity-studded franchise junk alongside the latest achievements by world class auteurs that usually dominate its main competition. That’s partly because Tribeca is an easier target, but critiquing its inclusion of a legitimately satisfying movie on its own terms misses the point.

Each year, many of us struggle to understand Tribeca’s purpose. Its founders insist they have taken a generalist approach. That’s a challenging goal given its placement on the festival calendar between the behemoths of Sundance and Cannes, but if Tribeca only aims to showcase the range of cinema from around the world, then it should contain a certain amount of Hollywood product. And there’s simply no better example of the today’s studio system doing what it does best than “The Avengers.”
Crucially, “The Avengers” arrives at the end of the festival but does not define it. With a program large enough to represent a vast range of international cinemas, the festival evades an issue facing the European festival circuit, where many large festivals must include a certain number of national films. At least on paper, Tribeca contains a very diverse program, even if the lineup has yet to garner significant respect within the industry. Yesterday’s awards ceremony illustrated that it’s largely not the new movies that dominate the festival. “War Witch,” Kim Nguyen’s intense, thoroughly engrossing African drama about a teen bride pursued by insurgents, premiered in February in Berlin, as did “Una Noche,” the acclaimed Cuban drama that nabbed Tribeca’s acting prizes.

But that’s an issue pertaining to the quality of the lineup, not the special events, which usually generate more talk than any of the world premieres (nobody remembers that awful Cameron Crowe documentary about Elton John from last year’s opening night, but many fondly recall John’s lovely performance after the screening). “The Avengers” belongs at Tribeca because the festival’s strongest suit is its ability to throw a big bash, which is not a pithy achievement and could actually help more movies. “The Avengers” doesn’t need the help, but I’ll gladly play devil’s advocate on this one: If Tribeca can do this for “The Avengers,” it can do it for anyone.

An experienced colleague from the festival world recently suggested to me that Tribeca may want to drop the “film festival” label altogether and embrace its existing strengths. Call a spade a spade — or maybe call it a “celebration of film.” No longer facing insurmountable expectations, Tribeca could effectively remove itself from a supremely competitive, premiere-oriented world in which every lineup is held hostage by the calendar. By those standards, “The Avengers” (which actually premiered last week in Los Angeles) doesn’t only fit in at Tribeca; it epitomizes one part of the festival that works as well as the commercial feat behind the movie’s existence.

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