I'm writing this from a small island at the remotest edge of comic-book fandom, overlooking a chasm of credibility into which I may be swept at any moment.
It's cold out here, and very dark, but this really is the safest place for me right now. You see, I'm one of six people on the planet who thinks The Avengers is a truly terrible movie. The latest box office projections have this thing racing towards a $200 million opening weekend--which implies incredible audience enthusiasm and repeat business.* Believe me, I understand how many of you have no interest in what I'm about to say.
The best place to start, I guess, is by clarifying the term "terrible". Had The Avengers been released in a vacuum--that is to say, in the absence of its five predecessors, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America--I would probably have classified it as being okay. But given the fact that this is essentially the sixth sequel in a mega-budget franchise, "okay" is simply not acceptable.
Familiarity, especially in comic-book adaptations and summer-blockbusters, breeds contempt. And I felt like I'd literally sat through The Avengers five times before. The plot is identical to the movies that came before it--half of them even centered on the same blue cosmic cube that all the world's bad-guys want to capture in order to gain unlimited power.** In the last four years, I've spent upwards of eleven hours watching noble lab rats attain power, lose power, re-gain power, and pummel evil to within an inch of its mutated/cybernetically enhanced/fascist life. Rinse. Repeat.
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
In truth, I was both looking forward to and dreading The Avengers (which, in case you don't know, is a super-team made up of the previously mentioned heroes, plus a pair of highly trained spies and a mega-assassin). I figured that if anyone could come up with something interesting for these characters to do, it would be writer/director Joss Whedon. Sadly, that's not the case.
Anyone familiar with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly will instantly recognize the geek auteur's trademark wit here, which is one prong of a huge, two-part problem. Every wink, cute cutaway, and snarky aside is telegraphed by a stale formula that is to writing what Tim Burton's movies are to visuals: When a mousy character picks up a large gun to fend off a villain, for example, he remarks, "I have no idea what this does." Following the inevitable explosion of power that knocks said villain through a wall, the mousy character says, in "hilariously" casual fashion, "So that's what that does."
By minute ten, I felt like I'd been gifted with mutant psychic powers--so strong was my ability to map out not only the entire plot, but also every exchange between every character.
I'm not sure I can blame Whedon for this entirely, though, as The Avengers' second big problem, story-wise, seems to be a series of corporate dictates from Marvel Films. Everything about the movie feels calibrated to maximize franchise options, instead of allowing for unpredictable character and story moments. Were I to complain that I never felt for a second that any of these characters was in genuine danger of not coming back for Avengers 2 or a sequel in one of their own franchises, your reaction would naturally be, "Of course they're not gonna kill Captain America (/Hulk/Thor/Iron Man)." That acceptance of formulaic filmmaking is exactly the problem--unless you're a studio executive or the kind of repeat-viewing zombie with disposable income where brain cells should be.
If no one has any doubt that Iron Man is going to come back from his suicide mission to the alien control ship, then all the swelling, orchestral arrangements; beatific closeups of a scared Robert Downey Jr's face; and overly dramatic hero-shots of his character's battered armor mean absolutely nothing. They're part of a lie that the audience tells itself as a backdoor entry to genuine engagement. It's the cinematic equivalent of "Arms of the Angel" playing over those animal-rescue commercials.
I call this alarmingly huge group of special-effects suckers "glamnesiacs". They are the bane of my critical existence, and my greatest envy as a moviegoer. I sincerely wish I had the ability to forget ninety-nine percent of the so-called "popcorn flicks" I've seen, as these cretins seem to do every time they buy a ticket. To them, talking about Iron Man's near-sacrifice constitutes major spoilerage. But for me, a sentient human being who only has to reach as far back as last year's Transformers: Dark of the Moon to find a similar climax, it's just common sense.
In truth, Dark of the Moon is only a quarter of the cliché package that comprises The Avengers' overlong, ho-hum third act. When Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the god of mischief, unleashes an alien army upon the Earth, they pop in through a portal above Manhattan. Out come legions of armed, mechanical warriors who blast everything in sight and topple buildings with their shiny, multi-jointed tails (do you hear the bells ringing yet? No? keep reading).
Just as all hope seems lost, Iron Man makes the brave decision to fly directly into a blue beam of light to save the planet from extinction (*cough* Independence Day *cough*). He winds up in outer space, headed towards the aliens' mother ship--which he destroys by hurtling a missile at it (*cough* at least it wasn't a computer virus *cough*). Out of power and oxygen, he falls back to Earth, just as the remote-controlled alien robots collapse in their tracks (*cough* *hack* *wheeze* The Phantom Menace *cough* Dear God! *vomit* Really? *cough* The Phantom Menace? *faint*).
Worst of all, this epic, planet-endangering invasion appears to have been contained to a two-block radius: after the smoke clears, we fly into a pristine, September-tenth-style Manhattan that instantly calls to mind Steven Spielberg's bogus, post-apocalyptic Boston at the end of War of the Worlds.
By the way, these are only spoilers if you've never been to the movies.
At this point, you may wonder if I liked anything about The Avengers. Well, there are probably five minutes of fun that I could cobble together out of the film's nearly two-and-a-half hours--and that's stealing forty-five seconds here, a look there, and half a joke there; nothing that would constitute a scene that I liked.
Mark Ruffalo nails Bruce Banner in a way that Eric Bana and Edward Norton failed to do in previous attempts to launch a Hulk film franchise. His calm, slyly funny demeanor is a breath of personality in a main cast packed mostly with duds.
The Hulk himself is a problem, though. The build-up to his first appearance is marvelous. We're told that the monster is a physical manifestation of unfocused rage. Indeed, he is, emerging to take on S.H.I.E.L.D. agents (the good guys) as if they were the threat. Unpredictability is thrown out the window after this scene, though--replaced with a Hulk that conveniently works with his teammates and occasionally reverts back to surliness whenever Whedon needs a bit of comedic relief.
Chris Evans also really surprised me as Captain America. After suffering through his bore of a stand-alone film last summer, I was ready to see Cap in the modern age. His is a classic man-out-of-time story, and Evans provides just the right mix of Boy Scout and lost puppy to keep cynics like me charmed and interested. That said, he was part of one of the grossest scenes I've had to avert my eyes from in quite awhile:
When Loki pulls a Zod, and makes a crowd of people kneel before him, an elderly man stands up and proves Godwin's Law on screen. For those unfamiliar with this meme, Godwin's Law asserts that any online argument will eventually devolve into Hitler comparisons. For many, a guy in a weird uniform towering above innocents may evoke Adolf Hitler, but this tired, "I've seen your kind before" nonsense is trite, and has to stop.
Speaking of gods, as the legendary thunder deity, Chris Hemsworth's Thor makes an awfully cute understudy for a dinner-theatre Shakespeare company. I'm also completely over Downey Jr's portrayal of Tony Stark. Four years ago, the wisecracking playboy/hero was fun and unpredictable. Now his whole performance ranges from self-involved snark to disgustingly-self-involved snark--his every word could be scribbled on a box of Dots before the actor shows up on screen, with ninety-nine percent accuracy. And for being "The Spy", as Stark calls him, S.H.I.E.L.D head Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) sure spends a lot of time glowering at computer screens and pointing sternly. All the potential that Marvel fanatics felt when he popped up at the end of the first Iron Man movie has been squandered. Any bets as to when general audiences will figure this out and demand that he stop coasting on credit?
At issue is the fact that these protagonists are no longer being written as characters. They're archetypes in Halloween costumes; any bit of humanity that accidentally comes across is either purely accidental, or attributable to actors trying to prove themselves in a cast full of moneyed, swinging dicks. Conspicuously absent from this Marvel film is any civilian character not directly connected to the central plot. Aside from Old Man Holocaust and a waitress that I'm sure is supposed to be somebody from the comics (Swallow your chum, fanboys! Swallow it!), there's not one person in the movie who isn't part of the military, associated with the military, or puppets of the military. It's like watching How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying on the Death Star.
In the movies that led up to this one, the heroes had one or two regular people to ground them to the human race--to remind them that they weren't so special as to be apart from everyone else on the planet. The Avengers does away with that nonsense, in an uncharacteristic and, frankly, disappointing move on the part of the traditionally humanistic Whedon. Now, average citizens are merely those things that have to be drawn around in the compositing stage to squeeze in the explosions and flying, metal monsters.
There's no point in telling you to avoid seeing The Avengers in the theatre at all costs. Most of you have checked it out already, I'll bet. And the rest, if you're inclined to see such movies at all, are likely more curious than ever to find out how wrong I really am. There's also the sub-sub-set of fans who somehow feel blessed that this type of movie ever got made in the first place, and that it's a geek's duty to support it.
Let me take a moment to say that these people are full of shit. It's not like The Avengers sprang from nothing. It's a continuation of a franchise whose every entry has made more money than the last, and whose star-power and lack of stakes guarantee another half-dozen spin-offs as gaudy and bland as this one. That's not to say I've given up on superhero epics, but there's enough evidence bursting out of this movie to suggest that superhero epics have given up on themselves.
Not that anyone cares: I'm sure the midnight screenings of Avengers 4 are already sold out.
*As well as the ticket-price-inflating rental charge for 3D glasses, but we'll let the numbers-crunchers continue to believe they're fooling us with this "secret".
**The exception is the first Iron Man, which stands out mostly because it was new and full of whimsical exploration.