I'm a huge comic book fan and despite being a far greater DC comics fan, I've enjoyed following The Avengers in the Ultimate Marvel comics universe. Like millions of others, I became very excited when Nick Fury told Tony Stark about "The Avengers Initiative" in that first bonus scene at the end of the first Iron Man movie. But over the years I've learned not to get my hopes up for comic book movies. Despite many really good ones coming out in recent years, I've come to the conclusion that film is not the highest potential expression of the superhero genre. Comic books are, probably followed closely by animation. The limitations of live action productions always leave the most epic superheroes falling short of their true potential.
And let's not forget Hollywood's ability to screw up a really good thing. Especially when it comes to superhero flicks that add more and more characters to their stories. The original Batman movie franchise, the Spider-man movies, X-men 3... they all suffered as they tried to add more and more characters into the mix, sacrificing character itself in exchange for more warm bodies getting screen time. So I went into The Avengers as a hopeful fan prepared to be let down by two hours of empty visual effects sequences.
The basic story picks up more or less where the Thor movie left off. Loki still feels he has the right to rule and decides he wants to rule earth. The rest of the details aren't really important. Story doesn't seem to be a chief concern here. Instead, the story serves as a motive to bring together Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Black Widow and Hawkeye, and watch them butt heads or work together, exploring the unusual and unique chemistry that results. In my opinion, this is what superhero team stories should be about. Every now and then a deep, complex story is nice, but the fun part of superhero teams is seeing these separate characters share a world, a room a conversation and a fight.
This is where The Avengers shines brightest. The first part of the movie briefly re-introduces us to each of the main characters, wonderfully recapturing the feelings we had when we last saw them. Slowly, characters are paired up and eventually all are working together...eventually. Some great conflict happens before then, which also serves to bring out the differences, strengths and weaknesses of each character and their approach to problem-solving and life in general.
Some of the best moments in this film are not due to CG explosions or crazy action, but surprising and clever moments of dialogue between characters or actions that they choose to take. (Two of the best feature the Hulk's actions. I won't spoil them. Believe me. You'll know them when you see them.)
Every character gets a chance to shine on numerous occasions, and even the non-powered characters like Black Widow and Hawkeye turn out to bring very unique and useful talents to the party.
Not all of these character moments worked perfectly. A few character choices or lines show up that are really just there to be clever or cool, but don't actually make sense for the characters to say or do in context. But on the whole the characterizations are excellent.
The music is also character-driven, which I appreciated. A surge of emotion went through me at one point when Captain America leaped into fearless action, accompanied by the more traditional sounding and inspirational horns that were commonly heard in his own film.
Despite the film's wonderful focus on character, it does assume you've seen all of the previous Marvel movies. Plot threads and character arcs from each hero's movies are picked up again without much exposition to help out. A potential down point for newcomers, but a reward for those who have invested in the previous films. And a storytelling philosophy I agree with.
Of course all his talk about character shouldn't leave you with the impression that the action and visuals fell short. Although the movie does take time out for stretches of plot and character development, there is a ton of great action in this flick. In fact it may prove to be the most visually entertaining flick of the summer. At the end of the day, there were no pioneering moments in the visual presentation, but action was plentiful and as fantastic as you'd expect based on what we've seen before now. If you're looking to get that sci-fi action itch scratched, this movie will do a great job for you, and then some.
I have to be a little critical of the sound mixing, which at some points made it difficult to here dialogue. Several times I missed lines following a laugh line, but that's more the audience's fault than the movies. But there were a number of other times when competing ambiance or music, combined with a quick and slightly less articulate delivery of a line, made it hard to decipher what was just said.
Three moments in the movie come to mind that could potentially stimulate worthwhile thought about spiritual matters.
At one point the villain, Loki, tells a crowd of people he's forced to kneel before him that they were "made to be ruled" and that freedom is a bad thing. In response, an old man stands to his feet in noble defiance. I would agree that being enslaved to another human (or even a super-powered alien) is wrong. But it would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater to fight against the idea that we were made to be ruled. Biblically speaking, we were. The difference is that God is the perfect ruler, and we will find far greater fulfillment in submission to him than we will by answering only to our own desires.
Loki, Iron Man and Thor become involved in a conflict at one point, and before Captain America leaps into the fray, Black Widow warns him that he's out of his league and that Thor and Loki are like gods. Captain America responds by saying, "There's only one God, Ma'am. And I don't think he dresses like that." The added use of the word "ma'am" helps place Cap's sentiment in an earlier time, when Americans were culturally monotheistic, as opposed to the hybrid relativistic polytheism becoming more and more popular. I don't think this line is an indication that the captain is a Christian, necessarily. But it struck me as thought-provoking, given that anyone else saying "there's only one god" would likely be considered intolerant or closed-minded. By contrast, Cap's line seemed as though it was meant to showcase his bold a fearless confidence and sense of both truth and morality. He's being portrayed as a "man out of time", but this line wasn't played in a way that made him look antiquated. It made him more "solid" somehow. (And was also good for a little laugh at the expense of Thor's and Loki's costumes.)
Finally, I seem to remember Loki taunting Black Widow for the sins of her past, mocking her for coming up with her own code of ethics that will allow her to downplay her past wrongs. This strikes me as another example in this movie of truth being placed in the mouth of the villain. Maybe Joss Whedon (writer and director) feels that though it's okay to come up with your own code of ethics, and that's why he put this rant against doing so in the villain's mouth. Or maybe he agrees with Loki here and is trying to make his story more morally complex by making the villains right about some things and the heroes wrong about some things. Whatever his motive, the idea was noticed. Although just barely.
Which is really why I can't give this movie a good Relevance score. It had some interesting things to say, and presented them in compelling ways, but they were just small blips on the radar of this epic 2-hour and 20 minute movie. Nicely presented but quickly forgotten.
The Avengers isn't the mind-blowing, revolutionary movie experience that some excited fans may tell you it is. But it's an extremely fun and exciting movie that you'll be kicking yourself if you don't see ASAP.
P.S. Stay until the VERY END of the credits. There are TWO bonus scenes!
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, and a mild drug reference.
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