If you, like me, don’t understand what all the fuss is over Joss Whedon, then be assured that his summer blockbuster film The Avengers (2012) will do nothing at all to enlighten you. It’s near the top end of summer action films, with plenty of action and witty dialogue, but no more than that. “What’s wrong with that?” you might ask. Nothing, really, but it means that it doesn’t challenge the current gold standard of superhero films, held by Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight (both of which are more Christopher Nolan films than superhero films), and last year’s Captain America. While it’s better than, say, Independence Day, it’s a close relative of that film. If nothing else, this will guarantee it a lengthy run on commercial cable TV stations (as if its monstrous revenue this month wouldn’t do that).
Okay, to be brief about it: Action film, witty dialog, minimal characterization, nonsensical plot.
The plot is that the Asgardian demigod Loki (Tom Hiddleston, who as my girlfriend points out rather resembles Tim Lincecum) has allied himself with an alien race the Chitauri in order to procure for them the Tesseract (from the Captain America film, and known in the comics as the Cosmic Cube). He will use the Tesseract to allow them to invade Earth, and after they have the thing then he will be left to rule it, as a sort of vengeance against his brother, Thor (Chris Helmsworth).
He shows up and enslaves several humans, including the agent Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and escapes, leaving Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of the global peace agency SHIELD, to assemble a team of extraordinary people to oppose him. These include Captain America (Chris Evans), still adjusting to the 21st century after 75 years in suspended animation, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor, the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and his alter-ego the Hulk. While Loki’s minions assemble a device to precipitate the alien invasion, Loki is captured and works on manipulating the team while in captivity.
The story pretends to be smarter than it is, with a vague notion of punch and counterpunch between Loki and Fury, and Banner, Stark and Cap all suspecting that Fury’s people are using the tesseract for less than noble means. But the plot is really just pretext for a lot of fighting (sometimes among the heroes, sometimes between heroes and villains), and if you think about it much at all, you realize it’s basically people running around without really accomplishing anything (and without anywhere near the panache of Doctor Who, which frequently employed the same approach back in the day).
The film has its good points. Chris Evans has enough weight to pull off being a leader among the rest of the cast, and Downey and Ruffalo are both quite good, especially when they’re appearing together. (I haven’t seen any of the Hulk or Iron Man films that predate this, but I don’t feel like I missed anything crucial.) The actions and special effects are both top-notch, as one expects from a top-tier summer blockbuster. The humor has its hits (the Hulk confronting Loki) and misses (a couple of jokes at Captain America’s expense, as well as Agent Coulson [Clark Gregg]); I suspect Whedon’s sense of humor is a big part of why people like his stuff, but I don’t think it’s any better than other near-the-top summer blockbuster films. Indeed, it often felt like Whedon was basically trying to write a James Bond film. Not a bad thing (I like most of the James Bond films), but nothing special.
You definitely don’t want to think about the mechanics of the plot, which basically involve a lot of stupidity on both sides: Fury being too clever by half in trying to assemble the team while keeping secrets from them, Loki keeping the heroes well appraised of his plan when he could have done nearly everything in secret (I guess one of the rules of the game is that gods never learn from their mistakes), bringing the Hulk onto the SHIELD helicarrier at all (there’s no particular reason anything they were doing needed to be done from a mobile base), and the heroes trying to shut down the Tesseract at the end (why not, I don’t know, cut the power?). And of course, in finest Star Trek: The Next Generation form, the bad guys have a single point of failure. (For a better story with a similar alien-invasion plot, check out Babylon 5: Thirdspace. It’s by no means perfect, but plotwise and thematically it’s steps up from this.)
I think the biggest frustration about the film for me was actually Scarlett Johansson, who I’m not a fan of. The Black Widow has some fairly meaty material here, but I don’t think Johansson really sells it. I wonder what someone like Cate Blanchett would have done in the role. (I think both Johansson and Renner really underplay their roles.)
I went into the film figuring if it was a film about Captain America managing to pull the team together against all odds, then it would be a good film, but if it was Joss Whedon and Robert Downey Jr being amusing then it wouldn’t. And weirdly, it was both. And neither. It didn’t have the heart or weight of Captain America, but you still root for the heroes putting aside their differences to get the job done, even though it’s all staged very haphazardly.
I never saw Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I did see episodes of Firefly (awful) and Dollhouse (dull), so after The Avengers I still don’t get what the fuss is about Joss Whedon. But I enjoy an action film from time to time, and after the success of this one I imagine we’ll get several sequels in the future. Honestly I’m more looking forward to the next Captain America film.
Oh, and there are two epilogues during the credits: The first one will mean nothing to anyone not familiar with the comics character who shows up, and the second one is not worth the wait.