Saturday, May 5, 2012
Reassembling the old-fashioned: 'The Avengers' review
With a price-tag of $220 million and runtime of 143 minutes, it comes as no surprise that writer/director Joss Whedon's The Avengers puts money on the screen. It is, for much of its final hour, a veritable onslaught of masterful CGI, stuff getting destroyed, and sounds so powerful they might make your skull rattle. The same could be said of, for instance, Michael Bay's Transformers: Dark of the Moon, but The Avengers has a kind of fluidity, a kind of awe and delight that transcends the machinations of its own drive toward, as one of the characters so aptly puts it, chaos.
Rather, The Avengers is like a lightning bolt of fresh air, a Hulk Smash of Hollywood spectacle reinvigorated. It's brawny filmmaking with enough brains to make it all magically work. Almost impossibly, it is the pure delight us fans of the superhero genre always envisioned it could be. It earns, remarkably, real thrills and real pleasure. If anything, it's the most purely enjoyable superhero film to be made in years -- begging the question, can Marvel actually go anywhere from here?
If anything, Marvel has done with The Avengers what Hollywood wants to believe it does best: made a super-movie that has something for everyone (well, supposedly), and seemingly endless marketing and consumer material. It doesn't surprise me, then, which critics have staked out in various camps either for or against its, as some Twitter mates aptly put it, "multiple nerdgasms." A.O. Scott's New York Times review of The Avengers, which Sam Jackson rather humorously tore a new one, isn't so much about the film as it is about the genre.
Conversely, I'm someone who actively writes about the superhero genre and finds it incredibly interesting. Does that make me biased? Hell yes, it does. The Avengers is thrilling first and foremost because it so actively caters to the genre and its fans. As much as it's a super-movie, there's still love and freshness inside it.
Towards the end of Act One, Captain America calls the stars and stripes that adorn his uniform a bit "old fashioned," and Nick Fury asserts that a little old fashioned is what we need right now. Indeed, for a genre that's always looking forward, looking at the political-cultural landscape and its discontents (or, in the case of X-men: First Class or Cap's titular effort, looking backward), The Avengers rather boldly proclaims a resuscitation of heroism for the sake of mankind.
This isn't a film of conflicted, psychologically battered individuals. While Tony Stark and Bruce Banner are certainly not without their neuroses, quirks, and troubled interiors, The Avengers plays largely like a Howard Hawks movie: a study in a group that butts heads over their respective (super)-egos until learning the value of cooperation, banding together to expel a greater evil. It's Rio Bravo and The Thing From Another World and Only Angels Have Wings all updated, transplanted, and enlarged to new heights.
Yes, Whedon's writing gets to take short cuts by virtue of five movies in this Marvel-verse having come before. The groundwork for establishing the characters is already out there. But what's rather remarkable is how deft the writing is, how it builds the disparate stories into a single tapestry, interconnecting the characters and plots in ways that make sense. It's not convoluted, and that truly says something. The most surprising part is Bruce Banner, totally revitalized under Mark Ruffalo's scruffiness into a gentle and awkward intellectual -- while Edward Norton may have been more kinetic, Ruffalo seems to "tip-toe" the line between Man and Beast in a whole new way.
But if Whedon has most of the set-up done for him, he manages to follow through by making every part of his massive actioner sizzle. The Avengers isn't just a convenient way of getting from explosion to explosion, it's a full blown plea for the return of heroism, the need to be larger than oneself - transplanting sacrificial qualities onto people whose powers seem to transcend mortality. In this way it portrays superheroes as agents of hope, as operatives of unification who cannot merely defeat the evil alien beings and salvage New York City -- they can save humankind from its most divisive impulses. They are greater than corporate/government/ideological interests because they forge their own self-interest, their own ideology.
Sure, "teams" are not new to the superhero genre. But apart from the muddled Fantastic 4 (who were already a team before their superpower switcheroo) and the X-men (who might more accurately be said to demonstrate a spectrum of ideological positioning), it's a genre that depends mostly on one (male) hero at the center of the frame. The Avengers is about the negotiation between the self and the team, about crowding the frame and striking a balance. While the most enjoyable parts of Whedon's writing and the actors' mugging might be the well-managed scenes of each hero strutting their stuff, making the incredibly protracted action sequences seem more like meditations on a community.
This is not to suggest it's a revolutionary movie, or one that can even sustain itself outside the sealed-off Marvel-verse. It re-energizes its genre by insisting that the old-fashioned can hold the key for the future. Maybe that's a rather conservative ideology (no one accused Capt. America of being liberal), but for a country stuck pondering whether "hope and change" has happened -- or if it's even possible -- The Avengers has the sense to be intently dismissive of all political aims.
Maybe (and this is one for us genre scholars to debate) its political skepticism is indicative of a broader ideological problem for the genre. I would rather suggest that The Avengers, despite its insistence on destruction, is far more about reconstruction. And I'm okay with investing some hope in Tony Stark and Steve Rogers.