My anticipation for The Avengers was low. I know this puts me in a minority, but given the uneven quality of the films that made up its predecessors, I don’t feel I can be blamed for meeting this film with slight trepidation. This is not to say that my expectations were diminished – I have long been a fan of writer and director Joss Whedon, and I did enjoy certain installments of the lead-in films. I was eager to see how well Whedon and company managed to tie together the disparate elements and storytelling techniques of the previous installments.
And honestly, I thought this was an ok time at the movies. There were moments when I genuinely laughed, instances that managed to stir my soul and tempt me to cheer out loud. And yet… and yet there was something vaguely lifeless about it, something perfunctory that kept me from feeling like it ever really came alive. From the plot, to the antagonists, to the very characters themselves, there is an essential tier of emotional and intellectual stimulation that seems to be missing from this story.
At the outset of our tale, the extra-governmental organization SHIELD is attacked suddenly and violently by Loki, the god of mischief and brother of Thor. He seeks – as part of a plan to enslave the human race - the nigh-on-endless power of the Tesseract, a cosmic glowing cube of inestimable importance.
To defeat Loki and the cosmic evil he seeks to unleash, SHIELD calls upon the last best hope for the human race, The Avengers, a team of super heroes that has been introduced over the course of five other films. It is up to this band of disparate personalities – the god, the monster, the playboy, the earnest super-soldier, the spy, the sniper – to not only retrieve the Tesseract, but save the world from the coming chaos.
From here the film hopes to push a number of different buttons in the movie audience’s reptilian brain. First, there is the innate thrill that comes from big, fantastical action scenes made all the most intense through the interaction of not just one or two but multitudes of super-powered beings. Then, there is the more targeted thrill of watching our childhood heroes, recently writ large on the silver screen, come together to not only fight with and against one another, but interact on a personal level. Winks and nods to the overarching mythology of The Avengers universe are just icing on this cinematic cake.
But the problem is that most of the deeper pleasure one could take from this story are torpedoed by the failings of the previous installments, and your failure to attempt to mend or even address these issues. One of my main problems with the other Marvel films was their failure to really delve into character, or create scenarios that really worked narratively as anything other than a build up for this eventual story. This put an unfair burden on The Avengers, because it had to pay off our faith that the thinness of Iron Man 2 or Thor would be bolstered.
Iron Man 2 set up Tony Stark as a sick man, dying slowly and eventually drinking himself into a hole. However, that hole involved playing DJ at a birthday party and getting into a bloodless, passionless fight with his best friend. In this movie he seems fairly put together, and all his previous transgressions are shuffled into one line of dialogue that is never really brought to bear. He retains his cocky streak, which should play nicely against Captain America’s earnestness, but their ideological clash is lost among a melee of similar personality clashes in a single scene that is defused by an external force.
In fact, Captain America and Thor suffer the most from being brought into the fold of The Avengers. Thor was a genial and warm-hearted character, the soul of whose appeal lived and died as a result of his burgeoning romance with an earth-based scientist. Captain America was a selfless and earnest hero who inspired those around him, also given extra emotional heft thanks to his love for a British military officer. Both are displaced in this story, out of time and space, and yet neither is given a proper sense of alienation. Their lovers are gone, never seen in person, and yet neither man – who was so invested in those relationships – is given the chance to air their feelings on the subject. This could have served as a moment of bonding for them, but the opportunity is lost, along with any greater emotional subtext. Sure, they have some vague interplay regarding their mutual unfamiliarity with the modern human world., but it is slight and ultimately meaningless.
For me, this is a massive problem. I can get behind scenes of Hulk smashing things and the Avengers working together to repel waves of enemies, but I prefer some kind of emotional investment behind the massive, empty spectacle of the scenes themselves. A twenty-to-thirty minute action scene can only retain the gee-whiz property of novelty for so long before you start to long for the depth or meaning that you’d gain from caring about the characters at the center of the maelstrom.
Not to say the maelstrom isn’t still fun to witness. There are some clever action beats, and as I said the reptilian section of my brain was engaged at times. But this climactic scene was only led up to by a vague, bickering fetch quest that added very little to characters who were already underserved by previous films, and strips two of them of their greatest emotional veneer.
This is to say nothing of the plot, which I won’t spoil except to say that the existential threat to the wellbeing of the world is poorly structured, poorly set up, and insultingly ill-defined. The needless complexity of the villains’ plot, and his nearly omnipresent knowledge of the going-ons of a supposedly secretive government organization are staggering to the point that they really do encourage – if not flat out depend on – the mindlessness of the “mindless action” designation. Add to this flat plot the equally uninspired camerawork and thoroughly generic cinematography, and The Avengers amounts to little more than your average Big Budget Summer Film.
There is humor, though. There is blunt, knee-jerk-reaction joy to be found throughout your tale, but I can’t help but miss the qualities of humanity and character that made me love Captain America so much, and defend Thor against the shortcomings of its tonal oddity. It is one thing to be thrilled, quite another to be enthralled. Perhaps The Avengers never set out to really achieve the heights I wanted from it. Maybe you only ever expected to reach the upper tier of mindless action, and if that is the case then it is a success.
If that were really true, though, then the entire need for five films’ worth of buildup would be negated. The epic scope of the shared multi-film universe does nothing to enhance the experience of watching The Avengers, nor does it in any way enhance those films that came before. In that way, I suppose, The Avengers are a serviceable film, but a huge missed opportunity to do something more with itself.