There is no reason that The Avengers shouldn’t be my favorite movie of the year. It’s a nerd’s paradise. A film showcasing the fighting teamwork of all your favorite superheroes against an extraterrestrial threat, complete with all the requisite explosions and destruction, and on top of it all it’s written and directed by Joss Whedon. How could this not be an amazing movie?
This review won’t win me any fans (especially considering the monstrous box office earnings that were just announced), and you can go right ahead and call me a nitpicking moron if you want to. I get it. To a lot of fans, criticizing this movie is like criticizing your baby. But I refuse to hold back on that account. Enough beating around the bush: I don’t think that The Avengers is a very good movie. However, I also think that it is the perfect comic book movie. Not perfectly good, perfect. These statements are not contradictory. At least, they don’t have to be.
Let’s face it, people. The Avengers is flawed. And I’m not talking about little problems with the plot here and there, the film is fundamentally, structurally, a total mess. Now, you can enjoy it all you want (and I’m getting to that), but you have to admit that the film is problematic. I had a hard time articulating why it left me so empty, even after seeing it twice back-to-back, but I came up with three explanations:
1.) It consists of more setup when we were promised a final payoff,
2.) It was a film that should have been epic with a very limited scope and imagination,
3.) It has no arc, and therefore it doesn’t feel like a full movie.
We’ll run them down in order. Remember that article I wrote that was all about what The Avengers would mean for future Marvel movies? No? Well, go read it. I like it a lot. Anyway, in that article, I talked a lot about how this film would be the culmination of four years of moviemaking, how each previous movie in the franchise was nothing more than setup for this epic grand finale. It turns out I was wrong about that. I know people who were annoyed that movies like Iron Man 2 and Thor were bogged down by pointless advertising for The Avengers, and I’m sure that those people are pretty pissed off right now. The Avengers turns out not to be the grand finale we were promised, but yet more advertising for future Avengers titles. When all the Avengers are finally together, fighting as one to defend Earth, it didn’t feel like a big culmination to me. Part of the reason, I think, is that we have spent so little time with most of these characters. The movie thinks that it can just throw Captain America at me and expect me to automatically love it, but I feel like I barely know him. Whedon is a good writer, and he does his best to dig deep into every character, to give the audience a feeling that these guys aren’t plastic action figures. He succeeds (and the actors all do a great job of helping him with that whole idea), but I found myself wishing that the characters would just get back to their own separate movies so that more time could be spent exploring them. In the case of Iron Man, the hero who audiences know the most, he felt completely out of place. Whedon is a great writer, but his quips are much more at home in the mouths of Captain America or Hulk than Iron Man. Now, his writing of the character could have worked, but Robert Downey Jr. plays it all wrong. He doesn’t give the lines the speed or the intensity that they need. One scene in particular is pretty cringe-worthy because he keeps pausing when he should be speaking rapid-fire.
Now on to my second point. Why is The Avengers not more ambitious than any of its predecessors? I expected the first true superhero epic, a film that spanned the entire globe, with tons of imaginative but brief battles between our heroes and villains, all leading up to a showstopping, explosive finale wherein New York is trashed by aliens. Well, we certainly got that last part. Actually, The Avengers stays confined to only a handful of locations. We spend more than half our time on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s flying aircraft carrier, and the rest of the movie battling in New York. Aside from a brief trip to Germany and a fight (between the heroes!) in a forest, the film barely moves an inch. Not only that, but the entire plot happens over the course of a single day. Tony Stark never even changes his shirt. Because of this, the film feels incomplete. Even though it seems to have told a complete story, it only felt like the first two acts (at most) of the story. Not enough happened to justify the bombastic battle at the end (a battle that is great fun, by the way, and worthy of the highest praise). I know people are going to disagree on this point most strongly, but this is based on my subjective experience with the film. It was both painfully slow and way too fast at the same time. It seemed to rush through plot points even though it had so few to begin with.
Finally, the “arc” problem. The Avengers feels floppy, like a limp noodle of a movie. In my article predicting the lasting effects of this film, I stated pretty firmly that the film would make strong character decisions. This wasn’t a question, it was an obvious assumption. I was positive that Whedon would not only give each Avenger equal screentime, but also develop them in such a way that it would reverberate into their follow-up stand-alone features. Oh how wrong I was. The film contains not a hint of character development, or even exposition. Well, okay, I’ll forgive that the film neglects to explain the motivations or traits of each character. After all, these guys have been introduced at length in the previous Marvel movies. But my disappointment came at the fact that nothing new was done with these characters.
Now you’re probably wondering, “After all that, how can he say that it’s a perfect movie of any kind?” Well, look again at the things I complained about. The film takes no time to explain its characters, it feels deliberately inconclusive, it sounds just like…wait for it…
A comic book.
The success of The Avengers is in the way that it emulates its source material so exactly. It is the first and only comic book movie to transcend the medium of cinema and become, literally, a comic book on screen. Many films have tried this, and they failed because they focused on aesthetic. The Avengers becomes a comic book in the way that it treats its characters, its plot, and ultimately its audience.
Now don’t think I’m dissing comic books with those complaints. I have a lot of respect for the medium, and I am fully aware that it is capable of extraordinary storytelling. However, The Avengers taught me an important lesson. I don’t think that I’m a comic book fan. For years, Marvel movies have been convincing me that I was. But those movies were, well, movies, and this really isn’t a movie so much as a comic book in the way that it tells its story. I love Joss Whedon, I love these characters, and I’m very happy to see them succeed financially and critically as they have. But this one wasn’t really for me.