The Avengers: The Simple Summer Joys of “Hulk, Smash”

For decades now the Official Summer Movie Season has kicked off the first weekend of May with a big action movie, and eight out of the last ten of those have featured Marvel superheroes. Three of the last four have been parts of Marvel’s ambitious “Avengers Initiative” franchise in which 2008’s Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, 2010’s Iron Man 2, and last year’s Thor and Captain America laid the building blocks for the coming together of this weekend’s super-group geekgasm The Avengers. *

The Avengers must court a variety of patrons. To comic-book fans, it’s the fulfillment of decades of furtive wishing. To the rest of the movie-going public, it once again marks that heady, hyped, and welcome start of the Cineplex Summer. To Marvel Studios it is the payoff—and massive box-office payday—to a long, risky franchise gamble.

As if all that wasn’t enough for a perfect storm of pop-culture expectations, The Avengers is multiplied into stratospheric geekery by the adoration of dedicated Whedonites—those of us fans of the film’s director and writer Joss Whedon who worship every insightfully clever and achingly melancholic bit of genre genuflection penned by the self-deprecating Buffy/Angel/Firefly auteur.

The Avengers is nothing more—or less—than a superhero movie giant-ized to Team-Up size. It’s not a gritty reinvention or sub-textual exploration or masterpiece of the superhero genre. It’s big and shiny and full of lots of moving parts (including—be still my fan-boy heart—the Helicarrier and Quinjets!), not all of them meshing in perfect cinematic clockwork. In many ways it’s like any other of its ilk—all the familiar tropes and action beats are here. (My lord, I’d give up my Limited Edition Aquaman Under-Roos for a new action film that doesn’t feel compelled to have yet another pointless, mindless car chase.)

Setting aside lofty aesthetic or thematic aspirations like those sported by its dour cousin from across the tracks, The Dark Knight franchise, The Avengers fully embraces its bright, comic-book roots and limitations. Whedon, as Iron Man’s Jon Favreau did before him, knows and loves the genre, muffling the crass franchise ka-ching, and cloaking the usual narrative framework and familiar men-(and women)-in-tights formula behind good clean, giddy fun.

With story assist from Zak Penn, Whedon’s Avengers jumps through all the usual super-hero movie hoops, but does so with such entertaining confidence (and often, no surprise to Whedon fans, full-blown hilarity) that thanks to its over-sized nature, the film probably feels more awesome than it really is. But like the man said, never mind the details—If you think you’re in love, you’re in love.

If you’re not already familiar with these characters and their respective movies of the past few years, you’re going to be a little lost—The Avengers assumes you’ve at least seen Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America, all of which feed directly into the new movie’s plotline and its characters’ emotional development.

The story rounds up Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Thor/Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and the Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). They’re recruited to join the national-security agency S.H.I.E.L.D.’s director, eye-patched Bad Mutha Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), his winningly dedicated underling Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), and S.H.I.E.L.D. agents The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawk(eye) (Jeremy Renner) in their battle with Thor’s brother-gone-bad Loki. (One of the film’s secret weapons, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is a smirking spoiled brat by way of Richard E. Grant as a Euro-trash alt-rocker).

Big hunks of The Avengers feel driven by what’s expected from the super-hero genre, and for a while things lean toward the stilted and dictated—the movie keeps slipping sideways as it works to round up the heroes and map out all the teams internal and external conflicts. (As Tony Stark knowingly tells Loki later, “It takes us a while to get any traction.”) Don’t despair—by the midway point things do come together, traction is achieved, and the movie does eventually take off. (Did I mention the Hellicarrier!?)

The Avengers is very much a corporate franchise construction, and Whedon is mostly a hired gun—albeit a very talented one. There’s plenty of his usual smarty patter and deadpan pop-culture riffing, and the director does the very best he can within the genre’s formulaic restrictions. (He’s not out to completely subvert as in Cabin in the Woods, but Whedon does slip in one of his favorite topics: distrust of government agencies and institutions.)

Despite a few token nods to his ongoing theme of lonely outsiders banding together to do the right thing, Whedon uses a wit and savvy George Lucas only dreams of to fire big bolts of “Hulk, smash” glee into the quivering cortexes of our forever 11-year-old selves.

As in so many of his projects, Whedon gets his heroic mojo working when dishing out group dynamics between seemingly incompatible personalities. The Avengers is as much about the would-be heroes butting heads with each other as with Loki, and the film’s second act is solid face-to-face character-building chats as the reluctant new teammates poke and prod each other, the string of testy interactions made considerably more engaging by the wryly amusing work of Evans, Ruffalo, and Downey.

Downey’s the biggest marquee star here, and his smug, snarking Stark almost overpowers the proceedings, but luckily Ruffalo—the newcomer, picking up where previous Hulk stars Eric Bana and Edward Norton left off—is a master of bemused, knowing understatement, and provides a fine brooding counterweight to Stark’s braggadocio.

Best of all, where the pre-Avengers movies all had plenty of character but sported weak finales, The Avengers delivers the pugilistic goods with a truly spectacular Big Battle against Loki’s invading army (including Giant Armored Space Worms!) in Marvel’s traditional hometown, New York.

Visually, the third act’s explosions and building-destroying special effects aren’t anything new, but unlike the similarly destructive Transformers flicks, they’re handled with spatial clarity, and we know and care about the characters giving (and taking) the punches. (Some of the film’s best bits comes at the business end of The Hulk’s big green fists.) That Manhattan battle is every comic-book nerd’s deepest boom-smash fantasy finally brought to glorious, four-color life.

In many respects The Avengers feels like a function of its own hype—it exists only because it had to exist, willed into existence by the desperate, sweat-soaked coupling of both fan-boys’ and studio accountants’ fevered  dreams.

Whedon understands the illusion that keeps the arranged marriage of geek hopes and studio ledgers working, making what is purely a big-tent action flick feel like something fresh and exciting. A good stage magician pulls off that mutually agreed-upon illusion even when the audience knows it’s a trick. (Fumble the stagecraft and you get Green Lantern or John Carter.)

Like the film maker’s own beloved characters from Buffy Summers to Captain Mal Reynolds, The Avengers is imperfect but steps up mightily when it needs to. That makes it about as pleasing a blast of summer movie fun as any geek could hope for.

11 Comments to The Avengers: The Simple Summer Joys of “Hulk, Smash”

  1. May 4, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    You may be letting your Whedon fanaticism show too much… eh, who am I kidding? I freaking love the guy. And in the second paragraph you write ‘To comic-book fan-boy and –girls (myself included)’, to which I had a rather immature chuckle thinking it makes it sound like you’re saying you’re a girl. Good review. Also, does the Black Widow have any narrative purpose, or is she just eye-candy? It would seem atypical for a movie directed by Joss Whedon not to utilize a strong female character.

  2. May 4, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Nice to see you again, Trevor L! Locke, I like the new blog, and your review of Avengers is exactly what I wanted to hear. I’m so giddy about seeing this thing on Saturday. I can’t wait! Glad to be reading your stuff again, Locke!

    BTW:
    “After two Iron Man flicks, his there are times…” Unless I read it wrong, that “his” in there looks like a mistake.

  3. May 6, 2012 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    Ok, just saw it, and yay, it was epic. I do agree you can definitely see Whedon’s hand here and there, which I was always fearful would be lacking. I actually appreciate the fact that they didn’t try to overextend themselves with the movie’s story. Basic setup, and a truly epic battle equaled an entertaining action movie that didn’t make my brain melt.

  4. May 6, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    Oh, and going back to my original question, yea, I was satisfied with her role. It wasn’t quite Whedonesque (is that a word? it should be) but she wasn’t the throw away character I feared she would be.

  5. May 6, 2012 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

    First off, hi Locke! Good to see you and be able to read your reviews once more. And hey to Trevor and Fiirvoen, good you see you both as well!

    So I saw the movie this afternoon and will put in some of my thoughts.

    Yes, it wasn’t like a brand new way to do a super hero story or action film, but as such, it worked really well. As a Joss Whedon fan, mainly for Firefly and Dr. Horrible (can’t wait for the sequel!), when I heard he was taking the helm I knew there would be the usual elements he likes to bring to the table, would do the geeks out here justice, but also have a bit of the corporate thumb looming over (Oh, and we all knew someone will get ‘Jossed’). The movie was a great kickoff to the summer blockbuster season, and the trailers for Prometheus and Dark Knight Rises gave me a lot of goosebumps.

    I have more, but need to slip off for a bit, will post more later. (sorry for the tease!)

  6. May 12, 2012 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    My friend, the term is as old as I can remember regarding when he does that (my heart still breaks in “Serenity” when that happens).

    Of the incarnations so far in the recent years, the Hulk was by far the best. Granted, Ang Lee’s “Hulk” did capture the incredibly feat that the Hulk can leap insane distances, and while I love Eric Bana (Hector in Troy is one of my tops for him), I didn’t think the movie was all that great. “The Incredible Hulk” with Ed Norton, while having more of the ‘Hulk Smash!’ bits, felt like a Bourne movie meets a Hulk movie, with not as cool of results.

    I also like the realism of Hawkeye and Black Widow actually getting more tired. Out of all of the characters, those are the most human (sure Iron Man is too, but we’re including his suit), and I dislike it when a person goes all out for a long period and doesn’t break a sweat. Even master fighters eventually have a point, and I feel that with shall we say, ‘mortals’, that this doesn’t get seen.

    When I go to see a movie, I go to have a good time. And this movie did exactly that for me. I was laughing my head off, snorting, cheering with the crowd, and cursing certain actions. It’s a great start to what should be an amazing summer, with my next fix being “Prometheus” and “The Dark Knight Rises”.

  7. JenSciFiFriend's Gravatar JenSciFiFriend
    May 28, 2012 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    Hey Everyone, so good to see the ‘ole gang and read what everyone has to say!!! I am so late in the game seeing the movie as I just finally took my 15yr old nephew today. Interesting to see the theater littered with more than fan boys and fan girls. Especially the “older”(60+) generation!

    I went in almost totally “blind”. I forgot Whedon was a big part of the Avengers. Should have dawned on me as I laughed when nobody else did for the first half of the movie. I found the beginning of the movie a little bit slow in pacing which was fine as the fun back and forth between the men kept me interested. I particularly remember the “Point Break” reference as well as Matthew McConaughey shout out which are only a few of the many pop culture nods. I noticed the rest of the audience laughed more in the second half of the movie than the first.

    I enjoyed Tom Hiddleston much more in the Avengers than in his role in Thor. And I think Chris Hemsworth has great comedic timing and delivery. Ok maybe I am biased because he is not harsh on the eyes, but I remember laughing in Thor as well.

    And who doesn’t love Downey? He seemed to stand out to me more than anyone else in his delivery of his lines. He seemed to have the most or am I wrong?

    Johansson did a fine understated job. She didn’t ruin nor did she irk me with her presence say like a certain someone (Halle Berry to name names) in Xmen. She seemed to keep up with portraying a physically strong and smart female character. Maybe I am relieved the men didn’t once again screw up a strong female comic book character.

    And I really like MatthewMovieGeek’s point that her character and Renner’s actually got tired and sweaty. And who doesn’t get choked up in Serenity when “Jossing” happens?

    I am definitely more of a fan of the Avengers movie than all the Xmen put together! Sorry still bitter here.

    Loved your review Locke. Sure wish you could find a paying outlet for your opinion.

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